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Margaret Atwood at Stanford Live

Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and winner of two Booker Prizes among other honors, graced Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium on the evening of Saturday, October 15, 2022, in conversation with Dahliah Lithwick. The Stanford Live event was presented in partnership with the Stanford Storytelling Project and the Stanford Speakers Bureau.

Atwood talked about the connection between chaos and fascism. When there is chaos, people are willing to give up freedom to have someone who will make the trains run on time, make things stable. Hitler and Mussolini came to power at such times. She advised the audience to remember that Hitler was elected.

She made a fascinating point about the connection between new technology and societal disruption. In the 1930s, a wave of fascism started when the radio started. The Gutenberg printing press also caused a disruption. When people began reading the Bible, they started pointing out “this isn’t in it, and that isn’t in it.” Similar social disruption happened with movies, television, which reached larger numbers of people in ways that were not previously possible. Now, we are living through the disruptive effects of a new medium: social media.

She joked that Obama won partly because he learned to master social media before the Republicans did. But then, they found out!

Lithwick, a graduate of Stanford Law School and is a senior editor at Slate and writer about the law and the Supreme Court, fell short as the interlocutor. She was not on the same wavelength as Atwood. It is a tough role; when a writer and intellectual as towering as Atwood is speaking, someone with great experience in interviewing such personalities should be invited. For example, when the great Toni Morrison came to San Francisco, Michael Krasny, beloved former host of KQED Radio’s Forum program, interviewed her at the Masonic Auditorium. Himself a professor of literature, he was also incredibly experienced and skilled in interviewing people. That event was a tremendous success. Even so, he got swatted a couple of times by Morrison. I distinctly remember when he asked her about her book Beloved, about a daughter. "You have two sons, no daughters," he pointed out, apparently asking how she could relate to having a daughter. "I am a daughter," she replied, completely in command. And that was that!

Lithwick asked Atwood about if there was a unified theory of women. Atwood responded that women are people, and people tend to be tribal. They feel loyalties to their groups. You are assuming that women should support one another. Their idea of their best interests is different from your idea of their best interests.

Lithwick commented that on Atwood’s abiding optimism and asked her to help us calibrate our own feelings: how to go from unmitigated panic to feeling more powerful in the world.

Atwood explained that we have been hit by three things at once. (i) the Covid pandemic, (ii) the climate crisis, and (iii) the crumbling of democracy. She said focus on practicalities rather than panic. There’s no point in not having hope, because if you don’t have hope, you do nothing.

She continued that there are four things that are important for change: (a) knowledge and experience, (b) the right equipment, (c) willpower, and (d) luck. She told the students that they were at a place (Stanford) where they were gaining knowledge and experience, and the university had the right equipment for it. She told him that they must have willpower, and she wished them a lot of luck. A wonderful blessing indeed.

On having hope, she spoke about The Future Library of Norway, an environmental, literary, and artistic project designed by Scottish artist, Katie Paterson.

In 2014, 1,000 trees were planted in Norway. Once a year for the next one hundred years, one writer will be chosen to contribute an original work, which will not be read until 2114. That year, the fully-grown forest will be chopped down and used as paper to publish an anthology of the writers’ pieces.

In 2014, Margaret Atwood was chosen to be the first Future Library author. “For me, it’s the great unknown,” the Canadian writer states, “but it’s a very hopeful gesture. It means somewhere in the future there will still be readers. There will still be people. There’ll still be a forest in Norway. There will still be a library.”

On bridging gaps between people and finding understanding, she talked about a scale with Belief at one end and Fact on the other. Opinion, in the middle, is based on either Belief or Fact. And the opinion can be either benign or malignant. If people express an opinion, it is good to examine that with them and see if there is any underpinning of fact to justify the opinion. If not, it is based in belief.

In a reference to Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its 2019 sequel The Testaments, Lithwick asked what we can do to lift up women. Atwood replied, “Lift up everybody.”

Democracy, she said, depends on independent media, and an independent judiciary. She exhorted the audience to support their local library. At the high school level, the most important thing is a library that can help people find what they want to learn. I reported this to my high schooler, who responded that she is an active user of her school library.

It was both an inspiring and comforting evening, and a delight to hear from one of the fiercest living defenders of womens rights, civil rights and human rights.

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