Instead of Suffocating In Neoliberal Reality Open the Airway

Photo by Jackson David

The fact that our realization of what we are expressing deepens through the act of creatively expressing it….certifies our act of creation to be worthy of the name “art.”…. Ultimately speaking, the real purpose of art is … to awaken us and make us free.

– Paul Levy, Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil

Having received notice of a South Utica neighborhood meeting at which candidates for the school board were coming to present their positions forum-style, though its technically not our neighborhood and our kids are long grown, we went. We have only begun to pay attention to the schools again now that our grandchildren, age 8 and 6, attend. Like Orin and me a generation earlier, Cora and Nico’s parents have “hung tough” against the powerfully irresistible tide that moves parents out to the suburban, i.e., better, schools. Adding to my interest was the fact that during the last School Board elections I heard, for the first time, middle class white parents speaking up for keeping their kids in Utica schools, something I’d given up on ever hearing!

One of the candidates, “PM,” the conservative choice among the three who showed up that night (out of 6 running), has made himself notorious in Utica by being the “Right-to-Life” guy. His weekly vigils outside Planned Parenthood that include garish images of fetuses, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, and his piety are a feature of Utica life going back perhaps three decades. I personally have long avoided contact with him but also have had no reason to make contact. I do know, besides being a Right-to-Life zealot, PM is a film maker. Years ago, he filmed scenes for one of his movies at our Cafe. Turns out, when I looked him up online after the meeting, he is also a poet and not a terrible one. I learned as well that he moved his family into Utica (as Orin and I did) specifically so his children would have the advantage of diversity (in Utica we have a lot of that!) in their education. Since for parents who could afford to live in the suburbs there are few other plausible reasons to make such an extreme “lifestyle” decision, I took this as truth.

Through the local grapevine, I know enough of PM’s story to know that previous to his picking up the Pro-Life cause, he was a successful business owner and serious cocaine addict, and that addiction destroyed his marriage and his previous livelihood. He now sells diamonds.

Thus, from the liberal/progressive point of view, we who attended the candidate forum were faced with 2 good ones and one bad. But I could hardly keep my interest in the mostly tedious recitation of the “positive changes” supported by the good candidates: i.e., “fiscal accountability,” “collaborative process,” “positive social environment promoting diversity, inclusion and equity,” etc. Any mention of specific programs was limited to athletics and the new “CTE” program that will lead to employment opportunities in technical fields.

Here’s the thing: The only interesting input to the forum came from right-winger PM! He alone mentioned explicitly the dirty little secret, i.e., that parents with middle class incomes avoid the Utica schools rather automatically; it’s a no-brainer. He raised it as a problem to be dealt with, and not only with better control over “optics.” That is, he implied the need for a better education! Because nobody mentions this anymore (I harken back to John Holt’s pro-homeschooling books, to Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Summerhill free school-type experiments, etc., and to John Taylor Gatto’s critique of compulsory education), it’s as if prioritizing the quality of the education is something we’re not supposed to talk about, as if wanting excellence were code for “elitism” and exclusivity. Moreover, more than once, PM brought up art and music programs, those “other subjects” that aren’t part of the school discourse these days.

It’s possible, when he repeatedly brought up “parental control” PM meant it in the full reactionary sense. How I wish now I’d asked! Certainly use of that language struck people – including me, at least potentially – as an offensive move – a call for book bans and muzzles on matters pertaining to LGBTQ students and “critical race theory.” But we don’t know that for sure. If his critique were taken to its radical end, if he’d used the word “local” instead of parental, he could be approaching a worthy critique of our government-controlled compulsory education system.

In that audience, dislike for PM was palpable. Although the meeting remained civil, practically everything he said elicited derision. One young woman bravely stood up to ask how would he, a pro-life advocate, who has a history of intimidating young women who seek Planned Parenthood services, be able to be fair towards the high school students who might be seeking those services. In his one most obviously defensive moment, PM flared back he had never intimidated anyone, he was there to pray not to intimidate, that he had helped many young women at a painful moment in their lives, etc.

In the aftermath of the meeting, Orin and I agreed we’d seen cancellation at work. Remarkable to me is not so much that the pro-life candidate stood up for the liberal arts, (and for walking the liberals’ own talk about equality), but that no one else in that audience of middle class people all eager to get their kids and grandkids into the best possible colleges, did! PM is likely unredeemable for my sort of anarchist or utopia-building purposes, being too embedded in his Catholicism and his pro-life zeal to be able to deepen his analysis. No way could I vote for him for a seat on the School Board. But I intuit, perhaps because he has had to rise from the ashes of tragedy, in terms of hard-won personal conviction, PM may be further along than the others I heard that night.


If being a dissenter in liberal reality means I must forge alliances with as strange a bedfellow as PM, I fear I cannot. His religion – though I respect the fact he unquestionably walks his talk – does not meet the demand of an era facing nuclear annihilation and mass extinctions. Although our times call for a response that is religious in its sense of personal meaning and purpose, it’s for something beyond what a practitioner of his Catholicism (he not being an improviser like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day or Daniel Berrigan) can address. However, the “pro-choicers” who would as soon cancel him may be more clueless than he. They have within them some unexamined ambivalence toward human life, and toward their obligation to protect it. How much simpler it is for pro-choicers to take the high ground of superiority, of umbrage at pro-lifers’ crude signage, of disdain for their lack of science, their fundamentalist belief, etc., than grapple, person-to-soul, with the matter of defending human life! That they do not is, at very least, convenient for the “corporatocracy.” The real enemy to human life mattering is not women who got pregnant and aren’t ready or do not want to be mothers; it’s the pure evil of Empire, the permanent war machine, the suicidally insatiable drive for profits to which the majority give silent consent.

By and large, liberals will not grapple with the defense of human life as if it matters for it takes them too close to that repudiated dimension of their own selves – the soul and its reality, an entirely different basis for a life that, without it, can only follow obediently the neoliberal agenda in its erasure of the human.

Not that such grappling would be easy; it would not. But if it weren’t for the fact liberalism’s “convenient” binary thinking incapacitates people to stand up for human lives mattering, we would be united against the neoliberal scourge, rather than fighting each other. We would stand up for the liberal arts in education as being the heritage we have of imagination and heart, the part of our civilization that speaks best (besides pasta and wine!) for our humanity. We would not cancel others as if that were a respectable – or humane or intelligent – behavior, when all it does is harden the lines of divisiveness and exclusivity.

In my case, though I’d spent much of my life in the effort to fit in liberal reality, voluntarily “binding with briars my joys and desires”(William Blake) with nary a “black-gowned friar” in sight, there came a time when liberalism’s binary thinking became personally uncongenial to me. That is, once my real soul had charmed me with its (to me) previously unimagined largeness and inclusivity, the pain caused by liberalism’s restrictive binarism became too great. At that point, it became necessary to learn an art of living for which I was unprepared, and am still struggling to learn.


The Temenos Talks held monthly at The Other Side center on my reading of my current Counterpunch essay and the discussion that follows. I barely publicize them, so greatly do I dread clueless people walking in and disturbing the vibe. My fear is that people comfortable with liberal binaryness won’t know the value of a “safe space, of “a commons,” of an “autonomous zone,” for they can imagine no need for it. They will not get what’s going on in the Temenos, no matter how hard they might try!

Just now I’m beginning to realize that my dread of such intrusion is – at least in part – my paranoia. At the last Temenos, a woman came back after a first-time visit the month before. I had not expected she would return. Older than me, a retired educator, she’s full of an energy and spirit I tend to associate with Wellesley College graduates, self-confident and used to being listened to – one of the liberal class’s “winners.” For the sake of that vibe that depends on feeling safe, I was afraid of her. When I finished reading, she was the first to speak. She declared in her confident voice, “That was like a breath of fresh air.”

Here this vigorous woman lacking neither friends nor “something to do,” who can check off all the boxes pertaining to a successful career, found my message congenial! My fear vaporized. I was free once more to muse in my way, my dream-voice narrative intact. That is, souls – as perceivers distinct from “I”- perceive something’s missing in the shared reality. It’s not cognizable, since no one speaks of it. Without encouragement most people don’t pick up on it. They/we accept a bad bargain – zombie-life without charm or passion – instead. And when that perception is at last confirmed by another person, it is like the breath of air essential for biological life.

Her word choice was appropriately poetic for naming the immaterial reality we serve in the Temenos talks. What goes on in them is the breath of fresh air. So utterly disregarded, shunned, discounted, despised is the soul in liberal reality, taking up its cause in Utica is a battle (its front interior and invisible), from which there is little respite. In taking it up, the words cherished by English religious radicals in the 1700’s – Blake included – speak loudly: And he hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty, and base things of the world and things which are despised hath God chosen, yea things which are not to bring to nought things that are.” (Corinthians 1:27-28) And an additional line is worthy: ”so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

“Things which are not” describes perfectly the existence of the soul in materialist liberal reality!

The ability to imagine oneself as the thing which is “base” and despised – to be it! – and at the same time what “God has chosen” removes all capacity for boasting. The little known path to commonness, offers both liberation from hierarchy and liberation for the soul. Commonness is the humanizing identity for our times. All the other “goods” so desperately needed – peace, justice, ecological balance and sustainable living – depend upon restoring commonness, commonality, the in-common. No small task for a civilization led by the motive of profit and power over others since at least the days of the Roman Empire, that has sought to surpass commonness over many generations. It’s possible the teachings of Jesus (and Paul) – so clearly and uncomplicatedly favoring the lowly has, with important exceptions, only added to the momentum of those who must have “highness.” Not Jesus’s fault of course, humanity just wasn’t ready.

In my lifetime, the hippie generation picked up the Jesus vibe and embarked well, but lost the way. Seeking the common and in-common, one has to move toward the common; hierarchical liberal reality must be challenged first in its most powerful enthronement, in the ego. Moreover, lifeways that support ego against the upstart “base and despised” things – i.e., our American way of life – are now in question. We don’t need the surgeon general telling us social media is dangerous for children or that loneliness is as bad for our health as cigarettes, nor the climate scientists telling us how much jet airplanes contribute to the carbon footprint, etc. Facts are not transformative, only the soul is.


These days, I’m favoring the term religion art for the heretofore no-name, peculiar art I practice in my writing. As far as I know, I made the term up, inspired by one of African-American author Octavia Butler’s characters whose religion was “God-shaping.” Composed of both the detested and the adulated in liberal reality, “religion art” expresses perfectly the means of improvisational connection with the reality beyond binarism that is available to everyone. Religion art, its subject the thing which is not, is means to resisting systemic evil with love intact. Though the religion artist suffers the interior attacks coming from the unspoken hierarchical certainties of liberalism embedded in her, that continually shatter her confidence, she has the antidote, also within her: the constant and always in-process “other,” continuously wanting expression through her embodied self. The religion artist is a dissenter in liberal reality because, very unboastfully, she’s on the side of the thing which is not, i.e., the inclusive soul, common as dirt, the breath of fresh air for lungs that gasp.

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: