Subaltern

Something that has unconsciously worked its way into my day-to-day observations has only recently been made apparent to me: There is a crucial difference between what is socially acceptable and what is moral. The reason this is hard for people in my generation to understand has largely to do with the way that lessons taught in school, in Church, and in the media often fuse together into a semi-conscious will to avoid causing offense and to avoid breaking taboos. How do children decide when and how to prioritize the various messages they receive from their elders? I suspect that for the most part we don’t. Our observations give us the whole of our understanding of how things are done, and for us it means back up, and stay away. Stay away from danger, stay away from controversy, do what needs to be done, and relax the rest of the time. This means that entertainment and news media are given free reign to dictate our desires. Since God and society implicitly (but never explicitly) go hand in hand, inaction has become part of modern man’s creed. He treats his body and mind like a playground because he believes that belief is his only requirement; for salvation, for good citizenship, and for moral and social approval.

I think this is what it means for “Church and State” to be separate in the 21st century. Rather than fight or contradict one another, they simultaneously erode so that they maintain separate functions. Near those statues in Boston there’s a bookstore in which you can purchase certain books for just $1, and one book I picked up there was The Party of Fear by David H. Bennett (1989). The beginning of the book goes over the history of anti-Catholic immigrants in the early-mid 19 century in the US. From my point of view it’s easiest to see how the authority of the state can override the will of American Catholics to obey Catholic doctrine, but of course Protestants have a similar fear and will probably raise their fists over it much longer than Catholics ever will. Bennett largely intends to demonstrate how paranoia is at the center of “far-right extremism.” I would challenge him to demonstrate how those fears have been proven unnecessary, if at all!

Children and teenagers do of course challenge authority and carve out their own places in society, and as far as I can tell that’s how it always is. But my guess is that subcultures are more alive now than before, in place of nationalism or religiosity, and this often ties them to ideas or goods that can be sold to them.

A few months ago I learned a new word: “subaltern.” I take it to mean a person for whom the belief systems of the day have no relevance. Someone whose ideological comrades are either long dead, or not yet born. As far as I can tell it is usually supposed to refer to people who have been colonized by Europeans and don’t fit the power-structure made for them. But long-gone are the days when the British Empire was invading countries all over the world, and from the looks of it, they tend only to invade where they’re told to invade.

A more interesting book that I’ve checked out of the library twice now, called Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler (which I’d heard about from a recorded LSE lecture I was listening to last summer while painting) contains the following passage about the Israelite exiles being sent away and replaced:

“This scattering of Assyria’s subject peoples could be seen as a shrewd policy to unify the diverse populations of the empire by cutting them off from their traditions -an imposed ‘melting pot’ solution. All deportees…are to be ‘regarded as Assyrians’; as such they were deemed to have a duty to palah ili u sarri, ‘to fear God and King.”

The footnote attached after the word “solution” says the following: “Parpola (1999) claims it was quite deliberate: ‘The Aramaization of Assyria was a calculated policy aimed at creating national unity and identity of a kind that could never have been achieved, had the empire remained a loose conglomeration of a plethora of different nations and languages.'”

Are there any places in the world that aren’t subject to the same fate as the Assyrians? The Indian reservations come to mind, as do the Amish country, and Kleinfontein in South Africa. Japan is likewise committed to holding on to its ethnic identity, despite its dangerously low fertility rate. But how long can these places hold out? Long enough for every country in the world to turn into a ‘developing country’?

If morality means something aside from staying in line and keeping quiet, it must be tied to a sense of identity. To maintain a strong sense of identity, especially one that cannot be commodified, is one of the most socially unacceptable things someone can do right now. The state has no problem with subcultures, and more and more, traditional values become subcultures themselves. The true subalterns can flee into their log cabins in the woods and fly their Confederate flags and hunt bears unimpeded.

Much of John Milton’s goal in composing Paradise Lost was to convince readers that freedom of choice is necessary so that we may be given the opportunity to choose good over evil, rather than be told what to do. Most of the material that can lead us to the right choices are collecting dust somewhere, while their competitors are much more vibrant, colorful, and hypnotic.

There’s just one thing I can’t work out: if we were all to start making those choices to act morally and reject social acceptance, would we be proving Milton right or wrong?

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