Margaret Atwood on National Myths and the Roots of Totalitarianism

Margaret Atwood always brushes aside suggestions that her dystopian novels are prescient. But in recent years, it has become difficult to see them as anything but that.

She appeared as the guest on Friday’s episode of “The Ezra Klein Show,” a New York Times Opinion podcast.

I encourage you to listen to the lively, and often funny, conversation between Ms. Atwood and Ezra. But to give you a taste of it, here are some excerpts, including her thoughts about the recent blockades that paralyzed Ottawa for weeks and shut down border crossings elsewhere.

[Listen: Margaret Atwood on Stories, Deception and the Bible]

On the differences between the stories Americans tell about the United States and the ones Canadians tell about Canada:

These stories are in flux, as you probably have noticed. There used to be a kind of shared mythology in the United States, and Canadians used to lament that they didn’t have such a thing. And it would, in fact, be quite difficult to have a totally shared mythology in Canada because it was already made up of some diverse groups of people. But Americans had a kind of unifying story and unifying ceremonies that involved a lot of marching around on the 4th of July.

The French also have been quite conflicted about their stories, but they managed to make it stick for a while. So was Bastille Day good or bad? I think they’re still thinking it’s good. But there was a lot of adjustment before that became the accepted story.

In order to hold any sort of nation state together, there has to be a story that most of the people agree on. And every once in a while, those stories fall apart. And if they’re not replaced with another one, fragmentation is the result. So one of the things that stories do is they give members of a group a kind of unifying, imaginary thing that they can believe in. When I say imaginary, I’m not saying it’s necessarily false. I’m saying it is the thing of the imagination.

On how the two nations’ stories have evolved:

What you’re seeing now is a wrestling match for what is the real America, what is the authentic America. And you see people wrapping themselves in the flag both ways and saying that they are the real America.

And you just saw that in Canada. So these people at the blockades, wrapping themselves in the Canadian flag, were standing up for the real Canada. Pretty fuzzy about what that is, but that’s what they were doing. And their role model was what had been going on in the States, where we’re overthrowing the government in the name of the real America.

On her time in Berlin during the 1980s:

We had experiences of three Iron Curtain countries at the time, and they were somewhat different. The East Germans, I think, were sewed up the tightest of anybody. And we now know from the Stasi files that, indeed, there were a lot of informants, and people were pretty careful about what they would say.

In Czechoslovakia, we could talk to people but only in open spaces. So you couldn’t have a frank conversation in a building or a car because people just assumed it was bugged.

In Poland, it was already pretty wide open in 1984.

I think some of the stuff that’s been going on recently is that the people doing those stuff are too young to remember any of that. They don’t know what a real totalitarianism is like. And they’re not paying attention to the kinds of steps that lead to it, how you get one of these things going, how you get buy-in, what sort of propaganda is likely to be put out there.

And you never begin by saying: “I’m going to be a tyrannous dictator, and I’m going to ruin your life.” You don’t start out that way. You start out by saying: “I’m going to make things so much better.”

On the origins of “The Handmaid’s Tale”:

I started writing it then in answer to the question: If America were to have a totalitarian government, what kind would it be? And under what flag, as it were, would it fly? And my answer to that was go back to the founders, namely the 17th century Puritan theocrats who never went away.

If you connect it with the religion, then it becomes heresy to oppose it. It becomes a very powerful tool. You’re not just against some prime minister or other. You’re against God.

On why people can embrace authoritarianism:

There’s something that we always leave out of these kinds of conversations, which is: It’s fun. It’s fun to sit at the guillotine and watch these people that you resent getting their heads chopped off. There were wild street dances.

So it is a street party, in some way, banding together with like-minded people and feeling you’ve accomplished something, especially if people tell you that this thing that you’re doing is basically good. It’s very potent. And if it weren’t fun on some level, people wouldn’t do it. Isn’t that a terrible thing: to say that it’s fun?

  • I closed out winter (well at least official winter) with a look at Ottawa’s current mania for recreational skating through the woods. Aaron Vincent Elkaim captured the action with exceptional photography.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entered an agreement with Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats that will, unless it falls apart, allow the Liberals to govern without the potential of an election until 2025.

  • Cade Metz, my colleague who covers artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, came to Toronto to examine the latest boom in tech companies moving to the city or expanding operations there. His finding: “It is home to more tech workers than Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C., trailing only New York and Silicon Valley.”

  • In a major shift for Canada’s auto industry, Stellantis, the maker of Chryslers and Jeeps, has joined with LG of South Korea to build a $4.1 billion battery plant in Windsor, Ontario. The factory will create about 2,500 jobs.

  • Already a team on the rise, the Toronto Blue Jays have added Matt Chapman to create what James Wagner, my colleague on the Sports desk, says may be “the best infield in baseball.”

  • A Dutch publisher has said that it is removing the best-selling book, “The Betrayal of Anne Frank,” by Rosemary Sullivan, a Canadian author, from stores. A report by historians found that the book’s claim of having identified the informant who alerted the Nazi police to the Frank family’s hiding place was based on “faulty assumptions” and “careless use of sources.”

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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