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Author Topic: [117] Animal Farm--George Orwell  (Read 12103 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: August 06, 2012, 07:22:46 AM »

Everywhere an oink oink
August 6, 2012

A colleague's reflections on Animal Farm and others' replies inspired me to revisit this little masterpiece of disillusionment.  

Old Major, a grand old boar, tells the other animals on Mr. Jones's farm of a dream he had, in which all animals lived together in peace and harmony.  The dream inspires the others, and when farmer Jones forgets to feed them one day, they rebel.  They oust all the humans, change the farm's name from Manor Farm to Animal Farm, and set up a commune run by the animals themselves.  The pigs quickly take over leadership roles: Napoleon and Snowball rule, while Squealer becomes the propagandist and historian.  The subsequent development of the farm follows that of early Soviet Russia, with the deeds of Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer reflecting those of Stalin, Trotsky, and Pravda newspaper, respectively.  For instance, Napoleon and Snowball have a falling out, and Napoleon sics some attack dogs on him, driving him out.  Thereafter, whenever anything goes wrong, the other pigs blame it on a conspiracy masterminded by Snowball.  

Readers often quote the absurdity, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  It comes from the Seven Commandments, a litany of idealistic principles and rules that the animals adopt shortly after the revolution and paint on the side of the barn.  They call these commandments “Animalism.”  Along with “All animals are equal,” the commandments include: “No animal shall drink alcohol,” “No animal shall sleep in a bed,” and “No animal shall kill any other animal.”  These prove too hard for most to remember, so the pigs condense it into the slogan: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”  As things spiral toward despotism, the pigs discover human pleasures and develop a taste for them.  One by one the written statement of each ideal changes mysteriously at night: No animal shall drink alcohol in excess; No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets; and No animal shall kill another animal without cause.  Even the simplistic slogan changes to “Four legs good, two legs better.”  At least all these previous changes make sense, but the final change casts aside any pretense of reason and enshrines inequity among equals.  

The novel ends pessimistically with the pigs changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm and reestablishing friendly relations with the human farmers in the neighborhood.  In the last paragraph, the other animals look into the farmhouse and see the pigs arguing with humans over a card game.  “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

“Some animals are more equal than others” resembles those great slogans from Orwell's other dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”  If you lie often enough, people will believe it.  If you repeat a contradiction often enough, contradictions start to look normal.  Spout absurdities as profound truths and people let any absurdity pass unchallenged.  We see this process in Orwell's fairy tale where the animals cannot read well, and thus stay inside an ignorance maintained by strict control of the news.  As the captive audience for Squealer's propaganda, they had no basis for challenging the party line.  But not even Orwell had the cynicism to foresee how future propagandists could achieve the same effect by too much exposure.  If every crackpot has a media outlet, to which every person can subscribe, the very cacophony of false information breeds hopelessness at the prospect of sorting it all out.  At that point, the propagandist wins by simply wrapping his lies in a more entertaining package.

Animal Farm, Orwell's last book, almost never saw print, mostly because at the time of its writing England needed to stay on good terms with Stalin.  Poking merciless fun at a touchy and volatile—not to mention genocidal—ally might lack a certain diplomatic tact.  T.S. Elliot, then editor of Faber and Faber, declined to publish it, dismissing it as “Trotskyite.” A senior official in the British Ministry of Information (later exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret intelligence) warned other publishers away from it. 

While disturbing events unfolding in Russia at the time may have prompted Orwell to write Animal Farm, the book speaks of the growth of the basest despotism from noble origins.  For centuries, great thinkers have analyzed methods of consolidating undeserved power.  Plato rehearses in his Republic how the tyrant systematically purges all potential threats to his control.  Aristotle details in his Politics how tyrannical rulers solidify their regime by distracting people from political matters, setting them against each other, and employing violence and deception effectively.  These and other writers observed the tyrannies of their times and drew lessons from them.  (See Theories of Tyranny from Plato to Arendt, by Robert Boesche, 1995.)  Likewise, by distilling a current event to its essence, Animal Farm offers us an archetypal pattern, a universal theme, a trajectory of greed and power as certain as that of a mortar shell and just as ruinous. 

Orwell said (as have many others) “History is written by the winners.”  In a short essay of that same title he laments, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future” (in the column, “As I Please,” Tribune, February 4, 1944).  But it sometimes works the other way: the rewriting of history comes first, followed by a quiet and bloodless revolution.  If one determined group can change the past, they can achieve a victory where physical violence could not have succeeded, especially if they can control the media, suppress critical reading ability, ridicule complex ideas, prevent thoughtful deliberation and civil debate, polarize society into entrenched factions, privatize or erode any institution aimed at the greater good, in fact, if they achieve our present conditions.  Consider, for instance, the 2003 Florida Court of Appeals case in which the court effectively absolved news agencies of any legal duty to tell the truth. New World Communication of Tampa, Inc. v. Jane Akre, 866 So. 2D 1231, (2003).  That decision left us, like Orwell's creatures outside the farmhouse, looking from Pravda to Fox, and from Fox to Pravda again, finding it impossible to say which is which.  Had Orwell lived to see New World v. Akre, the Seven Commandments might well have contained an eighth: No animal shall lie, without good reason.

Every young person should read and discuss Animal Farm, not as an allegory of the madness of their grandparents' generation, but as an indictment of their own complacency.  They should ask themselves whose dream do they think they live by?  What principles guide their lives and how have those principles adjusted to accommodate the rich and powerful?  Can slogans or (Facebook memes) really express profound and complex truths?  Are some people more equal than others?  It doesn't take a Stalin or a Franco to drive a people into virtual slavery.  Whoever controls thought controls freedom. 
« Last Edit: August 06, 2012, 03:15:35 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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