Shadows of 'Animal Farm' haunt us today
Now that the Egyptian Constitution has been ratified, and after President Mohamed Morsi’s willingness to divest himself of at least some misappropriated powers, I am less inclined to award my “Napoleon the Pig Medal for Grandiosity and Power-Grabbing” to this post-Arab Spring leader.
The medal commemorating George Orwell’s porcine revolutionary-turned-dictator can go to someone else.
Orwell’s 1946 political allegory “Animal Farm,” the story of an animal revolt against Farmer Jones, is a fable for all seasons. Whenever and wherever people seize and cling to power, bleating choruses reverberate “four legs good, two legs bad” and “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Getting power, keeping it, extending it. This pattern is embedded in the careers so many men that only a few are listed here: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and the “hit-the-refresh-button” ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Some, like Mugabe, started out as anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid freedom fighters; some, like Abdullah and Assad, inherited near-autocracies; some, like Putin, are Cheshire Cat reappearance artists. Obiang’s succession followed a 1979 coup against his own uncle.
The living parallels to Orwell’s "Animal Farm" are varied. The elegant Aesop-like text is vivid and specific, general and flexible. Even though this post-World War II fable shadows the 20th-century history of the old Soviet Union’s Marx-inspired 1917 revolution, the rise and fall of Leon Trotsky, the bloodstained rule of Stalin and the country's immense resilience and bravery as the German invaders closed in, “Animal Farm” stays relevant because it is driven by enduring facets of a universal human nature.
And as we reach the second anniversary of the 2010 Arab Spring, “Animal Farm” is notable for reminding us that no revolutionary ideals can stay pristine when actually practiced.
A recap of the plot: After the ideologically pure Marx-like boar Old Major dies, the animals fight for, and win, a fleeting state of freedom and equality. But Napoleon and his swine comrades soon annex Farmer Jones’s house, purloin the surplus farm products, and, finally, walk on their hind legs. These clever, literate, agile, “natural” leaders become the enemy the revolution was supposed to banish.
Squealer, Napoleon’s public-relations pig, reassures the other animals that the pig-leaders “actually dislike milk and apples” but that “we pigs are brainworkers” who need the extra nourishment. Similarly, they need to get a good night’s sleep in real beds so that they will be rested enough to preserve the revolution. “'Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back!'” pipes Squealer, “skipping from side to side and whisking his tail.”
Only the donkey, Benjamin, remains alert to this betrayal, but he is too world-weary to act. The devoted and hardworking carthorse, Boxer, believes everything Napoleon tells him.
Actions in “Animal Farm” are important, but so is the written word. The barely literate animals periodically return to the Revolution’s founding principles, painted on the wall of the barn, to try to parse the legality of the pigs’ actions.
Clover, the mare, recalls a rule about animals not sleeping in beds. “With some difficulty, Muriel [the goat] spelt it out . . . ‘No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.’” And, famously, the bedrock value that “All animals are equal” now reads “But some animals are more equal than others.”
Napoleon and his hench-pigs have retroactively legalized their behavior.
The best political allegories can take us only so far but Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is peculiarly illuminating. Squealer the spin-pig; Snowball, the invisible Trotsky-like scapegoat for the ills of the revolutionary state; Mollie, the pretty young filly who wants sugar lumps and ribbons for her mane much more than freedom and equine dignity; the chorus-chanting sheep; and, of course, the duplicitous farm cats. They all have their real-life counterparts.
In this new year, in the Arab world and wherever else freedom and equality need champions, I look for the rise of people more like Boxer, Benjamin and Clover, with the provisos that Boxer the carthorse be less gullible, Benjamin the donkey less cynical, and Clover the motherly mare a better critical reader.
Old Major, the patriarchal fount of revolutionary aspirations, should have chosen all his ideological progeny more carefully. But there’s probably not much anyone can do about that.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English who teaches a course on George Orwell at Elon University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org