Though eligible, I did not vote in the 1996 presidential election. Nor did I vote in the 2000 election. My political views, insofar as they can be denoted as such, are somewhat complex and/or unorthodox by generically “American” standards. Suffice it to say that I was nonplussed at the prospect of waiting in line to declare (anonymously) my tacit support for the ostensible policies and predilections of the individuals listed on the ballots.
However, it has occurred to me that perhaps–even for irredeemably disaffected individuals like myself–there is good reason to participate in the 2008 national political process.
Like Benjamin the donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I was “quite unchanged” (p. 37) by the superficial shifts in the political status of the White House. As Orwell writes, “About the Rebellion and its results he would express no opinion. When asked whether he was not happier now that Jones was gone he would only say ‘Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey,’ and the others had to be content with this cryptic answer”. Further, Benjamin argued that regardless of which political position prevails (in the novel it was Snowball/Trotsky versus Napoleon/Stalin), “life would go on as it had always gone on–that is, badly” (56).
Which is not to say, of course, that my lack of interest is reflective of a broader anti-intellectualism (indeed, this is crucial). As Orwell noted, “Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty. So far as he knew, there was nothing worth reading” (40).
It is also important to note that Benjamin was not beyond valuing his friends and comrades and defending them at great cost to himself. When the Animal Farm was invaded by hostile humans bent on violence, Benjamin fought bravely in defense (47). Further, Benjamin was generally a benevolent figure (e.g. 111-112).
However, beyond these instances of simple forbearance and courageous physical defense of friends and family in the immediacy of the homeland, Benjamin consistently refused to participate intellectually in the ongoing evolution of the political on the farm (see e.g. p. 88, 103). Indeed, when hostile human invaders began carrying out the destruction of the precious windmill which the pigs ordered to be built at great cost and sacrifice, Benjamin was the first to accurately assess this and did so with “an air of amusement” (97).
Finally, though, the climactic point of the novel leads to a scenario which even the ancient, “taciturn” Benjamin cannot tolerate. As Orwell writes, the animals “were astonished to see Benjamin come galloping from the direction of the farm buildings, braying at the top of his voice. It was the first time that they had ever seen Benjamin excited–indeed, it was the first time that anyone had ever seen him gallop” (112-3). Benjamin’s singularly rare burst of activity was to get the animals to note that Boxer (who had previously been seriously injured while working) was being “taken away” (113). As the animals followed Benjamin to watch Boxer be taken off in the back of a “van”, the animals crowded around to say “good-bye” (113).
In his final fit of apoplectic exasperation at this final, unforgivable idiocy:
” ‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?’ (113). As one of the animals “began to spell out the words…Benjamin pushed her aside and in the midst of a deadly silence he read: ‘Alfred Simmons, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon. Dealer in Hides and Bone-Meal. Kennels supplied. Do you not understand what that means? They’re taking Boxer to the knacker’s!’ ” (113).
It seems to me that disaffected thinking people cannot take what is usually the “high ground” of non-participation this year in what is an (admittedly) fundamentally and necessarily odious process.
What, exactly, is at stake this year (besides such superficial issues as the economy, foreign policy, etc.)? Here it is instructive to view not the candidates per se, but the constituent blocs which the respective candidates appeal to. At stake are two vastly different cultural perspectives. They are (1) the continuing pursuit of Kant’s “escape” from the “immaturity” of the authority of tradition through “enlightenment” or (2) the triumph of the pre-modern authority of cultural tradition, anti-intellectualism and supernaturalism. This election is the apex of the revenge for the public shaming of the Scopes trial. It’s our last and best chance to resist the inexorable pull towards the lowest common denominator of our western culture.
Of course, Benjamin’s final exasperation and flurry of activity was personally motivated (the impending death of his friend, Boxer). One might fairly ask, where exactly–in the context of this situation–is your Boxer? But I have written too much already.
I will end, though, in a final irresistible point of dark irony (which hints at my own misgivings about Orwell), by noting that Uncle Joe did eliminate his kulaks….