‘Animal Farm’ and the great American myth machine
Headaches come easy these days, maybe because we’re holding in mind so much news at once. George Orwell quotations come easy, too. Like this one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Benjamin (a donkey) and Clover (a mare) regard this directive, scrawled in white paint on a barn wall, with suspicion. They remember it saying, “All animals are equal.” But their willingness to trust the farm’s leadership gets the best of them, and they brush aside their concerns. As Boxer the horse used to say, in reference to the longtime president of Animal Farm, a gruff, chunky pig, “Napoleon is always right.”
Orwell’s Animal Farm, first published in 1945, in the jocund haze of the Allied victory, has a lot to say about a beat-up, burnt-out 2018 (and 2017, and 1974, and 1852). In 2017, Orwell’s 1984 hit the best-seller list, reanimated by the Trump administration’s penchant for peddling “alternative facts.” Animal Farm, despite being less widely discussed in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has its own instructive messages for anyone who doesn’t know what to believe anymore. An allegory of Soviet Russia, the novella looks with darting eyes at what happens when good intentions capsize, when dreams congeal into nightmares, when ideals are knotted into pretzels.
An allegory of Soviet Russia, the novella looks with darting eyes at what happens when good intentions capsize, when dreams congeal into nightmares, when ideals are knotted into pretzels.
But first let’s consider the United States, which like the Soviet Union was built on myths, and where the gap between the real and the ideal is glaring. Once upon a time, most politicians and media figures opined that here anyone could become anything, that no matter who you were, you could make a good life. Trump-era partisanship has forged dueling mythmakers: those, usually Democrats and moderate Republicans, who say America is a "big-hearted" land of opportunity for all, and those further to the right who say that migrants and refugees pose a threat to our national security.
While the gulf between these two camps crystallized during the bruising 2016 presidential campaign, only recently has the right shelved the euphemistic language of legality and security. This month, Laura Ingraham, the host of “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News, said this of immigration: “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people. They’re changes none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”
According to Ms. Ingraham, “both illegal and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love,” are the problem. Such disdain for legal immigration harkens back to the immigration quotas established in the 1920s (though nativism never really goes out of style—in the 1990s, Senator Harry Reid proposed to end birthright citizenship). President Trump has already cracked down on illegal immigration. Curbs on legal immigration, spearheaded by Mr. Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, may be next.
At rallies, Mr. Trump has sung a different tune. Less than a week before his election in November 2016, he said this of legal immigration: “And by the way, I want people to come in. I want tremendous numbers of people to come in. And we’re going to have that big, beautiful door in the wall. But you know what, they have to come in through a process—they have to come in legally.”
For over a year and a half, the Democratic Party has tried to play defense. But for the most part, its toolbox consists of a variety pack of buzzwords (“opportunity” and “equality” and “freedom” and “justice”). A remark in 2017 from the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, exemplifies that vague and overconfident rhetorical tendency: “We have one of the most divisive presidents in American history. Everything he stands for is an affront to American values of inclusion and opportunity for everyone.”
“Inclusion” sounds nice, but what does it mean? And what does it mean when former Vice President Biden writes on Facebook, “This is not who we are”? In a post-Occupy Wall Street, post-2016, pre-midterms world, any uncritical invocation of “values” tests their very existence. It Febrezes a history studded with ethical lapses. Myths, no matter who they come from, won’t save us, but as we trundle toward the midpoint of this presidency, they can teach us a lot about who we think we are.
Myths won’t save us, but as we trundle toward the midpoint of this presidency, they can teach us a lot about who we think we are.
The myths in Animal Farm are similarly exhausting. In the beginning, the animals have common goals. The chief architect of their anti-human uprising, a pig called Snowball (modeled on Trotsky), draws on tenets expounded by an elderly boar, old Major, who conveys his ideas with soaring oratory to a throng of other animals. He envisions a different world, one where animals would, in his estimation, live happier, more fulfilling and dignified lives. When Major dies, the animals, led by the pigs, oust the skeevy farmer, Mr. Jones, and formulate seven commandments by which all animals will be expected to abide and record them on the wall.
The experiment takes a shady turn when another pig (and Stalin stand-in), Napoleon, directs a squadron of attack dogs to drive Snowball off the farm and into exile. Napoleon becomes the farm’s de facto leader. He assigns the role of propagandist to a pig called Squealer, who discards truth like pasture excrement and replaces it with whatever souped-up nonsense most conveniently suits Napoleon. And if the other animals have any doubts, Squealer swoops in to squelch them.
This dilemma, exacerbated by the non-pig animals’ middling literacy, resurfaces every chapter. Gradually, the old commandments dissolve, and self-serving Stalinist claptrap takes their place. “No animal shall drink alcohol” becomes “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess,” to provide a loophole for Napoleon’s whiskey-drenched bacchanals. At one meeting, Squealer claims that “production of every class of foodstuff had increased by two hundred per cent, three hundred per cent, or five hundred per cent.” Still, “there were days when [the animals] felt that they would sooner have had less figures and more food.” By novella’s end, the animals are worn out. They have weathered so much misdirection and manipulation that they are less confident than ever about what they believe, about the principles they once held dear. So this is freedom?, they seem to ask. So this is equality?
Americans, too, face burnout and a crisis of ideals. Immigration and nativism, Horatio Alger and Invisible Men—the road has always been paved with inconsistencies. And the potholes are getting bigger. Now the White House has new Squealers and a new Napoleon who, 18 months in, have settled into their roles, and the uplifting constitutional myths aren’t working. It is hard for an opposition party to trot out bedrock principles like equality if they seem increasingly to exist only in the abstract.
Immigration and nativism, Horatio Alger and Invisible Men—the road has always been paved with inconsistencies. And the potholes are getting bigger.
When ideals are co-opted, flattened and rendered unrecognizable, they wilt, and so do we. Trumpism relies on cherry-picking and myth-making and lying, as it rejiggers information and allusions—“Gone with the Wind” and scare tactics and the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—to confect a Dutch-apple-pie mythos that tells the story it wants to tell.
But such airbrushing didn’t begin with President Trump (though his mendacity is uniquely egregious). How many times has it been declared in a reassuring baritone that America is a land of opportunity, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary? How many times have cogs in our political machine remade values into velvety platitudes devoid of conviction? How often have politicians spun fables about representative democracy while working most readily to serve the moneyed and pedigreed? At their most bald-faced, legislators sided with banks over homeowners in the crash of 2008, then spent nearly a decade giving speeches chockablock with “recovery” and “hope.”
As the midterm elections and 2020 campaign near, the thirst for an actual truth teller is real—not a court jester who talks a big game and not a revisionist putting lipstick on a pig but someone who really gives a damn.
Because in America, as things stand, we are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.