A photo of Whitefish in Montana

The Alt Right’s War on Whitefish, and the Growth of an Opposition

The heart of Montana’s Flathead Valley has always been a cash-flushed vacation destination for those hitting the nearby mountains, perusing well-oiled ski resorts and the kitschy shops that live off of its financial success. Whitefish, a town with a population scarcely above 5,000, is one of the most traveled towns along the valley, with restaurants and antique shops littering its tourism district. It is along these streets that a procession of neo-Nazis promise to march against “Jewish power,” flooding in from out of state, automatic weapons in tow.

Andrew Anglin, the host of the neo-Nazi and Alt Right blog the Daily Stormer, has called for an armed march on Whitefish. The Daily Stormer mixes traditional genocidal Nazi ideas of racial superiority and anti-Semitism with the digital tirades so typical of the new Alt Right. In the world of contemporary white nationalism, the traditional “Stormfront” crowd of skinheads, Klansman, and other insurrectionary racialists has found their access to the more hip Alt Right through Anglin’s site.

Anglin had promised to ship in neo-Nazi skinheads from the San Francisco area, including a supposed Hamas member and vigilantes from the Soldiers of Odin, to descend on the town on January 16th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Anglin renamed it James Earl Ray Day after the man who assassinated King on his trip to visit striking sanitation workers. While Anglin came on strong with a promise of terrorism, it was exactly his exaggeration and the Alt Right’s pattern of creating smoke without fire that created the kernel of their failure. In a world where white nationalism has become commonplace, anti-fascism has grown by mammoth proportions. Anglin’s threat was a catalyzing event that allowed anti-fascist organizations, both community-based and more militant, to take the next step towards a united community that forced Anglin to finally concede defeat.

The Alt Right Mythology

While Alt Right people associated with the Daily Stormer and the surrounding constellations of podcasts, blogs, and busy Twitter accounts have always presented themselves as a movement that is new and intellectual rather than violent, this is a façade that has been cultivated to insulate them from the long history of opposition their movement has faced. While the branding, strategy, and talking points are new, this is traditional white nationalism repackaged for the smartphone generation.  Almost every single prominent Alt Right organization, from the National Policy Institute to American Renaissance, can trace its roots back to earlier white nationalist projects that have had long histories of terrorism. American Renaissance, which built its reputation by arguing people of color have lower IQs and are more aggressive than whites, has hosted guests like former KKK leaders Don Black and David Duke, various Holocaust Deniers, and Aryan Nations members. At the National Policy Institute conference you will see former neo-Nazi skinheads, which is not so surprising after the recent video of stiffed-arm Seig Heils to round out their 2016 conference.burley

Andrew Anglin lies on the edges of this pack of open fascists, often trying to take their snarky memes and racialist talking points, and use them to bring along traditional neo-Nazism. While the Alt Right has relegated itself to podcasts and online word diarrhea, neo-Nazis have had a long tradition of stepping out into the streets in an effort to strike terror into their neighbors. What Anglin hoped to do was to return the Alt Right to its long tradition of American white nationalist organizing: the main street march. The Alt Right, with a more educated demeanor and dreams of Washington power never wanted to resort to the embarrassing role-playing so characteristic of the “revolutionary” white nationalist groups often from the rural South.

White, Montana

Anglin’s call was neither new nor arbitrary, but came at the end of years of escalation that began when Richard Spencer, the Director of the National Policy Institute and founder of the term Alternative Right, moved to Whitefish. When Whitefish became his parent’s vacation home away from their busy lives in Dallas, Spencer moved there with his new Georgian-Russian wife Nina Kouprianova. He centered the NPI there, listing his mother’s property as their headquarters, and hoped to live a quiet life there half the year working on the various racialist book, podcasts, and websites he produces.

Starting in 2014, the relationship he had with Whitefish began to crumble, first during a fated ride on a chairlift at the posh Whitefish Mountain ski resort. Seated by chance next to neoconservative GOP strategist and lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Spencer berated him for his foreign policy blunders. Spencer comes from an Old Right sensibility about foreign policy matters, one centered on an isolationist “America First” agenda. The confrontation quickly erupted into a controversy as Scheunemann spoke to the press about why a well-paid ski resort in Montana was allowing Spencer membership.

Spencer then headed to Hungary to hold a conference on white nationalism and “pan-European solidarity.” The conference was modeled after his NPI conferences, hosting an international audience and featuring speakers like American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Croatian New Rightist Tomislav Sunic, and Eurasianist nationalist mystic Alexandr Dugin. The Hungarian nationalist political party Jobbik eventually pulled out and Viktor Orban himself, under pressure from the socialist party, condemned the conference and declared Spencer persona non grata. Despite the advice of his fellow Alt Right consortium, Spencer continued his plans to host the conference and took a series of flights and train rides into Budapest to avoid arrest. Despite his Bond-like attempts at stealth, the Hungarian authorities descended on his pre-conference dinner and arrested Spencer, deporting him back to the U.S., banning him from entering the European Union.

burleyWhen he returned his infamy had only grown and Whitefish had had enough. A local group named Love Lives Here had formed in 2009 in response to the showing of a Nazi film in the area, and they became an affiliate of the larger Montana Human Rights Network who had been known for countering the growth of the militia movement. A campaign was started to pass an “anti-hate” ordinance through the Whitefish city council to prevent Spencer from holding NPI events in the town. Spencer became irate, declaring that the town was trying to “make Richard Spencer illegal.” Spencer was even refused service at a local coffee shop as he waited for his drink with his then pregnant wife, and other business owners asked that he not return. City Councillor Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to solicit advice for how to build this ordinance at the time, noting that Spencer was creating his racialist media from their town. They ended up passing a more tepid “commitment to diversity,” one that Spencer tried to “troll” by publicly “endorsing” the call for inclusivity.

This back and forth allowed both sides to claim victory, but as they continued on, Spencer’s appeal was to a constituency of loud racists whom he had little evidence would support him in material ways. At the same time, this catalyst allowed for the Montana Human Rights Network to continue to organize in its highlighted relevancy, with a white nationalist neighbor showing exactly what was at stake.

The Year of the Alt Right?

Since 2014, Spencer’s profile has moved from Whitefish embarrassment to the national stage as scarcely a day goes by without an emerging story or profile on the most famous white nationalist in the country. 2016 became the “coming out party” for the Alt Right, taking their radical traditionalism into mainstream media discourse. During the post-election NPI conference, cameras from The Atlantic caught conference attendees using Roman Salutes as Spencer yelled “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!”

While Richard was riding a wave of attention, his parents Sherry and Dr. William Spencer continued their investment in Whitefish. Sherry owned a rental property at 22 Lupfer Avenue along Whitefish’s historic commercial district. A local activist named Tanya Gersh began raising the profile of Sherry’s property ownership in town; specifically that Spencer had been using much of it as a base for his operations. While the Spencers had made it their second home, the slow burn of the Alt Right and its growing opposition finally made the relationship between the Spencers and the town crumble. According to the Virginia state corporation commission, Sherry’s multi-million dollar Whitefish home is still listed as the headquarters for NPI. Sherry began to get pressure to sell the commercial building, a prospect she considered; yet after Gersh offered to list the property herself, Sherry became incensed and published a Medium.com post about it claiming Gersh was “extorting” her.

“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas — they are, after all, ideas — in what moral universe is it right for the “sins” of the son to be visited upon the mother?” said Sherry.

That is hard for many to believe given Sherry’s own right-wing connections to fringe political candidates and her close relationship to her radicalized son. Her Facebook even included photos of her and her husband attending the H.L. Menken Club conference, a white nationalist gathering that was a precursor to the NPI conference. Shortly thereafter, Richard began publishing videos and blog posts attacking Gersh and Love Lives Here, calling them a “local hate group.”

Troll Army

It was about this point that the Internet exploded, and Anglin jumped into the lead. He began organizing a doxxing campaign of Whitefish residents, posting pictures of Jewish neighbors with golden stars emblazoned atop and the word “Jude” inscribed. Several images were stacked in front of the Burkenwald concentration camp, where so many Jews were piled into mass graves after gassings. Calls, emails, death threats, Yelp reviews, and a stream of harassment fell on Whitefish, creating a culture of frozen fear. Special derision was given to Gersh, who had to go into hiding and had her 12-year-old child targeted.

burleyWhat set off Anglin was not only that the Spencers were facing push back, but that anyone of Jewish descent could be involved. The essentialist nature of race is central to white nationalism, but also that there is a key actor in the international opera of racial conflict. This comes down to the “Jewish Question,” the belief that Jews are a tribal group who use a superior “verbal IQ” and ethnocentrism to destroy nations. Anglin hopes to reframe the issue as one of “powerful Jews” attacking plucky Alt Right heroes, and that he needs to re-live Kristallnacht, the night with the German SA burned and looted Jewish businesses. While some of those they harassed were in fact Jewish, most were not, but none of that mattered since they labeled the behavior as Jewish, as they do with anything associated with left-wing politics, feminism, or cosmopolitanism. Many on the left have argued, erroneously, that anti-Semitism is on the wane, but the Alt Right has worked hard to make the reality of anti-Jewish hatred explicit, and Anglin’s effort further politicized those he targeted.

Love Lives Here continued organizing in the Flathead Valley, first creating a “menorah card” giveaway so that residents could put the image of the menorah in their windows during Hanukah. This act of solidarity would send a message of the shared experience of this harassment, because, in this case, Anglin and his army have labeled them all as Jewish. On January 7th, Love Lives Here organized a massive diversity rally with speakers and music, including letters of support from around the country. All of this was meant to soft-peddle the opposition by creating a show of community support, and it has helped the Whitefish community to become unified in opposition to the Alt Right. While Anglin wanted to build divisions in the community, the strategy has been to simply forge bonds and to strengthen the wall against these ideas. Anglin took the bigotry from something ephemeral to a tangible threat, and now there was an imperative to come together.

Anglin’s next move was to call for an armed march in Whitefish to threaten the Jewish residents and assert power. While Anglin has posted a filled-out permit for the march, it was actually only partially completed; revealing his bluff. Love Lives Here refused to engage directly with the neo-Nazis, so other groups stepped in to build on the united community base and to develop a counter-demonstration that can block Anglin. Montana Antifa began a public call for the demonstration, along with fundraising to meet the logistics, and the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World and its General Defense Committee also organized a large contingent, just as they have against white nationalist projects in places like the Twin Cities. Montana Antifa asked supporters to contact the hospitality base of the Flathead Valley to warn them about Nazis trying to rent accommodations. At the same time, Columbus Anti-Racist Action in Columbus, Ohio staged a protest action along with Showing Up for Racial Justice against Greg Anglin, Andrew’s father who has been accused of supporting his neo-Nazi son. All of this happened with the kind of support that they never would have received only months before, but as Anglin overstated his own ability to create a gun-toting parade, he provided the agitation that created a broad support for Antifa.

The threat presented by much of the Alt Right, Anglin includes, is one that hovers between real and fake, but has consequences for the sense of security that many that many built on the absence of open extremism. While the Alt Right was often reported as “diet fascism,” they were instead the real deal, except this time using “dank memes” instead of swastika banners. For Anglin’s war on Whitefish, he showed the Alt Right’s hand, which was to threaten people into inaction. This time, Whitefish chose something else.

burleyWhile the Alt Right claimed 2016 was their year, it was also the year of opposition. Anti-fascist groups have grown exponentially, and the result of the Whitefish harassment campaign was a unified state and the acceptance of radical anti-fascist organizations willing to defend against a racist contingent at all costs. While the Alt Right has been unable to move rhetoric into boots on the ground, the anti-fascist left has, and Anglin’s bluff could be the deathblow to a white nationalist movement fumbling its growing pains.
When the day actually arrived, the only people to show up were the dozens of anti-fascist supporters brought by Antifa organizations, the IWW, the Queer Insurrection Unit, the Alliance for Intersectional Power, and the surrounding community of Whitefish. Patrols were conducted on the surrounding streets to see if there was a contingent of nationalists who promised to arrive anyway, yet none came. Anglin pulled back entirely when he saw his few supporters would be dwarfed by a community united.

A State Unified in Resistance

Anglin’s “day of action” reversed the power by revealing that one side was ready for a fight. The region created a series of responses to the threat of an organized racist attack, from the civic alliance of Love Lives Here to the direct opposition of the IWW GDC. The two organizations together presented a spectrum of possibilities, from the strengthening of community to the direct opposition on the street corner. It is likely this final step, that antifascists were committing to “no platform” principles, is what forced the neo-Nazis to cancel their busses. This anti-fascist project was stronger by the end of the day than they were before anyone they heard of the Daily Stormer, and that anti-fascist opposition does not suddenly disappear after the Alt Right retreats. While there may have been tactical disagreements between some organizations, a few of which did not want to publicly antagonize the Nazi contingent, in the end they came together in a complex web of support, with the militant anti-fascist organizations building on the foundation laid by the Montana Human Rights Network.

The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.

The Montana Human Rights Network has been clear that they have received more hate threats and incidents since the election of Donald Trump than they had in years. But with this kind of behavior becoming commonplace, they have now created a model for how to unify a community and create an organized anti-fascist response that engages more and more residents, many of whom have no background in organizing.

What happens in Whitefish may provide a model for other small towns around the country. While Anglin has shown that the trolls can try to use traditional racist and anti-Semitic narratives to attack residents without a political backing, this climate of fear has also driven those same residents to action and to form a strong sense of community. As is happening around the country, the election of Donald Trump and rise of hate crimes has inspired new organizations to form and older ones to grow. In Whitefish, this has awakened the community and the entire state is becoming a veritable “no go” zone for the Alt Right that will have ramifications for Patriot and white nationalist groups across the state. As Anglin tries to scramble up his supporters, the anti-fascist opposition has become a wave that will make any further attempts at racialist organization fail before it begins.


Shane Burley

12375190_1270053539678590_6582607531732468985_oShane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1


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The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’ve been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was “on my list,” especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist icon.

I was not inspired to read it because of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Canada. I was finally inspired to read it because I am doing some science fiction related reading challenges; one to read new-to-me female authors, and the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was both on a list of award-winning speculative fiction by female authors, and a list of award-winning LGBTQ speculative fiction. You can find those lists at https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… and https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… respectively. Because I’m intending to read a lot of books this year, it was convenient for me that this book, which I meant to read someday anyway, was on both lists.

Let’s just establish, right off the bat, that I think this is an absolutely stunning book. I am glad I waited so long, because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to understand a lot of it until this point in my life. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s frustrating and disturbing. Atwood has made some statements about it that make me angry. Some of the things critics have said about it make me want to beat my head against a wall. It can be difficult to follow if you’re not used to the style, because it is written in a flow-of-consciousness perspective that changes back and forth between present and past tense. Some have criticized her for this but I’m sure it was deliberate. The epilogue of the book, a fictional history lecture, says that the story was found recorded over some secular music cassette tapes from the 1980s, usually after a few minutes of music have played. So when you read it, picture a woman about forty, maybe forty-five, telling a story in a tired voice that is sometimes deliberately neutral, sometimes choking back tears and other times choking back rage. Listen to her talk; don’t read it expecting standard writing conventions. Perhaps, if you’ve ever heard a woman telling her tale in an interview for the Shoah project, picture her voice sounding like that.

So, yes. Mixed feelings. On the other hand, I chewed through this book in two and a half very busy days, abandoning all my other reading projects after leafing through the first ten pages. I was riveted to the edge of my seat. Would the protagonist live? Would she die? The whole novel was like holding my breath, waiting for what comes next. If Atwood intended us to feel this way — waiting in desperate anxiety — because that was what the protagonist’s life was like, then she succeeded admirably. The suspense was downright torturous. Also, the message . . . the message . . . How subversive. How frightening. What a fantastic wake-up call in so many different ways, and not just in how it pertains to women.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in an alternate history in which declining birth rates in the mid-eighties, attributed to toxic chemicals, pollution, radiation and other ecological disasters, along with AIDS and a virulent strain of syphilis that caused infertility in most men exposed to it, fell to frightening levels. Women’s independence, the use of birth control, lesbianism and homosexuality, were seen as exacerbating this (and perhaps they did). People reacted with fear, as they often do in such situations, and a religious Christian fundamentalist cult rose to power, toppled the United States government, shot the President and most of the Congress, and formed the Republic of Gilead. They used a symbol and a militant ideology never seen before. And suddenly the lives of women drastically changed.

Because all money had become electronic and there was no paper money, they started by freezing the bank accounts of anyone with an F attached to it rather than an M, and they forced people to fire all women from their jobs. Women were denied the right to own property. Men and women who were in second marriages or extramarital relationships, or anyone who was gay or lesbian, were declared unpersons. Their children were taken from them because they were considered to be “unfit parents,” and women so classified with viable ovaries were forced through reeducation camps, with cattle prod wielding “Aunts,” to become Handmaidens; that is, broodmares to the rich and powerful. Women of the right status and religious background were assigned in arranged marriages as Wives to significant and powerful men; women who were no longer fertile but weren’t “undesirable” were assigned to be “Marthas” (maids,) “incorrigible” women were taken out of official existence to become “Jezebels” (sex slaves,) and those who were too old to do anything else or beyond “reformation” (accomplished through a combination of brainwashing and torture) were sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and radiation until they died. All of them were assigned different modes of dress to signify their role. Jezebels never went out in public and never left the brothels they’d been assigned to; Handmaids could only go out in pairs so that they could spy on each other and only to do specifically assigned tasks, wearing a red habit with winged wimples described as “blinders” so they couldn’t see out of the sides. All “vanities” such as immodest dress and makeup were banished and women were forbidden even the right to read. Conversely, men were denied the right to marry until they had proven themselves to the people in power, and were forbidden sex or even masturbation until that time also.

Lots to be discussed here. First of all, critics of the novel have tisked at how unlikely they feel this is to happen in the glorious United States of America. Except that I’ve seen many disturbing echoes of Atwood’s predictions in our society right now. How so many things are blamed on Islamic terrorism. How gradually freedoms and rights and privacy have been eroded in the name of “safety” and “security.” How we are gradually being railroaded into giving up paper money. The anti-abortionists, the censors in Britain. The backlash against LGBTQ rights; the “bathroom” laws. The systematic discrediting of feminism and of Planned Parenthood. Encouraging intolerance as a religious “right.” I won’t lie; you guys to the South of us are beginning to scare the shit out of me.

Some critics have said that they just don’t see all of this happening this quickly. But it has, and it is happening right now. The state of women in the Middle East, two generations ago, was comparable to that of women anywhere else in the world at that time. When the Soviet Union broke up much of Eastern Europe erupted into a seething hotbed of “ethnic cleansing.” In a mere five years in the late 1930s Germany transformed from a modern 20th century country to a totalitarian regime which is still causing shockwaves in our world culture. And in the Islamic State, right now, women are being given to jihadis as brides or sex slaves. I think of American “purity balls” and I shudder.

The story is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, and the choice was made to emphasize the United States’ history of Puritanism. The corporate media and the religious right have been building up our political climate for something like this since at least 1991. I am not a doomsayer; I don’t believe in end-of-the-world prophecies; but I am a student of history and if you don’t recognize the parallels and it doesn’t concern you, you’re being willfully blind.

In order for such a regime to exist, you must create a hierarchy of haves and have nots, and so Atwood establishes that hierarchy in vivid detail. The Unwomen of the Colonies were the bottom of the food chain, deprived even of a right to life and health. The Jezebels at least had the privilege of that; though of course they were deprived of the right to liberty and personhood and were required to service the men who came to them. The Handmaidens came next, who at least could live and go out in public, though of course they, too, were required to do what was commanded of them, perform sexually for men, and had severe restrictions on their behaviour, their speech, and even were denied the right to a name; being called “Of-” plus the first name of the Commander they belonged to. The Handmaiden of the tale was called “Offred”; we never learn her real name. The Marthas were not required to spread their legs on command but were menial servants. The Wives had to obey their husbands but otherwise were the mistresses of the household. Aunts held an in-between place in which they are given extra privileges; what those were weren’t defined, but they earned their extra privileges by disciplining the Handmaidens, as some Jewish people earned extra privileges in the death camps by disciplining their fellow Jews. And above all of them, the young men, who at least had the right to read and go where they wished; then the Guardians, who were the foot soldiers; then the Commanders who were effectively above the law; until they weren’t.

One cannot help but consider the issues of intersectionality of our own time. Our corporate masters give lip service to religious fundamentalism to whitewash their activities and control the populace through “moral instruction.” They tell women not to complain about the inequalities they are handed, because they could be transgendered. They tell white people in poverty not to complain because they could be black and thus subject to being shot in the street, even for being a twelve-year-old with a toy gun in an open carry state. That’s how they control us. And we really need to stop allowing it, because the elite, whoever they are, will keep pushing until we force them not to. This, ultimately, is the message behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the sad reminder that we must band together, and view an assault on the rights of any one of us as an assault on the right of all of us. Otherwise, who will be there to help when they come for you?

Atwood sometimes receives anti-feminist criticism because her male characters are two-dimensional (true) and because even Offred’s former husband Luke was suspect. When women were denied the right to own property, hold jobs and have money, he put his arms around her and said, “You know I’ll always take care of you.”

Perhaps he didn’t react the way we thought he should have. We might think that Luke should have immediately said, “Okay, let’s run for the border.” But lots of Jews stayed in Germany because they just couldn’t believe that what was happening was actually happening. No one would go that far . . . would they?

I also believe that Atwood’s purpose in having Luke react in this way was to point out how complicated gender dynamics are. Let’s be frank; in many ways, modern feminism is a brand new thing. For centuries men have owned all the property (actually, I believe property rights created the patriarchy) and all of their identity has been wrapped up in their net worth and how well they can take care of their families. Feminism, especially social feminism, challenges that. It causes us to question what it is that makes one a man. Even now, women will rarely marry a man who makes less money than she does, and if she chooses to, people keep telling her to ditch the bum. If we had true gender equality, what difference would it make?

I have said little about the writing in the wake of the politics and the message. On one hand, I must compliment Atwood on her brilliant, liquid prose. Every word chosen is there for a reason; every symbol means something (for instance, the Handmaidens wear red, which of course hearkens back to red light districts, the Scarlet Letter, and also menstrual blood; red in Western culture is the colour of sexuality and fertility, as well as of anger, passion, and blood). It’s truly a pleasure to read such a good writer.

On the other hand . . .

You may be a bit surprised, after my glowing explanation of the message and the politics, when I say that really, Atwood’s story isn’t all that original. Dystopian societies meant to highlight challenging modern political issues are nothing new in science fiction. Nothing new at all. “1984” should come immediately to mind. Remember, Big Brother is always watching (and keylogging your internet usage).

Which is why it makes me gnash my teeth in fury that Atwood had the audacity to claim that this story wasn’t science fiction. She actually said (in an interview included in the back of the edition I read) that “Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” But she was nominated for a Nebula and she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I shake my head in dismay. I’m sure Ms. Atwood knows perfectly well that what she’s talking about is only one sub-genre of science fiction, known as “space opera.” Let’s face it, the real reason she said that is that she was afraid that they would take away her magical “literary writer” card if she lowered herself to writing mere “genre fiction.” And why isn’t “literary” considered a genre? Snobbery and nonsense. Ursula K. LeGuin, easily her equal in this craft, responded to that “but isn’t this science fiction?” question with bold statements that she could see no reason why genre fiction should be considered less “literary.”

Science fiction fans get so tired of this. I am reminded of how everyone, including James Cameron, was soooo convinced that “Avatar” was so original, when basically he wrote “Dances With Wolves” with special effects and I’ve seen even his variation of it as least twice in popular sci-fi novels written in the 90s or earlier. I suppose if you’ve never read science fiction this might look original, but literary critics have a lot of gall claiming that it is if they sneer at my beloved “genre fiction.”

However, Brian Aldiss argued in his book “Billion Year Spree” that reading science fiction is generally a lot different from reading other forms of fiction. When someone is described as looking up at the green sun, we assume the sun is green, not that this is a metaphor for something else, and that it will be explained later. One thing that is clear is that Atwood is not writing to science fiction audiences. And that might be a good thing. I referred it to my mother, who has never understood my love of science fiction, in the hopes that it will help to bridge the gap.

And thus I, as many others have, found the epilogue annoying at best, and wish that Atwood had simply let the book end when it did. First of all, it didn’t wrap up any of the things that were left up in the air. Some things we will never know for sure. Second, I don’t feel it added anything at all that I didn’t already know. I did not feel that the nature of the Gilead Regime or who, exactly, some of the characters were required any further explanation than was already given. Fictional lectures to give perspective to science fiction stories have been tropes since Robert Lewis Stevenson first delved there in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

That epilogue has also annoyed feminist critics. But maybe that was the point. The (male) professor giving the lecture on “The Handmaid’s Tale” pooh-pooh’s Offred’s style and level of education. He remarks that it’s clear that Offred was an educated woman (“as educated as anyone can be in 20th century America”,) which the class chuckles at, and then he goes on to say that since she was so educated, how much more valuable this document would have been if there had been some information about the nature and structure of the powers-that-be in Gilead, if she had included dates, wars, important commanders, that kind of thing.

I say that maybe this was the point, however, because in the first place, it points out how quick we are to sneer at our ancestors, and how much more advanced we always believe ourselves to be, even when we’re not; and perhaps she was also critiquing how our white privilege and militant Anglo culture is always so much concerned with who is important rather than the suffering and experience of ordinary people. Is this a commentary on the way we teach academic history?

Despite my quibbles and its flaws, however, this suspenseful, subversive, emotional and beautifully-written novel is perhaps more relevant in our time than ever before. Everyone should read it at least once, and sit with the things that it forces us to think about. I am inspired once again to band together, defend the rights of the underdog, and seek out the company of other women.

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