Dystopia is now



I’ve been watching Hulu’s masterful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” wanting to write about it, but trying to avoid what I believe to be the smugly too-easy commentary that suggests that the election of Donald Trump is an obvious first step down the path to Atwood’s dystopian future America.

v63yl48yq6vyThe kind of funny but ultimately misleading sentiment like that expressed in this meme (which I will admit to posting on social media myself when I first saw it).

As Atwood herself wrote in March for the New York Times, she began work on “The Handmaid’s Tale” while living in West Berlin, and with the understanding borne of personal experience, that “established orders could vanish overnight,” that “it can’t happen here” can happen anywhere.

Given this, it was essential to Atwood that the future she imagined be rooted in the reality of the past and present:

One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.

This, I think, is one of the great strengths of the Hulu adaptation. Atwood’s dystopia, which Hulu brings to the screen, may be an imagined American future even as it is a present-day reality in those places where radical interpretations of religious dogma are twisted into brutal governing principles.

That was driven home to me by a single scene from the third episode of the series. A still from that scene appears here at the top of the page. A woman, having been convicted of an act prohibited by scripture, is hung from a construction crane by black-clad religious enforcers. Exactly the same way public executions are done in Iran. Exactly, as you can see below.


This, I think, is the real power of Hulu’s adaptation. We can imagine the society it depicts because we have real-world examples, right now, of what such societies look like.

Still, we’ve had the false comfort of telling ourselves that regimes like this are the product of an alien belief system. We can read about the terrors of life under the control of the Islamic State but pretend that our own majority religious heritage would never generate such horror.

But Atwood knew when she was writing what dark currents flow just below the surface of American society:

Back in 1984, the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.

Yet “The Handmaid’s Tale” is no prediction. It is a warning we do well to heed.

Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.

And to thy glory …

That's me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.
That’s me on the right leading with my friend Sam Somers in Henegar, AL last summer.


I’ve mentioned to people off and on that one of the things I do for fun is sing a kind of music called Sacred Harp, or shape-note singing. This usually elicits a polite smile and a “that’s nice” sort of response. Basically, unless they are a bigger music geek than the norm, most people have no idea what it is I’m talking about.¹

In the proto-version of this blog, back in the days when Facebook notes were a thing, the very first note that I posted was about Sacred Harp singing. I had come across a short article online that  laid out some of the basics of the music, its roots, traditions, and modern practice.

The link is now dead, so I can’t direct you to the piece, but here’s a short excerpt:

The Sacred Harp repertoire draws upon late 18th- and 19th-century hymns from the Christian tradition. These fuguing tunes are set to four-part, archaic harmonies that hint of medieval “organum,” with strong fifths and frequent note doubling. Performing them is an exercise in musical democracy. Each participant gets a turn at leading a song and making important musical decisions.

Shape-note singers sit or stand in a hollow square, which to Jessica Beers, chairperson of Portland’s All Day Singing, “is a living manifestation of the ‘different but equal’ axiom. The notation makes it possible for anybody to learn how to read the music, and the community makes it welcoming for anybody who is interested in participating in the tradition as we know it.”

It’s important to point out that this is not a performance tradition, but rather a social and spiritual one. When we get together, whether in a small local monthly session or in larger all-day singings, we sing for ourselves, for each other, for all those who came before us in this tradition, and for all those who will come after.

While the music is Christian in its theology, singers today come from all religious backgrounds and none. All are welcome. It is an inclusive tradition.

In the Sacred Harp community we are admonished to “bring nothing to the square that divides us.” Whatever our differences in religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, social status, or political beliefs, when we come together we sing as one.

To give you an idea of what this music is like, check out the videos below.

This first is the trailer from the documentary film, “Awake My Soul.” In the 11 years that I’ve been singing this music I’ve had the honor to get to meet, sing with, and become friends with some of the folk featured in the film and who appear in the trailer.

This next one is from the 2017 Ireland Sacred Harp Convention held in Cork. While this is an American musical form, in recent years the music has spread abroad with regular singings in Canada, Ireland and the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden, France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and even Israel.

This next one is from the 2016 Michiana Convention held each July outside of Goshen, IN. This clip picks up with a song being led by my daughter, Sarah, who started coming to singings with me soon after I started in 2006. Now that she’s in college in Tennessee, not far from the epicenter of the living Sacred Harp tradition in northeastern Alabama, she sings nearly every week.

This last is once again from our singing friends in Ireland, from their 2012 convention. I picked this because the song, Consecration, is one of my favorites, and this recording captures beautifully the power of the music.

For those who want to learn more, the place to start is fasola.org. From there you can learn all about this form of early-American sacred music and find locations for singings. In my part of Michigan, the largest monthly is at the Ark in Ann Arbor, every second Sunday of the month (except for July and August). We sing in my town of Lake Orion on the fourth Sunday, and there are also regular monthly singings in Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Lansing.

Singings are always open to the public, and no experience is necessary. You can learn more about Detroit-area and Michigan singings at the Detroit Sacred Harp website.

If you’re in the Detroit area tomorrow (Saturday, April 22) and want to experience this for yourself, the first Detroit All-Day Singing will be held at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Avenue starting at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome.

¹I also play the banjo, but that’s a tragic tale for another time.

Blue Steel diplomacy

pence stare

When Vice President Mike Pence said this:

I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.

Did anyone else think of this?

blue steel

$444,444 per body


That’s the base price American taxpayers shelled out for each of the reported 36 ISIS-affiliated fighters killed in Afghanistan yesterday when U.S. forces dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” — a $16 million piece of ordinance — on a cave and tunnel complex near the Pakistan border.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb is the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the American military arsenal. It was designed for use in the second Iraq war but hadn’t been used in combat until yesterday.

What else might that $16 million buy?

For starters, how about 64 full four-year rides to Harvard, based on that university’s $63,000 annual room, board, and tuition? Or, if you set your higher education sights a little lower, that would be full four-year rides for 653 students at my public university in Michigan.

What that $16 million didn’t buy, however, is any clear U.S. strategy in Afghanistan:

Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is. “What they haven’t been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with,” he said. “They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it’s hard to be sure you’re having the desired effect.”

Meanwhile, on the question of what this means for strategy in Afghanistan, or even if dropping a MOAB was intended to send a message to anyone else, like North Korea, it’s unclear whether President Trump authorized the use of this weapon or even knew about it ahead of time.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to say whether the president had been in the Situation Room when the bomb was dropped, and the president himself was even more vague than usual, saying in response to a direct question, “Everybody knows exactly what happened. What I do is authorize the military.”

Watch the video below and revel in money well spent.