Other, Where Art Thou?: Countering Benign Liberal Intolerance

Any life career that you choose in following your bliss (including choosing love) should be chosen with [the] sense that nobody can frighten me off this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action. – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

The beginning of romantic love in the west was “libido over credo.” The libido is the impulse to life. It comes from the heart., the organ of opening up to somebody else. That’s the human quality as opposed to the…qualities which have to do [only] with self-interest. Ibid.

The prohibitive cost of denying Otherness could not be more crucial to the survival of the human race. Our mass refusal to face the “other within” has engendered…sociopolitical atrocities, genocidal horrors, and environmental devastations—a virulent storm of global proportions…a remedy for this pandemic …can only begin at the root, within each individual, and within our nearest and most intimate relations. It is…in this small and most private of territories that the potential for a truly humane society begins. Daniel Deardorff, The Other Within

The conversation/debate with Vijay reminded me of a thousand conversations i’ve heard before about why we should vote for Democrats.  Personally, i am not looking for more of these type conversations.  I am looking to go to further and to new places in my thinking.  To consider possibilities that i have never before imagined.  I find this hard to do when someone in the conversation prevents any such “out-of-the-box” thinking and rather is a firm believer that the system is working and we need to just play by the rules and then system can be improved.  I have an abundance of people in my life who believe that the Democrats will save us.  And a few who believe the Republicans will save us.  And a few who believe that God or Mother Earth or Zen or Kindness or Love will save us. I’ve been through these conversations many-a-time.  I am very interested in conversations that boldly explore outside of these realms. Carol, local farmer, in an unedited email

Recently a newcomer visited the little “Anti-fascist Book Club” that meets in the Other Side, a nonprofit space next door to Cafe Domenico in Utica, just as we were beginning our discussion of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Dark-skinned, neatly dressed and groomed, Vijay (not his name ) had apparently attended some earlier event, and seeing the book club meeting on the calendar in the window was intrigued enough to make the drive to Utica this evening from an outlying town. After brief introductions, Vijay asked a question of the group – what was our definition of fascism – which immediately put me on guard. I sensed a rationalist trap. One young man (most of our group are young, under 35, except for Orin and myself and one other couple in their 50’s), Rob, gamely provided his quite decent answer to Vijay’s question. Well-brought up people that we are, we continued to politely converse with the newcomer, though it was clear our politics were in different universes. I could feel Orin’s growing impatience; he wanted to talk about the book, plus I think he sensed where this guy was going. When the guest told us he saw Joe Biden as the best candidate so far in the next presidential elections, Orin exploded: “I wouldn’t piss on Joe Biden if his heart was on fire!” Though Vijay left early, to grade papers he explained, he seemed to take the little meeting well, as if pleased with the company he’d found!

Afterward, an online conversation ensued among those of us who’d been there, minus Vijay of course. It was initiated by Charles, who reasoned it was good to be asked to give our definition of fascism, and in general to have to talk with people “outside the choir” who do not necessarily agree with us. I disagreed with him on this, as did Carol, who, though young, has achieved a kind of elder knowing. (see epigraph above).

Maybe because we grew up in a different era than our young friends, Orin and I have learned the hard way that obeying liberal rules of comportment is risky if one is committed to one’s individuality. Back in the mid-90’s, inspired by the Utne Reader-endorsed salon movement, we began conversations in our home to which we naively invited our friends, many of them professionals and academics, and none of them having had the education in “mythopoesy” Orin and I were immersed in. What we found was that the conversational direction, no matter what the topic, was entirely controlled by the severe limits of liberal “imagination.” If Orin or I ventured too far off script, got a little mercurial, talked about indigenousness, or an idea we’d gotten from Robert Bly, or used an illiberal word like “suffering” (an experience I was close to in those days when I was recovering from a breakdown and undergoing an intense psychotherapeutic recovery process) we would be pulled sharply back into line. Any speaking as if “mystical” knowledge, i.e., Thoreau, Emerson, or D.H. Lawrence could be a guide for addressing political realities, was off-the-table for most left-leaners, especially the better-educated ones. Vividly I recall one retired professor’s fully authoritative, Dickensian shutdown of someone’s insight on Yeats’s Second Coming: “That was a serious misreading of the text.”

It doesn’t take much to crush enthusiasm which is always fragile and imperiled in liberal society; it’s easy to replicate the discouraging experiences of even “non-authoritarian” childhoods, to be shamed for one’s excitement, reproved for excessive energies and discouraged from pursuing careers in art. Orin and I became increasingly frustrated with the group, though our friends loved it and would have had us keep it going forever! We were relieved when our new Cafe business gave us an excuse to end the salons. Though regret is a waste of time and this question therefore irrelevant, I ask: who knows how far we were set back in our development of our “othernesses” by this prolonged stay in the realm of the naive?

The occurrence with Vijay demonstrated once more how thoroughly our liberal upbringings mis-prepare us for the struggle for individuality. We absorb the positive value of “talking with each other” to achieve rapport, or at least to avoid serious disputes and enmities, in line with modern liberalism’s shallow, rootless belief in equality and liberality. But liberalism cannot teach that individuality must protect its exuberance, and requires for its health a kind of conscious and intentional suspicion of liberal “tolerance” and “goodness,” which are, some of us eventually learn, masks for intolerance. Thus, even as ecological science teaches us that diversity is necessary for health in nature, the rationalist, materialist biases of secular liberalism assure we will become less capable than ever of achieving it in society. Sameness is now the most effective and reliable unifier among humans in western, liberal, capitalist societies. Sameness is enforced with a different kind of totalitarianism, called “smiley-faced” and also “inverse,” which I understand as meaning “policed” from within individuals themselves. Thus we have perhaps the least supportive social context for individuality, the most conducive to mediated conformity, that has ever existed, at the very moment that we’ve come to realize if life on planet earth has a future, biodiversity, including human diversity is the necessary pre-condition.

To subvert this new totalitarianism each of us, it seems, must fight for liberty in some way, and so cultivate human diversity and genuine toleration for otherness. Each one, as I see it, must become the “other,” whose cause liberalism professes to champion. For that to happen, each one must set him or herself upon the divergent path indicated by libido, a way guided by the soul’s indigenous knowing that links back to nature and earth-based wisdom. Furthermore, to protect the portion of “otherness” one manages to achieve against the odds, safe “democratic” spaces in which we can venture to speak what perhaps we have not before said – or fully thought out – are needed. Our book club is potentially such a group, its purpose not to unify its identity by talking about the clueless “them,” but rather, besides learning the historical frame of anarchist thought, to strengthen the individualities within the group, to create a unity of diverse enthusiasms.

The value of such a community for my social self is to me as priceless as that of my private writing space for my individual self. All of us, not just the young – are raised to be “forever naive” in neoliberal reality and therefore vulnerable to real threats coming from the collective shadow of the liberal mind. To develop our non-conforming voices, we need special communities that can counter the chilling effect of liberal totality’s most potent and disabling weapon: its blindness to “otherness.”

Since the late 90’s I continually have found myself included by friends in an automatic pro-Hillary consensus, a collective enthusiasm I never shared. As there was never any deeper discussion surrounding the matter of political choices, I did not fully come to understand my contrariness as indicative of a deeper “core” value until much later. For a number of years I simply left it that though I was uncomfortable holding such an outsider position, I couldn’t go so far as to fake it. When I tried to produce reasons, either to myself or to my friends, they sounded fault-finding and indefensibly negative, no match for the hearty positive support my friends gave Hillary (Her brilliance, competence,” etc.)

My “differentness” might have remained invisible forever behind the wall of liberal benign intolerance had I not “taken my own counsel,” specifically, if I were not committed to the creative work of my writing. I would never have known that “other” in me who perfectly comprehends the juster world she wants and has no interest in candidates who merely pretend to be for justice and humanity while actually serving the interests of militarism, imperialism and greed. Once one has found this soul-based certainty, one sees clearly the choice is to be either on the side of the “other within,” i. e., to stand up for and live out my real convictions, or to “be a pal” with my liberal friends, hold my nose and vote the lesser-of-two evils. In serving my creativity over benignly intolerant liberal society, I am allied with my “otherness,” source of my individuality, my freedom, my destiny. Though organic and given in our nature, one’s individuality is only discovered transgressively, by the individual following her “bliss.” Moreover, individuality is not morally neutral; the voice that is one’s otherness is the besieged Mother Earth speaking through us; Her point is plain and She has no tolerance for liberal handwashers.

Besides bringing one into alignment with one’s deep convictions, enduring the invisibility of otherness in the larger social context leads to the potential for a more revolutionary social role than that generally designated for the “otherness” of old age. One develops a capacity, I’ll call it “eldering,” that can counter the naivete that causes people who are hungry for acceptance, recognition, and belonging, to fall into liberalism’s traps. In stark contrast to the liberal society that encourages its elders to go quietly into the good nursing homes, the elder role is essential in groups like our book club that “incubate” otherness.

These weird ideas were confirmed for me last Tuesday when Orin and I attended a talk in nearby Troy by the journalist Dahr Jamail, based on his new book, The End of Ice. As a reputable journalist, Dahr provided names, credentials, etc. for every scientist or other public figure he cited throughout his talk. But as well, because his work (i.e., publishing the facts – the truth – of climate change) is anathema to the prevailing denialism, Dahr is an “other.” Not surprising to me, his motivation for being activist-as-other, comes from a completely unscientific, irrational basis. It is based, he told us, in his having gone to a place in nature (Denali, the highest mountain in North America) and listened to what the earth was telling him. At this time of crisis for the earth, all authentic work, however it may satisfy reason’s need for facts, is imaginatively in service to Mother Earth. To take up the imaginative work of recovering one’s otherness, in defiance of neoliberalism’s benign intolerance, to join with others similarly called to their singularity, is now the essence of meaningful revolution.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.