How Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale moves from fiction to fact

See update for December 7, 2021, at end of post.


Something that struck me when I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale[1] was how plausible it seemed. I didn’t quite see how it might happen.

That’s now becoming apparent. There’s a real problem with Republican politicians intruding on academia, visible in many more states than Nebraska and Florida,[2] and a reality that academia cannot win, with the question really being about whether, for examples, 1) a “plan titled ‘Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity,’ which is focused on advancing diversity and inclusion,” may exist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln,[3] or 2) a program, such as “a doctoral concentration titled ‘Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education,’ which would formalize a degree focus that’d been operating informally for years,” is hidden but permitted to continue, albeit with a cost to academic freedom, the University of Florida’s reputation in the field, and perception of the university as welcoming to Black scholars.[4] In any such case, Republican politicians are threatening or implementing budget cuts to protect a white nationalist (paleoconservative) perspective from challenge.

The question isn’t whether this is wrong. Of course it is. And as I read Emma Pettit’s account of the controversy at the University of Florida, the administration is admitting it’s wrong.[5] The problem increasingly will be that critical studies—not just critical race studies but critical theory work of any kind—will be impossible in, especially, red states.

All this coincides with a probability that the U.S. Supreme Court will permit further restrictions on abortion even if it doesn’t overturn Roe v. Wade,[6] with dire implications even for a right to contraception,[7] and the Court appears likely to permit most people to carry concealed weapons[8] even as it seems apparent that legalized gun nuttery will revive lynching.[9]

The implication is dire. I will surely be accused of a slippery slope fallacy, but I honestly don’t see the end of it, other than, over a period of decades, the U.S. becoming a doctrinally white Christian nationalist country, with what George Lakoff describes a conservative understanding of “natural order” eventually becoming the law of the land:

The metaphor of Moral Order fits naturally with the metaphor of Moral Authority, as well as with the literal parental authority central to the Strict Father family. This metaphor is based on a folk theory of the natural order: The natural order is the order of dominance that occurs in the world. Examples of the natural order are as follows:

God is naturally more powerful than people.

People are naturally more powerful than animals and plants and natural objects.

Adults are naturally more powerful than children.

Men are naturally more powerful than women.

The metaphor of Moral Order sees this natural hierarchy of power as moral. The metaphor can be stated simply as:

    • The Moral Order Is the Natural Order.

This metaphor transforms the folk hierarchy of “natural” power relations into a hierarchy of moral authority:

God has moral authority over people. People have moral authority over nature (animals, plants, and natural objects). Adults have moral authority over children.

Men have moral authority over women.[10]

We can safely insert here that white people, “naturally,” of course, have moral authority over non-white people and that rich people will have moral authority over poor people.

All this will become the law because it will be the only permitted teaching. In the name of ‘patriotism,’ of course.[11] And hence, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.[12]


Update, December 7, 2021: Barton Gellman’s article in the Atlantic is terrifying. It aligns perfectly with what I see around southwestern Pennsylvania. Donald Trump’s supporters are armed, dangerous, and committed; they exist in a burgeoning and unstoppable gun nuttery movement that has merged with a anti-abortion movement as part of an apparent merger of authoritarian populism, paleoconservatism, and social conservatism;[13] their participation in the militia movement is only barely the tip of the iceberg.[14]

Gellman pulls together a lot of strands showing how Trump’s supporters are increasingly well prepared to seize power, whether or not they actually win the election in 2024,[15] in a way that aligns with my own dire anticipation that this country is becoming an evangelical white nationalist country,[16] with only rhetorical opposition in a divided but functionally acquiescent Democratic Party that fails to earn people’s votes.[17]

  1. [1]Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor, 1998).
  2. [2]Jon Allsop, “On NHJ, UNC, and CRT,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 25, 2021, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/nikole_hannah_jones_unc_tenure.php; Melinda D. Anderson, “‘These are the facts’: Black educators silenced from teaching America’s racist past,” Guardian, September 14, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/sep/14/black-us-teachers-critical-race-theory-silenced; Timothy Bella, “Cornel West says in resignation letter over tenure dispute that Harvard is in ‘decline and decay,’” Washington Post, July 13, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/07/13/cornel-west-harvard-tenure-resignation/; Sarah Brown, “Race on Campus: The Racial Climate at UNC,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/race-on-campus/2021-07-06; Brendan Cantwell, “The Culture War Has Come for Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 12, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-culture-war-has-come-for-higher-ed; Colleen Flaherty, “Nebraska’s Critical Race Theory Debate,” Inside Higher Ed, July 28, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/07/28/nebraskas-critical-race-theory-debate; David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review, May 7, 2021, http://bostonreview.net/race-politics/david-theo-goldberg-war-critical-race-theory; Lauren Lumpkin and Nick Anderson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones to join Howard faculty after UNC tenure controversy,” Washington Post, July 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/07/06/howard-nikole-hannah-jones-tanehisi-coates/; Josh Moody, “Nebraska Lawmakers Call for Resignation of UNL Chancellor,” Inside Higher Ed, December 1, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/12/01/nebraska-lawmakers-call-resignation-unl-chancellor; Hayat Norimine, “Idaho lawmakers OK education budget, ‘send a message’ about teaching social justice,” Idaho Statesman, May 4, 2021, https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article251132679.html; Emma Pettit, “‘Anti-American,’ Pushing ‘Marxism,’ and More: Do You Recognize Your College Here?” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/anti-american-pushing-marxism-and-more-do-you-recognize-your-college-here; Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/1001055828/the-brewing-political-battle-over-critical-race-theory; Jack Stripling, “‘What the Hell Happened?,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-the-hell-happened; Jack Stripling, “‘Look Us in the Eye,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/look-us-in-the-eye; Daniel C. Vock, “GOP furor over ‘critical race theory’ hits college campuses,” Arizona Mirror, July 1, 2021, https://www.azmirror.com/2021/07/01/gop-furor-over-critical-race-theory-hits-college-campuses/; Tahirah Walker, “Higher education and I are going through a break-up, a conscious uncoupling, a disentanglement,” Public Source, July 8, 2021, https://www.publicsource.org/higher-education-pittsburgh-perspective/; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/what-do-conservatives-fear-about-critical-race-theory; Scott Yenor and Anna K. Miller, “Idaho’s Blueprint for Red State Higher Education Reform,” Newsweek, May 7, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/idahos-blueprint-red-state-higher-education-reform-opinion-1589048; Megan Zahneis, “Cornel West’s Resignation Letter Cites ‘Decline and Decay’ at Harvard Divinity School,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/cornel-wests-resignation-letter-cites-decline-and-decay-at-harvard-divinity-school; Isabella Zou, “What is critical race theory? Explaining the discipline that Texas’ governor wants to ‘abolish,’” June 22, 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/22/texas-critical-race-theory-explained/
  3. [3]Josh Moody, “Nebraska Lawmakers Call for Resignation of UNL Chancellor,” Inside Higher Ed, December 1, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/12/01/nebraska-lawmakers-call-resignation-unl-chancellor
  4. [4]Emma Pettit, “‘It Just Felt Wrong’: U. of Florida Faculty Say Political Fears Stalled an Initiative on Race,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/it-just-felt-wrong-u-of-florida-faculty-say-political-fears-stalled-an-initiative-on-race
  5. [5]Emma Pettit, “‘It Just Felt Wrong’: U. of Florida Faculty Say Political Fears Stalled an Initiative on Race,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/it-just-felt-wrong-u-of-florida-faculty-say-political-fears-stalled-an-initiative-on-race
  6. [6]Irin Carmon, “This Is How Roe Ends,” New York, December 1, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/12/supreme-court-looks-likely-to-kill-roe-in-mississippi-case.html; Ed Kilgore, “Is Roe v. Wade Now Doomed?” New York, May 17, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/05/is-roe-v-wade-now-doomed.html; Adam Liptak, “Mississippi asks the Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade,” New York Times, July 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/22/us/politics/mississippi-supreme-court-abortion.html; Ruth Marcus, “The Rule of Six: A newly radicalized Supreme Court is poised to reshape the nation,” Washington Post, November 28, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/28/supreme-court-decisions-abortion-guns-religious-freedom-loom/; Ruth Marcus, “The question is not whether ‘Roe v. Wade’ is overturned — but how,” Washington Post, December 1, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/01/supreme-court-ponders-how-to-overturn-roe/; Amber Phillips, “4 takeaways from the Supreme Court arguments on abortion,” Washington Post, December 1, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/12/01/takeaways-scotus-mississippi-abortion/; Nia Prater, “Supreme Court to Hear Case That Threatens Roe v. Wade,” New York, May 17, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/05/supreme-court-to-hear-case-that-threatens-roe-v-wade.html; Daniela Santamariña, “What abortion policy would look like in the U.S. if Roe v. Wade fell,” Washington Post, September 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/06/11/abortion-rights-roe-v-wade/; David G. Savage, “Supreme Court agrees to hear major abortion case challenging Roe vs. Wade,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-05-17/supreme-court-agrees-to-hear-abortion-case; David G. Savage, “Supreme Court justices sound ready to restrict the right to abortion,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-12-01/supreme-court-weighs-future-of-abortion-rights-and-roe-vs-wade; Felicia Sonmez, “Sen. Collins repeatedly asserted that Kavanaugh considered abortion rights settled law. The justice’s decision on Texas’s restrictive law suggests otherwise,” Washington Post, September 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/abortion-collins-supreme-court-kavanaugh/2021/09/02/b6de0b98-0bfa-11ec-a6dd-296ba7fb2dce_story.html; Ariane de Vogue, “Mississippi asks US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade,” CNN, July 22, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/22/politics/mississippi-roe-v-wade-abortion/index.html; Paul Waldman, “At the Supreme Court, the bell tolls for Roe v. Wade,” Washington Post, December 1, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/12/01/bell-tolls-for-roe/; Mary Ziegler, “The End of Roe,” Atlantic, December 1, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/12/abortion-abortion-oral-argument-supreme-court/620874/
  7. [7]Molly Jong-Fast, “The Anti–Birth Control Movement Is the New Anti-Abortion Movement,” Vogue, July 1, 2021, https://www.vogue.com/article/anti-birth-control-movement
  8. [8]Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Majority of Supreme Court appears to think N.Y. gun law is too restrictive,” Washington Post, November 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/gun-rights-case-supreme-court/2021/11/03/6b9a75d8-3c13-11ec-a493-51b0252dea0c_story.html
  9. [9]David Benfell, “The revival of lynching,” Not Housebroken, November 23, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/11/20/the-revival-of-lynching/
  10. [10]George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  11. [11]David Benfell, “On patriotism,” Not Housebroken, June 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/06/27/on-patriotism/
  12. [12]Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor, 1998).
  13. [13]David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/the-seven-tendencies-of-conservatism/
  14. [14]Barton Gellman, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” Atlantic, December 6, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/01/january-6-insurrection-trump-coup-2024-election/620843/; Robert A. Pape, “What an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Capitol insurrection tells us,” Washington Post, April 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/06/capitol-insurrection-arrests-cpost-analysis/; Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists,” Atlantic, February 2, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-other-extremists/617895/
  15. [15]Barton Gellman, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” Atlantic, December 6, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/01/january-6-insurrection-trump-coup-2024-election/620843/
  16. [16]David Benfell, “The revival of lynching,” Not Housebroken, November 23, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/11/20/the-revival-of-lynching/; David Benfell, “The danger that still remains,” Not Housebroken, November 24, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/11/24/the-danger-that-still-remains/; David Benfell, “How Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale moves from fiction to fact,” Not Housebroken, December 1, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/12/01/how-margaret-atwoods-the-handmaids-tale-moves-from-fiction-to-fact/; David Benfell, “On the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Not Housebroken, December 2, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/12/02/on-the-likely-overturning-of-roe-v-wade/
  17. [17]David Benfell, “Democrats and contradiction,” Not Housebroken, November 29, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/11/18/democrats-and-contradiction/

4 thoughts on “How Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale moves from fiction to fact

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.