Carrying on with my dystopian reading list, I’ve devoured Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satiric novella of Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably know the story.
It’s about a group of farm animals, who, sick of their ‘laborious, miserable and short’ lives of mistreatment and subjugation at Manor Farm, plot and carry out an overthrow of their neglectful, alcoholic owner, Mr Jones, so that they can create a new utopian community and a ‘golden future time’ of freedom, happiness and equality for all.
Promising plans are made for plentiful food and comfortable living conditions, and a seven commandments is drawn up (‘No animal shall drink alcohol,’ ‘No animal shall kill another animal’), with their most important commandment – ‘All animals are equal’ – emblazoned on the side of the barn.
This utopia proves very short-lived. Imperceptibly at first, the pigs, led by a pig named Napolean, assume power over the other animals.
Although the farm becomes highly profitable, thanks to a windmill, all profits are siphoned off to the pigs, the rest of the animals given just enough food to stay alive, dissenting animals mysteriously disposed of, the Commandments quietly rewritten.
The animals are told that they are best off living ‘simple lives,’ and the farm’s motto is changed to read: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
By the end of the novella, the alcohol-swilling, card-cheating pigs are indistinguishable from the corrupt and greedy humans they originally rebelled against.
Orwell wrote the novella to highlight how Stalin had perverted the original Marxist ideals of the Russian Revolution.
Besides Orwell’s extraordinary foresight, what interests me most about the book were the facts surrounding its publication.
Orwell initially had trouble selling this book; four publishers turned it down. One of those, which had been ready to accept Animal Farm, was advised against it by Britain’s then Ministry of Information.
This had nothing to do with matters of national security. At the time (it was published in 1945), Russia had assisted Britain and America in defeating Hitler, and the MOI claimed that the book would ‘give offense’ to the Russians.
‘The English intelligentsia,’ writes Orwell in the original preface to Animal Farm, which was omitted when the book finally got published, ‘had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards the USSR, and in their hearts, they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy.’
That attitude of glorifying all things Russian (the BBC celebrated 25 years of the Red Army at the time) seems astonishing from our 21st century perspective, given everything that subsequently came to light about the Soviet Union and Stalin himself, who was responsible for the deaths of an estimated nine million people from starvation, deportation, murder or Gulag camps.
But look at what is happening today about what can and cannot be aired and more importantly what constitutes the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to think and act.
I’m thinking, for instance, of celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, who recently wrote on social media that she was going to ‘de-friend’ any friend or acquaintance of hers who refused to get vaccinated.
And CNN’s presenter Don Lemon, who remarked on various occasions that people who are unvaccinated should not be able to come into an office, go into a gym, get on an airplane, drive or even shop in a store for food.
Variations of those statements have been championed by writers and newscasters throughout the West.
This is not a blog about the merits (or not) of the Covid shot. It’s a blog about, as Orwell noted elsewhere, ‘how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.’
With all our talk of the need for acceptance of diversity and diversity, it has become fashionable these days for the media and public to censor, condemn and now even ostracize people who, for one reason or another, hold any opinion other than the ‘correct’ one.
Although this occurs in many areas, it’s most evident with respect to those who, for any reason, disagree with or cannot follow the official line about Covid.
People like my eldest daughter’s mother-in-law, who went into anaphylactic shock and was rushed to hospital after her first Covid vaccine and has been told by her doctor that she should not get it.
Is she supposed to be prevented from or ever stepping foot in a store or an airplane again?
The manipulation of information to fit the right narrative according to prevailing belief and the attack on dissenters was certainly true in Orwell’s time. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
When Animal Farm was released, astonishingly the English press and literary intelligentsia of that day were more prone to attack Winston Churchill than Joseph Stalin.
‘There was a . . . huge and . . . dishonest stream of pro-Russian propaganda, and what amounted to a boycott on anyone who tried to discuss all-important questions in a grown-up manner,’ writes Orwell. ‘You could, indeed, publish anti-Russian books, but to do so was to make sure of being ignored or misrepresented by nearly the whole of the highbrow press.’
Does that sound familiar?
So often history proves a current prevailing morality wrong. Think of how Britain and America’s view of Russia has twisted and turned over the years.
First the Soviets were applauded during World War II, then utterly condemned in the McCarthy era 10 years later in the US, when anyone who was even suspected of having left-wing ‘Commie’ views was blackballed from society – until McCarthyism and the McCarthy hearings themselves were condemned as a ‘scoundrel time’ of witch-hunting.
The problem comes down to claiming the moral high ground over a particular position and attempting to eliminate all dissenting voices to the contrary.
The most disturbing aspect of morality, Joan Didion once wrote, “seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens.’
As George Santayana famously said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
I may just send Jennifer Aniston a copy of Animal Farm.
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