zen liberalism

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

Zen saying

Continuing with what I started in the previous post, to connect the two themes of biology and democracy; the 1970’s were seminal. Back then, liberalism was the dominant western philosophy. The wild eccentricities of the 60’s were receding into the past; science seemed ascendant. In southeast Asia, and in the US, the madness of the Vietnam war raged on. But back then people thought it madness, said publicly that war was morally wrong. It was an American war, and Canadians and Europeans were stridently proud not to be part of it. In the US, the Civil Rights, Feminism, and the Peace Movement were in full gear. Everyone watched M*A*S*H and All in the Family on TV. We used to openly laugh at socially conservative people. We wrote them off as dinosaurs, unable to adapt, doomed to extinction.

And this open, progressive, free society was what distinguished us fundamentally from our military adversaries with their closed, regressive, controlled societies, what made us the good guys in our manichaean struggle. The threat of nuclear war hung over us, and truly no one knew what to do about that, but somehow the immediacy of that horror was being rolled back. For one thing, we started playing hockey with Soviet teams. They were really good, but we were sometimes a little better. (Again, a group effort thing.) And Russian crowds cheered the best Canadian players and after a while Canadian crowds cheered the best Russian players. It was still scary to think about the unthinkable, but somehow, those tensions were easing and if both sides kept humanizing each other, rather than demonizing each other, maybe things would keep getting better. We seemed to be on a good path.

Well, somehow we wandered far off that path. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, western liberalism was in full retreat and conservatism was the dominant philosophy. It was our hard line conservatives that broke the Soviets, exhausting the Evil Empire in Afghanistan. True, destabilizing Afghanistan was the initiative of a fairly liberal US administration, but President Carter couldn’t even win a second term, and it was his successor, the deeply conservative President Reagan, who reaped the credit for saving the world when The Wall came down. Today, it is liberalism that is openly mocked, and rightly so. The once compelling ideologies upon which liberalism was built have devolved into disturbing parodies. Scientific research now serves the marketing needs of its funders, feminism is now misandry, egalitarianism is now identity politics, and politeness, which once served as a framework for civil discourse, is now the paralysis of political correctness. It is not that liberalism has nothing to offer humanity. It is not that there are no good people on all those fronts still doing good work, for there are. It is that liberalism is in retreat, has lost society’s high ground, and its practitioners are disparate and desperate, clinging to straws.

Here’s a theory. I think this happened because liberalism could not learn from ethology in the 1970’s. Science was showing us a side of humanity that was dark. And liberalism could not embrace that dark side. Liberalism would not adapt in the 70’s, and today we witness the consequences of that failure. Well, the horse has left; let’s close the barn door now. Prejudice, xenophobia, bigotry, these are not evil. There; I said it.

Xenophobia is part of our heritage. It goes a long long way back. Rats are xenophobic, geese are xenophobic, howler monkeys are xenophobic, wolves are xenophobic. If a rat from one colony happens upon a group of rats from a neighbouring colony, the rat gang members, driven to fury, will tear that lone rat to bits. Xenophobia is a widely distributed behaviour throughout the natural world. A liberal infers that therefore nature is bad. But ethologists would point out that xenophobia is a behaviour that enhances survival, that xenophobia is part of the human package that got us where we are today. In prehistoric times, xenophobia kept us in geographically isolated tribes. So, we did not clump together and over-hunt one area and then all starve. We did not over-pollute one area with our refuse and then die of illness. When plague did strike, it could not carry far because each tribe kept physically apart from others. Plague would not even be the right word; the consequences of a serious communicable disease would be tragic for one tribe only, but not for the adversaries on the other side of the hill. Xenophobia is part of what makes rats and us so successful. And just as surely as a person feels pain or hunger or joy, they can feel xenophobia. That was the lesson ethologists revealed, and liberals rejected.


Now, let us be fair. I am not a rat, you are not a rat, and none of my other readers are rats. We are all super primates in this discussion. And, not to disparage our equally successful fellow travelers, but we super primates have far more complex behaviours, far more choices, than rats have. There’s not much to be gained for ratkind, or for an atypical rat, were that rat to try bucking xenophobic behaviour. But there were huge advantages for human kind, and for a prehistoric human, were that human to not be xenophobic. See those folks over there? They do some things differently, and better, than we do here. Their food smells great. They have stuff over there that we don’t have here, and I could trade them for some stuff we have here that they don’t have. And, the girls over there are not strange looking; they are exotic! These are not murine (ratly) considerations; they are very human considerations. Our behavioural suite includes, along with xenophobia, a significant smattering of xenophilia. Most humans feel genuine uneasiness around ‘others’. Some humans, just as genuinely, just do not. Throughout prehistory most of us stayed in our tribes, and strangers were our demons. And, just as importantly, a few of us wandered off in search of cool stuff, fine dining, and exciting new sexual encounters. We were all better off for the two-pronged approach. And I am pretty sure that this is what’s still driving us super primates today.

Liberalism lost its dominance because it could not make a place for the majority of humans in its ideology. How’s that for a serious flaw? If you happened to fall on the xenophobe side of our biological divide, liberalism demanded you feel ashamed. That you cared for your kids and your parents, that you worked conscientiously for your livelihood, that you were a good neighbour and good friend to those who looked and sounded like you, that you were kind to animals, all of that counted for naught; in the liberal universe you were condemned to hide your true feelings or face social rejection and live in shame.

Yes, there have been gas chambers, lynchings, residential schools. From a liberal perspective, extremes of xenophobia needed to be reigned in. But the chosen tool was just too blunt. Taking a page from old-time religion, xenophobia got defined as evil and everyone was advised to repress themselves when they felt it: so easy for xenophile minds, unable to feel that anxiety. But a relentless blanket of shame was not a policy destined to keep all those well-intentioned xenophobes on side over the long term. Sometime early in the 1980’s a critical mass of people just decided they didn’t need to be ashamed of themselves anymore. Can anyone blame them?

So, liberalism today faces a big problem. It is rejected by a now self-confident majority. Despised as elitist by people who really know how to hold a grudge, it circles the drain of history, a cluster of gross mockeries of the principled ideals for which it once stood. What is liberalism to do? Because, you know, in itself, it’s not really a problem that liberals are not socially dominant anymore. We can all get over that. It’s even poetic justice, because it’s where liberals tried to put conservatives.

No, the real problem is that xenophobes, now in charge, can’t lead us on a path of survival. In the conservative universe ‘might makes right’ is the only conceivable path. Xenophobe minds are designed to see no other way. And that, alas, means eventual environmental collapse and nuclear war for us all.

For this human experiment to continue, for us to keep living healthy primate lives in a functioning biosphere, requires some new robust intellectual structure, with societal behaviour standards that can serve the animal ‘all humanity’. And, alas, it must be conceived and promoted by those no-longer-in-charge xenophiles, because only xenophile minds can conceive something like that.

Call it zen liberalism. It’s a vision that encompasses what we once had and this time also has a place of respect, and healthy restraint, for our xenophobe brethren. Maybe democracy is part of that new vision. Maybe.


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