Capitalism

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and Imagining Contemporary Evil

Matt Stannard
Jan. 21, 2018

This afternoon, after several months of periodic readings, my kids and I finished Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow. I had, with only minimal resistance, proposed to read it out loud to my teen, tween, and ten year-old, in partial recognition of having read the Great Brain series, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and a few others to them when they were much younger. Those were sweet days.

I’d rediscovered, or spontaneously remembered, Wangerin’s epic novel, that some have called a “Lord of the Rings with Farm Animals” (although Wangerin’s prose is far more pleasing to read out loud than Tolkien’s, in my opinion), decades after first finding it when I was about 13, reviewed in an issue of Dragon magazine. I enjoyed the book then and learned a lot about the form of the Christian allegory in literature from it. Some might try to call it a “Christian Animal Farm,” and that would be clever but not really accurate. Orwell’s novel was really, really cynical compared to Wangerin’s story of a basically innocent, decent, somewhat emotionally immature rooster being charged by God, through the whispering voice of the Dun Cow, to fend off an attack from the manifest evil coming from a coop and farm far away, and created by a giant devil-worm that lives deep in the earth.

And it is unapologetically Christian, although it’s a Christianity that admits to and celebrates doubt, doesn’t promise happiness to believers, and invests even the simplest characters with a lot of personal autonomy–at least in terms of letting each farm animal set their own route to fighting the great evil that threatens the farm. There are no humans in the book, but there is a chicken coop and hints of other artifacts, presumably implying some now-distant human intelligence. But it’s the animals who are entrusted with defeating the evil animal-gods and demigods put before them.

It’s the nature of that evil, though, that inspired me to read the book with the kiddos this time around. Some of it is chaotic evil, to put it in RPG terms: the evil rooster demigod, the mirror-image of the hero rooster except much more physically powerful and able to create millions of tiny poisonous snakes with its vomit or something, reminds me of both wannabe and real Nazi trolls today, with their performative brutality, their deliberate use of low-grade irony, and simple self-declared mission to destroy all who aren’t them. Some of the book’s evil is lawful evil, a giant wyrm in the earth who believes its very presence and size entitles it to rule and who tries to seduce the hero with promises of power before opting to try and destroy anything that opposes it (that’s what the billionaires do–first they try to buy you and then if they can’t they must silence you at whatever cost).

I’m aware that these are Christian images too, and I don’t know anything about Walter Wangerin’s politics, but if he is an orthodox Christian, his politics are probably pretty different from mine. But I also have to say that my concerns with the alt-right and the billionaire class are more than just “political” in a conventional sense. The important thing is that Wangerin knows that the violent exercise of asymmetrical power and dishonest manipulation of good people are bad things, and his animation of them produces beautifully hideous and revolting villains that, like the heroes in the book, are essentially cartoon characters, but not shallow caricatures. That takes some skill and aesthetic vision.

So as I read the book to the kids a couple of hours at a time over a period of months (I can’t quite remember when we started), I wanted to speak the voices of good, imperfect beings fighting back against others who either wanted to eradicate them for existing (the gratuitous racist violence that’s irreducible to just wealth acquisition), and those who would seek to manipulate or destroy others for the sake of economic gain. These are the twin evils, I think, represented by a large part of the current political order and culture. But my hope is they’d get something more than just politics out of hearing a story about how good, imperfect, mistake-making beings hold their own against those who want to exploit or destroy them.

There are two more books in Wangerin’s Dun Cow series. If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear what you think. I told the kids (who enjoyed the book and admitted on their own they miss sitting around hearing me read to them, I swear) that if any of them wanted to read the other books I’d buy them. I think I’m good with just this one, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful in every way–the incredible wordsmithing, the very deep and emotional development of the characters–and, where it was a tiny bit traditional-gender-roles, easily bracketed and deconstructed (at least I felt so, but obviously could be wrong. Christianity is what it is, unless Wangerin were UCC, which as an M.Div from the Lutheran Christ Seminary-Seminex, I will guess he’s not).

But I want to thank him for doing a very good job representing bravery amid moral frailty, destructive and manipulative evil, depression and self-loathing, vulnerability and forgiveness, even the ineffable tragedy of losing family members, all in a fantasy novel about rooster warriors and farm animal armies.

The drawing above is by Abby, and was inspired by the book. 

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Paris Agreement Discord Highlights Need for Community-Based Climate Action

by Ma’ikwe Ludwig

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
― Arundhati Roy

Today is an important day to listen for that breathing, which can be hard to hear over the justifiably angry buzz that just erupted thanks to President Trump’s pending decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

And well it should be buzzing: this is a terrible idea. Paris got us a half step down the road of doing what we need to do around climate . . .  not nearly enough, but some tangible progress; pulling us out will be two steps backward as whatever delicate trust was built in that process is dashed on the rocks of Trump’s ego.

The buzz is heavy on depression and panic, both of which are completely understandable responses. Without a real change in how we think about the climate crisis, it does indeed look and feel like the final nail in our collective coffin.

I’ve been tracking climate issues since 1987, and at this point, I’m no longer surprised by the capacity for large governmental bodies to sink their heads in the sand while simultaneously blaming others. (Notably, those “others” are usually poor and brown-skinned. China has been the favorite scapegoat for the last decade, conveniently ignoring that their emissions and other pollution numbers include a significant amount of the manufacturing of the cheap and convenient crap we Americans seem to relish).

20 years ago, I started to pursue a completely different track on environmental and social issues alike: deeply grassroots organizing of the structures and habits of our lives, largely in the form of residential intentional communities. And in doing so, I’ve found a viable option that requires nothing of politicians, a tactic that seems more and more practical and needed every day.

What if Americans could get their consumption and emissions down to about 10% of our current average? The answer is that it would be huge. By my best estimates, 10% is about what we need to be doing if we want to be “sustainable”. On top of that, we also need to start massive carbon sequestration projects, such as tree planting and biochar initiatives.

At least one group of Americans are doing just that: residents of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri. I profile Dancing Rabbit and a number of other community projects in my new book, Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, which focuses on climate solutions that are already technologically viable and effective to reduce emissions, and that are available to all of us right now.

These communities hold potential keys to several of our worst problems: not only climate disruption, but also social isolation, massive income inequalities and other social injustices can be worked on in these deliberate pockets of social, economic and ecological experimentation. The ability to live on less (less dollars, less stuff and less stress) is one of the primary benefits of collectively self-determined, cooperation-based communities.

The pockets of creative solution making are literally everywhere. The Communities Directory lists over 1,300 intentional communities, most of them in North America. Not all of them have incredible carbon stats, but all of them that have been studied have notably better carbon stats. Like the Paris talks, they represent significant steps in the direction we need to go in, even if their potential is not yet fully realized. Unlike the Paris talks, they don’t just evaporate at the whim of politicians.

So to my friends out there who are feeling the cold creeping of increasingly likely disaster, I say this: take heart, and take things into your own hands. Let’s stop waiting for politicians who are deeply in debt to the fossil fuel industry and who can’t think outside of the capitalism box to suddenly see the light. Instead, let’s do this together.

Ma’ikwe Ludwig is a long-time sustainability and cultural change advocate, focused on intentional communities, and the intersection of economic and ecological justice. She is currently executive director at Commonomics USA and previously served in that role at the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. 

Poverty and Moral Judgment

How can it be said that anyone deserves their poverty?

What we call “character flaws” are the result of a complex combination of environmental, neurological and cultural factors, plus whatever agency we actually have in dealing with those. To say that anyone deserves poverty isn’t just an unwarranted moral judgment nobody has the right to make, but also an unscientific judgment that misunderstands how humans function.

And, the decisions made by powerful financial actors contextualize where a person making “bad choices” will ultimately land. For example, absent the LIBOR banking scandal, tens of thousands of home foreclosures in Baltimore would not have occurred, even though in the micro-political universe of those individual foreclosures, one could assign any number of individual causal chains as the “reasons” for the foreclosures (X didn’t work hard enough; Y had a drinking problem, etc.).

Even if you say “well, that person had a bad rap in life and they nevertheless overcame their bad luck,” whether X overcomes that bad luck is determined by the very same combination of internal and external factors that landed X in a bad situation in the first place.

Perhaps “economic determinism” (if it’s wholistic; dialectical if you will) is the most compassionate, ethically respectful, and epistemologically justified paradigm there is. Understanding the interplay of these factors can help us build systems that will maximize agency and collectively plan ways to account for all the external factors.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.