The first and only other time I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell, I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school reading it as an English assignment. The title of the book struck me as odd, certainly getting my attention. I remember more the circumstances in which I read the book than the book itself, actually. I began it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it that evening while babysitting for a little girl who was a spoiled only child. She practiced a tyranny all her own. I vaguely remember discussing the book in English class, but beyond that, I do not remember specifics. After living through 2016 through early 2021 in the U.S., I decided it was time to re-read this classic satire of the Soviet Union’s version of tyranny.
George Orwell made no secret that he wrote this “fairy tale” as he called it to focus attention on how tyranny occurs. It didn’t have to be the tyranny of Communism, of course, but he had Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in mind, their disagreements, and Stalin’s ultimate establishment of his power. He wanted to show how tyranny begins, how a tyrant thinks only of himself and not at all about the people he leads — but he lies to them constantly that he cares, how the tyrant creates a different reality for his followers, and that he will do anything to maintain his power. The tools he uses include manipulation, lies, brainwashing, and creating that reality of his own in which he can do no wrong, and he controls the lives and futures of those he reigns over. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. We watched it break up into many separate countries, try to establish a democratic representational government, and a free market economy. We’ve watched that effort fail as some people saw an opportunity to grab what they wanted for themselves such as companies, money, and power, and practically turn the country into a criminal state. The Russian mafia emerged as a force. Eventually Vladimir Putin won the Presidency, and he’s been working ever since to return Russia to an autocratic tyranny.
I doubt Orwell would have been surprised. He wrote in Animal Farm about the early days of the Rebellion of the animals against the humans, and how Snowball’s influence introduced the animals to the tools they would need to be able to sustain a life of freedom, primarily education. Snowball envisioned a farm where everyone contributed to the success of their society, and because they were all equal, their contributions were as respected as anyone else’s. In fact, their Animal Farm begins quite well, and all the animals are happy, well fed, and more than willing to work hard for the success of the farm. What could possibly go wrong? Napoleon, that’s what. Napoleon and Snowball had shared leadership, but Napoleon wasn’t content. The first thing he does is take away the puppies born to the dogs on the farm, and raises them himself. No one sees anything really wrong with that, except the dogs aren’t happy about losing their puppies to a pig. If all the other animals on the farm had stood behind the dogs and demanded that they be returned to their mothers, perhaps Napoleon could have been stopped. But Napoleon convinces them that he will teach their puppies much more than they ever could and be better puppies as a result. And so it began.
As I read Orwell’s description of how a tyranny is created, I kept thinking of America from 2016 to early 2021, and especially the role of the media and the internet. America, led by a president who reveled in the power of the office, the attention it garnered, and the control he wielded over the White House, started the country down the road to tyranny by creating his own reality and telling the country that anything that wasn’t his reality was “fake news.” He wasn’t a leader. He didn’t lead. He demanded personal loyalty and demanded his staff work only for him, not for the country. A president who cannot tolerate his own flawed humanity, his mistakes, being wrong, or even not being the most intelligent person in the room, must create a reality in which he is the hero, all powerful, a genius, and always right. We witnessed that in the American White House, as well as an outright attempt to overthrow the democratic process in Congress. He couldn’t have done it, of course, without the support and collusion of the Republican Party, no longer a political party of democracy in America.
I imagined years ago that tyranny in America would be possible given the right conditions and called it The Change in the Perceval series. I’ve not written that backstory, i.e. how The Change occurred and why. It has remained very much on my mind, especially the last six years. Recently, as I’ve worked on the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game, I’ve realized that I need to include it in that novel. Evan Quinn is in America only two years after his defection. Of course he’d be thinking about his life in America and what he’d learned since his defection. His observations of life in America become confirmations for his decision to leave America. At the same time, he is also working to help those who want to overthrow the tyranny and re-establish democracy in America.
Snowball (via George Orwell) understood that education i.e. teaching reading, writing, literature, history, civics, critical thinking, and the democratic process to empower each animal on the farm to be a citizen and participant in their democracy would prevent them from succumbing again to the tyranny of human beings on the farm. Snowball didn’t heed the warning signs that Napoleon wanted control. America in the Perceval series didn’t heed the warning signs as well. Both ended up with tyranny. Will America in 2022 heed the warning signs?