By Lorenzo

A feature of modern life is the creation of sub-cultures. Goth, punk, gay, BDSM, etc. Or sub-cultures within sub-cultures, such as the bear community with the gay community.

Given the creation of large, anonymous cities, mobility, capacity to produce for niche markets and human diversity, subcultures are likely a natural creation of modern life.

Culturally diverse cities are hardly a new thing. Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria, for example, was notorious for its cultural diversity; something that was regularly a threat to public order.

Consider Philo of Alexandria being appalled by the pagans and their queer parades:

At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet.

One could be reading a modern Jewish, Christian or Muslim denunciation of the Sydney Mardi Gras, or any Gay Pride parade of your choice. Of course, being the good Jew and upholder of God’s Law that he was, Philo wants the queers put to death. But wishing a queerfrei society is, given the reality of human diversity, an unattainable goal. The outlook does, however, create a permanently available, highly vulnerable group to denounce and to parade one’s righteousness against. Very useful for clerical authority, as is still on display in places where a robust monotheism remains the go (such as American evangelism, African Christianity, Islam). The one thing devout Jews, Christians and Muslims can agree on in Israel/Palestine is denouncing teh queer.

A judenfrei society is somewhat more attainable, given sufficient brutality. As the pagans were squeezed into insignificance — for which the murder of Hypatia is a reasonable marker — it was then just Jews versus Christians, and the Jews turned out to be very much the losing party in that. After one particularly vicious riot, what appears to have been the first ever pogrom forced the Jews out of Alexandria in 414, though they eventually returned.

But Alexandrian divisiveness was not done, because then it became Orthodox versus Monophysites, part of the Christological debates which led to the splitting off of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the most famous of which is the Coptic Church. Things seem to have settled down somewhat after the Arab conquest in 641, as the dhimmi restrictions imposed heavy penalties for any breach of public order and systematically suppressed the capacities of non-Muslims.

Still, for many centuries, Alexandria remained a Jewish city, a Greek city, a Coptic city and a Muslim city. Like much of the rest of the Middle East, the Jewish presence in Alexandria has been reduced to insignificance after the creation of Israel. (Israel in fact took in many more Jews from the Middle East than from postwar Europe; the notion of Israel as a “settler” society is a wild over-statement, one that completely ignores Jewish refugees from other Middle Eastern countries.) The Greeks have largely emigrated. Now it is the turn of the Copts, part of the Christian exodus from the Middle East. This may appall the more liberal-minded Muslims, who realise that it will leave them next on the hit list, but that is the trouble with the moral exclusion game — anyone can play it. Once Arab nationalism defined the Jews out, this legitimisation of the game of exclusion turned out to be no barrier against the next step.

But the diverse identities of Alexandria are ones that people are usually born into — though much of the point of the dhimmi restrictions was to encourage conversion; something that they were successful at over time, slowly building a Muslim-majority Middle East. (It is possible that Egypt was still a Christian majority country as late as the Crusader period.) They are very much family-based identities.

Modern urban sub-cultures are much more about chosen identities and connections. Or, in the case of the queer community, an identity that is not of your family. They speak to the mobility and possibilities of modern urban life. A combination of freedom and prosperity.  And such sub-cultures can rise and decline; it is a continuing game. Is being Emo, for example, anything more than neo-Goth? A form of generational differentiation?

It is easy to denounce such chosen or created communities of identity as shallow and superficial. In a way, yes.  But are the deeply historically grounded identities of the Middle East really a clear improvement?

One could argue that Salafism and Islamism are also modernist adaptations. The problem with that analysis is that they are also modern versions of recurring tendencies in Islam which go back to its founding; part of a recurring pattern of waves of reformist Islam seeking to regain its original purity. Just as Islam has also had modernising waves, which have ended in defeat.

I enjoy the diversity of modern Australia. But I am also aware that that diversity works somewhat better in Melbourne than in Sydney, as the interaction between geography and history has created a much more socially divided harbour city than bay city. The “we must defend our nice views” elite of Sydney being entirely deaf to the concerns of “racist” bogans about public order had much to do with the Cronulla riots.  Diversity has to be managed too. A sense of identity, of playing a certain cultural game (whether chosen or inherited, where family-based or individual), seems to be part of being human. The ability to differentiate between listening to others and pandering to over-developed senses of righteousness (whether yours or others) seems to be very important in managing diversity.


  1. RipleyP
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I often link subculture to the theme of fear or security. Belonging to a community could be a way of buttressing oneself from the potential harm from others or other sub cultures. It is even a way of rejecting the dominant culture. Obviously this applies only in some circumstances of sub culture.
    Violence such as the Cronulla riots may be considered as fear of the other and an act of mob violence to quell the fear by hurting the other.

  2. Posted October 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I would not underestimate “no bastard will listen!” as an element in the Cronulla riots.

  3. RipleyP
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo @3

    True, the perception of being a disenfranchised segment of the society has potential to be part of the cause of the riots. I say perception as I don’t have enough information to be more specific.
    It was the racial aspect of the riots with the targets being persons of a different cultural group that suggested to me the fear factor. In this my thoughts were that there was a fear that the “other group” would take over the areas. In essence an extension of the normal turf battles common within the area.
    I also recall there were accusations of assaults against women that were part of the lead up to the main events. In this fear of attack leading to action to defend what is the Bogan way of life.
    I think the events of Australia Day 2005 which was prior to the riots is indicative of being a group who believe they are disenfranchised. In this there were acts of civil disobedience directed at authority figures which suggests a protest to be heard.
    Yet to argue against my own position I have to accept that the targeting of the other group could be an indication that there is a belief the other group has a preferential place in the society and has its views and opinions given preference. We all hear the allegations by some persons regarding the assistance illegal immigrants are granted upon arrive. In particular there are often allegations such immigrants are given greater resources and preference than citizens.
    Thus I am now torn between two positions

  4. Rick
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Hi Lorenzo,

    Good post. I always enjoy reading your work.

    I don’t quite agree with the final paragraph re Sydney/Melbourne, I’ve also noted that this is the second time in as many weeks that you have made similar claims. Whilst a clash of cultures between the Islamic Lebanese community and “bogans” was shockingly evident in Cronulla, I am seeing the same issues between “bogans” and the outsider being replicated in large areas of Melbourne, particularly with regards to sections of the Indian student and the Somali communities. The issues at play are deep-set and I won’t pretend to know the answers, but I think they are more of a broader issue of how we progress multiculturalism in Australia than a true critique on the cities. With Western Sydney being the most culturally diverse region of Australia it is logical that the flash-point between “bogans” and the other originated there first.

    Having lived in the inner-North of Melbourne for some time now, I am fairly used to hearing the critiques you have made re the greatness of Melbourne’s diversity/”social inclusion” etc etc. My standard response is now to point out that when you consider the dominance that the AFL has over the cultural fairground of Melbourne, it is truly bizarre that there has never been an openly gay player at the elite level. Which brings the question that either: 1) gay men in the southern state do not participate in sport in the same rate as their northern brothers, or 2) that the culture of the premier sporting institution in the state has never been inclusive enough to have allowed a player to properly reveal their sexuality.

    As another side note, the propensity to label others as “bogans” is also much higher in the southern state. The Things Bogans Like blog is a great critique of what the “hipster” element of the inner-north think of their compatriots outside the tram network.

    My wife, a Northcote native, thoroughly hates it when I pursue both those arguments at bbqs. I’ve lost us a few friends I think.


  5. Posted October 21, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks 🙂 My point is not that social tensions are absent in Melbourne, it is that that they fail to spill over into actual riots. The tensions exist, they are just better managed.

    As for the lack of an openly gay footballer at elite level in AFL, sadly that is a sign of its social reach — the pull of “lowest” common denominator.

    [email protected] I would hesitate to argue how much a factor fear was; resentment and feeling disenfranchised/ignored are pretty strong emotions in themselves.

One Trackback

  1. By Skepticlawyer » ‘Manners cost nothing’ on October 19, 2012 at 5:06 am

    […] In the distant past, people lived in small communities for the most part and everyone knew everyone else’s business (‘whose boots were under whom’s bed’, as my mother used to say). Of course, certain societies could produce partial exceptions to this rule: the great cities of the Roman Empire or Ming China were large enough to allow anonymity, and there is fairly good demographic evidence that 40% of the population of Roman Italy lived in urban centres during the first two centuries of our era. For a pre-industrial society, this is staggeringly high, and perhaps accounts for the ‘lifestyle diversity’ of the Roman world. People could move away from their youthful cockups and disappear into the city, or seek out other people who wished to live ‘alternative lifestyles’. The pacifist, vegetarian Pythagoreans are a classic example (they lived in communes), but so was ancient Alexandria’s thriving LGBT community, which Lorenzo documents beautifully here. […]

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