Blogs > Liberty and Power > Gilead Watch

Mar 31, 2008 11:57 am


Gilead Watch



This morning I want to offer the first entry in what I hope will also be a regular "feature" of my blogging here.  I'm going to call this series of posts the "Gilead Watch" in honor of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

For those who haven't read it, the book is a work of feminist science fiction that depicts a future US in which the religious right has created a theocracy (The Republic of Gilead) in which women have, in essence, become state property. Those who are able to conceive and bear children are put to work as "handmaids" of elite couples, there only to be a uterus and justified by biblical injunction.  Other women are assigned to very specific roles within the household, and the whole society has restricted sexual freedom and civil liberties in a variety of ways.  The book is in the tradition of other dystopian "warnings," rather than a prediction of how things might go.  Written in the mid-80s, her perspective is understandable with the rise of religious conservatives during the Reagan years.

During the current administration, with its own deep connections to religious conservatives (who in their most radical form certainly have theocratic ambitions), a number of proposals, policies, and actual legislation have appeared that resonate with the world of Gilead in Atwood's novel.  I keep seeing these echoes in various places and have wanted to call attention to them on a regular basis, and this inaugural post is my first attempt to systematically do so. 

Let me also put my cards on the table, as I know some readers of L&P are less critical of (if not downright sympathetic to) the religious right, and perhaps the Bush administration, than I am:  I have absolutely NO sympathy for religious conservatives and I think building strategic alliances with them is a huge mistake for libertarians to make.  Yes, mainstream religious conservatives are hardly the Christian Nationalists of the Gary North sort, but I fail to see the "libertarian streak" in them that others do.  I find them to be as antithetical to liberty as any other group left or right, if not more so in the ways that many would restrict non-economic freedoms, which are often harder to "work around" than economic ones and in their support for the warfare state.  And as a Jew, albeit an atheist one, I find talk of the US as a "Christian nation" to be downright bone-chilling, even if it is couched in terms that don't explicitly suggest it is the state's role to "Christianize" anyone. 

That said, not all the items in my "Gilead Watch" will involve the religious right, although one of my two today does.  The first is a Salon piece by Michelle Goldberg (viewing of a brief ad required to access) documenting the most radical of the religious right activists - the Christian Nationalists.  I think the connections to Gilead speak for themselves.  The second is a blog entry by Bitch PhD.  She reports on some new federal guidelines that "ask all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as pre-pregnant."  This is more or less the way in which the Handmaids were treated in Gilead:  everything they did was done so that they had the maximum chance for conception and a successful pregnancy.  Now no one is suggesting that women be coerced into reproductive service, but as Bitch points out:

The federal government thinks all "females"--that's what we are, ladies, biological specimens, not people. Not women. All females who are "capable of conceiving a baby"--not becoming pregnant, "conceiving a baby"--are to treat themselves, and be treated, as "pre-pregnant." The federal government. From pubescence through menopause. Throughout highschool, college, and most of one's career.

With such guidelines in place, how much of a step is it from "guidelines" to "requirements?"  Like the novel, here's another warning.  And I happen to love her demand the women get better information about the real risks of things like drinking during pregnancy so that they can make their own choices, rather than simply being told "don't do it."  Bitch has her own libertarian streak in her at times as well.

UPDATE: Things may not be as bad as first thought. See Bitch's post clarifying what was in the CDC report and what was coming from the Washington Post's coverage of it.

More "Gilead Watch" to follow, I'm quite certain.




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More Comments:


Aster Francesca - 6/1/2006

"Read Pericles' funeral oration and you will find in many ways a philosophically liberal mentality, albeit one that recognizes the existence of public values. Pericles cared a lot more about Athena than he did about the Lord of Hosts, let alone one of his sons."

Gus, no comment.


Gus diZerega - 5/19/2006

Several thoughts here.

First, causality in history is extraordinarily complex. Single causes for either good or bad things are almost impossible to demonstrate. My point is that there is no positive correlation between politicized Christianity and freedom, a statement I still hold.

Second, the concept of the individual and even of human equality at some significant level, was well known in antiquity. The Stoics are a good example. Read Pericles' funeral oration and you will find in many ways a philosophically liberal mentality, albeit one that recognizes the existence of public values. Pericles cared a lot more about Athena than he did about the Lord of Hosts, let alone one of his sons.

Third, the abolition of slavery was strongly opposed by many Christians - that is why they are called Southern Baptists. The Bible itself has no serious problem with it when read literally, and certainly does not ask slaves to object to their status nor for others to try and improve it. Christians have long been on both sides of that issue and, bizarrely, some still are. To say that Christianity was uniquely oriented towards individualism or freedom is a tortured reading of history and logic. Yes, Christians cared, some of them, about people's individual souls. But that did not often translate into respect for concrete "fallen" individuals.

Fourth, the concept of the individual is in fact remarkably complex. I suggest that in many respects Aristotle's is far more insightful than the utter silliness about a soul somehow being created as soon as a sperm meets an egg. I rather like the African proverb “I am because we are” as it attends to both our social and our individual dimensions. As a foundation for thinking about society it beats stuff about souls in blastocysts all over the place.

Fifth, the rise of science has many causes. If Christianity were all there was to the matter it would presumably have taken less than a thousand years from the rise of Christian political supremacy to the rise of science. You and I have absolutely no idea at all what would have happened regarding science if things had turned out differently in the Roman Empire. And neither does the author of that book.

The ancients apparently did not have a concept of the experiment and a society based on slavery, be it Christian or other, does not encourage the kind of practical experimentation that often took place in the west. On the other hand, they generally had far more freedom of thought than Christian societies did for over 1000 years.

Since we are recommending books, I recommend Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis on the history of science and how the Thirty Years War distorted how science manifested in the West.

I will close with saying that I think genuine spiritual truth can be found in Christianity, and in any other religion. (Unlike Steve, I am not an atheist.) But it can also be hidden under dogma, literalism, and self-righteousness, both in Christianity and in any other religion.

If you are interested in such matters, my new blog, www.dizerega.com, explores some of these issues in some of its posts, and you are welcome to visit.


Stephen W Carson - 5/19/2006

Howdy Gus!

You write:
"Historically the church has probably done more harm than good to the cause for freedom, and when it has been of service, it has been because there were many sects so they could not unite, or because the state was strong enough that the Pope could not become emperor, and the Pope was so strong that the emperor could not become Pope. When they more or less combined, as in Russia and Byzantium, the results were ALWAYS destructive to freedom. Always."

Coincidentally I was just reading something today about Christianity, freedom, Byzantium and such. Some passages I marked that are more or less relevant (beginning with the rise of science and getting to the topic of freedom) from The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark:

"Greek learning was never lost in Byzantium, but here too it failed to prompt innovation. The decline of Rome did not interrupt the expansion of human knowledge any more than the 'recovery' of Greek learning enabled this process to resume. Greek learning was a barrier to the rise of science!" (20)

"...it would seem to have been vital that Greek learning was not generally available until after Christian scholars had established an independent intellectual framework of their own." (22)

"The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning." (22)

"From its earliest days, Christianity was equally inventive in its conceptions of human nature and in confronting issues of morality. Chief among these were propositions concerning fundamental human rights such as liberty and freedom. And underlying these ideas was something even more basic: the 'discovery' of individualism - of the self." (23)

"The notion that individualism was discovered seems absurd to the modern mind... [in most (non-Christian) human cultures] a person's real sense of 'being' is quite collective: whatever rights individuals possess are accorded not to them but to their group and are, in turn, conferred upon them by their group. In such circumstances, no on supposes that 'I am the master of my fate.' Instead, it is the idea of fatalism that rings true: that one's fate is beyond one's control, being fully determined by great external forces." (23)

Stark then goes on to attribute the virtual abolition of slavery from Europe by the 11th century to this stress on the individual in Christianity.

In short, Stark builds a case for much of what I would recognize as freedom having its origin in Christianity: individualism, individual rights, abolition of slavery, etc.

Your thoughts?

Blessings,
Stephen


Aster Francesca - 5/17/2006

Thank you greatly. Gilead Watch is a wonderful idea.

This 'pre-pregnant' concept is beyond-words horrifying. The implication, clearly stated, is that womens' purpose in life is to serve as breeding vessel for state, or society, or men. This is the core and essence of what patriarchy is about, or at least the core and essence of its mutiliation of women. That the patriarchs are willing to launch this kind of trial balloon is a very, very, very bad sign.


Roderick T. Long - 5/17/2006

Great idea, Steve. It's irritating how many Christian conservatives will treat the Islamic world's crappy treatment of women as a reason for condemning Islam, and then turn around and advocate moving in a similar direction.


Gus diZerega - 5/17/2006

Great post, Steve. I agree on all fronts. What many people do not seem to realize is that a politicized fundamentalist Christianity is innately totalitarian, not just authoritarian.

First, it denies the legitimacy of any other religion or lack of religion. All are not simply errors, they actively if unintentionally serve evil.

Second, it claims absolute knowledge of the intentions of God and how we should relate to him. This is a bizarre claim, but one that keeps reappearing over two thousand years, and has similarly afflicted Muslim religion. Mostly evidence that many literate people are only barely so.

Third, it seeks to control behavior at the most personal levels for our own good, and does so in the name of fulfilling God's will.

Fourth, historically Christianity, when it claims to be the one unique right way, and one sect or other claims to have the one right understanding of the one unique right way, has led to massive religious wars - the 30 Years War being the worst in the West - and to totalitarian movements that have killed millions, such as the Tai Ping rebellion in China.

Historically the church has probably done more harm than good to the cause for freedom, and when it has been of service, it has been because there were many sects so they could not unite, or because the state was strong enough that the Pope could not become emperor, and the Pope was so strong that the emperor could not become Pope. When they more or less combined, as in Russia and Byzantium, the results were ALWAYS destructive to freedom. Always.

Among the many acts of treason to their beliefs committed by many self-described classical liberals is their alliance with the religious right.

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