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Cry Wolf
Few books invite such potential misunderstanding as Cry Wolf. Paul Lake’s political allegory, the literary antecedents of which include Aesop’s Fables, the medieval bestiaries of Theobaldus and Phillippe de Thaün, and Orwell’s Animal Farm, contrasts the domestic animals who reside at Green Pastures Farm with the wild animals who inhabit the surrounding forest. A strict code of law combines with an abiding religious faith and an enduring respect for the common good to render the farm animals temperate, amiable, and civilized. Freedom and toleration define their communal life. In the forest, savagery prevails; the world beyond the fence is divided between predator and prey and is thus irredeemably barbarous.

Trouble ensues when the citizens violate their most hallowed commandment (“NO TRESPASSING”) and permit an injured doe to remain on the farm until well enough to return home. A menagerie that encompasses every species from raccoons and possums to beavers and weasels follows, straining the limited resources and disrupting the civil order of the farm. The struggle culminates in a war of all against all in which survival of the fittest is the only mandate. Amid the national debate over immigration, the growing anxiety about the presence of foreigners in American society, and the chronic fear of terrorism, Lake’s meaning could not seem clearer. Outsiders who do not share the heritage, culture, and values of the West, and who cannot or will not assimilate them, constitute the principal threat to civilized society and the American way of life.

Would that Lake’s cautionary tale were that simple! It might, after all, be reassuring to imagine that Lake has identified the source of, and the solution to, the most urgent American social and political problems of the new millennium, and that by restricting or eliminating the immigration of certain peoples, as occurred during the 1920s, and by expelling other undesirable aliens, Americans can again make the United States, if not the world, safe for democracy. Such a facile analysis, of course, would also make Cry Wolf easier to dismiss as a racist invective.

Lake has different intentions and a more complex purpose. Although occupied with the challenges of the moment, he also raises perennial concerns about the establishment of justice and the maintenance of order that have troubled every society, including those that did not aspire to defend individual freedom and self-government. To quell the lawlessness and turmoil that have invariably bred political chaos and economic ruin, the citizens of Green Pastures Farm have revived the old idea of the commonwealth. Exalting the public weal against the interests of private individuals or corporate assemblies has enabled them to avoid political fragmentation, to keep the peace at home, to secure their borders, and thereby to protect their lands from internal and external foes. This community of shared commitments and responsibilities links field to pasture and pigsty to chicken coop. “Many animals, one farm,” explains Gertrude the goose, the devout custodian of tradition. “A farm is made up of many different species….” she continues:

By nature, each wants to associate with its kind. It first looks out for its own individual interest, and then the interest of its species. But on a farm we have to look past ourselves. We have to learn to consider the interest of others….Individually we each have our own strengths, but together, we are something larger and more powerful. Separately, our survival is uncertain; as a farm, though, we are powerful—and one.

“Hoof, web, paw, claw,” she concludes, “on level ground, under one law.” By this fortunate dispensation the animals enjoy equality before the law and provide for the common defense without at the same time encroaching on cherished liberties.

Political stability has also quickened the economic growth and development of Green Pastures Farm. Comparatively exempt from plunder, the animals savor a rich harvest that keeps them well-fed through the lean winter months. Yet, “lacking hands,” they can collect only a small portion of the fruit from the orchard. The horses pick the peaches that hang on the lower branches and shake the rest to the ground for the pigs to gather. Blackbirds, however, steal with impunity the cherries that are too high for the horses to reach. When Rags, a racoon, intrudes upon the farm, some of the animals, notably the pigs and horses who love cherries and can never get their fill, want to disregard the law against trespassing and admit him, provided he forswears his wild nature, embraces their domesticated ways, and consents to discharge the tasks that other animals cannot or will not perform. The debate that takes place in the Animal Council recapitulates the tensions that have been at the heart of American national mythology and consciousness for more than a century.

One argument insists that the United States is a “melting pot,” “God’s Crucible” as the playwright Israel Zangwill described it in 1908, in which all are welcome, where the weary and careworn masses can jettison the past, begin life afresh, and fashion a new identity. According to this view, America is a redemptive nation founded on the propositions that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Although the principles, institutions, and values that sustain this creed are distinctly American, they can, given the proper climate, flourish anywhere and be taken up by anyone. The assurance that everyone can become an American, that everyone can take advantage of the economic opportunity and political freedom that America offers as a gift to the world, now constitutes the official ideology of the United States government, articulated to each new citizen:

Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born. Our country has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by principles that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every citizen must uphold these principles. And every citizen, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.1

Alternately, Americans have conceived of themselves as a homogeneous people bound together by a common heritage and a common blood, which uniquely prepared them to appreciate the benefits of freedom, progress, and self-government. This doctrine cast Asians, Africans, and Hispanics, along with most Southern and Eastern Europeans, as inferior to those of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. No amount of education or discipline could transform such “mongrel races” into useful and virtuous citizens of the Republic. They must, as a consequence, be excluded from the American polity, or, at the very least, subjugated to their social, cultural, and natural betters.

Confusion about these two points of view leads to tragedy at Green Pastures Farm. Entertaining inconsistent, if not contradictory, ideas, the citizens do not know what is best, or even what they really believe. Doubt about the legitimacy of their outlook torments those determined to respect the law, for they have no wish to be “xenaphobic breedists” intent on withholding equal rights from minorities.2 The Professor, a barn owl sinister in his ambition and cunning, manages to persuade many of his compatriots that “the distinction between tame and wild is an illusory construct.” More sophistical than wise, the owl ridicules the traditions, customs, and practices of the farm as discriminatory and unjust, substituting in their place such abstract doctrines as “Biodiversity” and “Many-Animalism,” the great principles of nature that will set the world aright.

“Biodiversity,” the Professor intones, “is the idea that the more various forms of life there are in a given environment, the better the chances are that all will thrive and be happily interdependent.” Similarly, “Many-Animalism” implies an appreciation of differences without also succumbing to the temptation to presume that one species is in any way superior to another. The owl teaches, as one of his students recounts in the annual commemorative pageant, that “Green Pastures Farm is not built on laws and customs, but on the idea that housecat and cougar, grizzly and billy goat, heron and hen are all brothers and sisters beneath their skin and feathers.”

Lake, though, is careful not to equate the sort of racial nationalism that the Professor decries with racial purity. The farm, Lake shows, was long home to a diverse population before the immigrants arrived. Tameness is thus not a racial inheritance or characteristic; it is, on the contrary, “a spiritual achievement” that requires many generations to complete and perfect. Differences among the animals prove complementary, as they achieve inclusion and forge unity through their struggles to cultivate, defend, and preserve the land they have come to love.

Is, then, the welfare of Green Pastures Farm predicated on the exclusion of certain species, or can the animals survive by implementing a more flexible and expansive immigration policy? By turns reluctant and impatient to embrace newcomers, Americans in the twentieth century followed no uniform course of action. The Johnson Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed (National Origins) Act of 1924, passed in the wake of World War I and the first Red Scare, established quotas that favored “Nordics” over “Mediterraneans,” excluded the Japanese, and virtually eliminated immigration from anywhere save Northern and Western Europe.3 At the height of the Cold War, European political radicals also faced intolerance and persecution, although such treatment was not reserved for the foreign-born. Simultaneously, members of some ostracized groups, such as the Irish, Poles, Italians, Slavs, Jews, and others, hitherto disqualified from complete participation in American life, gradually won acceptance.

Can the farm be similarly accommodating? If, at times, Lake suggests not, if in his effort to caricature diversity, multiculturalism, and other liberal nostrums, he occasionally goes too far in positing an unbridgeable divide between the animals of the forest and the animals of the farm, his critique is not innately racial. It is, rather, political. More specifically, it is Aristotelian, inasmuch as Lake, like Aristotle, contends that virtue derives from instruction, habit, and experience. “None of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature,” Aristotle declares, “since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.”4 The fate of Green Pastures Farm rests not on the defective genetic makeup of the immigrants but instead on bad political judgment.

In the end, expediency triumphs over law, and the animals decide to welcome Rags the raccoon, his family, and other immigrants not primarily from a sense of magnanimity or justice, but because of the chores they can execute, from picking fruit to milking cows. They soon come to regret their decision. The venerable cow Eudora implores her fellows “to remember how clear and simple their lives used to be before the wild animals arrived….We used to do these jobs ourselves,” she reminds them.

Maybe we didn’t pick every apple or pear, but we never starved. Hard work builds character, it gives us pride in who we are. In performing our daily tasks, we learn to trust and depend upon each other—because our own success depends on our service to the farm. Turning our jobs over to others might seem like a bargain at first, but it makes us weak.

At the urging of the Professor, the initial acceptance of, and even homage to, difference that the animals exhibit soon passes into a denunciation of the farm as hopelessly breedist and oppressive. The deluge follows in which, just as Eudora predicted, the domesticated animals lose control of their beloved community, and many also forfeit their lives.

A destructive “hard” Many-Animalism that pronounces the farm beyond salvation replaces the more conciliatory “soft” Many-Animalism that valued the cohesion of the farm in all its variety.5 However well-intentioned, all programs of assimilation, the Professor submits, “are informed and upheld by violence.” The Constitution is a “mask to hide…privileged status. Its purpose is to uphold the binary division of animals into wild and tame; to privilege the ideology of tameness to the exclusion of other equally valid perspectives….It also fails to take into consideration historic injustices.” Dogmatic and coercive, the traditional order of the farm inhibits the aspirations of immigrants and must, therefore, be condemned and discarded.

The Professor assumes that, in its truth, purity, strength, and resilience, immigrant culture will inaugurate a revolution that abolishes exploitation and transforms the farm into a model of social justice. Lake writes:

In their two weeks under the owl’s tutelage, the farm animals…learned that their system of government—and indeed their entire way of life—was an insult to nature and reason. Defending their former customs and habits was also considered offensive since it demonstrated a continued desire to dominate and exclude. Progressive opinion on the farm now held that the status quo was unacceptable. Radical changes were needed to make the farm more suitable to its rapidly growing population of forest-born citizens….[These] sweeping changes were necessary to ensure justice and make them feel more comfortable.

To expose as fraudulent the pretense to freedom and to contest the lingering breedism that infects Green Pastures Farm, the Professor revises the school curriculum to include “required courses on Many-Animalism,” such as “Raccoon Studies,” so that all breeds can “celebrate their own…special qualities and contributions to the farm.” He also eliminates mandatory attendance at chapel for students and orders the crèche used in the Winter Festival held to worship the Spirit-Shepherd permanently removed to the basement of the barn. Such initiatives are designed to curtail or eradicate the impulse to venerate the myths and history of the farm and to replace them with narratives of minority anguish, oppression, perseverance, and success.

With “whole phyla of resentments every day” giving “status to the wild men of the world,” the owl also incites a politics of envy.6 The partisan mistreatment and economic adversity that the “forest-born pre-citizens,” as the wild animals must now be called, have suffered in an unfair and corrupt system justifies their devising a furtive government and a subterranean economy. Resorting to violence and crime as political weapons, they foster an atmosphere of intimidation and mayhem throughout the farm, which the natives deem an affront to civility. Such organizations as the Breed, the Marsupial Militia, and the Canine Brotherhood constitute a strident and uncompromising criminal element that is less-than-animal, immune to correction and enlightenment, and unfit for inclusion in the society of dog and horse, cow and pig, duck and chicken. Robbery, assault, blackmail, and murder follow, as the once- tranquil community of Green Pastures Farm spirals toward destruction.

The finale is apocalyptic. An abortive uprising leaves the tame animals dead, locked in mortal combat, or fleeing for their lives. Civilization as they have known it is finished. Recovery is impossible. Unfolding from events with a dramatic but inexorable logic, Lake’s conclusion to the saga of Green Pastures Farm is extravagantly pessimistic, a shortcoming that torments many conservatives. Although he is eager to sound the tocsin of impending crisis, Lake’s sense of inevitable defeat mutes his call to arms. By the end, any gestures of defiance and restoration seem impossible and pointless. They have come too late. Charlemagne will not arrive in time, if, indeed, he has even heard the summons. All is lost.

Lake’s vision of the American future is conceivable, and may yet prove accurate, but it is also unlikely. Two more realistic possibilities, short of an American Götter-dämmerung, are the resurgence of a truculent bigotry or the decline of national cohesion. Neither prospect bodes well for the fate of the United States. The first reafirms the opinion that some peoples are unworthy of inclusion in American life; the second endorses the primacy of racial, ethnic, religious, local, or cosmopolitan allegiances at the expense of national identity. For those yearning to preserve a nation that is both powerful and benevolent, such disagreeable alternatives only heighten the responsibility to acknowledge the historic complications that encumber the American tradition.

In Cry Wolf, Lake has undertaken that demanding assignment, tacitly posing the momentous questions that will, or that ought to, determine the nature and quality of American life in the twenty-first century. He wonders aloud whether American civilization is any longer distinct not from that of the Old but from that of the Third World, and whether the American people retain the vigor and the competence to preserve their birthright. Despite his suggestion that they do not, that the case is already terminal, the questions remain open. “What eye can pierce the depths in which the character and fate of nations are determined?” asks Jacob Burckhardt. “For the people that seems to be most sick the cure may be at hand; and one that appears to be healthy may bear within it the ripening germs of death, which the hour of danger will bring forth from their hiding-place.”7 Vital to the fitness and longevity of men and nations are the judgment to discern the presence of illness before the symptoms become acute and the will to effect a cure before the affliction turns deadly.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 2010). 

Notes:

  1. Quoted from the form letter, written over the signature of George W. Bush, presented to all naturalized citizens. I wish to thank David Jun Yong, a recent graduate of Randolph-Macon College who also recently became a citizen of the United States, for providing me with a copy.
  2. Xena is the name the Professor gives to the injured doe. He tells the other animals that the name means “Guest.” Later when the Professor denounces the animals’ supposed xenophobia, they confuse the word with “the name of their old friend, the doe” to whom no one wished to seem inhospitable. Hence, the term “xenaphobia” enters their language. See Cry Wolf, 21–22, 39.
  3. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had already prohibited Chinese immigration. The National Origins Act did not apply to the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
  4. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. J. A. K. Thompson (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 91.
  5. For the distinction between “hard” and “soft” multiculturalism, see Gordon Wood, “The Losable Past,” The New Republic (November 7, 1994), 48–49.
  6. W. H. Auden, “Canzone,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 256.
  7. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: Modern Library, 1954), 319.
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