I had come to doubt my ability to be so swayed by the written word. Became more jaded and cynical with age and experience. Then I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.
Little House on the Prairie. The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings. 1984. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Bluest Eye.
I can point to a handful of the thousands of novels I’ve read over my lifetime as books that truly changed the way I saw the world. The Little House series may seem an odd inclusion, but to a girl growing up in Appalachian Virginia in the early 90s, it was illuminating to be transported to the plains of the Midwest in the 1870s. That was the first time I remember recognizing the true power of the novel. I haven’t had an experience like that in years. In fact, the last time I remember feeling a sense of profundity upon finishing a novel was in college, after reading the wrenching Toni Morrison novel The Bluest Eye. It made me think about race, class, societal perceptions, and privilege in a way that I had never previously considered in my relatively sheltered life spent in predominantly white circles. In the ensuing years, I had come to doubt my ability to be so swayed by the written word. Became more jaded and cynical with age and experience.
Then I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.
It was an unlikely read. While I like to read across a variety of genres, I rarely venture into what could be considered “weird fiction” territory. I enjoy Ray Bradbury, and I am also an avid fan of several authors that dance around under the “spec fiction” label, like Tolkien and yes, even the great sadist George R.R. Martin, but I don’t typically go for any “ooh look, aliens!” -type stories. Or movies, for that matter; I actually hated E.T. as a kid.
But I was feeling so burned out from the last few hideous weeks of the most appalling election cycle in living memory. Trump, Clinton, emails, pussy grabbing. People on both sides plugging their ears and screaming out their opinions. Ignorance proudly on display. The utter failure of the media and even the fifth estate, and the ceaseless lies and spin. The gross injustice of the DAPL situation, and in stark contrast, the blatant example of white privilege displayed in the Bundy acquittal.
I wanted an escape from reality. It was the day before Halloween. Something dark and creepy, then.
I asked my husband for a book rec. “I want something kind of Gothic. Along the lines of Dracula or Frankenstein, but I don’t want to reread either of those.” First he recommended The Turn of the Screw. Gothic, check. Creepy, check. Then he changed his mind, veering sharply away from Gothic but deeper into creepy territory. Here, you haven’t read Stephen King’s The Stand. Then he withdrew it. No, wait, he said. Try this one. Handed me Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Took it back. Hang on, he said. I know, really this time.
He pulled a door-stopper of a tome off the shelf, blew off the dust. He had read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation last year and loved it, but at the time had become too caught up in other things to read the other two volumes in the omnibus. I started it at 9:00 that night. For the next five days, it robbed me of sleep, caused me to procrastinate to the point of almost missing important deadlines, and made me lie awake, heart racing, at 5:00 in the morning as waves of realization crashed over me.
Here is what it made me see. My perception, which will inevitably come off to most as appallingly pessimistic, probably wasn’t VanderMeer’s intention, but you never can tell what’s going to send you down a given path.
If you could separate from the self, as in the book – become a bird and soar above everything, looking down as an objective observer – you would see that humans as a species are pretty awful. Sure, as a human being yourself, you can get mired in the excuse that there are a lot of “good” humans who have done a lot of “good” in the world. But what does that even mean, in the grand scheme? The planet, taken as a whole entity, a network of symbiotic relationships, is better off without us. The novels make repeated references to man-made disasters ranging from war to oil spills. We “intelligent apes,” not content with just destroying one another, also voraciously devour billions of other living things in our need and our greed. We multiply without thought to the consequences; we take without giving back.
If you can imagine this, then you can imagine an extraterrestrial entity looking down at this incredible planet, with its oceans and forests, diverse biospheres, breathtaking mountains, majestic beasts, and at the same time seeing how thoroughly a single species was destroying all that is good. Then you have to admit that if this being decided it could do a better job than humans of running things here, you couldn’t really blame it for launching a takeover that meant the eventual destruction of the human species. Or perhaps not precisely destruction, but absorption. Forcing us to get back to our animalistic origins, making us part of the environment rather than self-proclaimed masters of it. This is the role of the entity behind Area X. From a human perspective, it is seen as a threat. To everything else it encompasses – the plants, the animals, the earth itself – a savior. This is an anti-anthropocentric viewpoint, obviously, yet that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.
As humans, we are deeply conditioned by both culture and, probably, our own collective unconscious to feel abject terror at the prospect of an alien invasion. The 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds is notorious for having incited mass panic. While it turns out the hysteria was greatly exaggerated, the fact that the myth is so utterly believable points to our primordial fear of the unknown “other.” Since then, the list of popular and cult-classic movies and books about the horrors of otherworldly invaders numbers in the thousands. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing to Men in Black and Independence Day, we pay big bucks to be terrorized – at a safe remove – by alien life forms.
Given that history, it’s not surprising that most people will come to the Southern Reach trilogy with the very understandable perspective that “the Crawler” is the enemy. We see it as a foreign invader intent on destroying life as we know it, and we take it very personally.
However, when viewed through that objective bird’s eye, I would argue that the real villain of the trilogy is not the crawler but humankind, condensed in the form of Lowry. In Authority, we see the upper limit of bureaucratic understanding and its disastrous consequences. Very human and very flawed, Lowry’s primary characteristics are fear-driven rage and a mind-boggling level of hubris and entitlement. As the lone survivor of the first expedition into Area X, he is deeply scarred by his time there. He witnessed horrors beyond human imaging – which, perhaps, is the whole problem with sending expeditions across the border: the human mind simply cannot comprehend the forces at work. Lowry leverages his survivor status (which becomes by default heroic, rather than dumb luck or possibly part of the Crawler’s grand design) to achieve ever-increasing levels of bureaucratic power. From his lofty perch at a safe remove in Central, Lowry uses this largely undeserved authority to deploy mission after miserably failed mission into Area-X. It becomes clear that Lowry does not so much seek to understand the Crawler or its creation as he does to carpet-bomb the thing into oblivion, hell-bent on his own personal vendetta. He is even suspected of torturing animals with unspeakable experiments, ostensibly for “research” purposes but really, as Cynthia/Gloria believes, as an act of revenge against nature itself. His cruelty is not limited to animals; despite his own ghastly experience as an expedition member, he has no qualms whatsoever about the waste of human life required to fulfill his ceaseless calls for more missions into the unknown.
Reading this on the eve of the 2016 election, I also realize that political ideologies can be boiled down to a very simple core. (Ideologies, not individual politicians. When you talk about specific people, you encompass their lifetime of baggage and fractal connections to myriad interests that has informed their individual beliefs and policies. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson —they are all human, and therefore flawed, and can never be a true representation of a pure ideology. No one can.) What we call political ideology exists, of course, as a spectrum. On a basic level, liberal to conservative, with varying degrees in between. (You can get pedantic, insert other ideologies, argue that progressivism should be at the far end of the spectrum, for example. Or you can just accept conservative and liberal as useful, simplified reference points.) At its core, conservatism is obsessed with protecting and advancing the interests of the self. This “self” generally includes “the tribe:” those viewed by the self as worthy of inclusion in its highly selective group, which is almost invariably those most similar to the self. Thus, determining who is and who is not worthy of sharing these resources. Hoarding resources for the use of the tribe, considering only the best interests of the tribe and not the “other,” and even then only in the short-term, only the present self and not potential future generations. On the other end, liberalism, at its core, says that humankind can exist, perhaps not as one big tribe, but as a symbiotic relationship between individual tribes as well as between the species and its environment. Save some for everyone else. Save some for future generations. (Note that I’m using the word “tribe” here simply to represent groups of people, whether it’s “whites,” “Americans,” “patriots,” —whatever the self in question thinks of as the core group to which it belongs and those outside of which as “other.”)
And yet, zooming out from that, conservative or liberal, it doesn’t really matter. As a species, we destroy and consume at an unsustainable rate. Some more than others, yes, but all of us are guilty to some degree.
So if you accept this idea, what is there to do? The damage we have wrought is a juggernaut at this point. Perhaps we can slow it down, but that would take mass consciousness and willingness to change on a level that has never occurred in recorded history. In theory, we could stop the damage, even reverse it, but in practice that would require sacrifices that, due to fundamental human nature, will never be made on a great enough scale to achieve this end.
So what, then? Does that mean we should just give up, let’s all throw McDonald’s wrappers out the windows of our Humvees with our stick families of 12 on the back, making sure to smash a few critters along the way? Of course not. We still have a responsibility and a moral obligation to make a genuine effort. If you fall into the part of the spectrum that believes the greater good is more important than the interests of the self, what can you do? Do not only as little harm as possible, but try, in some small way, to make up for the damage our species has caused. Push for policy change, vote for politicians who share your viewpoint. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Plant a tree. In truth, these things amount to far too little, far too late. Humans are an invasive species. From the moment we fractured into factions and left the Cradle of Civilization, we’ve been destroyers, a fact that has snowballed through the ages, massively so with the rise of agriculture and again with the Industrial Revolution. Frankly, if the planet shakes off humankind like the parasite we are, we deserve it. We may not feel that we do on an individual level, but soar above and look down and it’s undeniable. So why make an effort at all? Because that is better than the alternative: to shrug and hurtle headlong down the path of no return, to voraciously consume and destroy and then die, leaving behind as our sole legacy a crippled and dying planet for our grandchildren, like billions of others have done before us.
A presidential candidate proposes brutal torture methods, war crimes, the slaughter of innocent people, and the crowd goes wild. A cabal of politicians, in thrall to their corporate overlords, quickly and quietly passes legislation meant to punish poor and minority women for having sex outside of the purposes procreation, and whole congregations hallelujah their approval.
The party that advocates for “limited government” out one side of their mouths screams for harsh restrictions on people’s personal lives out the other, and the pundits nod sagely, never acknowledging the hypocrisy.
Men (and a token handful of women, with specifically prescribed appearances) get paid millions of dollars to spew unmitigated vitriol all day long. Misogyny and racism are so par for the course, no one bats an eye when the usual verbal diarrhea comes pouring out.
An entire voting bloc of middle-class, straight, white, first-world Christian males genuinely believe they are being oppressed and downtrodden because the man on the TV told them so. (Please note, that is not the same thing as, “ALL middle-class, straight, white, first-world Christian males.”) They blame the “[insert racial slur here] in the White House” for every problem, real or perceived, foreign or domestic. They blame Middle Eastern people for terrorism and Mexicans for the state of the job market. They blame women for being raped and abused. They hear overpaid loudmouths say things like, “she was asking for it” and “it wasn’t really rape,” and they don’t speak up. And when other men speak up, they call them “social justice warriors” or “pussy-whipped.” They vote against anti-poverty measures, because if there’s no one beneath them, how can they be superior?
I know these men and the women who go along with them. They profess to be Christians. Most of them have graduated high school and have at least some college education. In theory, these are people that have a moral compass and are capable of thinking for themselves. Yet they’ve made a choice. They’ve chosen the path of intellectual laziness. They’ve chosen to let the Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of the world do their thinking for them. For all that championing of “personal responsibility,” they fail to take any. They’ve bought into an ideology as a package deal without questioning any of its components. Critical thinking is looked down upon. They have a ceaseless supply of empty rhetoric to fire at their detractors.
This ideology demands that its adherents exchange their humanity for the illusion of safety. “If we hate all the brown people, we’ll be safe from them. If we interfere in other people’s sex lives, the future of the family unit will be safe. If we keep women oppressed and limit their freedoms, the role of the male as patriarch will be safe.”
But the truth is that no politician, no pundit, no legislation can keep them safe. Their very hatred foments a backlash that threatens not just their safety, but everyone else’s. This hatred feeds terrorism. Legislation born of fear and misunderstanding of women fuels the poverty-crime cycle. The dark heart of this exchange, giving up every last shred of human decency because it might let them live and prosper just a little longer, is a fallacy: no one can save them from their own delusions and secret self-loathing.
It’s beyond obvious by now: Trump is a blowhard, wildly swinging from one controversial opinion to the next. He says whatever will keep the rabble cheering and the media lens trained on him. He would make a horrible President, no doubt, but he would be malleable. The right handlers could more or less bring him to heel – and that’s if he didn’t quit or become impeached almost immediately.
Cruz is an entirely different story. He’s on a mission from God to clean up the Sodom and Gomorrah he believes the US has become. Despite claiming to be a Constitutional “originalist,” he wants to abolish the separation of church and state. I’ve explored in another post the ways in which this would be disastrous for everyone, including conservative Christians.
Cruz is a classic sociopath; lying comes as naturally to him as breathing because he doesn’t have a conscience in the sense that most of us understand it. (Check his PolitiFact file here for a list of categorical falsehoods.) His ego has built for him a narrative in which he is the sword of God, a seraphim sent to destroy the wicked. He lives in a completely different reality than the rest of us.
I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that a Cruz presidency would send us hurtling toward becoming our very own Republic of Gilead, the Former United States as imagined in Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.
I explored religious extremism, Biblically-justified patriarchy, and Atwood’s novel in my senior thesis in college. I wrote the essay in 2007, toward the end of the second miserable Bush Jr. term. At the time, I had only recently come to terms with my own agnosticism after a childhood of religious indoctrination. Given my recent “awakening,” the possibility of a totalitarian theocracy in the United States was terrifying. Yet nearly ten years later, I am equally frightened of the possibility, and with two Dominionists as presidential candidates, one of whom threatens any day now to overtake Trump as the frontrunner, the fear is even more immediate. It’s astounding that Islamic extremism is currently our biggest bugaboo, and the proposed solution by a large chunk of the right wing is an equivalent Christian version of that very society.
Reading back over my essay is disheartening because in many ways, things have only become worse in the last decade. One line jumped out at me: “…the new society is in the best interest of women.” This is one of the two primary justifications for patriarchal control in Gilead. This sounds suspiciously similar to the new rhetoric surrounding the anti-abortion movement: “It’s about the health of the mothers.”
Interestingly, the new rulers of the Republic of Gilead rose to power by assassinating the President, destroying Congress, and initially blaming it on “the Islamic fanatics.” They declared martial law and “temporarily” suspended the Constitution.
I’ve pasted my essay below, with sources, for anyone that’s interested. It’s quite long.
God in Government: Religiously Justified Patriarchy and The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale “takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions” (Gibson). The novel shows us the possible results of a failure to separate church and state, and illustrates the implications of radical religion. Atwood’s fictional patriarchy embodies an environment that allows the reader to explore possibilities: could a world like Gilead, the dystopian city that is central to the novel, actually exist? Fundamentalist Christian influence in U.S. politics during the early to mid-1980s set the stage for the novel. Atwood imagined the outcome of totalitarian control by an extreme fundamentalist government, extrapolating on conditions which already existed in the U.S. and incorporating the reality of radical religious government under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Atwood’s fictional political world, known as the Republic of Gilead (the former United States), extreme patriarchy as dictated by Christian fundamentalism is authoritative. Women are assigned to specific roles, reduced to four explicit purposes: decorum, reproduction, sexuality, and servitude. Males of high political ranking called Commanders are given Wives (or in some cases, retain their original wives) primarily for the purpose of decorum. The Wives symbolize the family unit as defined by fundamental Christianity; their roles are nominal. The role of “Wife” exists because the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible calls for man, the leader of the family unit, to have woman as a helper. Most are infertile, due either to age or to environmental factors: “Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the wide-spread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period” (Atwood, Handmaid 304). Other factors causing this infertility include an untreatable strain of syphilis, an AIDS epidemic, nuclear plant accidents, bio-chemical warfare, and the extensive use of pesticides. Therefore, Commanders receive a Handmaid for reproduction purposes: “Men highly placed in the regime were […] able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated […] reproductive fitness” (304). Intercourse is a cold, ritualistic process involving Commander, Wife, and Handmaid. The singular goal of this monthly ritual, called the Ceremony, is impregnation of the Handmaid, whose survival depends on her fertility. As Offred states, “The chances [of conception] are one in four, we learned that at the center” (112). Women no longer derive any degree of pleasure from sexual intercourse; the orgasm is a vestigial remnant of a wanton past. The Handmaids are essentially reduced to a uterus. Offred describes herself as “a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” (73). Theoretically, men do not enjoy sex either, outside of the sense of service to Gilead through reproduction. Their only sexual encounters are supposed to be the regulated Ceremonies with their Handmaids. However, the Commanders and other men of high political rank have a form of sexual escape in underground brothels such as Jezebel’s. Women who did not wish to become Handmaids were relegated to the role of prostitute. As the character Moira puts it, “You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the bone yard” (249). Women who are too old or of a lower caste are either killed or sent into one of two forms of service. They may be house servants, called Marthas, or they may be sent to “the Colonies.” Women perceived as politically dangerous, especially feminists, are termed “Unwomen” and sent to the Colonies as well, where they are worked to death with minimal food and care. Considered an expendable labor force, they remove dead bodies from battlefields or perform agricultural duties such as harvesting cotton (248).
Stringent rules govern the behavior of Gileadean women, especially Handmaids. Women are required to carry themselves with modesty and are forbidden from making eye contact with men; this indicates their subservience. With the exception of the prostitutes at Jezebel’s, who wear all manner of lingerie and burlesque costumes, women are required to dress in a very conservative manner. Women of all ranks wear full-length, long-sleeved dresses, even in summer, and Handmaids must also wear veils and winged hoods to obscure their faces.
The activities of the women are strictly controlled by the men. “The Eyes” is an organization of spies comprised of both police officers and household servants. The Eyes are constantly on the lookout for suspicious or devious behaviors, especially among the Handmaids. Another method of controlling the Handmaids is the requirement that they always travel in pairs. Women cannot count on one another for solidarity against the patriarchy because some women truly believe that Gileadean society is in their best interest. In a psychologically brilliant move, the Gileadean leaders create “training schools” for the Handmaids, such as the Rachel and Leah Center. “Rachel and Leah” is a reference to the Biblical story in chapter 29 of Genesis in which Jacob marries Rachel, then discovers she is barren, so Jacob has children with her sister Leah. He also produces offspring with the handmaids of his two wives (Genesis 29). These centers are run by Aunts, staunch female followers of fundamentalist ideals:
The best and most cost-effective way to control women […] was through women themselves […] [N]o empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. […] [T]he Aunts take names derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them. (Atwood, Handmaid 308)
One method Gileadean leaders use for both brainwashing and control is the implementation of group gatherings which instill fear and guilt in the gathered women. These exhibitions include “Testifying,” in which women are encouraged to “confess” to things that happened to them before Gileadean rule, such as rape, abortion, and assault. Some women, like Janine, internalize accusations of guilt so completely, it destroys them. When Janine suffers her second miscarriage, “[s]he thinks it’s her fault […] for being sinful” (215). Even more extreme are the hangings, called Salvagings, in which people are publicly hanged for crimes such as “gender treachery” (homosexuality) and practicing abortion.
The all-male rulers of the totalitarian state of Gilead justify the subjugation of women with two key ideas: the new society is in the best interest of women, and the Bible dictates that men are superior and are to have dominion over all living things. The Commander explains to Offred that “[t]he main problem was with men. There was nothing for them anymore” (210). Sex was readily available; the pre-Gileadean culture was saturated with it. “Men were turning off on sex. […] They were turning off on marriage” (210). The Commander further justifies the creation of Gilead by reminding Offred of the disparity between women who were able to attract men and those who were not. Commander Fred rationalizes that the Gileadean system ensures there is a man for every woman, and admonishes Offred to remember “the human misery” of women who got breast implants and plastic surgery, who had to place personal ads in newspapers in order to find a man (219). At the Rachel and Leah Center, the Aunts feed propaganda to the Handmaids-in-training, referring to the rapes, assaults, and murders that often made the papers in the pre-Gileadean era. At the Prayvaganzas, quite similar to tent revivals, a Commander holds a service in which he reads passages from the Bible. He addresses the issue of modesty by reading from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel […] with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array […]” (221). The Commander presiding over the Prayvaganza makes it clear that women are inferior to men, again referring to the first book of Timothy: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. […] I suffer not a woman to […] usurp authority over the man” (221). Then comes the key justification for women’s inferior status: “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. […] Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing” (221).
The Christian fundamentalists of the novel rose to power in a manner that did not allow question of their rule. They first assassinated the President and destroyed Congress. Initially, “[t]hey blamed it on the Islamic fanatics” (174). In the chaos that followed, “they suspended the Constitution” and quickly set up a “temporary” government, alleged to stand until elections could be organized (174). Out of fear, few citizens attempted to take action against the new government; the few organized protests that occurred were quickly squelched by the new army. Most people refrained from even discussing political events; “[n]obody wanted to be reported, for disloyalty” (180). The purpose of the interim rule was two-fold: to paralyze the public with fear, and to put in place a system that would make fundamentalist control absolute. Annulling all second marriages and non-marriage unions, the organizers decreed that these unions were immoral and not recognized in the eyes of God. The fundamentalists then ordered that all working women be immediately terminated from their positions, using police presence to subdue any protests, while simultaneously suspending Compubank cards (the only existing form of currency) belonging to women. Overnight, a law was enacted dictating that “[w]omen can’t hold property anymore” (178). These concurrent moves ensured that women would be financially dependent on men. Now, Gilead was an absolute patriarchy, and it consisted of a single race subdued by fear and controlled by a radical religious sect.
The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, a time when the political climate of North America was leaning increasingly to the right. This conservativism was a reaction to the much more liberal decades of the 1960s and 70s, especially the women’s liberation movement. Women were burning bras, declaring power, obtaining divorces, and working outside the home, and this was a serious threat to the patriarchal conservatives. As the Reverend Jerry Falwell stated, “It appears that America’s anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men’s movement…” (qtd. in “Promises”). By addressing the need to return to the nuclear family and old-fashioned values, Christian fundamentalists were gaining power not just in works of fiction but on the United States’ political front as well. In an essay entitled “Writing Utopia,” Margaret Atwood states,
[I]n The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. (Atwood, Writing 92)
The Christian far right sector, once termed the “Moral Majority,” is comprised of groups such as the Promise Keepers, which encourage a return to “Godly” ways of life. These groups are deeply rooted in biblically justified patriarchy and are vehemently opposed to homosexuality and the full liberation of women. According to a National Organization for Women fact sheet, Promise Keeper “[f]ounder Bill McCartney was instrumental in passing Colorado’s anti-gay and lesbian Amendment 2 [and] has referred to homosexuality as “an abomination of Almighty God”” (“Myths”). In Atwood’s novel, homosexuals are executed and wear plaques indicating “gender treachery” (Atwood, Handmaid 43). Following a strict interpretation of certain passages of the Bible, Promise Keepers believe that men are the undisputed leaders of the household and that women are put on earth solely as man’s helper. According to an article by online organization Revolution, Promise Keeper leader Tony Evans is quoted as saying “The demise of our community and culture is the fault of sissified men who have been overly influenced by women” (Revolutionary). Evans also stated, addressing a gathering of men, that “you are royalty and God has chosen you to be the priest of your home” and that “a woman’s basic responsibility” is to “come alongside the man to assist him. She was never meant to bear the burden of responsibility for the home and family” (Revolutionary). Evans further states that men must take back the role of leader and “there can be no compromise” (Revolution). The Promise Keepers have the support of “well-financed leaders of the religious right” including “Jerry Falwell [and] Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ” and Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition (“Myths”; Revolutionary). Promise Keepers also has a large following: a Promise Keepers fact sheet states that “More than 2.6 million men have attended 61 stadium conferences since 1992” (Revolutionary). Proponents of the Promise Keepers platform advocate a role for women that is much like the idyllic “50s housewife.” Women are expected to cook, clean, raise several children, and be attentive to and adoring of their husbands. Working and managing one’s own money does not fit into this equation. Though fundamentalist groups have not yet gone so far as to ban women from some degree of financial independence, they strongly discourage it. The Promise Keepers following includes many women who support this conservative stance on gender roles. Some women, such as “chosen woman of God” Bunny Wilson, have joined the campaign to spread fundamentalist beliefs. According to an editorial review, Wilson’s book Liberated through Submission sold over 140,000 copies (“Liberated”). As its title indicates, Wilson’s book encourages women to completely submit to and revere their husbands. In an excerpt from her book, Wilson shares with her readers a conversation she had with God through prayer. Wilson states that God told her, “Your spirit should stand in honor, and bow in respect” in the presence of her husband (Cindy). Wilson adds that God told her, “When you vowed to Me that you were accepting him as your husband ‘until death do us part,’ he became the head of you and your home” (Cindy). Having “appeared on numerous national radio and television programs,” including the 700 Club and Focus on the Family, Wilson seems the embodiment of evangelical character Serena Joy created by Atwood’s prescient vision (PB). The Wife of Offred’s Commander, Serena Joy was once a traveling televangelist whose “speeches were about the sanctity of home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all” (Atwood, Handmaid 45).
Other organizations such as Focus on the Family espouse fundamental Christian beliefs grounded in the patriarchal subordination of women. Focus on the Family has outlets in both print and radio and is headed by James Dobson. Dobson “bankrolled [Promise Keepers] in its early days” and “speak[s] at PK conferences and contribute[s] articles to the group’s books and magazine” (“Myths”). Similar organizations encourage submission of women to their husbands, believe that a woman’s place is in the home and that women should not work, and have intense anti-abortion agendas. Televangelists reach the stay-at-home sector. A study of political characteristics of Moral Majority supporters in the mid-1980s found that the Moral Majority would have had the support of “more than half of all white evangelicals” if they had won over the social issue conservatives who opposed abortion and homosexuality (Wilcox 410). As Wilcox states, “While this would not have constituted a true majority, it would have constituted an important force in American politics” (Wilcox 410).
Fundamentalist influence reaches all the way to the top echelons of government and continues today: Christian fundamentalist and Republican Pat Buchanan ran for President in 1992, 1996, and 2000. In his speech announcing his 1996 Presidential candidacy, Buchanan complained that “[e]ternal truths that do not change from the Old and New Testament have been expelled from our public schools […]” (Buchanan, “Announcement”). He promised to “shut down the U.S. Department of Education” and pledged, “I will use the bully pulpit of the Presidency of the United States, to the full extent of my power and ability, to defend American traditions and the values of faith, family, and country, from any and all directions” (Buchanan, “Announcement”).
Dismissing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” Buchanan made no secret of the fact that his agenda was deeply religious. Buchanan completely opposed abortion even in cases of rape, calling the RU-486 abortion drug “a human pesticide” (“Buchanan”). In an article entitled “The Cultural War for the Soul of America,” Buchanan asked, “Is the Creator truly neutral in the unequal struggle between his tiniest creatures and the abortionist with the knife and suction pump?” (Buchanan, “Cultural”). In the same article, he condemned homosexuality as “both morally wrong and medically ruinous” (Buchanan, “Cultural”), citing both the Bible and Thomas Jefferson as purveyors of opposite-sex unions only. In another article, Buchanan promised that as President he would “[r]eject “multicultural” curricula that denigrate our history” and put and end to bilingualism (“Pat”). Buchanan heralded the “good old days” when homosexuality was taboo and media depicted an idyllic America full of happy housewives and beaming blonde children.
Though most Christian fundamentalists would argue that their religion is in no way related to that of radical Islamists (and vice-versa), the two have numerous parallels, especially in their patriarchal execution. Both religions place a heavy emphasis on conservative social values based on a particular interpretation of their holy texts (the Qur’an, in the case of Islam). This interpretation includes masculinist attitudes toward women and the family as well as scathing condemnation of homosexuality.
The Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan in the early 1990s through militant force, much like the Gileadeans of the novel. Professional and well-educated women who were accustomed to working outside the home suddenly found themselves prisoners at the mercy of their male family members and a capricious guerilla government: “For educated, professional women […] the loss of freedoms gained over previous decades has been hard to bear” (“Women”). Like the Gileadean women, they lost all financial freedom, and are strongly discouraged from being seen outside the home. Women are denied “rights to association, freedom of expression and employment” and are required to be “veiled from head to foot” (“Women”). As with all oppressive governments, Taliban leaders insisted that these measures were for the common good. In the novel, Offred questions how the current situation could possibly be perceived as “better.” The Commander replies that “[b]etter never means better for everyone. […] It always means worse, for some” (Atwood, Handmaid 211). This is true of Taliban rule as well, though it appears that circumstances are only better for the elite ruling minority.
Margaret Atwood visited Afghanistan six years before writing The Handmaid’s Tale. In an essay entitled “When Afghanistan Was at Peace,” Atwood admits that “[t]he women in the book wear outfits derived in part from […] the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations” (Atwood, Writing 207). At the time of Atwood’s visit, “the chador wasn’t obligatory. […] It was a cultural custom [;…] this one might signify a fear of women or a desire to protect them from the gaze of strangers” (206). But when she purchased a chador of her own, Atwood “had an odd sense of having been turned into negative space […] a sort of anti-matter” (207). In the novel, Offred describes the obligatory uniforms: “The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing but also from being seen” (Atwood, Handmaid 8). The Afghani chador, or burka, covers the entire body and obscures the face, leaving only small slits so the women may see and breathe.
Weeks after Atwood’s visit to Afghanistan, war broke out and conditions for women became abysmal almost overnight. Walking outside unescorted usually results in corporal punishment, as does immodesty of dress: “Women have been lashed on the back of the legs […] for not being properly clothed—for showing their ankle or wearing the wrong colour shoes” (“Women”). In The Handmaid’s Tale, “It was the feet they’d do, for a first offense. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands” (Atwood, Handmaid 91). Just as Handmaids such as Offred’s predecessor sometimes committed suicide to avoid torture and punishment by The Eyes (187), “several Afghan women reportedly committed suicide to avoid [being] treated as the spoils of war. In one case, a father who saw Mujahideen guards coming for his daughter reportedly killed her before she could be taken away” (“Women”).
Just as the “50s housewife” ideal of the Christian fundamentalists represents the sanctity of home, Islamic women represent a center of honor for both their family and their community. As a 1999 Amnesty International article states, “Notions of honour and shame underpinning cultural norms and practices emphasise female modesty and purity” (“Women”). Any blemish on that honor must be destroyed, and that usually means destroying the “vessel of honor,” the woman herself. If a woman is sexually assaulted, she will bear the punishment because she is assumed to have erred in some way, putting herself in a situation where that could happen. This calls to mind the drills of the Aunts in the novel: Janine confesses that she was “gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion” in the time before the Gileadean takeover, and the other Handmaids are encouraged to condemn her because she “led them on” (Atwood, Handmaid 72). As a group, the women chant, “her fault, her fault, her fault” (72). In the most extreme cases in radical Islam, rape or sexual assault of a woman results in “honor killings.” In these cases, it is not the perpetrator of the crime who is punished, but the female victim. In Atwood’s novel, Aunt Lydia explains that “[Men] can’t help it. […] God made them that way but he did not make [women] that way. […] It’s up to [women] to set the boundaries” (45). In radical Islamist societies, the woman is killed because she has brought shame to her family and community by placing herself in a position that compromised her honor, regardless of how the rape or assault occurred. A recent study in Turkey revealed that 33 per cent of people surveyed believe “honor is women acting in accordance with religious tenets” (“Ankara”). Like Gileadean rulers, Taliban leaders “purport their policies on women are in place to ensure the physical protection and dignity of women” (“Women”). To use the words of a character in the novel, Aunt Lydia, “there is more than one kind of freedom. […] In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from” (Atwood, Handmaid 24).
The rules governing women’s behavior in Islamic Afghanistan are similar to those of Atwood’s fictional Gilead. On the rare occasions that women are allowed out of the house, they must be covered from head to toe in the sack-like burkas. Like Gileadeans and Christian fundamentalists, radical Islamists justify their treatment of women by claiming it is for the women’s protection and by citing their sacred scriptures. According to an article in the Turkish Daily News, “[c]ausative factors for honor killings were primarily religious beliefs, regional economic and social structure, tradition and Turkey’s paternal society” (“Ankara”). Accurate statistics on the number of honor killings still occurring in radical Islamist societies are difficult to obtain because many cases go unreported. As Sumantra Guha stated to George Dwyer of Voice of America, “If a woman goes and talks about violence against her, this is considered immodest, and she is supposed to have committed dishonor to her family” (Dwyer). However, “the United Nations estimates that annually there are 5,000 honor killings,” nearly 14 women killed each day in the name of religion and tradition (Terzieff). As Atwood states in an essay regarding her dystopian novel,
The most potent forms of dictatorship have always been those that have imposed tyranny in the name of religion. […] What is needed for a really good tyranny is an unquestionable idea or authority. […] Political disagreement with a theocracy is heresy, and a good deal of gloating self-righteousness can be brought to bear on the extermination of heretics, as history has demonstrated. (Atwood, Writing 97)
The end of The Handmaid’s Tale may suggest a future era of peace and equality. Though neither of these abstract ideas is yet on the horizon for war-torn Islamic nations, there is still a faint beacon of hope. According a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times, “a quarter of the parliament members [in Afghanistan] are women; not one wears a burka” (Rubin). Afghani women still fight an uphill battle. Many of the older male parliament members will not speak to the female members; parliament member Malalai Joya “has been pelted with water bottles in the parliament chamber, and twice her microphone has been shut off” (Rubin). However, women like Zahera Sharif truly believe they can make a difference. Sharif goes door to door convincing men to let their wives and daughters teach or attend school. “I do not accept ‘no,’” Sharif says (Rubin). If change occurs, it will be slow going: in a nation ruled by fear and chaos, women’s issues are not priorities. As a representative of Women for Afghan Women states, “Many Afghans still don’t believe the peace will last, that fighting and militias will come back and then the men in families where women worked or studied will be punished” (qtd. in Terzieff).
In a 1999 interview with David Reich, renowned poet Sonia Sanchez stated, “All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, ‘Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better’” (qtd. in Reich). Politically motivated novels like The Handmaid’s Tale are a vehicle for social change. Readers inadvertently step into the world that they previously may never have imagined. The Handmaid’s Tale calls into question patriarchal, religiously fundamentalist political trends. In an article entitled “How Do You Incorporate History into the English Curriculum?” high school teacher Tracy Anderson Tensen states that “discussing the appalling situation in Afghanistan in correlation with The Handmaid’s Tale serves two important purposes: increasing awareness about this horrifying current political situation and helping the students recognize the value and validity of such cautionary fiction as Atwood’s novel” (Tensen 30). The novel also challenges readers to ask, “Does separation of church and state even exist?” It appears that it does not; in a series of studies on congressional voting trends regarding abortion, it was repeatedly found that “religion however defined has emerged as an important determinant of congressional voting” (Daynes 200). Reading Atwood’s novel, our eyes are suddenly opened to parallels we had never considered between the familiar and the foreign as we begin to see connections between the patriarchal foundations of both fundamental Christianity and radical Islamism. The novel also asks the reader to question patriarchal society. It is easy to turn a blind eye to this issue because patriarchal manifestations are so deeply ingrained in our society that we take them for granted. Also, as Atwood states in an interview for the Living Author Series, “For the average person there’s a sense of impotence in the face of evil. […] We all, especially these days with the atom bomb hanging over our heads, we all can envision a world better than the one we live in, but we don’t know how to transform [it]” (LAS 177). Simply put, people are overwhelmed by the staggering scope of social problems. In an era of war and confusion, attitudes of apathy and ignorance are the easiest response. However, this tactic is unacceptable. As women comprise approximately 50 per cent of the world’s population, the issue of women’s rights should receive a greater degree of attention. Mary Cooper cites the World Health Organization which states, “[W]omen between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to die or be disabled as a result of violence than of cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and even war” (Cooper). Yet in the United States, “Secretary’s Day receives more attention than Women’s Day” (Cooper).
Though progress is slow for Afghani women, it is progress nonetheless. There is hope for women in other parts of the world as well. According to a report by Mary Cooper, “an international women’s rights movement has gathered strength in recent years, building support for international efforts to stop the violence and successfully pressuring governments to pass protective laws” (Cooper). Amnesty International publications suggest ways in which the international community can fight against misogynistic practices. Some of these methods include lobbying governments to put pressure on “warring factions in Afghanistan,” donating to “international aid agencies and UN agencies,” and avoiding business with companies connected to Afghani warlords (“Women). Many people are unwilling to accept the excuse that religion dictates subservience of women. In a letter to an Ontario newspaper, the Reverend Dik Habermehl points out that the “Torah, Bible, and Qu’ran share versions of the Golden Rule to treat others as we would like to be treated by them, a rule which is anything but patriarchal” (Habermehl).
Atwood’s novel ends in a manner that leaves open the possibility for hope. Offred’s story is discovered by a university’s Gileadean Research Association in 2195, about 200 years after the events described by Offred. This futuristic society consists of men and women in equal positions of power, at least in the academic realm. The students seem to have a hard time imagining an era in which a patriarchal theocracy could have absolute control. This indicates that Gilead disintegrated at some point, along with its misogynistic legacy. As Atwood states in an essay entitled “George Orwell,” the section at the end of the novel is “the account of a symposium held several hundred years in the future, in which the repressive government described in the novel is now merely a subject for academic analysis” (Atwood, Writing 292). We can extrapolate that Atwood’s novel contains a message of hope: perhaps history students in the future will laugh at the absurdity of politics and religion in the twentieth century, an era that claimed to be progressive yet subjugated women in so many ways. Yet this will not come to pass without willful intention. In an essay entitled “Letter to America,” Atwood implores Americans to take action against “the slippery slope” which we are descending in the post- 9/11 climate of fear and dread (282). Atwood asks us to consider the following:
The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn’t dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; and in the country’s hour of greatest peril, he would return. You too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them (283).
Atwood is right: as citizens of a nation built on principles of equality and freedom, we have a patriotic duty. Let us not be like the characters in the novel, so immobilized with fear and confusion that “[t]here wasn’t even any rioting in the streets” (Atwood, Handmaid 174). Let us not be like the “[p]eople [who] stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction” (174). Our responsibility is not to blindly follow whatever political trends happen to be popular at any given moment, but to educate ourselves on political issues and take action against any government that would oppress and silence its most crucial component: its citizens.
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Buchanan, Patrick J. “Announcement Speech.” Buchanan for President. Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences, New Hampshire. 20 Mar. 1995. 27 Mar. 2007 <www.4president.org/speeches/buchanan1996announcement.htm>
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Cooper, Mary H. “Women and Human Rights.” The CQ Researcher 9 (1999). CQ Researcher Plus Archive. 5 Feb. 2007. <http://library.cqpress.com>
Daynes, Byron W., and Raymond Tatalovich. “Religious Influences and Congressional Voting on Abortion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23.2 (1984): 197-200. JStor. 28 Feb. 2007. < http://links.jstor.org>
Dwyer, George. “VOA News: Domestic Violence Widespread in Afghanistan.” US Federal News 24 Aug. 2006. Lexis-Nexis. 5 Feb. 2007. <http://web.lexis nexis.com>
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Reich, David. “An Interview with Sonia Sanchez.” The Artists’ Network of Refuse & Resist. 1999. The World. 27 Mar. 2007 <http://www.artistsnetwork.org/artists/soniasanchez.html>.
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My purpose here at The Black Sheep Fold is to bring attention to, and hopefully give a voice to non-conformists and marginalized members of society. What group has been more marginalized in this country’s history than the indigenous population?
Today, we have an opportunity to help make history by giving them a voice via one of the highest appointments in the nation.
Urge President Obama to appoint Judge Diane Humetewa to the Supreme Court. I won’t reinvent the wheel; this article does an excellent job of outlining why she would be an ideal candidate and difficult for the Senate to obstruct. In short, she is highly qualified and has bi-partisan support – a rarity in today’s political climate.
So what can we do? Take to Twitter: @POTUS and @WhiteHouse and urge President Obama to nominate Humetewa.
Or, contact the White House and write a succinct missive urging the President to nominate Humetewa. If you’re not comfortable drafting a letter on your own, here’s a form letter you can use:
Please consider nominating Judge Diane Humetewa to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court bench. I believe that her qualifications and bipartisan support make her an excellent candidate. Additionally, she will add much-needed diversity to the SCOTUS and represent a marginalized minority.
“Rupture: Separation of Church and State.” This nebulous proclamation recently graced the marquee of a church in my community.
I’m not even going to get into an analysis of the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson’s letter, or the illegal national motto that was adopted as a response to McCarthyism, one of the country’s most shameful periods of the 20th century. Whether or not you believe the First Amendment supports separation of church and state is immaterial, since it’s up to the Supreme Court to make this decision, and they have determined that it is, in fact, what that means. Instead, I’m going to explore reasoning for supporting separation of church and state, and why every citizen – regardless of religious affiliation – should be in favor of this wall.
I was recently taken to task by a relative over my stance on separation of church and state. My county’s sheriff deemed it an appropriate use of taxpayer funds to purchase “In God We Trust” decals for all county patrol cars. The sheriff’s office’s social media manager proudly shared this on Facebook. Inwardly, I groaned, and posted the picture to the Secular Coalition for America’s Facebook page with the comment, “This just happened in my county. Unfortunately, it’s the Bible Belt, so the vocal crowd is in favor.” My county just joined the ranks of dozens of other localities in Alabama, Florida, Texas, and other states in violating the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The relative in question was horrified with my assertion that there was something wrong with the blatant promotion of a religious preference by an elected government official. The problem is that this “Godly man’s” expression of his belief is 1- subsidized by taxpayers and 2- unconstitutional. His actions show complete disregard for federal law and an illegal bias in favor of one particular religion.
There is a very strong case for Christians (even conservative Christians!) to support and preserve the separation of church and state. First and most obvious should be the fact that once you open that door, you can’t control what comes through it. If we the people agree that the state can align itself with a religion, there is no guarantee that the religion will always be Christianity, let alone Protestantism. What’s going to happen when a Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu leader wants to use patrol cars to express his “Godly” beliefs? “In Allah We Trust” sounds okay to you? You’ve set the precedent. You can’t turn around and say, “No, that’s only for white, conservative Christians.” And it’s not just about patrol cars. Churches and religious interest groups hand out Bibles in public schools and otherwise insidiously indoctrinate through a channel subsidized – again – by taxpayers. If you don’t want your child coming home with a copy of the Qur’an or Torah, then don’t support the peddling of Bibles in public schools. Violating the separation of church and state will eventually be suicide for Christianity in America.
Now let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the United States remains predominantly Christian in this scenario. Which denomination? What if the government chooses to support and represent the tenets of the Southern Baptists? How are Episcopalians going to feel about that? Will the Pentecostals be happy with a government that aligns itself with United Methodist beliefs? Even a cursory grasp on history should inform you that sectarian violence, or fighting between various denominations, is one of the most detrimental legacies of Christianity (or any organized religion).
Another factor to consider is financial in nature. If religious groups keep pushing the envelope, the eventual backlash is going to be a widespread call for the taxation of churches and clergy. In fact, this has already begun; just do a quick search for “churches should be taxed.” Right now, this religious tax exemption represents $70 to $80 billion in lost revenue. That is the equivalent of the Department of Education’s annual budget. For perspective, if we taxed churches, we could theoretically double teachers’ salaries or cut average classroom sizes in half. The non-religious sector is growing rapidly. They will not, for much longer, sit idly by while one religious group is granted special privileges at the expense of American taxpayers.
The First Amendment and the principles on which this country was founded protect the rights of individuals to worship – or not worship – as they see fit. If you want religion in your home, that is completely within your rights. If you want it in school, send your kids to a private religious school. Understand that every push to undermine the separation of church and state is a push to eventually bring about the downfall of Christianity in the United States.
The owner of the ranch where former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead has revealed that Scalia was there as the guest of “a lawyer friend.” His staunch refusal to identify the friend and the fact that this “friend” has not spoken publicly are rather suspect. It could be, of course, that the friend wishes to stay out of the public eye, especially during a time of mourning, which is certainly understandable. It could also be politically motivated – there’s a good chance that this friendship would represent a significant conflict of interests. It wouldn’t be the first time for Justice Scalia. However, there is a third possibility with significant implications. Scalia was at a resort location with a “friend” on Valentine’s weekend. Could it be the nation’s most adamant gay-hater was having a secret, homosexual affair? Again, there is plenty of precedent for this very sort of tryst. LGBT-rights website The Advocate runs down a list of 16 anti-gay Republican leaders who have faced scandals when caught with their same-sex lovers. The list includes the likes of Glenn Murphy, Jr., former President of the Young Republican National Federation, who is now a registered sex offender for performing oral sex on an unwilling male. Then there’s former Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who was eventually forced out of the closet and is now an advocate for marriage equality.
Scalia has been married for more than 50 years and has fathered nine children, but as has been demonstrated repeatedly, this is no guarantee that someone is not gay (or bisexual). Now, I am not declaring that Scalia is gay. Obviously, I have scant evidence and this is pure speculation. But frankly, I would be delighted if this turned out to be true. If it is, this could be the final nail in the coffin of the right-wing’s gay-hating agenda. This isn’t really about Scalia’s sex life, though.
Scientific American reiterates a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found a strong positive correlation between adamant gay-bashing and secret homosexual tendencies. The results of this study are not at all surprising to most rational, thinking people. Self-loathing drives our ugliest tendencies.
Here’s a radical idea: if gay marriage offends you, don’t get gay-married. Other people’s sex lives should have no bearing on your own. The “sanctity of marriage” argument is the biggest joke going when 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the US end in divorce, including a divorce rate of about 42 percent among Christians. Two men or two women getting married has absolutely jack-fuck all to do with anyone else’s marriage. If your marriage is eroded due to someone else’s marriage, that is entirely your problem.
The right-wing’s gay-hating agenda is entirely about controlling sexuality and reiterating the idea that sex is for reproduction only, which bolsters their systematic suppression of women’s reproductive rights. The great hypocrisy is that the right wing claims to favor limited government, until it comes to sex and reproductive rights. Religiously-based principles have no place in legislature, unless you’re willing to take all comers. Stone the adulterers, adhere to all the crazy bullshit in Leviticus, the book of choice among Christian gay-haters. (I’ll delve deeper into separation of church and state in another diatribe.) Scalia’s gay-hating agenda is an extension of the right-wing’s overall hypocrisy: Scalia claimed to be a “constitutional purist,” but when it came to Obergefell v Hodges, he suddenly did an about-face and claimed that the Supreme Court doing its job was unconstitutional.
It’s time to sweep the proponents of these antiquated, oppressive ideals out of power.