We Keep Comparing Trump's America To The Handmaid's Tale But We Need To Talk About How Dystopian Brexit Is
The Debrief: Brexit and Donald Trump didn’t make dystopian novels ‘frightening relevant’ as so many headlines claim
This is the first instalment of a weekly Debrief on WTF is going on at the moment...
Since the TV adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made it onto British TV courtesy of Channel 4, almost everyone has been commenting on the ‘totally meta’ timeliness of the series. In particular, the parallels with Donald Trump have been picked up on and chewed over and over again.
There are certainly parallels. At the heart of the Republic of Gilead’s dystopian society is a set of completely abnormal circumstances which are being made normal by a quasi-religious, self-appointed political regime. It is a place where facts are fluid and alternative facts have become truth. It is the definition of absurd and Offred’s internal existential crisis is the narrative through which the terror and trauma of a ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to such a perverse world are played out.
The Handmaid’s Tale is as one 1986 review described it, ‘a chilling tale of a near future’. In the wake of 18 months of unexpected but perhaps inevitable political eruptions in several Western democracies perhaps it’s this which is really speaking to us. Our rights cannot be taken for granted and it is when the abnormal becomes normal that we are in serious trouble. In an instant, things can change if you’re too busy looking the other way. It is also no coincidence that there was a 9500% increase in sales of George Orwell’s sci-fi dystopian novel 1984 following Trump’s election. Kelly Anne Conway’s NBC interview in which she said that Trump’s inauguration audience was the largest ever. This was untrue and White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to defend her by saying she was merely presenting ‘alternative facts’. Old stories have captured a new mood.
Donald Trump’s election enraged many. In London, thousands of people marched in protest at what he represents: sexism, a return to so-called ‘traditional’ values, xenophobia and racism. There is much to be enraged by and you don’t have to be an American citizen to be troubled by the country’s President but political events here are hardly less troubling.
Just over a year ago, following the narrow EU Referendum decision to leave the EU many were incandescent with rage. My timelines were full of long, angry statuses imploring people to stay angry. But rage is difficult to sustain long term. It’s exhausting to be angry all the time. The first time you hear an empty catchphrase masquerading as policy like ‘Brexit means Brexit’ you baulk at the insincerity of it. By the 500th time, you’re almost numb to its absurdity. The first time you hear the Prime Minister say that ‘the will of the people must be respected’ as she embarks on the process of taking Britain out of the European Union you might shudder and shout ‘WHAT ARE YOU ON 48% of people voted to remain’ at the TV, after months of hearing her say the same thing parrot fashion you’ll struggle to muster the energy to roll your eyes. The first time you realise that your supermarket shop has actually got a little bit more expensive, realising at the till that Brexit’s weak pound really does have real life repercussions you feel anger. After the third, the fourth, the fifth time you are numbed to it. You have to eat, it is what it is. You hand over your card and think about Love Island.
Official Brexit negotiations have now begun. Brexit Secretary, David Davis said it would be ‘the row of the summer’ during his pre-match warm up. So far, it looks like anyone who was expecting knockout after knockout followed by Britain emerging triumphant from the ring with all the prize money will be disappointed because that’s not really how trade deals work. But, as all politicians know now it’s words, not deeds that count.
Somewhat more sinisterly, we find ourselves in an era where the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, thinks it’s acceptable to go on national television and tell broadcasters that they should be ‘a bit patriotic’ when covering Brexit as though the duty of the press is not to present the facts and scrutinise the government. Leadsom is the Dolores Umbridge of British Politics and her calls for ‘patrioitism’ hark back to the ‘Blitz Spirit’ embodied by the kitsch ‘Keep Calm Carry On Posters’ the decorate the walls of homes where people drink tea from Union Jack Emma Bridgewater mugs.
The abnormal can quickly become normal. The future can start to look like the past we thought we’d moved on from. Let’s not forget that the campaign to Leave the EU was basically a nostalgic sales pitch to go back in time.
We might not be able to be angry 24/7 but we should also be wary of numbing ourselves to what’s happening before us and letting anything like ‘keep calm and carry on’ become our modus operandi. Politicians have been exploiting this sort of ‘Blitz spirit’ as a way of justifying ‘difficult choices’ and ‘tough decisions’ which will make people’s lives more difficult. It’s a cop out, and we shouldn’t buy into it either.
It shouldn’t have taken Theresa May’s deal with the DUP for MPs to force government action on the situation facing women in Northern Ireland when it comes to abortion. Silence from women across the UK implicitly condoned the lack of support available to Northern Ireland’s female citizens. If being angry is unsustainable, keeping calm can’t be the only other setting on our emotional dials.
Brexit and Donald Trump didn’t make dystopian novels ‘frightening relevant’ as so many headlines claim. These stories were always relevant and powerful because if history has taught us anything it’s that we should never take anything for granted, be prepared to turn a blind eye to what we know is wrong or let selective historical amnesia make us nostalgic.
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