I will admit to being very excited to write this post because I get to talk about one of my favourite subjects – political allegory. One of my favourite books is Animal Farm. I first encountered this book in Grade 11 and the story has never left me. In fact I bought Pink Floyd’s Animals shortly after finishing the book It was one those books that made me aware of a wider world and how words can be used to bring awareness to issues of social injustice. At the time, this idea was revolutionary and as time has moved on, I have maintained an interest in seeing how allegory can be used to educate and advocate for change.
I have been thinking of Animal Farm for the past little while and not just because I’ve been revisiting Pink Floyd. Orwell has never truly left the public psyche, but in the last couple of years his work has undergone quite a renaissance. Both 1984 and Animal Farm have come back in vogue to explain the erosion of democratic structures that began long before the populist victories of Brexit, Donald Trump, and other figures of the far right that we see in Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. However, these trends towards oppression of minorities and the targeting of immigrants and asylum seekers have certainly been exacerbated in the past two y
As I revisit the themes in Animal Farm, I am struck with how relevant the text has become again. When I first read the novel, I always made the obvious connection to the criticism of Stalin’s USSR. This was at a time of Reagan’s Evil Empire speech acted as the backbone of the West’s narrative of an easy identifiable dichotomy of a virtuous West that safeguarded the principles of freedom verses an immoral Communist East that sought the enslavement of people the world over. And as a narrative it had its appeal. But the appeal wears off once you start confronting the actual world. The West was no more virtuous than the USSR was evil. Both blocs are guilty of oppression. The history of US involvement in Central America during the 1980s cannot be whitewashed simply because the Reagan Administration claimed they were championing freedom. Whereas, in the USSR, not innocent of its own crimes, provided opportunities for women that were not available in the West. Orwell himself seems to have recognized this complexity. Although the pigs launched a reign of terror (the trajectory of the French Revolution can also be traced over Orwell’s allegory), the regime they replaced in the figure of the farmer was no less brutal. Under both, animals were reduced to the cold calculation of value and once that value no longer served the bottom line they were literally sent to the slaughter.
While the West was never has virtuous as it claimed, it does seem that in the past few years, we are determined to eliminate every democratic structure that were put in place to preserve not just freedom as an abstract term, but the basic human rights and dignities that we all possess. The irony of a nominally Republican president winning an election on the promise of building a wall around their southern border is a cruel mockery of the Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But even more vile is the rationale behind the Trump’s wall. The xenophobia and racism positively drips from his every word. But as news outlets like the Washington Post remind us, Trump is a symptom; a sizable minority of the American population supports and agrees with the racist context masquerading as securing the borders.
Animal Farm works because it is an allegory; there are multiple levels of meaning woven into the text which allows it to be repurposed into other media, like Art Spiegleman’s Maus for example. The other evening, I encountered a wonderful “children’s” book entitled The Rabbits. I say children, but the text and the stunning pictures are so incredibly sophisticated that adults would do themselves a favour by reading it. Much in the allegorical vein as Animal Farm, The Rabbits presents a complex story of the negative impact of colonization on other parts of the world. It is a timely reminder that oppression can be more than walls, it can be oppression of culture, racial identity, kin and kith networks, and even language.
I was reminded that I have seen this kind of oppression first hand. Last night I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop put on by unlearn. Through creative and imaginative designs, they challenge the way we think about the world. One of the posters depicted a number of white people walking through a security scanner, a person of colour stands in the scanner that has been set off. This put me in mind of a trip I took to Geneva shortly after 9/11. The security line to board the plane was short. It consisted of myself and a Muslim woman with a young child and who I presumed to be her mother. For more than twenty minutes the female guard berated this woman, her child, and her mother. It was uncomfortable and I worried that I would receive the same treatment and so when it was finally my turn, I braced myself for the worst. The worst did not happen. I was waived through in less than 5 minutes. And it was then I only began to comprehend the discrimination experienced by non-Western peoples. I wish I could say that since that moment I have fought for equality for all people. I have not, although I have spent that time trying to educate myself and correct my own biases that help oppress others.
I was fortunate enough to encounter Animal Farm during my formative years. I no longer view the text as a simple allegory of the rise of the USSR, but rather as a springboard into larger conversations about what oppression looks like and how it can fought against.