Could it be that in 1986 Karl Rove - unlike anyone else - read The Handmaid's Tale, not as a bestselling novel, but as a blueprint for our times? Perhaps he saw its potential when its author, Margaret Atwood, described reactions to her novel:
"In Britian they said, 'Jolly good yarn.' In Canada, 'Could it happen here?' In America, 'How long have we got?'" - Paul Bentley Librettist for the Opera of The Handsmaid's Tale, A Handmaid's Diary
Imagine that the Taliban had taken over the US and imposed a religious fundamentalist dictatorship where everything is bible-based. This is Margaret Atwood's Republic of Gilead. Not the biblical Gilead. There is no balm in this one.
And especially no balm for women.
There is also no education for women.
Women may not have jobs or leave their homes except under close guard.
Women are mere vessels for bearing children - or whores. Women wear headdresses and robes that completely cover their bodies and whose color tells their status.
Everyone speaks in religious platitudes.
Abortion and sex outside legal relationships bear the death penalty.
The Constitution has been suspended.
All this has happened in three years.
But there's more to suggest that someone in the Administration is taking pointers from the book. The eye from the American dollar bill is the symbol used by Gilead's secret police, the Eyes. Today we have Information Awareness Office whose symbol is the all-seeing-eye pyramid that shines a relentless light on the earth. IAO was to use our credit card and other information to keep tabs on us. In Gilead, credit cards are used to overthrow the government.
Offred, a handmaid, explains how this happened:
You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards.
I guess that's how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Things continued on in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them.
Handmaid Offred's duty is to bear children for a wealthy couple, because they have had none. Handmaids bear the names of the male by whom they are inseminated. Offred is ritually inseminated once a month on the lap of the woman by Fred, according to the biblical story of Leah and Rachel and Jacob and their handmaids - Bilhah and Zilpah - who bore children for Jacob.
Offred sounds biblical - almost like Orpah (the source of Oprah Winfrey's name). Offred is "of Fred." she has not conceived and the time is coming when she will be discarded as a handmaid.
Atwood's dystopia story owes debts to Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and the dystopian tradition in general, but it is so rich a story that it transcends them all. It has been translated into 35 languages, made into one of the worst films ever (starring Natasha Richardson, screenplay by Harold Pinter); and a well-received opera. The web has many many crib notes and student blog references to classes and exams based on The Handmaid's Tale.
And now there was to be an opera. The librettist, Paul Bentley,
It even includes outright hypocrisy by the ruling class. They have clandestine clubs where anything goes.
When I read the novel in 1986, I wept through the whole piece. I had a young daughter, and Offred is immersed in longing for her young daughter, who was kidnapped by the powers that be and given to a powerful family.
Now I ask: How long have we got?