George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm"
Letís face it, at BuzzFlash we tend to toss around the name of Orwell pretty freely. Thereís our long-time premium -- the "Orwell Rolls in his Grave" DVD by Robert Pappas. And we do regularly characterize the republican spin machine as Orwellian. But just what do we mean by that and why does Orwell matter now?
The best way to answer that is to go right back to the source Ė to George Orwell himself. It doesnít matter if we happened to have read Orwell a lifetime ago as school kids. We need to read Orwell now, amidst the nightmare that is contemporary American politics. It is an eye opener.
In two brilliant and gripping volumes, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell sums up and clarifies for us the lessons of 20th century history and his own life time Ė the British domination of India (into which he was born) and Burma, the Russian revolution and Soviet political purges, the Spanish Civil War, and two World Wars. Orwell observed and to varying degrees experienced first hand, the 20th century's competing currents of socialism, communism, fascism, racism, class war and, yes, democracy. He lived through Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. And like nobody else, he sorts it out for us.
Totalitarianism scared Orwell. So did the ability of free people and the free press to look the other way.
In the sweet, sad political allegory that is Animal Farm, Orwell shows just how bad bad leadership can be. With a plot structure that parallels the facts of the Russian Revolution gone sour, Animal Farm depicts an experiment in collective optimism that inspires our hope, but more importantly shows the fragility of freedom. When we recently reread the slim volume of Animal Farm, we were charmed by the simply told tale and brave heroics that wrested Manor Farm from a drunken, incompetent Farmer Jones. But bit by bit, idealism at Manor Farm fades to exploitation; the honest and good-hearted are deceived and manipulated; democracy succumbs to a power grab. In the dark of the night, the propagandist, "Squealer," fixes the facts. He amends each guiding principle in turn. Finally, "All animals are equal," becomes, "Some animals are more equal than others."
Sort of sounds like the Friday night bulletins we get out of Washington, doesn't it? First detainee abuse and an illegal rush to war are denied as "absurd." A few days later, when no one's watching, a report confirming abuse comes out, and the spinners even justify such deeds as producing good information. A few days hence, the old denials will again be repeated, and something like 80% of those polled will believe the lies.
Whereas Animal Farm depicts a utopian dream slipping away, Orwell's better known novel, 1984, plunges us headlong into the anti-utopia of totalitarianism. 1984 champions the individual who battles for his sanity against an overwhelmingly powerful state. Winston Smith perceives the threat of Big Brother, and his dogged resistance captures our imagination. Winston dreams, loves, and hopes irrationally. Doesn't that sound a lot like how we reality-based members of the BuzzFlash community keep carrying on?
Itís not just that George Orwell "got it right." Orwell desperately fought to tell us how to "get it right," too. When Orwell completed his "fairy tale," Animal Farm, in 1944, it was too hot to handle for British publishers of any political persuasion. At the time, one simply didnít criticize Britainís stalwart wartime ally, Stalin. Orwell persevered, and the book finally came out in August of 1945, just after World War II had ended, when the U.S. and Britain were ready to turn against communism and fight the "Cold War." Animal Farm made Orwell famous, and for decades to come it helped turn international opinion against the Soviet regime.
Novelist Orwell set to work the very next year on 1984, but he was to struggle relentlessly against increasing ill health. Despite months in the hospital, he drove himself to finish the manuscript, even typing it himself to the detriment of his health. When published in June of 1949, the book was an immediate and huge success. Orwell had given us the "heads up" of the century Ė but he was in his grave by January, 1950.
Orwell was a democratic socialist and populist who championed ordinary people. He was both a political activist, wounded by fascist snipers in the Spanish Civil War, and a journalist who struggled to his death to proclaim the unthinkable. He experienced and clearly perceived both the democracies and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. With determination and optimism, he passed to us the tools to avoid revisiting his nightmares in the 21st century.
Both Animal Farm and 1984 show with crystal clarity the ease with which might replaces right and propaganda usurps the truth. Don't we owe it to George Orwell to listen and learn?
Besides. The books are fascinating reading. Orwell distills complex political concepts down into a totally understanding fable and a cliff-hanging spy thriller. We are given "doublethink," the "Thought Police," and their godchild, "War is Peace." It is time to read Orwell again, or for the first time, and it's time to tell Big Brother we've had enough.
[BuzzFlash acknowledges and recommends Julian Symons' introduction to the Alfred A. Knopf Everyman edition of Animal Farm, as well as that volume's Chronology; Erich Fromm's Afterword to 1984; and Orwell's own words in his rejected Preface to the first edition of Animal Farm; and his later Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm.]