A couple of weeks back I made a mistake one Friday evening. It had been a long week, long hours and various stressful events, mostly to do with the church ceiling repair. It seemed like an evening to just chill, so I ended up binge watching series 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is available on Shortcut, Latvia’s version of iPlayer and Netflix combined.
And it was a mistake, alright. For those not familiar with this series, based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future (or present?) in the USA, tells the horrific story of the founding of a republic named Gilead in the northeastern states of the US. The flashbacks give us glimpses of how this starts, with increasingly conservative politicians working together with fundamentally oriented Christians to establish a theocratic system. Due to some unspecified catastrophe involving nuclear waste, the population has become infertile, and women of childbearing age become the eponymous Handmaids, subdued by violence and manipulation to become vessels for childbirth. If you haven’t yet read the original novel, do.
Why was this binge on a cool Friday night a mistake? Mostly because the second series begins
…..Begins with a long sequence filmed at the Boston Globe, deserted, abandoned; and then the discovery of a wall where the journalists have been shot. Of course this evokes a reaction because it resonates with the current US President’s frequent denunciations of the Press as ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Because what happens to the ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE? They are exterminated, and not in a basically cosy, Dr Who Daleky kind of way. That is extrapolation, of course it is. But Handmaid’s Tale shows us that sometimes the descent into totalitarianism, just like the pathway to Hell, is paved with the very best of intentions, and it happens slowly, imperceptibly, when at each step we think that none of this is really so bad, when we become habituated to small acts of hatred, to increments of intolerance and oppression.
Quite apart from the sheer indignity of the President(!) of the USA (!) using such intemperate language on Twitter (!) towards someone who is, basically, just a political opponent, this is dog whistle racism. And that is NOT OK. Can you imagine FDR, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes doing this? Let alone statesmen or women from other countries, like Adenauer, Churchill, Gandhi, Merkel, or the rising new star of world politics, Jacinta Arden? (Names picked rather randomly, by the way).
And now in the UK there is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (sic). Prime Minister, serial adulterer and proven liar, with his own ‘Cummings’, the rather less savoury Dominic.
Here’s a quote from The Independent:
Fletcher, the former Times editor, has compiled a list of Johnson’s greatest hits from Brussels: Johnson wrote that the EU wanted to standardise coffins, the smell of manure and the size of condoms – and had rejected an Italian request to make undersized rubbers. He warned Brits that their prawn-cocktail-flavoured chips could be banned, that their sausages were under threat and that their fishermen would be required to wear hairnets.
And all of those were lies. But does any of this matter? Yes, it does, too. Bishop Berkeley wrote in 1750
It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.
That is still true today, even if some commentators are trying to divorce public from private morality. And thereby hangs the problem. Morality has become something of a dirty word in our postpostmodern world. We have a diversity of moral frameworks, based on a potpourri of religions, and, indeed, for many people morality has become something entirely private, a sliding, slippery, ephemeral concept, where moral relativism, albeit unnamed, is the order of the day. Reality TV shows us adultery and luuurve in all its shapes and sizes, making popular drama out of real pain and betrayal. Love Island apparently thought this was a cute quote
After getting a drama-filled text the night before telling all the Islanders to nominate a fellow couple to be dumped, Amber told the Beach Hut: “In here you can be at your highest high, and you think that nothing could possibly ruin this, and then a text comes in.”
Our bankers and politicians lie without compunction, and without consequences. Greed has become praiseworthy, and stealing or corruption the norm for many. In addition, social media have become a breeding ground for contempt and unkindness.
The old standards of morality, often observed in the breach though they were, were a rule by which to measure ourselves, first and most importantly, and others only in a secondary way. So I can even see the temptation to believe that a benevolent theocracy, guided, say, by the Sermon on the Mount, might drag us out of the cesspit. But that way lies Gilead, Law not Gospel, and more intolerance, even if accompanied by a greeting of
But what we should do, as people of faith and people of goodwill, is to uphold those standards in any case. If we were, seriously, to take the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as reasonable guidelines for living well, we would save ourselves and those around us from much misery. As the Church of England website says,
The Ten Commandments set out fundamental principles of how we are to treat God and how we are to treat our fellow human beings.
For lack of a better or more functional vademecum, most Western legal systems, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other fundamental documents find their basic principles precisely here. I suspect also that a necessary concern for the environment and overcoming the existential challenge of global climate change would be aided by a deeper understanding of these two profoundly wise writings.
And we have do the right – no, the obligation! – to hold Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and leaders to a standard of morality, without which we find ourselves in an environment where lies are as good as truth, dishonesty as honesty, where kindness is seen as weakness, and a world where racism, sexism and all the other isms are set free to skitter around, wounding and killing as they go.
QED, I guess.