Atwood’s Dystopias & the Gun Business

New Yorker cover 12-14-15


I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, and while it doesn’t deal with terrorism—other Atwood novels take up that subject, including Cat’s Eye, Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood—I can’t help but apply it to recent events. That’s because the Canadian author’s last four novels, all dystopias, show us what happens when under-regulated capitalism goes berserk. We in the United States are currently experiencing the full effects of an under-regulated gun industry.

Atwood has been imagining various grim futures since Handmaid’s Tale, but in Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAdam, and The Heart Goes Last, she shows technological breakthroughs spiraling out of control. The reason is always the profit motive, and Atwood has been showing it at work in an increasingly inegalitarian society. In Oryx and Crake, for instance, companies unleash diseases and then sell the antidotes at extravagant prices. In The Heart Goes Last, we see for-profit prisons becoming super profitable when they start trafficking in body parts. Atwood is particularly good at showing how companies exploit our society’s addictions, whether sex, drugs, self-gratification, or fear.

I find it interesting that many of today’s rightwing conservatives have embraced unbridled capitalism because there is little conservative about its behavior. In fact, unregulated capitalism threatens to blow apart many of our most hallowed traditions. (I recommend this excellent essay on true conservatism, which calls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz CINOs or Conservatives in Name Only.)

Along these lines, I have a confession. When I was in college during the early 1970s, many of us in the counterculture movement turned our back on traditional practices, to the horror of our elders. We didn’t realize, as Gerald Graff was to point out in Literature against Itself (1979), that the more we remove social checks on people’s behavior, the fewer checks there are on capitalist behavior. The sexual revolution, which was designed to remove hang-ups and guilt, delivered into the hands of corporate America full permission to use sex to sell things.

We see sex given full rein in The Heart Goes Last, with finely engineered sexbots and then, the next logical step, special operations that get a partner to fixate on only you. But since today I want to talk about America’s “gun epidemic” (as The New York Times calls it), I’ll focus on addiction to fear.

Fear allows the for-profit prison in the novel to do whatever it wants with the prisoners that are assigned there. When the secret dealings of the prison are revealed, social media is filled with responses from people who approve. Even those who are appalled concede that perhaps it’s okay to kill prisoners if they are bad:

Some say those who got their organs harvested and may subsequently have been converted into chicken feed were criminals anyway, and they should have been gassed, and this was a real way for them to pay their debt to society and make reparation for the harm they’d caused, and anyway it wasn’t as wasteful as just throwing them out once dead. Others said that that was all very well in the early stages of Positron, but it was clear that after Management had gone through their stash of criminals and also realized what the going price was for livers and kidneys, they’d started in on the shoplifters and pot-smokers, and then they’d been snatching people off the street because money talks, and once it had started talking as Positron it wouldn’t shut up.

Yes, money doesn’t shut up, and the amount that the gun industry is making today, and that it is spending on politicians, is staggering. When I see how easy it is to purchase battle-grade firepower in this country, I feel like I am in the middle of an Atwood novel. The very fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS have been pointing out to lone wolf sympathizers how easy it is to get assault weapons and armor piercing bullets in America—no need to set up an intricate weapons smuggling operation such as occurred in Belgium and France—should wake everyone up. Republicans in Congress, however, are more afraid of the NRA than they are of the public and are willing to allow even people on terrorism watch lists to continue to buy weapons rather than pass new regulations. Nor can we get good data on gun violence since Congress has prevented the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the problem for the past 20 years.

Following the Umpqua massacre, President Obama observed that America is the only developed nation on earth that experiences so many people killed from gun violence. A Washington Monthly article yesterday makes the point well:

The simple truth is that the same terrorist impulse is far less deadly when guns are less accessible. Yesterday an ISIS-inspired terrorist in London shouted about revenge for Syria and tried to go on a murder spree. But the death toll was zero—not because of a lack of motivation, but because the perpetrator wasn’t able to gain access to a firearm.

Similarly, on the same day that the Sandy Hook gun massacre claimed the lives of 28 people in addition to the many wounded, a disturbed individual in China went on a knife spree at a school in Chenpeng Village, using his weapon on 24 people. Very similar incidents halfway across the world. The difference? The American had a gun and killed 28. The Chinese man had a knife and killed none of his victims because he had no access to a firearm.

Atwood would particularly find interesting the fact that gun sales skyrocket whenever there is a mass shooting. It would be a very Atwoodian plot twist to have gun companies actually stage mass shootings in order to increase sales. Indeed, there are figures on the rightwing fringe who contend that massacres like the one at Newtown are actually staged so that the government will have an excuse to confiscate firearms. Their conclusion: stock up to prevent it from happening.

In many ways, Donald Trump seems to be the perfect embodiment of Atwood’s fears, an unabashed capitalist who judges everything by the bottom line and is willing to dispense with anything that stands in his way, including constitutional protections and basic morality. Increasingly people are worrying that Trump–or at least Trumpism–has taken over the GOP, all but silencing the true conservatives.

In the upcoming year, we’ll learn whether we are in fact inside an Atwood novel.

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