I still can’t believe the Supreme Court is allowing Texas to take away women’s abortion rights while encouraging its citizens to become bounty hunters, with $10,000 injury payments awaiting anyone who successfully snitches on anyone having, or aiding someone having, an abortion after six weeks. Many have been alluding to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in recent weeks, to which I add passages from George Orwell’s 1984 and, believe it or not, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’ll let Austen fans figure out the passage I have in mind as I turn to the more obvious passages first.
In The Handmaid’s Tale citizens, as in Texas, are deputized to carry out “justice,” such as when the handmaids must tear apart an alleged rapist with their bare hands (the man is actually a freedom fighter). Abortionists in Gilead, meanwhile, are hanged, even if they performed the operation when abortion was still legal. Even more relevant to the Texas situation, however, is the way Gilead turns neighbors into spies.
What if a boyfriend, for instance, after helping his girlfriend get an abortion, breaks up with her? If the break-up is contentious, might he turn her in? What about friends who drift apart? Or neighbors you think you can trust? Given the market incentives ($10,000 plus court expenses), how deep does loyalty go? And what will this do to communities?
In Handmaid’s Tale, protagonist Offred doesn’t know if she can trust Nick, the friendly chauffeur who works for her owner:
He looks at me, and sees me looking [at him smoking]. He has a French face, lean, whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around the mouth where he smiles. He takes a final puff of the cigarette, lets it drop to the driveway, and steps on it. He begins to whistle. Then he winks.
I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and keep walking. He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him?
Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the cigarette.
Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do.
Perhaps he is an Eye.
Then there is Ofglen, a fellow handmaiden:
We aren’t allowed to go [to town] except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy and I am hers.
It so happens that both the chauffeur and Ofglen can be trusted, but Offred initially has no way of knowing that. Making a mistake could get her imprisoned or killed. At least in Texas, it’s only $10,000 plus court expenses.
In 1984, sometimes family members turn one in, which we can well imagine happening in our polarized society where families sometimes fracture over politics. What if your sibling–or your children–think they are doing God’s will by betraying you?
The children…were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.
This is the potential situation that the Supreme Court left in place, undoubtedly because at least five members (and maybe Roberts as well) want to see abortion outlawed. Their politics, not the law, prevailed. After all, would these conservative justices have allowed a state law to stand if vigilante citizens were incentivized to take to court anyone who owned a gun?
And now to Jane Austen. In Northanger Abbey’s most curious passage, Henry Tilney reprimands Catherine Morland for suspecting his father of having killed or imprisoned his mother. Because Catherine has been overly influenced by the gothic novels she is reading, Tilney brings her down to earth by pointing out that England has a neighborhood spy system that would prevent the general from having gotten away with any such thing:
If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
We may not think ourselves as living in a country surrounded by voluntary spies but Texas is apparently trying to get us there. Suddenly, our laws are conniving at such a situation, which neither our education nor our sense of the probable has prepared us for.
Another literary allusion: Singer Bette Midler just tweeted out an Aristophanes reference for the occasion:
I suggest that all women refuse to have sex with men until they are guaranteed the right to choose by Congress.
In Lysistrata, the ploy brings together inveterate enemies Athens and Sparta. It’s worth a shot.