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You Didn’t Build That

Earlier this month, former Chicago Blackhawks player Brent Sopel tweeted the following in response to the Chicago teachers’ strike:

CPS teachers strike during this economy. Be happy you have a job in a profession YOU chose. #wasteoftime

Sopel’s replies to people who weren’t too pleased with his tweet have since disappeared, but as I recall he was ranting about how much money he gives to charity and how that makes him “special,” and how he was only able to become a millionaire pro-athlete because he worked hard and most people just aren’t willing to work that hard: in other words, a typical rich dude “I got where I am through my own hard work and you would be like me if you weren’t so darn lazy” rant.

Here’s the thing. No, Brent Sopel, hard work was not the only thing that allowed you to become a professional athlete. Chances are, you have some innate talent. Also, I bet there were people who helped you out along the way: to borrow Barack Obama’s much-maligned words, “you didn’t build that.” You obviously were given the opportunity to play hockey: is this because your parents were able to pay for your equipment and lessons? Did they own a car and drive you to practice? Was there a coach who helped you out? You must have lived in a neighbourhood with access to a skating rink. Not everyone does. Finally, how about the fact that you happened to be born with a Y chromosome? The fact is, I could have worked my ass off and practiced hockey for 10 hours a day since I was three years old and even if I turned out to be the female Sidney Crosby, my chances of playing in the NHL are slim to none simply because I am female. Ever think about that, Brent? How half the population is automatically excluded from the opportunity you supposedly got only via your own hard work? No, I didn’t think so. Sopel’s complete lack of awareness of his own privilege was a bit disgusting.

(I’m not trying to whine about the fact that women aren’t allowed in the NHL — whatever. I’m just pointing out a fact.)

Fast forward to today. This morning I watched The Daily Show with breakfast, as I always do. The first segment, about new guidelines for school lunches, made me despair at the stupidity of the world (this often happens when I watch TDS), but then the interview segment unexpectedly cheered me up. The guest: Amar’e Stoudemire of the New York Knicks, there to promote the two books he’s written for children.

In Stoudemire, I saw a sort of anti-Sopel. He and Jon Stewart, a basketball fan who is as short as I am female, discussed the quirk of genetics (he’s 6’11”) that has helped him to become a pro-basketball player. No doubt Stoudemire also worked hard to get where he is, but he is at least aware that his height played a role in his success and that not everyone shares this advantage. This, he says, is why he wants to help children to educate themselves. He stated flat out that most people, no matter how hard they work, will not make the NBA; therefore, let’s encourage kids to put that hard work into reading and education, which can benefit everyone. Obviously, as a librarian, I appreciate anyone who promotes books. But I also felt Stoudemire’s message of practical hard work and realistic aspiration was refreshing. Certainly, it was nice to hear a successful and wealthy person happily acknowledging the role luck/circumstance/genetics played in his success.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which, as well as being possibly the most well-known novel by perhaps the greatest living Canadian writer, can also reasonably be called a science fiction classic. Released in 1985, it won the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in Canada. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was nominated for the Booker Prize and a Nebula Award, and came in at number 22 on NPR’s recent reader’s choice list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of all-time.

Despite all the book’s acclaim, I had somehow never read it before. Yes, despite the fact that I’m Canadian, I love Canadian literature, I have two literature degrees in pursuit of which I took multiple Canadian literature courses, and I’m a fan of dystopian novels, I still managed to avoid The Handmaid’s Tale. The first Atwood novel I read was Lady Oracle, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The result was that for years I thought I didn’t like Margaret Atwood. One day I picked up Alias Grace, which I knew my sister had enjoyed, at a used book sale. I thought it was excellent, so I decided I should give Atwood another go. Last month, I read and enjoyed The Robber Bride. I finished that one while I was in London, where I then picked up The Handmaid’s Tale at the British Library’s bookstore after visiting their excellent (but sadly now ended) Out of This World exhibit on the history of science fiction, which featured at least three or four of Atwood’s books and included her as a panel participant, though unfortunately not while I was there. (But I did get to see Neil Gaiman!) Given everything I knew about The Handmaid’s Tale and its status as a highly-regarded piece of Canadian science fiction, I was quite eager to get started on it and learn what the fuss was about.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an imaginary future United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is ruled by religion and is extremely patriarchal: women’s behaviour is strictly codified and monitored. The novel’s narrator is a member of a class of women whose sole function is to act as childbearers for upper class couples who can’t or don’t have their own children. These women wear prescribed clothing — the description made it sound something like a nun’s habit, except red — and are only allowed out of their rooms to run certain errands and take part in authorized rituals. The narrator is known only by the name “Offred.” That’s “of Fred,” Fred being the high-ranking official, called “The Commander,” to whom she now belongs. She tells her life story in non-chronological bits and pieces, describing both her monotonous life as a handmaid and her freer life in the pre-Gilead USA.

One of Atwood’s great strengths as a writer, in my opinion, is her ability to give her characters individual voices. In The Robber Bride, for instance, each of the three protagonists’ sections has a distinct tone that seems to flow perfectly with the way the characters think. In Alias Grace, too, Grace and the doctor’s voices could probably not be more dissimilar. The narrator’s voice in The Handmaid’s Tale is also extremely well-drawn. It is the voice of a woman who can’t quite believe the circumstance she finds herself in. Offred’s feelings of helplessness and desperation come across in every word.

This is, to put it mildly, not a cheerful book. Several passages are disturbing. A description of a funeral procession mourning a miscarried fetus stands out, as does a chilling scene at the handmaids’ training centre in which a young woman recounts how she was gang raped at age 14 while the other girls in the group chant that the incident was her fault. The ease and suddenness with which the new government of Gilead revokes women’s rights to property and employment is also frightening. In a very striking passage, the narrator tells of the immediate shift this change in status causes in her relationship with her husband:

But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.

Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

She’s gone from person to possession in one swift move, and something in her marriage breaks because of it. It is devastating.

I finished the book — which by the way I highly recommend, unless you want to read something happy — earlier today, less than 24 hours after reading that the United States Congress had passed a bill not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “Let Women Die” Act. One of the provisions in this bill allows hospitals to refuse to provide an abortion to a woman who needs it to save her life. Got that? A woman’s pregnancy might be killing her, but this bill would allow medical practitioners to let the mother die rather than aborting the fetus and saving the mother’s life. That the fetus would most likely die too in such a case seems to be irrelevant; what’s important is that the mother should die rather than survive without her unborn child. To me, this says that many American politicians apparently believe that a woman ceases to be a person once she becomes pregnant — heck, maybe just once she hits childbearing age! Her life on its own has absolutely no value; she is nothing more than a vessel, and if she cannot fulfil her biological destiny then she’d might as well die. It’s hard for me to read something like this without wondering whether parts of North America will actually be living The Handmaid’s Tale within my lifetime. As a woman, I’d rather not see this particular vision of the future come to pass.