Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Based on “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, the cult science fiction film They Live focuses on the main character, Nada (Roddy Piper), who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal to him that aliens are controlling the human race.
In the real world, the trick is not finding a pair of enlightening sunglasses to expose the alien overlords but to recognize the bastards we have chosen to rule over us—because the bastards controlling the U.S. are really easy to see.
And here’s a whole room full:
The masking, you see, is not taking on human form to hide alien bodies, but the use of words that appear to say one thing while actually meaning something entirely different.
The trick in the real world is not visual, but verbal.
So we have Ryan on Twitter:
Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need. Obamacare is Washington telling you what to buy regardless of your needs.
— Paul Ryan (@PRyan) February 21, 2017
And Vice President Pence:
ObamaCare will be replaced with something that actually works—bringing freedom and individual responsibility back to American health care.
— Vice President Pence (@VP) February 22, 2017
O, happy freedom! And glorious individual responsibility!
Let us, of course, step back and note that our federal political leaders are overwhelmingly white and wealthy men who have healthcare, retirement/pension, and daycare all provided for them at tax payers’ expense—although every one of them due to their wealth are free to take the individual responsibility to choose to pay for those luxuries that they are denying everyone else.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (June), the eponymous handmaid of the tale, reveals that “[t]he circumstances have been reduced” (p. 8) for the younger women of Gilead, a post-apocalyptic theocracy of sorts. These seemingly fertile women have become extremely precious for the survival of the white race and paradoxically the embodiment of a perverse slavery for procreation.
Atwood has written at length about being indebted to George Orwell—those who control language control everything and everyone—and that her speculative novel includes a quilting of human actions drawn directly from history, not fabricated by Atwood.
How have humans kept other humans in literal and economic bondage? Often by exploiting token members of the group being exploited.
Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….
We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)
Throughout the novel, readers must navigate how Offred (June) weaves the overlap of her own original ideas and vocabulary as that intersects with the propaganda of Gilead:
Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen.
Rented license. (p. 50)
“Freedom” and “license” are exposed as bound words, the meanings contextual.
As Offred (June) continues to investigate rooms, she discovers a powerful but foreign phrase:
I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (p. 52)
The power to control language includes defining words, but also denying access to language—forbidding reading and writing, literacy, to those in bondage.
And then, Offred (June) explains about her life before Gilead:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)
And from that previous life of “ignoring” the other since it wasn’t about them, Offred (June) finds herself the procreation slave of a Commander, in “reduced circumstances” where she realizes: “There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (p. 94).
Her previous life of “ignoring” has been replaced by something seemingly more awful, but nearly exactly the same as she explains about the Ceremony: “One detaches oneself” (p. 95).
Even in Gilead, Offred (June) again becomes the other woman, lured into an infidelity characterized by playing Scrabble with the Commander, who reveals to her that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is slang Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (p. 187).
Adolescent language as rebellion has become a life-or-death slogan for Offred (June).
As her relationship with the Commander becomes increasingly trite and complex, Offred (June) declares, “Freedom, like everything else, is relative” (p. 231).
It is 2017, and many are living lives by ignoring because it just doesn’t seem to be about them.
Detached, unwilling to look or listen carefully—skipping along to the hollow mantras of “freedom,” “choice,” and “individual responsibility.”
As with Offred (June), this is no longer an adolescent joke; it is the only real option we have.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.