In this piece I want to explore a couple of recent dystopias that have come out that I think are a major distraction from the real dystopia conversation we should be having (i.e. the one we’re living under). One is the recent HBO film adaptation of the novel Fahrenheit 451, the other is the TV (Hulu) adaptation of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Both reflect in my mind a fundamental misunderstanding by mainstream liberals and progressives of the encroaching darkness we live under. These depictions give left-leaning folks an ersatz sense of foreboding and also a simulacra of rebellion all the while distracting from the real dystopic threat growing all around us.
I should say at the outset this isn’t meant to be a review of the cinematic or artistic qualities of this film and series. My focus is on what I consider to be an unexamined political bias, even ideology, being seen through the lens of these productions and in the case of Handmaid’s Tale particularly of its reception in wider discourse and culture.
Let’s start first with Fahrenheit 451 based upon Ray Bradbury’s famous novel. Fahrenheit 451 is, as we’re told in the novel, the temperature at which paper burns (the temperature referent as Fahrenheit speaks to a specifically American-centric theory of the world incidentally).
Bradbury wrote the book in 1953 where it has two major historical referents: one just past and the other contemporary to the time of it’s publication. The first echo was of course the mass book burnings by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. The contemporary one was the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Joseph McCarthy.
Now I find this a particularly odd moment to remake the film. Given that in the United States (and other Western countries) illiteracy is on the rise and social media is breaking down the tradition of reading “old fashioned” books. The elites and government need not start officially censoring and burning books as no one reads actual printed books anymore. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the like have already done the work of Bradbury’s imagined totalitarian regime.
I find it especially intriguing that the director of the recent Fahrenheit 451 remake is Iranian-American (Ramin Bahrani). Iran is arguably one of the few places left in the world where it’s dystopia and totalitarian nightmares actually could head in a Fahrenheit 451 direction. But not anywhere else. It’s far too modernist a vision for our postmodern globalized era.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan decades ago predicted that electronic media would break down what he called the Gutenberg Galaxy. The Gutenberg Galaxy was the world based on print: novels, newspapers, etc. The process of reading in that traditional linear style created a certain mode of consciousness McLuhan argued. The technology of print media help develop an entire worldview that shaped the contours of logic, debate, rhetoric, understanding, even personal inner emotional and mental experience. That “galaxy” was being destroyed by the rise of electronic media. McLuhan didn’t live to see the internet of today but his predictions are even that much more relevant with the rise of technologies breaking down the monopoly of print-media and thereby the form of consciousness that print media generated. The breakdown in the Gutenberg Galaxy leaves the cacophony and distortion that dominates our world. (For a great book extending McLuhan’s basis thesis into the realm of social media and computer technologies see this book.)
Interestingly Bradbury himself in an interview given late in his life argued that his book was entirely misunderstood and had really nothing to do with anti-communist 1950s paranoia in the US or fascist book burnings but rather with how mass media was stopping people from reading books (and thereby developing the critical thinking skills that come through such reading).
I don’t know if Bradbury was being fully honest there or retroactively trying to re-write the clear thrust of the book so that it could be seen to have proved prescient after all. It’s a bit suspicious given that in 1956 (3 years after the original publication) he gave an interview citing his concerns about rising anti-communist hysteria in the US.
Whether Bradbury was being fully sincere or not in his own self-evaluation of the book I think it’s not particularly disputed that the anti-Nazi, anti-communist witch hunt mentality is the dominant way to understand the book. Watch the trailer for the film and tell me that the main message you get from it is that mass media is destroying people’s interest in reading books.
If we read it in the way Bradbury retroactively wants us to understand it then the book could be seen as very prophetic. But I don’t really buy that interpretation as particularly valid. That’s not the message that comes through for me.
And I don’t think an Iranian-American director is creating a film adaptation in 2018 under that guise. It’s an attempt to make an argument that Trump-led America is going to become a quasi-fascist dictatorship that will outlaw and censor progressive thought.
Which I would argue is precisely what is not happening. Worse still I think liberals and progressive types deeply misunderstand the moment we live in with that kind of 20th century simplistic right-wing (proto)fascist dictatorship. That kind of dystopia allows the to see themselves in the present as fighting the good fight rather than having to take a much deeper look into their own participation into what I believe is really going on.
This trend becomes even more apparent in the case of the recent explosion of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood originally published in 1985. Atwood, writing at the time of Reagan’s presidency, envisions a theocratic government overthrowing the United States and installing the Republic of Gilead in the northeast of the former US. The Republic of Gilead is a patriarchal Christian Reconstructionist state. Basically a kind of American Protestant Christian Taliban.
The novel (and the show) follow the main character Offred (“of Fred”, as women are now sexual slaves and property of males). In the series these women are forced to wear long red robes and white bonnets. This outerwear functions as the burqas of this Taliban-like regime, further stripping the women of their face and unique features and thereby identities.
The show has had a major impact and reverberated out into wider culture. The show’s first season won 8 Emmys (out of 13 nominations) which points to the ideological and political reception of the show. Women even dressed in the red robes and bonnets to silently protest an anti-abortion bill in Texas. Also to protest Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination.
I could say The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of liberals and progressives in the Western world. To push the envelope further I might actually say it’s the secret fantasy and obsession of Western liberals and progressives (particularly though not exclusively white women liberals). What I mean is that just as with Fahrenheit 451, I believe The Handmaid’s Tale is the dystopia mainstream liberals and progressives in the US (and elsewhere in the West) wish was happening. Not in the sense that they literally want that scenario to take place but rather they want to use these dystopias to attack Trump and Trump’s America. In this vision of dystopia they (the liberals and progressives) will be both the victims and yet also the heroes (or heroines).
What I’m saying here should not be read as an apologia for Trump or Trump’s America by any stretch. Just that focus on these dystopia is I believe a major misreading of the moment and a dangerous distraction.
Trump—with his idolization of money, his immoral behaviour, his crass materialism—is not pushing forward any agenda of a moralistic theocratic Christian state. To say it a bit graphically Trump doesn’t want women in red robes and bonnets. He clearly prefers them in bikinis and evening gowns.
Furthermore in the trailer for Season One of the show we see Elisabeth Moss’s character have her child ripped away from her by the (proto)fascist state. Of course in actual 21st century America we know that the children being ripped from their parents by the jackboots of the state are brown not white.
When you look at the patriarchal vision of the Republic of Gilead it arguably does not line up well with the contemporary gender discourse and praxis coming out of the alt-right. The alt-right after all are typically secular not religious. Many in fact are explicitly anti-Christian. It’s a strange kind of patriarchy that say a pick up artist, dark enlightenment, or Men’s right Activist might be advocating. They may want sex but they don’t typically want the actual responsibility towards child rearing and household building that actual patriarchs throughout history have sought. On the whole they’d probably rather be playing video games, watching porn, hiding out in their man caves, and checking their fantasy sports picks.
I think Brave New World is a much more accurate portrayal of the dystopia we’re increasingly living under—genetically modified food and organisms, mass proliferation of pharmaceuticals to drug the population, the rise of AI, plus reduction of sex to loveless anonymous encounters under the guise of sexual liberation. The police state I believe we are much more likely to have is a pink one not a red one. In other words it’ll be pro-liberal and progressive social values while heavily corporatist in actual power.
Think Facebook with its “rainbow washing” of its surveillance state practice. There’s no dystopic film about Facebook—there’s a biopic of it’s founder.
Now to push this hypothesis one step further with The Handmaid’s Tale, I could make an argument that it’s actually the left (not the right) in the US is the only group who can actually create the conditions for a true Republic of Gilead to take power.
Let me use a historical example—the French Revolution.
During the left phase of the Revolution, especially under The Jacobins and the Committee on Public Safety, the government sought to institute a revolutionary social moral order and deployed terror to achieve those ends.
This Terror led to a centrist (and later rightist) backlash. It allowed the centrists and rightists to claim the mantle of freedom and liberty, which we’re after all rallying cries of the initial Revolution itself (“liberte, egalite, fraternite”). The left, which originally had risen up against the ancien regime did so to achieve freedom and liberty. Now they, the radical left, had become anti-liberty and installed a new tyrannical authority (or at least so argued their enemies). In the meantime the Revolution started eating its own. As a moralistic governmental policy was decreed and pursued no one was righteous or holy or pure enough. Even a radical like Danton was executed by his erstwhile comrades.
The centrist counter-revolution and coup (The Thermidorian Reaction) took power in the wake of the fall of the Jacobins and the left-wing Red Terror phase of the Revolution. Everyone has been taught to fear Jacobinism, especially in the United States. But what is virtually forgotten is that the Thermidoreans executed many more than the Jacobins ever did.
The Thermidorian centrists were far bloodier than the supposedly crazed left wing revolutionaries. These centrists left the door open to the later rightist coup which eventually brought in Emperor Napoleon.
In other words, what happened is the left created the means of its destruction. The Revolution ate her own. The Jacobins and the left wing revolutionaries created an apparatus of political oppression which the centrists and later the right-wing used to exact their revenge (aka The White Terror).
So this brings us back to the possible Republic of Gilead. The rise among the contemporary progressive left to use the state to enforce social morality views is granting the state greater power to censor, to shut down speech and thought. As the French Revolution showed doing this creates a double gift for the centrist and rightist counter forces.
First they get to claim from the left the mantle of freedom, liberty, and rebellion (see the alt-right's embrace of a punk mentality). Second, once in power the centrists and rightists will immediately turn around and use the apparatus of violence created by the left to be used precisely against the left.
In other words the guillotines will be turned on the left. While I don’t think The Republic of Gilead is the dystopia we’re looking for if it were to happen that is precisely how the contemporary left would be participating in its own potential future oppression.
Supposed liberals and progressives cheering on the de-platforming and silencing of various right-wing figures on Twitter are only cheering on the creation of an algorithmic guillotine that will in time be turned on them. Which it should be noted is totally compatible with the technocratic vision of Brave New World.
Handmaid's Tale and Fahrenheit 451 are far too anti-technological in their totalitarian visions to adequately convey the dystopia we're actually looking for--the one encircling us more and more by the day.