Do you enjoy the feeling that comes from knowing you've thoroughly researched a subject, but you don't have a lot of time to slog through piles of information?
Have I got the topic for you! Jeanne's Political Opinions. Go ahead. Google any combination of my name plus the name of any politician or political party or key political word. I didn't test this theory in advance, but I can almost guarantee it'll be slim pickings.
I don't write about politics for a number of reasons that you're probably no more interested in hearing than you would be my undisclosed political opinions. But today I will skate dangerously close to the subject.
My book group recently read and discussed Animal Farm by George Orwell. Did you know that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have together sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author? It's true. And now that we're wading into the 2012 campaign and election season, I think we would do well to explore some of the reasons for this little classic's enduring popularity.
(In a non-confrontational, Jeanne doesn't write about politics sort of way. Of course.)
At our book group meetings, the hostess provides food and, if possible, selects menu items that are either mentioned in the book or would have been consumed by the author. When it's my turn to host, I like to look for some playful twist, and for this book, I used selected quotes and an army of little cartoon piggies to tie the food to the story.
Today I've recruited the piggies to help again as we explore some of Orwell's main ideas and their implications.
Animal Farm is a story about an oppressed group of farm animals that catch a vision for freedom and launch a revolution against their human owners. For a while after the revolt, things appear to be going much better for them. They have a good set of working laws and at least a semblance of balanced power. Sure, the pigs are in charge, but they've assured the rest of the animals that "All animals are equal," and they are now truly free. For the first time in their lives, the animals feel free, and the feeling goes a long way to lift their spirits. Most of them can't read and don't know any life other than hard work, so they're happy to labor diligently (in their freedom) and entrust their well being and the farm's future to the pigs.
The original vision of revolution calls for equality among all animals, but the pigs help the other animals understand that leadership is much harder than mere labor. While everyone else should willingly choose deprivation for the good of all, if the pigs were to suffer in this way, Animal Farm would collapse, and the men would return and make life miserable. That's why the best food and the best accommodations must go to the pigs.
There are two dominant leaders in charge, the boars Napoleon and Snowball, but they never agree on anything. Snowball has grand plans for developing technology to make life easier, but Napoleon disagrees with every idea Snowball presents. Meanwhile, Napoleon is secretly raising a litter of pups to be an elite police force, and once they're grown and have been fully trained to follow orders without hesitation, he commands them to chase Snowball off the farm. Animal Farm is now a poilice state.
Soon Napoleon begins implementing and claiming credit for all the ideas he'd spurned before. His spokes-pig, Squealer, is a master of rhetoric, twisting and turning words until black is white, and white is black, and all the poor animals know for sure is that "Napoleon is always right."
Soon the animals learn to give Napoleon credit for every good thing, even the taste of their water. But if anything bad happens, Napoleon sends word that Snowball snuck back into the farm by night. If farm equipment goes missing, he blames Snowball for that, too. Even if the animals find the lost items later, the accusation holds.
Life is harder and worse than it had ever been, but Squealer makes daily speeches filled with a confusing array of facts and figures that prove it is actually much better, and the animals lay the blame for the incongruencies between his words and their experience on their own poor memories or lack of understanding.
If anyone ever does dare to question Napoleon's wisdom or ways, a chorus of brainwashed sheep are quickly whipped into a frenzy and shout them down with meaningless slogans.
And then a strange thing begins to happen. One by one, the laws that had been painted on the barn wall change in subtle but extremely consequential ways.
For example, once the pigs decide to take over the farm house, the rule "No animal is ever to sleep in a bed" becomes "No animal is ever to sleep in a bed with sheets." The illiterate animals are pretty sure that's not what it always said, but after all, Napoleon is always right.
And in spite of laws assuring that "No animal is ever to engage in trade" and "No animal must ever kill any other animal," the pigs insist that the hens give up their eggs for sale. When they refuse, they are denied food, and several die before the others finally submit.
Life has become an exhausting routine of long, difficult work hours, meaningless speeches, patriotic rallies, and witch hunts. The strongest, most loyal worker on the farm, the horse Boxer, succumbs to overwork, and the pigs promise to send him to the vet in town. Instead they sell him to the glue factory and use the money they make to finance a party.
By this point, most of the animals are completely subdued and demoralized, and the few who still understand what has happened are too cynical or self-preserving to speak up. The pigs have become the very thing they professed to hate, so like man that they are now walking on two feet and wearing clothes and cannot be distinguished from the neighboring farmers they seek to both impress and exploit.
At the beginning of the story, the pigs despise the raven, Moses, and they have no patience with his endless chatter about a better life to come. They drive him away from the farm, but by the end, when the animals' illusions of comfortable freedom have been replaced with weariness and apathy, the pigs welcome Moses and his message back. The animals no longer hope for salvation from their misery in this life. Best give them something to hope for beyond it.
And to that I say a hearty Amen.
Empty promises, convoluted laws, abuse of language, and "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Not a pretty picture, and there's no need for me to draw the obvious parallels. If you haven't already read Animal Farm (or if it was a long time ago), I do recommend it. Not only is it one of the most influential works of the twentieth century, it will also get you on your face to pray for people in power everywhere. For their sakes and ours.
Jeanne Damoff welcomes you to election season 2012. And that's the last you'll hear about it from me.