Poor George Orwell. It’s been 64 years since his death, and it still seems like not a month goes by without some fresh new abuse heaped on his work.
In January, I declared actress Kristen Stewart’s comments on 1984 (“a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion”) to be the silliest misreading of Orwell to date. Unfortunately, I had not reckoned with the great minds at MSNBC, who make Stewart look positively erudite.
MNSBC host and “Democratic political strategist” Krystal Ball was discussing Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster book on income inequality Tuesday when she began riffing on one of Orwell’s classic works.
“Even the august and ostensibly economically literate Wall Street Journal tells [Piketty] to read Animal Farm,” Ball said. “Animal Farm, hmm. Isn’t that Orwell’s political parable of farm animals where a bunch of pigs hog up all the economic resources, tell the animals they need the food because they’re the makers and then scare up a prospect of a phony boogie man every time their greed is challenged?”
This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.
At the end of the book the once-egalitarian farm has devolved into a dictatorship where the animals toil harder, longer, and for less food than they did under the yoke of human masters before the revolution.
So Animal Farm might be the worst analogy for the problems of late capitalism. A better example might be that our system has produced someone with the critical reading skills of a potato, and then allowed her to rise to the position of a national TV news host, mostly by virtue of her membership in the entrenched political class.
What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England. Here’s a quote about coal miners from Wigan Pier that might better suit Ball and Piketty’s needs:
[M]ost of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants—all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
In the future, if any MSNBC producers or hosts wish to cite Orwell, please feel free to consult me beforehand. I’m here to help.