There were sheep and horses and cows, oh my. Plus a donkey and a talking crow.
Oh, and there were pigs, too. There are always pigs.
Live theater became a civics lesson Friday night as the Milwaukee Rep started its final weekend of "Animal Farm" performances. The professor: George Orwell, whose allegory about communism is alive and well and topical as all get-out years after the Soviet Union's fall. The tale about animals doomed to a life of abuse and servitude who rise up in successful revolt against their human tormentor reaches beyond Stalin and the walls of the Kremlin. Among the lessons that stick long after the final curtain is the one summed up in director May Andrale's quote in the play's program: "There will always be pigs."
You may remember from literature class long ago the role of the program's porcine characters: at first, brothers and sisters in the Manor Farm revolution, then self-appointed keepers of same at the behest of their trusting friends. Time goes on and it's the pigs who rewrite the rules, re-interpret events, re-tell tales known by all with new finishes meant to burnish the importance of the swine, truth be damned. Spoiler alert: the lot of those beneath the pigs in the pecking order gets no better as the night goes on.
The leap from 1945 when Orwell penned "Animal Farm" to today is too convenient, too easy. There have always been pigs. be they political parties who question the patriotism of the opposition while smearing foes with dark money ads that bear no resemblance at all to truth or those who put party above country in other ways, compromise be damned. Outgoing President George Washington warned us about them in his farewell address. "However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends," he wrote in 1796, "they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." Search the Constitution through and through and you'll find no mention or place for them in the original political process.
They rinse themselves of those behind "negative ads" yet celebrate the damage those spots do to the process because, sadly, we the people allow their corrosive message to take hold. Truth again is the victim of a process swaddled in cash, infused with the newfound power and lack of restraint that is Twitter and Facebook, leaving us where we are today: wondering just how much influence an outside power has in swaying public opinion, perhaps even ballot results.
"Americans have to stop doing falsehoods against each other," former FBI agent Clint Watts told NBC "Meet The Press" host Chuck Todd this Sunday past. "'Release the memo' is a home run for the Russians. They don't need to make a false narrative--Americans are making false narratives against each other. They just repeat them." Watts says it's not foreign bots doing the damage--it's we the people. "Americans are doing active measures to each other now. Everyone is copying the playbook in 'information warfare,' and that's really what Americans should worry about. The 'Honest Ads' act has not been passed. We're seeing politicians use this warfare against each other. The Russians don't have to manufacture falsehoods. They can just repeat what Americans are saying about each other."
It's not just what we choose to believe, culled from the news silos and echo chambers of our personal leaning. It's also what we decide to ignore, even if true, because it may damage our cause or the leader of same. This has been true of both parties over the decades who scream bloody murder at the alleged personal failing of a politician in the opposition camp while turning deaf ears to the same mistakes made by those they share a tent with, all in the name of political expediency.
Orwell's "Animal Farm" reminds us of what happens when we no longer believe what we know is true, remember lessons learned from past shared experience, what we've heard with our own ears because it doesn't fit a convenient political narrative. The pigs of Manor Farm rewrite rules and history in front of doubting masses too timid to challenge, to intimidated to rise up, too numb to respond/revolt or to demand better.
It's always been up to us to raise that bar, lest we get the government we deserve. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "it expects what never was and will never be."
That, and the fact that there will always be pigs.