Friday, April 10, 2009

From Animal Farm to Anthem: Warnings of Society's Demise

This week I finally got to sit down and read a classic book, so I chose to read Animal Farm by George Orwell. The book is an allegory of the introduction of communism into Russia. The book has become important in our society and is frequently alluded to. The same is true of Orwell's book 1984. In both books Orwell warns of the dangers of a totalitarian, oppressive society. In our society we see many allusions to things from these books, such as "Big Brother", "The Ministry of Truth" and "all people are equal, but some are more equal than others". These statements are trite statements used to express a distaste or fear of potentially malicious conspiracies.

Frequently these allusions are used by someone to say, "Beware of this government action, or the actions of these people because if you let them do it then we will end up like 1984 or Animal Farm and we will regret it." This is in effect a scare tactic, a kind of bogyman that we bring out to show that we do not like the actions or plans of a particular group of people. But what often happens when someone cries "Big Brother!" or "The Ministry of Truth!" the counter accusation is "Get over it, that will never happen. This isn't even close to the terrible acts in 1984." or "You don't know what you are talking about."

As an example, I recently heard a news story about a woman who applied for a personalized license plate for her car. Her request was turned down because apparently if you read it wrong it would contain offensive language. It was an honest mistake, but what struck me about the story was not that, but rather her reaction to it. In expressing her disappointment with her rejected request she made a comment about the DMV "beginning to censure what people thought" and that their actions were "a little too 1984ish." So here we have someone bringing out the bogyman and crying foul when their personal expression is stifled.

So my question here is, how likely are we to actually end up with a 1984 or Animal Farm situation in the US? In the case of Animal Farm, that actually happened as it tells the story of the Stalinist regime in Russia, but would that happen here in the US? As for 1984, the first time I read it I was also reading the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. At the time I was surprised to see the incredible similarities between the two books. Wild Swans is a biography/autobiography of a grandmother, mother and daughter who grew up and lived through China's communist revolution and the Cultural Revolution instigated by Chairman Mao. When I read the book I was amazed to learn about what happened during the Cultural Revolution because it was as if Mao had read 1984 and said, "That sounds like a good idea. Let's try to do that." So it is obvious that Orwell knew what he was talking about because in some measure the things he wrote about were factual and actually happened. But still there is the question, would that happen here in the US?

My personal opinion is that no we here in the US are not in danger of facing some bleak Orwellian future. We do not have to be over concerned about a "Big Brother" or "The Ministry of Truth" teaching us newspeak. I think that in the US we still have enough rugged individualism and good political tradition to inoculate us against that particular plague. The same may not be true of Europe or other countries, because they do not have the same social or political traditions that we do, but that is another matter. In the case of both Russia and China they were prone to the oppressive Orwellian nightmares because they were already afflicted by corrupt and degenerate governments, which made them fertile ground for what happened. So if we here in the US do not have to fear for an introduction of a totalitarian society of Orwellian proportions, does that mean we are safe from "evil or bad governments"?

I would say that even though we do not have to worry as much about facing oppression of Orwellian standards there are other forms of degenerate society that we should be vigilant to protect ourselves from. In that vein there are another set of books that were written, much like Animal Farm and 1984, to serve as a warning about the dangers of a particular type of society. They are the books by Ayn Rand, such as Anthem and Atlas Shrugged. These books, I think, give a more accurate depiction of the degenerate society we may be facing in the US, unless we heed the warning and work to preserve those things that make us free.

In these books by Ayn Rand the characters do not face a sinister or intrusive government like those found in Orwell's books, but rather a society that discourages personal productivity and talent, a society where people are hated for their good works and personal productivity. In this kind of Randian future (as opposed to an Orwellian one) we would face a society where people are rewarded for their laziness, charity would be enforced at "the point of a gun" (or a threat of fines and imprisonment) and no one would be recognized for their own abilities and talents. All things (money, housing, health care), would be reduced to the lowest common denominator until no one would have much of anything.

It is a society such as this that we are more likely to have in the US rather than the overtly harsh and oppressive Orwellian societies. Because of inherent protections in our society and constitution we do not have to worry about the reintroduction of an aristocracy to our country, but we do have to worry about an active discouragement of personal responsibility, thrift and industry. The signs of this degenerate society can already be seen in our country. Take for example the effect of Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane hit the biggest disaster was not destruction from wind and rain, or even the flood water, but rather the response to it. Many people sat there waiting for "the government" to come "bail them out" (literally).

About a year after the Hurricane hit I had the opportunity to travel through that part of the country. I was surprised by the extent of the damage and devastation even a year later. I also noted that on the highway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans almost every company, business and building had a sign on it saying, "Help Wanted". This by itself would not have been remarkable if it had not been for what I saw just a few miles away in Mississippi. In Louisiana everywhere I looked I say piles of trash, rubbish and broken and demolished buildings. But as soon as we crossed the state line in to Mississippi everything changed. Even though Mississippi bore the brunt of the storm, all the rubbish had been removed, the land had been cleared, and everywhere I looked instead of seeing "Help Wanted" signs, I saw signs saying, "Willing to Work". It was such a difference that I was truly shocked by the bipolar response to the storm. On the one hand there were the people who waited for "the government" to do everything, while on the other hand, the government of the people had taken charge and had cleaned up the mess.

So I ask you, when was the last time you participated in a celebration of (your) personal accomplishment and achievement, instead of a generic celebration of "diversity", meaning anything that is not you or yours? How often are our children (maybe not your personal children, but the children in our society) congratulated for mediocre work and effort? And those that do preform exceptionally are not recognized? Have you ever had a school award ceremony canceled or omitted so as to not "offend anyone" or "hurt anyone's feelings"? When was the last time the administrators thought about the feelings of the people that actually preformed well? When was the last time someone who was productive was told that "Now they can contribute (ahem) more to charity (ahem, cough)."? When was the last time someone could read about the Horatio Alger Myth (i.e. rags to riches, The American Dream) without having to wade through a lot of criticism? (I would recommend looking at the Wikipedia article on the Horatio Alger Myth, it makes my point. Also try the page on The American Dream, and pay particular attention to the first section and think why it is there.) When was the last time someone spoke about what they had done (and not be criticized for it) instead of what they were entitled to? When was the last time someone had asked what they could do for their country and not what their country could do for them? Did these questions make you think? Was it because the questions are revealing of our culture or because they are irrelevant? Or irreverent?

Our political, social and cultural demise will not come from an overtly oppressive Orwellian future, but rather from one where personal freedom is denied. Freedom to be responsible. Freedom to be reasonable. Freedom to be productive. Freedom to be


James Tanner said...

Very well done. Good work. Keep thinking.

Euripides said...

I just read an article that said only 53% of the country thinks we ought to be capitalists. Considering the huge role of government in commerce already, this points to an Atlas Shrugged future more than anything.

As far as personal responsibility and generation of wealth goes, I foresee a general decline in the standard of living over the next generation and an unwillingness on the part of most people to work for a living. Unfortunately, this means the middle class will shrink even further and we will be reduced to a second world economy.