Formic Liberalism

Ant2by Timothy Lane2/16/15
The link between humans and ants goes back all the way to the Greek Myrmidons, who were raised up from ants in order to give Peleus (husband of the sea-nymph Thetis and later father of Achilles) a kingdom with actual inhabitants. No doubt the degree of organization for war in both ants and humans encourages such notions. But there are other similarities as well.

One interesting link between the two comes in Sarkhan by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. In this one, the doomed heroes of the book capture a North Vietnamese soldier (who had been a Viet Minh artillerist at Dien Bien Phu) where a fake invasion (based on the 1959 Laos “crisis”) is in progress. He considers people like himself to be ants, and wants a society where ants are taken seriously. Later, in explaining their views at the US Embassy in Sarkhan, they discuss a story about a fight between the ants and an elephant. If the ants challenged the elephant on its own ground (the paths through the jungle), it would crush them. But if they tempted it into the jungle, they could swarm all over it and eventually devour it. The connection to the guerrilla wars in Southeast Asia should be obvious.

But one might draw a few other lessons as well. Liberals would like to see themselves as the champions of ants such as the Vietnamese gunner, though in practice their devotion to The People as a collective rather than to people as individuals makes that rather problematic. But one might also note that ants, for all their complex organization, are creatures of pure instinct. They don’t think for themselves.[pullquote]But one might also note that ants, for all their complex organization, are creatures of pure instinct. They don’t think for themselves.[/pullquote]

T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, had Merlin send Arthur to visit an ant colony. (This was originally in The Book of Merlyn, set on the eve of Arthur’s final battle with Mordred. But when the series was combined into a single volume, the last book wasn’t included, so White moved the section with the ants, and another with geese, into The Sword in the Stone, taking out other material such as the deadly magical duel with Madame Mim.) There were a couple of close similarities between White’s version of ants (a satire on totalitarians such as the Nazis) and modern liberals. In addition, one could point out that the ants of the colony do whatever their unspecified leadership tells them to do, which is exactly how ants behave (even if in the real world it’s based on instinct instead of orders).

One of those connections comes when Arthur enters the ant nest. It bears the admonition, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” The saying has turned up elsewhere since then, such as in Robert Heinlein’s libertarian novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and in a recent guest-host appearance for Rush by Erick Erickson (which is in fact the inspiration for this article). Anyone who observes the peculiarities of modern American culture will notice that liberals are reluctant to ban anything (aside from normality, of course), and are equally reluctant to permit negative judgments about abnormality. This may not be precisely the ants’ admonition — but then, they didn’t exactly follow it either.

The second connection concerns the ants’ language. They have a lot of adjectives expressing either good or bad values — but White points out that in reality the only such adjectives are “done” and “not done”. All those other words are merely contextual equivalents of what would be meant. Similarly, liberals use all sorts of words to express good or bad values (especially negatives, such as racist, sexist, fascist, homophobe, islamophobe, intolerant, bigoted). All of these words have actual meanings, but in liberal usage they really just indicate approval or (more commonly) disapproval. (This is hardly new; George Orwell once observed that “fascist” was simply a term used to attack, without regard to any actual meaning.) In essence, technically reversing the ants’ behavior, all these words simply mean someone “agrees with me” or “disagrees with me”. They like the former and hate the latter.

The ant is hardly the model of liberalism, though some feminists might like the world of John Wyndham’s story “Consider Her Ways“, in which a plague wipes out all the men and the surviving women create a new society based on ants. But one can see a lot of similarities between the two, as one can between liberals and any such complex totalitarian society.

Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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12 Responses to Formic Liberalism

  1. Rosalys says:

    I always thought that the Borg (of Star Trek, and based on an ant colony) were a good picture of the Socialist/Communist/Progressive/Fascist/Liberal/whatever-the-name-of-the-day-is party loyalist.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, the Borg are another great example of the insect-like “hive mind” — the very caricature of the individual subsumed by the mob, The Cause, the Dictator, etc.

      But hand it to those ants. They get a lot done without a lot of apparent brain power. Note the commercials (let alone the programming) on Prime Time TV and tell me which species is doing the most with what they’ve got.

  2. Rosalys says:

    My husband does the weekly bulletin for our chapel. In addition to being handed out, it is read aloud just in case someone fails to read it on his own. To save money we don’t order the blanks and my husband designs the covers. Currently he is featuring animals of the Bible, and one week, a month or so ago, it was an elephant. The reader first looked at the picture and jokingly said, “Oh, it looks like we are highlighting the Republicans!” The next week my husband put a bug of some sort on there. The reader said, “What is that? A cockroach?” I confess, it was probably out of order, but I just couldn’t resist; I called out, “Those are the Democrats!”

  3. Jerry Richardson says:

    Since you call
    a collection of ants A colony
    a collection of lions A pride;
    and a collection of wolves A pack;
    and a collection of cattle A herd;
    and a collection of asses (donkeys) A pace;

    What would you call a collection of Progressive donkeys (modern Democrats)?

  4. Rosalys says:

    How about a Slime?

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