‘Animal Farm’ and the great American myth machine

(Images courtesy of Karen Horton/Flickr, Samuel Branch/Unsplash, Evan Vucci/AP; Illustration: Brandon Sanchez)

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 doleful donkey) and Clover (a tender 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 2018. 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, it takes an expansive look at what happens when good intentions capsize, when dreams congeal into nightmares, when ideals are knotted into pretzels.

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An allegory of Soviet Russia, it takes an expansive look 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 "nation of immigrants" and a "big-hearted" land of opportunity for all, and those further to the right who say that demographic changes are corrupting the country and 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 its extent been made abundantly clear. This summer, Laura Ingraham, the host of “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News, made an interesting statement. She said: “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 Ingraham, “both illegal and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love,” are the problem. Such disdain for legal immigration is decidedly vintage, harkening back to the immigration quotas established in the 1920s. 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.

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? 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 they can teach us a lot about who we think we are.

In a post-Occupy Wall Street, post-2016, pre-midterms world, any uncritical invocation of “values” tests their very existence.

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 novel’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, and the regular 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 chock full of “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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 weeks 4 days ago

for anyone who doesn’t know what to believe anymore.

Truth has taken a real hit with this essay. It's one nonsense after the other. Persuasion by ad hominem. But the irony is those who are the "more equal" (elites/rich) are against Trump and the poor are benefiting from his policies of greater freedom. These are the alternative facts that are so embarrassing to the left. By the way Orwell was a man of the left.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 1 day ago

In what way(s) have the poor benefited from Trump's policies?

J Cosgrove
2 weeks ago

I suggest you read more.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks 4 days ago

It's good to see a young person who HAS paid attention to the man behind the curtain. Hopefully the author will have time to do something about it. Sorry about the mess we baby boomers are leaving you. We benefitted from the world of the New Deal and decided it was too good for anybody else.

E.Patrick Mosman
2 weeks 3 days ago

No doubt one of if not the most obtuse, misunderstood and misdirected reading of Orwell's novel in the history of critical analysis. If anyone in recent American history was a perfect stand-in for Orwell's Napoleon it was President Obama and his "I can can rule with a pen and a phone" and he tried time after time. The author of this factless screed cannot name one act of President Trump that was unconstitutional while Obama appointed judges attempt to usurp the authorities of the executive branch by judicial fiat.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 3 days ago

the government is the one thing we all belong to - DNC/Barack Obama ....... A modern version of
Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State - Benito Mussolini

Trump is trying to reduce the power of the state - draining the swamp.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 1 day ago

"...draining the swamp." Draining the good from the common good may be more accurate.

Stanley Kopacz
1 week 4 days ago

As in leeches draining blood.

E.Patrick Mosman
6 days 13 hours ago

Isn't "common good" a dog whistle for communism? By the way what "good" has the President drained as the economy,employment, defense and all other economic measure are dramatically up over the listless Obama years.

Frank T
3 days 2 hours ago

Draining the swamp? Trump IS the swamp.

dechardin2000@google
2 weeks 2 days ago

i agree,,,just another socialist,,,

Randal Agostini
2 weeks 3 days ago

I wish America did not publish such partisan and stupid essays as this and please don't accuse me of censorship. I am good for any reasonable discussion, from any perspective. The gospel today promotes good use of our talents.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 2 days ago

I agree.

Trent Shannon
5 days 21 hours ago

Essays ate this man's talents. Recognising social inequality, pigs with lipstick is another.

How is this "partisan"? He even bemoans democrats! Their pig has lipstick on it too!

We all have a basic ability to take sides, even if your side is "dont print opinions like this" However youre welcome not to read such opinions, since you seem to be against opinions that dont fit your narrative.

Jake Gallerano
2 weeks 3 days ago

Good piece, on point and well written. In short, an enjoyable romp through the methane.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks 3 days ago

Haha. Methane? As in "swamp gas"? More methane than ever in Washington.

James Haraldson
2 weeks 3 days ago

Oh stop with the idiotic bald faced lies. There is a Commandment against that sort of thing. Ingraham did not disdain legal immigration. She has made it clear on numerous occasions she, like other sane people, objects to a growing number of de facto sharia communities that are forming around the country in defiance of American law, for which the Obama administration provided stand down legal protection, not to mention his policy of favoritism towards Islamic immigrants at the exclusion of other groups. As to illegal "immigration," go visit the young girls who had their lives taken away in sex trafficking, or visit psychiatric hospitals to explain your superior compassion to those victims of drug gangs who fed them that which fried their brains. Park your sanctimony and ignorance.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 3 days ago

Ingraham has three adopted children, two from Russia and one from Guatemala.

rose-ellen caminer
1 week 4 days ago

if you believe that most Muslims are not sane people, then you like Ingrahram are part of the we are NOT all equal un American ethos. It was said about just about every other immigrant group and the claim today is just as spurious and bigoted as when said about other groups.Your attitude just shows that being aa nation of immigrants , doe snot make us immune form being a nation of fear mongering bigots too. Obama did not favor Muslims immigrants; He killed more Muslims including civilians then probably Bush did, and stood by as a holocaust against Sunni Syrians was taking place. Ingrahram has said publically she does not like Muslims, and is a 21st anti anti Semitic[against Semitic Islam this time] propagandist. She would have made a good German, or good anti Semitic Pole for that matter,too. Of course she adopts Central Americans and Russians; Muslims are her targets. There is no sharia trumps US law on the books , stop lying.

Charles Erlinger
2 weeks 3 days ago

Of all the possible persuasion techniques available in our culture, the argument from “but what about?” is perhaps the most used and the least effective. The reason it seems the most used probably arises from the fact that it takes the least intellectual effort (and capacity) to make. Every parent of a 5-7 year old can remember correcting Johnnie for some trespass, only to be answered by the whine “but what about Jimmie?” Those of us not suffering from declining memory can even remember when we, ourselves, tried out this argument on a parent or teacher at that age. And if we dared to persist, our next claim, logically following from the “whatabout” gambit, would be to whine again, “it’s not fair.” And if we were foolish enough to push our luck further, we would try “but everybody does it.“

Astonishingly, the argument from “but what about?” tends to be used by all the Johnnies of the world right on through adulthood and by our most senior officials of both church and state. The inevitable conclusion is that an enormous percentage of us have experienced practically no intellectual maturation or are profoundly lazy intellectually, right through all levels of education and experience.

Tim Janning
2 weeks 2 days ago

Here is something I posted on FB last Tuesday:

Here’s the post I made last Tuesday; it seems America Magazine had the same thought!

I recently had an inkling to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

While reading something which I can’t recall at this moment, I happened upon Orwell. I was able to get a copy of Animal Farm at the local library and it happened to be a centennial edition (2003) with a Forward by Ann Patchett.

I was aware that George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published in the United States in 1946. It appears that Orwell had a difficult time publishing this work which was completed a few years earlier because it was a satire against the USSR and in particular Joseph Stalin. In 1943, the allied nations were still fighting the Hitler’s Nazis and the Empire of Japan. The Russians were a part of the allied nations, thus publishing a book that demonized communism was a difficult task at best.

What I found particularly interesting in Patchett’s Forward to the centennial edition was her perspective on the timelessness of Orwell’s work. Patchett writes that she first read Orwell’s Animal Farm in 1974 as a sixth grader. Anyone with a little sense of history will recall that at this time the United States was in the midst of the “Watergate Scandal” and the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Patchett writes:
But to read this book as a child in post-World War II era is another experience entirely….As an eleven-year-old living on a sort of farm in Tennessee, I was sensitive to the idea of the oppression of animals and horrified by the concept of animals as the oppressors. “The four pigs waited, trembling, with guilt written on every line of their countenances. Napolean now called upon them to confess their crimes….When they had finished their confession, the dogs promptly tore their throats out, and in a terrible voice Napolean demanded whether any other animal had anything to confess.” To be told that the enemy was among us, was one of our own, was a thought that had never occurred to me.
That’s the difference between reading Animal Farm in 1974 when you’re eleven and reading it in 1945 when you’re, say, forty.

She continues a few paragraph’s later:
My understanding that leaders could lie to us by assuming our stupidity and that we could, stupidly, continue to believe them, came that year from Animal Farm, not from Watergate, which droned on interminably on the television night after night, Nixon’s face occupying the screen on every channel. I have to wonder now how many of the principal players in that piece of history had read Orwell…Nixon wasn’t the only character who seemed to have stepped from Orwell’s pages. Joseph McCarthy played a perfect Napolean as he went through his lists for possible Communist sympathizers to cast and recast the role of Snowball. One of the great lessons of Animal Farm is the importance of the The Enemy. There can be no real political greatness without the establishment of what Ronald Reagan called “The Evil Empire” and George W. Bush later broadened into “The Axis of Evil.”

She continues:
Orwell shows us how all Napoleans need Snowballs to keep their subjects close and dependent. He shows us the power of suggestion as animals step forward to their certain deaths to admit to Snowball-related crimes. It is the passionate wave of hysteria that Napolean orchestrates to rise to crescendo and then steps in to quell. The other animals, exhausted from the ride, are left more fearful and complacent than ever.

Ann Patchett concludes with this final thought:
Orwell’s work demands a hypervigilance of the reader. Like pledges and nursery rhymes it stays with us, a promise of what will happen if we ever surrender our control of our fate to the system. Orwell never gave his readers the answers, just the worst-case scenario for the questions. Hopefully by living in a nation of young Orwell readers, we will manage to avoid his vision by continually bearing witness to it.

After reading Animal Farm I had to go back and re-read Ann Patchett’s Forward. I am left with a feeling that the timelessness of Animal Farm has something to say to us in 2018. If Patchett had written her Forward to Orwell’s Animal Farm in 2018 what other events from the past 20 years might she have included? As I experience, today, the scandals in our government and church interminably drone on night after night, I wonder what George Orwell would write.
The one sentence in Patchett’s Forward that haunts me is, ”To be told that the enemy was among us, was one of our own, was a thought that had never occurred to me.”

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 2 days ago

This comment is actually much more interesting and readable than the original article, which "discovers" the already long-abused trope of Animal Farm "showing" Trump is a despot.

It seems to me quite clear that we are not living in Animal Farm, but certain political tactics are certainly in play. Anyone looking at the shooting of GOP Congressmen, the rise of Antifa (and hopefully incarceration), and the consistent ostracization of political conservatives can certainly see a "passionate wave of hysteria."

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 1 day ago

The “polarization” myth has grown in recent years.

How does polarization come from a bloc of open minded voters? It doesn’t. Registered independent voters make up the largest voting bloc in the U.S. Polarization comes from “free speech” (free speech, as deemed by Citizens United, equals mega money). Some elected officials readily acknowledge “free speech” presents themselves and other candidates a choice between falling in line or facing a primary election opponent backed by mega money.

The goal of mega money is more mega money. A 90% federal income tax rate on mega incomes would help make elections more about “we the people” and less about mega money.

John Rysavy
6 days 9 hours ago

Is it not possible the “media” is peddling alternative facts? M

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