Friday, February 6, 2009


George Orwell’s seminal work Animal Farm, an allegory of the Russian Revolution, has always been one of my favorite books. Legend has it the motivation for the story came from an incident where Orwell witnessed a heartless farmer whipping a giant dray horse. Watching the scene Orwell surmised that if the horse ever developed the capacity to understand how much bigger and stronger he was than his owner he, rather than the farmer, would one day be able to gain the upper hand. With this in mind, he composed the story of Animal Farm. In the book the farm’s animals, led by the pigs (the Bolshevik Revolutionaries) take matters into their own hands and overthrow the farm’s owner, Mr. Jones (The Czar). In addition to the aforementioned characters, Orwell created others to depict the many different elements of Russian society at the time of the 1917 revolution.

Among the other book’s central characters are the plow horse Boxer (the workers), the sheep (Soviet propagandists), who as one would expect, are blindly obedient to every edict and theory that the pigs come up with and Mr. Jones’ pet raven Moses (the Russian Orthodox Church). Moses consistently reminds the animals that no matter how bad things might be on the farm, they should take heart, because one fine day they will all be magically taken to Sugar Candy Mountain, where they will live out their days in happiness and bliss.

But while all of the characters in the book are intriguing, two of my favorites are Benjamin the donkey and Mollie the mare. Although they have minor roles in the book, their views on life have a great deal to teach us about the problems we face in this day and time. Mollie is the carriage horse for Jones’ personal rig. Due to her status, Jones puts ribbons in her hair and regularly feeds her sugar cubes. Unlike most of the animals on the farm, Mollie craves human approval and attention. Before the take-over, her life is one of comfort and security. When the animals revolt she becomes disheartened, not because the leadership of the farm has changed, but because there is no longer anyone to keep her in the lifestyle she has become accustomed to. Ultimately, she decides to leave the farm forever.

In contrast to Mollie, Benjamin the donkey is someone who consistently sees life for what it is. Having been around longer than the other animals he is aware that fads, political and otherwise, come and go with the wind. He does his work the same way every day never becoming too excited or too disappointed about anything that has passed. Benjamin understands that Jones is a flawed owner, but at the same time, due to his wisdom and longevity he understands that the pig’s revolution is rife with hypocrisy and is ultimately doomed to fail. The point Orwell makes is that Benjamin will endure because his expectations, unlike Mollie’s, are based on reality.

Why are these characters so important? Largely because their perspectives on life speak volumes about how the United States got into this current economic mess and, more importantly, how we can get out of it. First off, over the last 8 years, the leaders of our political and financial worlds were far too much like Mollie the mare. Those in charge were more concerned with ensuring that we had our ribbons and sugar cubes rather than encouraging us to face up to our responsibilities. Perhaps one of the dumbest things George Bush ever did was to, like Mollie, tell Americans after 9/11 not to make any sacrifices but to “go shopping.” When Bush told the American people we could pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without raising taxes, he was acting like Mollie the mare. When he told them that Social Security and Medicare could be kept solvent by cutting taxes, he was acting like Mollie. Moreover, when Wall Street “financial experts” thought they could take huge numbers of bad mortgage loans, bundle them together and sell them as AAA rated financial securities they were acting like Mollie.

Thankfully, the mindless Mollies of the world that once ruled the roost are gone, hopefully, forever. Our new President on Inauguration day urged us, as Jimmy Carter did decades ago, to put away childish things and to understand that all of us have collectively failed to make the hard choices required to preserve the American dream. Recent events should help us to understand that we cannot have a social safety net unless we are willing to stop whining and pay the taxes required to sustain it. We must realize that we cannot maintain the world finest military on the cheap. We must understand that we cannot have good roads and schools without being willing to provide the resources required for their upkeep.

In the days to come many of us will have to learn to be happy with a Honda Civic rather than a Lexus. In addition, many of us will be taking more trips to the dollar store than Trader Joe’s. Many professional athletes may have to learn to get by on 800, 000 dollars a year rather than 10 million. And finally, those in the market for a home in our community may have to settle for the kind of lovely ranchers you see on Evergreen Road rather than building garish McMansions that reach to sky and the nearest property line.

But take heart, in the end life may be indeed be simpler but ultimately more meaningful because, we as a society, like Benjamin, may begin to realize that ribbons and sugar cubes are no match for the things in life that really matter. Benjamin knew the unalterable law of life, there is no free lunch. Debts have to be paid. Like Mollie, our nation needs to grow up. The sooner we do the better off we all will be.

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