The Morning Jolt


What Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale Prefer to Ignore

What Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale Prefer to Ignore

Heather Wilheim:

According to a rash of earnest think pieces from dozens of news outlets, The Handmaid’s Tale is “timely” (the Washington Post), feels “chillingly real” (the San Francisco Chronicle), and has “an unexpected relevance in Trump’s America” (the New York Times). Atwood’s dystopia, writes Rebecca Nicholson in the Guardian, “has reignited the interest of readers, who have been drawing fresh parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America, and the novel topped the Amazon bestsellers list around the same time that signs at the global Women’s Marches asked to ‘Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.’”

Never one to miss a good marketing opportunity, Atwood affirmed our apparent unfolding national horror show on April 19, speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the Hulu series: “The election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary.” According to a recent article in The New Republic, lo, have mercy, for great woes have apparently befallen me, a wide-eyed, unsuspecting resident of the Lone Star State: “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”

We heard a bit of “We’re turning into The Handmaid’s Tale!” panic-hysteria-accusation during the Bush administration, too. I’ll dust off my argument from then: To picture a near-future United States that is a Christian theocracy with open, systematic, and brutal oppression of women, you have to picture some unbelievable changes occurring very quickly: repealing women’s right to vote; a re-acceptance of slavery; widespread Christian acceptance of government-mandated extramarital sexual intercourse; total repeal of the First Amendment; total bans on any other religious beliefs (there are references to “Baptist rebels”). Perhaps most absurdly, almost all men have accepted a regime where the only sexual outlet of any kind is government-monitored breeding with the fertile “handmaids,” reserved for the most powerful.

Do you picture lots of American men signing on for a system that denies them the freedom to have sex with women? You really have to have your “all men have fascist impulses just under their skin” blinders on to hear that and nod, “Oh, yeah, that could totally happen.”

But Margaret Atwood could have set her tale in other places and made it practically a modern-day documentary: say, Saudi Arabia. Or any corner of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

How about Yemen, where there is no legal minimum age for marriage, 52 percent of girls marry before 18, and there’s a tradition of “honor killings” for disobedient women?

Or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where one estimate calculates two million rapes have occurred as part of that country’s continued violent instability, and armed gangs commit rapes with horrifying frequency.

Or Egypt, where more than 125 million women and girls have endured the barbaric practice of “female genital mutilation” and the practice is the norm.

Sudan’s penal code legalized flogging women for inappropriate dress, and girls can be married at age 10.

Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Pakistan:

In Pakistan, with 21 percent of girls marrying before the age of 18. In January 2016, a proposal submitted to parliament by WHOM aimed to raise the legal minimum age to 18 for females and introduce harsher penalties for those who arrange child marriage. However, on January 14, 2016, the proposal was withdrawn following strong pressure from the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body that advises the parliament on Islamic law. The council criticized the proposal as “anti-Islamic” and “blasphemous.”

Violence against women and girls—including rape, murder through so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage—remained routine. Pakistani human rights NGOs estimate that there are about 1,000 “honor killings” every year.

Or Iran:

Women face discrimination in personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A woman needs her male guardian’s approval for marriage regardless of her age and cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign-born spouse or their children. Married women may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of their husbands.

The UN Children’s Rights Committee reported in March that the age of marriage for girls is 13, that sexual intercourse with girls as young as nine lunar years was not criminalized, and that judges had discretion to release some perpetrators of so-called honor killings without any punishment. Child marriage—though not the norm—continues, as the law allows girls to marry at 13 and boys at age 15, as well as at younger ages if authorized by a judge. Authorities continue to prevent girls and women from attending certain sporting events, including men’s soccer and volleyball matches.

And the United Arab Emirates:

UAE’s penal code allows the imposition of “chastisement by a husband to his wife and the chastisement of minor children” so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by Sharia, or Islamic law.

A 2010 decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court ruled that hitting a wife or child was legal up until the point where it leaves marks.

Horrific, brutal regimes that systematically deny basic rights to women and girls based upon religious beliefs are not hard to find. They’re just rarely Christian. (Worth noting about the above list, the most common religion in the Democratic Republic of Congo is Christianity.) The world has plenty of awful places that can be fairly compared to Atwood’s fictional dystopian regime of Gilead. They’re just mostly Muslim.

But Margaret Atwood wasn’t angry at Islamists back in 1985. She was angry at the trends she saw in the United States, and in particular, American Christian conservatives. Both then and now, American Christian conservatives are a very safe target for criticism and mockery. No priest or nun is going to strap on a suicide bomber’s vest and blow up the offices of Atwood’s publisher or Hulu, which is making the miniseries.

Thus you periodically hear some not-so-quiet scoffing at the priorities of Western feminists. They’re upset about how far some American women have to travel to an abortion clinic, while the world has plenty of girls who risk being scarred with acid for trying to go to school.

The Worldwide Leader In… People Sitting at a Table, Arguing About Sports

In yesterday’s Morning Jolt, we noted that some Internet conspiracy theorists feared something terrible was going to happen on April 26. Maybe those coded warnings were about something terrible happening at ESPN.

I think my colleague Dan McLaughlin has the right take — no, the massive job cuts at ESPN aren’t purely driven by declining ratings and the perception that ESPN’s programming is becoming more political and more overtly liberal. But the more outspoken and one-sided coverage of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Sam, and Caitlyn Jenner isn’t a non-factor, either.

I’ve quoted sportswriter Jason Whitlock a few times in this column, and I think he’s had two sharp observations worth keeping in mind. First, sports journalists used to be extremely interested in the world of sports and rarely interested in the world of politics, and that has changed considerably. Sports journalism is attracting a lot of writers who really aren’t that interested in sports, but who are interested in bringing progressive stances and issues to the fore in the sports world. An article earlier this year declared, with a vibe of pride and joy, that sports-writing had become “a liberal profession.”

The writers and commentators may have shifted to the left, but the audience and readers haven’t.

The second Whitlock observation worth keeping in mind at this moment is that sportswriting’s shift to the left reflects the broader media’s rapid movement to the left. Journalistic influence is now less measured by print circulation numbers than by clicks. The good news is, there’s a significant online audience for all kinds of news and opinion, both a conservative perspective and a liberal perspective. Big clicks can be garnered through solid, groundbreaking journalism, or through an impassioned screed…

But we know which one is easier. (“Yes, Jim, we notice how often the Jolt turns into an impassioned screed.”) ESPN’s debate programming is cheap to produce and probably generates a better return-on-investment than programs that require more time, effort and expense, like Outside the Lines or 30 for 30.

Does This Administration Know What It Doesn’t Know?

Take a look at President Trump’s inner circle: Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Senior Counselor Steve Bannon, First Daughter Ivanka, First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner, Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, and Counselor Kellyanne Conway…

Only Pence has spent any significant time dealing with the federal government from the inside as a Congressman. Most of those figures have been around politics, but haven’t necessarily been around government. And obviously, Trump himself has never worked in government.

This isn’t to say they aren’t smart or capable, just an observation that they’re used to looking at the government from the outside, and don’t know all the details about how it works, the kind of details that can usually only be seen and understood from being on the inside.

Even if all of those figures weren’t playing Game of Thrones, leaking about each other and jockeying to be the one who speaks to the president last — and thus has the most influence over his decisions — they simply don’t know what they’re supposed to be worrying about.

That’s my best explanation about how the administration could spend weeks trying to figure out how to fund and pass a massive infrastructure bill, while at the same time, at least $20 billion worth of big energy-infrastructure projects — 15 of them in 14 states, all 100 percent privately funded and all holding the potential to create thousands of new construction jobs — are sitting in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, awaiting approval. FERC can’t give approval until it has a quorum, which it has lacked since the beginning of February.

The blame can’t be put on the Senate for taking too long with the nominees; the administration hasn’t nominated anyone yet. (Three names keep getting mentioned in media reports, including one Mitch McConnell aide, so there’s little reason to think confirmation would be difficult.)

The administration has a big, public promise — rebuild America’s infrastructure! — and an easy way to get to it, by staffing up FERC and getting those projects approved. But they’re simply not getting around to it because… they’re just not on top of things.

ADDENDA: E.J. Dionne quotes one of my criticisms of Trump. Swell.

Trump, discussing NATO with the Associated Press:

I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn’t in government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right? So they asked me, Wolf … asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO’s obsolete — not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO.

So Trump said his assessment of NATO’s obsolescence was based on not knowing much about it, and now he knows more and feels NATO is improving. You think you’re chagrined at this revelation from Trump? Imagine how Vladimir Putin must feel!


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