The burden on beasts:
As 2017 begins, it is obvious that the world that George Orwell so accurately described in his 1945 classic “Animal Farm” still exists. Living in a free and democratic Western country, it is easy to ignore the fact that billions of people and vast parts of our planet continue to be ruled by tyranny and repression. Contemplate for a minute the violent, dictatorial thug Napoleon in the book, widely thought to be based on Joseph Stalin. Tragically, real life variants like this “terror of mankind” are still out there and have evolved. Orwell’s key message was that democracy was the only equitable system to give everyone a fair voice in how society is run. It is too easy to read Orwell’s work as a stinging dissection of communism only. The fact is that Orwell himself was a socialist so, ideologically, he was close to the ethos of communism. Critically, he was a democrat before he was a socialist. No matter where your political opinions lie – it is crucial to note that is all they are. All opinions are equal and the only reasonable system is to let the voice of the majority decide. Simple. However, we in the West have become complacent about upholding these values.
It is critical to point out that, at the beginning of Animal Farm, there is a vote on whether rats should be considered comrades. The animals listen to the words of Old Major when he says that “All animals are equal”. At this meeting, the principles of free expression and speaking out are encouraged. It is a fledgling democracy. It does not take long for Snowball and Napoleon to crack down on free speech to enforce their own dictatorship. In time, the animals are told that they are not allowed to vote because they are not smart enough. Only Napoleon knows best. Look at North Korea in 2017. The people are forced to worship Kim Jong Un in a similar way – building statues, stymying freedom of thought and expression. Twenty five million people live in this system.
Maybe the forefront of the fight for democracy in 2017 is in Hong Kong. China are trying to bully them to submit to their “One China” policy and incorporate them into their oppressive system of government. The 7m people in Hong Kong are fighting exceptionally hard to cling onto the voting rights that they have, which has resulted in physical fights breaking out in some Hong Kong courts while people battle for their right to self-govern. Just think: the most populous country on this planet is ruled by repression. If our job is, as Sagan says “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot”, then we need to look at China and ask serious questions of ourselves. Over one billion people – one in six human beings – live in a system where the people do not have a say. Their voices scorned. All the while, we in the West, look on laconically and vote occasionally, maybe when it is not raining.
Where China is the world’s most populous country, Russia is the largest landmass on earth, one sixth in total. That is one gargantuan Manor Farm. For an all too brief period at the end of the millennium, it looked as if Russia would turn democratic. Enter the fray: Vladimir Putin. A slicker, fitter, more evolved Napoleon. The rules do not apply to the oligarchy in Russia. Only one thing counts: loyalty to the leader. Since coming to power, he has eroded most, if not all, of the raw democratic systems that he inherited in 1999. He did this to one selfish end: so that he and his pigs could reap the benefits of his corrupt, autocracy for themselves. “Never mind the milk comrades” says Napoleon Putin, whilst unleashing a nativist, anti-democratic propaganda machine that confuses people to the facts while he plunders Russia’s resources. Some allege that Vladimir Putin is the richest man on the planet.
Consider the use of the word “comrade” in Animal Farm. At the beginning of the book, it is a symbol of the equality that Old Major thought should exist on the farm. In the end, Napoleon bans the word altogether. Language is weaponized. It is not free. China routinely bans words that it does not like. The official line is that they are doing It in the name of keeping the Chinese language pure. When China declared itself as a Republic in 1912, there was no official language. Strangely, it took until the year 2000 for Mandarin to be declared the legitimate one. This made sense on a macro level but it has been used to subdue other languages and parts of society. In fact, other languages cannot even be referred to as such – they must be denoted as “Dialects”, lest they interfere with the political agenda. Sixty million people speak Cantonese and this cannot now be referred to as a language. There was an outcry when people found out that the local news in the regions where it is spoken would no longer be read out in Cantonese. This was done without consulting the people. Xi Jinping and the rulers of the communist party believed it was in the best interests of the country. There is no comeback for people in China to declare that they disagree with this at the ballot box and change course. That is why the Chinese government regularly uses force to implement its policies as they know that people will not have a chance to voice their opinions in a fair election.
The song that the animals sing, “Beasts of Burden”, is eventually censored. It is warped into becoming “Comrades of Napoleon”. Language is used as ammunition in the battle to quash free thought. The Muslim district of Uyghur in Eastern China speaks its own language, Turkic. China are trying to constrain this while they clamp down on their way of life: Mandarin as a weapon. The Chinese communist party is trying to deny the Uyghur Muslims their right to religious freedoms. They will use any tool they can to callously stamp out their rights.
Maybe Bashar Al-Assad in Syria would best personify Orwell’s “fierce looking boar” Napoleon if he governed a in twenty first century nation state. Although part of the modernising of savage autocrats is that they look a lot smarter than they used to. You never see Bashar not looking suitably dapper. In fact, to glance at him, you would never think that he has the blood of 400,000 Syrians on his hands. When the revolution in Syria started, the people changed the lyrics of the popular song of “God, Syria, Bashar” to “God, Syria, Freedom”. The people began to militarise the language of the regime to further their own end. Like how Napoleon subverted “Beasts of Burden” to “Comrades of Napoleon”. If a society is truly free, language does not need to be weaponized by any side. Therefore, it is critical that we protect freedom of expression and that anyone has the right to a dissenting voice. Once we kerb this in any way, we allow language to be used as a means to a political end.
In June 2011, the UN declared that blocking internet access is denying a human right. Not just in regard to people’s ability to connect, but also where a state uses it to block people from expressing opinions. In a sense, the internet is a form of communication; of language. It connects people. China has banned an incredible amount of online activity. I had to use a VPN to get basic access to sites like Google when I visited in 2016. The VPN slows down the connectivity so much that it makes it almost pointless trying to look up whatever you want. Freedom is blocked.
The hotel I stayed in had two books about Xi Jinping. One in English and one in Chinese. There have been many conflicting reports on the sales of this book. The state claims a vastly higher number have been sold than any available data. Numbers and facts are militarised in the propaganda war. As 2017 begins, we learn that china has banned apps on mobile phones that measure the levels of air pollution.
The book that strongman Xi Jinping wrote is called “The Governance of China” and It highlights how propaganda has matured. There are lots of pictures: Xi in school, Xi in college, Xi working hard. It is an odd read, containing lots of different speeches and interviews. Supposedly, Zuckerberg told all his team to read it so they could understand the country in the case that Facebook would be allowed to do business there. The crucial point is: why are the Chinese people not allowed to use Facebook? Why are the ruling Communist party deciding this for the people of the country? Would this happen in a democracy?
In Russia, Microsoft’s “LinkedIn” company has been added to their increasingly large banned list. What a grave danger it must pose. Vladimir Putin is in some senses the best example of how oppressors like Napoleon have adapted to the early twenty first century. He has managed to convince smart people that he is democratically elected by being pictured with leaders of Western countries and smiling for the cameras. Putin is the grandmaster of modern propaganda. He decided, cleverly, to harness the power of the internet to trick people by employing a factory of people to disseminate false information, thereby trying to undermine free societies. The results have been stunningly successful. By undermining democracy, people think that democratic systems of governance are not that important. When Russia TV and his army of bots deceives large numbers of Russians people and people in the West that there is not that much difference between a dictatorship and a democracy: it is job done for him. The deception is sublime but implicit. Whether overt or not, the propaganda is real and updated. We need to be extra vigilant.
When the results of free and fair elections go completely against what we believe, that is the time when we need to respect them more than ever. Recall Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. At the start of 2017, the only viable political system we have is under attack like never before from vicious tormentors and religious extremists alike. Do we accept this?
When people use their freedom to voice unpalatable opinions: this is when we need to respect them more than ever. For this is what a free society entails: giving all and sundry the freedom of expression and respecting it. This is the only option we have. Otherwise, we change a system that says “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others”. This is the binary choice we have.
We know that martinets do not respect individual’s rights, they see them as a resource to be manipulated. In Russia, China, Syria and North Korea, this leads to people being treated as animals. Worse in a lot of cases. Autocrats constantly tread on human rights and blurring the line between animal and human. We know where this road ends: “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. We know where these regimes lead humanity. The question in 2017 is: what are we going to do about it.