Sleepwalking Through Gilead

After finishing both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale several months ago and, only a couple of days ago, its sequel The Testaments, it occurs to me that many – I am sorely tempted to overgeneralize and say “all” – progressives are too selective in their outrage about the degradation and violence practiced against women in the purely fictitious world of Atwood’s Gilead. I say “selective” because, whereas the nation of Gilead is a product of Atwood’s fertile and dystopia-prone imagination, there are real-life Gileads in the actual world, a real world where women really are degraded, where women are real objects of violence and patriarchally founded oppression. Yet these real-life Gileads seem strangely immune from the kind of outrage directed by progressives against the purely fictitious constructs of Atwood’s novels. Many progressives seem square-jawed determined to sleep-walk through the real Gileads of the world.

Margaret Atwood

I am referring, first, to the Muslim world -- but also to our own home-grown Christian counterparts. Let's discuss them in that order. The only difference between Margaret Atwood’s fictional Gilead and its real-world equivalent in the Muslim world is purely a matter of clothing:  handmaids in the former are required by Gilead law to wear the scarlet gowns and white bonnets of oppressed women, whereas the latter are, in some Muslim nations, required, also as a matter of law, to wear the real-world counterparts of burquas, niqabs, and veils. If progressive feminists want to protest the oppression of women, I can only suggest that they pull their noses out of Atwood’s novels long enough to look at actual reality and to form picket lines in front of, e.g., the Saudi, Iranian, and Pakistani embassies.

This thesis, by departing from progressive orthodoxy, which sees the oppression of women purely and exclusively as a product of phallo- / Euro-centric Western male patriarchy, will no doubt get me in trouble. All the more so, given my stated agreement with Bill Maher in his estimate of the oppressive potential of the political and social culture of the Muslim world. (The statistical links in the column about Maher are out of date. Hence my substitution of links to more recent data below.) I can sympathize with Maher. (Predictably, Rep. Rashida Tlaib called for a boycott of Bill Maher. Ms. Tlaib omitted any explanation of how and in what sense censorship-by-boycott is consistent with progressive principles, which puzzles Bill Maher no less than me.) When the above column agreeing with Bill Maher was first published, I received any number of complaints on Facebook from Rita Nakashima Brock accusing me of Islamophobic bias. Prof. Nakashima Brock backed up her accusations by puzzlingly wild comments that convinced me that she had not read the original column at all, e.g., she alleged that I had argued that the European Enlightenment could only have occurred in Europe, whereas calling it the European Enlightenment was a purely geographic reference on my part to the fact that the European Enlightenment had not, occurred in, e.g., Southeast Asia, as would have been evident if she had only actually read what I actually wrote. She also accused me – this is why I can sympathize with Maher against his critics – of arguing that all Muslims are incipient terrorists. In a field of straw men, Prof. Nakashima Brock would be a pyromaniac. So, just to clarify matters:

o The subject of my critique, in the previous column and in this one, is not that individual Muslims are potential terrorists who dream of flying airliners into skyscrapers. My wife and I have a few-dozen Muslim friends, both native-born Americans and naturalized citizens from Muslim countries, whom we consider family.

o Rather, the subject of my critique, and that of Bill Maher, also, is  that, when any nation is taken captive to an authoritarian religious ideology, and when that ideology is not tempered by an element of secular classical liberalism, that the inevitable result will be a cognate of the kind of socio-political milieux we observe in, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, and other religiously monolithic Muslim countries. And Margaret Atwood's imaginary dystopia of Gilead, of course. Refer to my analogy of the control rods of a nuclear reactor in the column above:  absent the moderating influence of secular liberalism, the nation is almost guaranteed to experience a China-Syndrome-like meltdown of its socio-political and cultural institutions. Western Europe experienced an analogous meltdown in the 16th and 17th centuries during the Continent's internecine religious wars, and was only rescued from complete devastation by the germination and growth of a secular socio-political culture that culminated in the 18th-century European Enlightenment, and eventually in latitudinarian polities whose fundamental governing principles made room for things like ... you know ... the First Amendment. So far, at least, there is no analogue of this historical process in the Muslim world.

We see the result of this lack of secular moderation in the growth of real-world Islamic Gileads that dominate North Africa, the Middle East, and much of Southeast Asia. Consider, as just one example, the issue of the penalty for apostasy, i.e., the renunciation of Islam and conversion to either atheism or to a non-Muslim faith, as detailed here and here. Examples like this are where the rubber really meets the road vis a vis arrant progressive moral hypocrisy regarding both the death penalty and religious liberty. This is not a matter of religious bigotry, least of all racism ("Muslim" is not a race), but of history.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib

Somehow, when one of Margaret Atwood’s fictitious handmaids is executed by being hanged from the wall for the sin of expressing, e.g., religious doubts or heterodoxy, that is a subject for almost incandescent levels of synthetic outrage from (many in) the progressive community, despite the absence of dissidents' bodies I see hanging from walls in the West. But when actual people are actually executed – one more time: in the real world, not in the pages of a novel – for expressing similar doubts, it seems that the best too many progressives can do is scuff their toes in the sand, cast down their eyes, turn their hands palms up, and mumble bromides about “respecting cultural diversity”. (Either that, or, as in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a real-world victim of real-world female genital mutilation, some progressives crank up the synthetic-outrage machine to full-tilt-boogie and blame the victim: moral obtuseness elevated to the level of clinical derangement.) As one of the characters in one of Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent novels asserts, sometimes I think we should change the motto of the Nation from E Pluribus Unum to “It all depends on whose ox is gored”.

Continuing to speak of blasphemy ... when a conservative or fundamentalist Baptist condemns blasphemy and a failure to play nice with Jesus, the propaganda machine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS ) kicks into high gear and starts to grind out hysterical cliché after hysterical cliché about the danger that the latter will be dominated by the former in the United States. (Number of people in the US executed for blasphemy: zero.) But when the Mosque dominates the state in the real-world polities of the Islamic world, AUSCS cannot be heard above the sound of crickets chirping. It is disheartening to think that, whereas quite a few progressives are alarmed about the possible and potential “Gilead-ization” of the United States in a Margaret Atwood novel, those same professed progressives are so often conspicuously apathetic about the actual, real-world, present-tense “Gilead-ization” that proceeds apace in most of the Islamic nations of North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. (Example: see link to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's alleged "islamophobia" above.) How can it be that, according to the moral calculus of many progressives, it is reprehensible for a man to beat his wife as long as he is a Commander in Gilead in a work of fiction, but that for a Muslim man to beat his wife in real life in a Muslim nation is a sterling example of cultural diversity that must be respected, or at the very least passively acquiesced to, at all cost? Perhaps Prof. Nakashima Brock could explain this apparent inconsistency. I patiently await enlightenment.

I am no fan of Donald Trump, as anyone knows who has read my “Skeptic’s Collection” columns, however cursorily, over the last four years. I regard both Trump himself and his supporters as antigens of cultural and political Ebola Zaire: virtually unprecedented threats to constitutional, latitudinarian, classical liberal government. But moral obtuseness on the part of Trump’s ostensible antagonists is an arguably co-equal threat. Another example of this lop-sided obtuseness is the attitude of “The Squad” toward Israel. I am of the opinion that all peoples in the Middle East – Palestinians no less than Jews – richly deserve to live at peace with one another and with their neighbors. But the black-and-white intolerant moral principles of Tlaib, Omar, et al., are plainly inconsistent with this goal. Again, I agree with Bill Maher:

It’s a bullshit purity test, [Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS)] is a bullshit purity test by people who want to appear ‘woke’ but actually slept through history class … It’s predicated on this notion … that the Jews in Israel are mostly white and Palestinians are mostly brown, so they must be innocent and correct and the Jews must be wrong. [Note the reverse Trumpism. JRC] As if the occupation came right out of the blue, that this ‘completely peaceful people’ found themselves occupied. Forget about the intifadas and the suicide bombings and the rockets and how many wars. … So that’s where that comes from, this movement. Someone who doesn’t even want a Jewish state at all. Somehow this side never gets represented in the American media. It’s very odd.

Maher’s analysis and diagnosis are alike in being spot-on:  the BDS movement is founded on thinly veiled racist presuppositions:  Jews, being mostly white – which anyone who knows any Jews, has any Jewish friends, and / or has ever visited the Middle East knows is sheer bullshit “of the purest ray serene” – are therefore in the wrong, whereas Palestinians, being mostly brown, are therefore in the right – a moral calculus as disconnected from reality as it is hypocritical, coming from people who have no business not knowing better. What is the next step from Rep. Ilhan Omar's allegations about the "hypnotic" power of Jews, an ancient anti-Semitic myth, and "It's the Benjamin's, baby!" Direct quotes from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

In view of progressives’ chronic inability to recognize “Gilead-ization” when it is staring them in the face – see above – one can only speculate about why the status of women among Palestinians is not subject to a more searching critique. But, of course, such a critique would require a more subtle and nuanced approach to the issues of right and wrong in the whole Middle East imbroglio. It would require that “The Squad” in particular, and progressives generally, recognize that Israelis are no more monolithic than Palestinians, that there is ample right and wrong to go around, and that each side has its share of Commanders, Aunts, and handmaids. But that is probably too much to ask of many progressives in general, who, like “The Squad” in particular, are irrevocably committed to a one-dimensional ethic on issues of gender equality and racial equity, especially vis a vis the Middle East: Etch-A-Sketch geopolitics.

Otherwise, they might be required to take a deep breath and do something that might take some real courage instead of faux courage confined between the covers of a novel, like ... you know ... march in protest, perhaps wearing handmaid costumes, to, e.g., the Iranian, Saudi, and Pakistani embassies to protest the treatment of actual women, and not just the treatment of women in works of fiction.  So far, that seems to be too much to ask of many avowed "progressives".

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Rashida Tlaib … US Congress … Public domain
Margaret Atwood … ActualItte … CC BY-SA 2.00
Ayaan Hirsi Ali … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Handmaids … Agustina Girardo … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Woman in niqab … Pixabay … Public domain
Gilead flag … Marc Pasquin … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Public hanging in Bosnia-Herzegovina … Zigmund Reach … Public domain
The Squad … USA Herald via US Congress … Public domain

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