In the case of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Republic of Gilead, the past is not so much another country as another century, another millennium. It was 34 years ago, in 1985, that The Handmaid’s Tale gave readers a chilling view of an ultra-misogynistic society designed for the convenience, pleasure and authoritarian impulses of men.
Since then the fate of Offred, bundled into the back of a van at the end of the book, has exercised the imaginations and emotions of readers. Between 1985 and the release in September 2019 of The Testaments, Atwood’s follow-up, the earlier book gained a global audience through a television adaptation. But in the way of transitions from page to screen, the nuance and thinking of the book were reduced to a show-all, see-all series of episodes that invited spectating more than contemplating.
Looking back to 1985, much in The Handmaid’s Tale seems eerily predictive. The world has become far more dangerous for women, who are now even more prone to sexual harassment, sexual abuse, trafficking, gender-based violence and murder.
Truth has become a malleable concept, shaped by the goals of those uttering it – and here one must remember how Atwood wrote of “false news” three decades before US President Donald Trump began labelling truth as “fake news” and his fake news as the truth. Similarly, in public playing-out of infantile wish fulfilment, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imagines that constant lying can somehow be shaped into a believable narrative.
It was Offred who coined “false news”. Marching with the times that she has generally out-thought and foretold, Atwood in The Testaments labels the news “fake”. The world has become Gilead and Gilead has become the world.
‘Facts are sacred’
There was a time when newspapers could be relied upon to do their best to witness or discover and then report the truth. Not for nothing is the motto of British newspaper The Guardian the famous bon mot of its founder CP Scott: “Comment is free … but facts are sacred.”
That theme was taken up to brilliantly amusing but also telling effect in The Truth (2000), the 25th novel in the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The story of the first newspaper in Discworld, started by William de Worde and made possible by the invention of movable type, it is also the tale of the birth of investigative journalism there, with De Worde and his reporter Sacharissa Cripslock overturning trumped-up charges of attempted murder and embezzlement against Havelock Vetinari, the Lord Patrician of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork.
As in Pratchett’s novel, journalism at its best serves the truth. Possibly no one has articulated that better than George Orwell. “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” he wrote, which could be a credo for journalists working in the “post-fact” age of Trump, Johnson, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and countless other despots. Their world was long ago evoked by Orwell summing up dystopian society in the slogan “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
And the power of extreme self-delusion can never have been better captured than in his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” That way madness lies, or already has begun to manifest itself.
‘A constant struggle’
In typical and refreshingly Anglo-Saxon diction, Orwell reminds us that “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” He cautions that “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” And he warns that “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.”
Orwell – whether in his journalism, his essays or his two great novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – is timeless because he is dedicated to and a servant of the truth. He neither makes things up nor pretends they are not happening. (Although, of course, the opening sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the unforgettable “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”)
He makes, pithily and powerfully, the most persuasive arguments for freedom:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
With guides like Atwood and Orwell, the truth can be defended – even at this 13th hour.