As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well… There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to. There was a person’s appearance also, because it was believed you could tell ‘their sort from over the road’ from ‘your sort this side of the road’ by the very physical form of a person.

Without any context at all, does the above passage blow your hair back? If you’re anything like me, it does, and by no small amount. From her recent novel Milkman, Anna Burns describes a world divided. It’s Northern Ireland during the Troubles but seems to me this could just as well describe America, or Europe, in 2019 — a time when every step and misstep is recorded by a clicking camera and even the statements we unknowingly make have the power to draw dividing lines.

I read Milkman over the holidays while my wife and I traveled between two homes, my parents’ and hers. On a plainly superficial level these households are different. We’ll start with the food. In one refrigerator, there are eggs. In another, there are eggs with a feature about the chicken who laid them, its name, and its hobbies (roaming about, daydreaming). In one house, there is a pellet gun which may or may not be used to shoot squirrels; in the other is a little statue of the Buddha. Different TV shows are watched, different conversations are had. (Often, however, the same board games are played.)

These details are small but telling. A recent study from the Harvard Business Review concludes, “everything is political — including shopping.” Researchers explain that “conservative and liberal ideologies lead consumers to systematically choose different strategies to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.” Patently, the political line runs even between seemingly neutral decisions: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive. In common parlance: “the personal is political,” but I prefer how Milkman frames it: you can “tell ‘their sort from over the road’…by the very physical form of a person.”

And yet:

“A cover is not the book.”

Mary Poppins Returns

For those as yet unfamiliar with Milkman and its stunning pink cover, it is the story of an 18-year-old girl known only as ‘middle sister.’ She narrates the novel with a humorous detachment, referring to the other characters in a similarly vague way — ‘the milkman,’ ‘the real milkman,’ ‘maybe-boyfriend,’ and ‘Somebody McSomebody’ — presumably to maintain anonymity regarding the events that transpire between them. Middle sister lives in a divided culture but has little interest in ‘what’s going on.’ All she really wants to do is learn French, read books from the nineteenth century, and spend a little more time with her maybe-boyfriend (maybe). With her nose in an outdated book, she confesses that she is not trying to challenge the status quo: “I was trying to go under the radar of the status quo.”

Yet to the people in her community, middle sister’s nonpartisan-ism feels strangely partisan. Even her lack of statement is a statement. Which sounds eerily similar to what Lizzie Manno wrote recently about the pop music of 2018: “In today’s world, all music is political,” and the act of writing apolitical songs “feels like a political statement in itself.” Even as middle sister wants to fly beneath all of this — “we didn’t know how not to be partisan” — she is not totally ignorant of it:

…I knew I was losing touch in a crucial sense with communal up-to-dateness and that, indeed, was risky. It was important to be in the know, to keep up with, especially when things here got added on to at such a rapid compound rate. On the other hand, being up on, having awareness, clocking everything—both of rumour and of actuality—didn’t prevent things from happening or allow for intervention on, or reversal of things that had already happened. Knowledge didn’t guarantee power, safety or relief and often for some it meant the opposite of power, safety and relief—leaving no outlet for dispersal either, of all the heightened stimuli that had been built by being up on in the first place.

I consider myself a pretty up-to-date guy, as far as current events go. That is not a joke. I get news updates. I read them. Yet the following scenario has played out more times than I can count: a conversation over dinner or whatever rounds a political bend, happens upon a movement or a cause or an event of great upsettingness, and I have no idea what is being talked about, or only a vague idea, but not enough of one to speak about it with any great eloquence. I feel threatened. Sure: I could speak about certain happenings with some measure of eloquence, but what middle sister says is true: things get added on to at such a rapid compound rate! In this type of environment, she notes, “…there was an awful lot of shame for playing, shame for letting your guard down…” Also, I’m not above the shaming: in moments when I am in-the-know, I like to let others know I’m in-the-know, and pummel them with facts and figures.

Undeniably, ignorance wreaks havoc; more precisely, people acting in ignorance wreak havoc. But that “having awareness, clocking everything” might possibly deliver some eternal antidote is, also, verifiably false. In many instances, knowledge can ease tension or create a peace of mind, but the reverse can also be true.

About all of this, our Near Eastern forefathers were “up on” way before the advent of a newsfeed, way before the Troubles and American politics: the ancient Eden story confirms middle sister’s suspicions, that “knowledge didn’t guarantee power, safety or relief”; in fact, it often imparts the opposite. It often leaves us indicted, vulnerable, confused, anxious, lonely, isolated, and more likely than not wielding our knowledge in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons — leaving “no outlet for dispersal,” and pent-up with “all the heightened stimuli that had been built by being up on in the first place.”

Notably, Milkman’s atmosphere is ‘psycho-political’ rather than violent and terrifying — though the Troubles were violent and terrifying if nothing else, as Anna Burns would know, having lived through them herself. Yet with respect to the seriousness of physical terror, eschewing these elements allows Burns to highlight subtler conflicts, conflicts that could be equally as dangerous, if only for their invisibility:

[T]he ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

Clearly something is happening. There is a major crack running through nearly every element of everyday life. There is violence, yes, but there is also vitriol from our news sources. There are lists of topics not to be spoken about over dinner. There is widespread anxiety and exhaustion and tacit pressures between “their sort over the road” and “our sort this side of the road” — if ever the two would interact, which is rare. Burns’ observations slip beneath the surface of obvious wrongdoing into the territories of deeper confusions, conflicts about what she refers to as “moral correctness” which remain unresolved and, simply, hard to discuss at all.

This is where religion cannot help but involve itself. A universal law of moral correctness can’t be agreed on without a universal lawgiver. Many historians and commentators have debated whether the Troubles were at base a religious conflict. On some major level, the schism fell obviously between Catholic “nationalists” and Protestant “loyalists,” or, in middle sister’s words, “their religion” and “our religion”; many say, however, that more than anything, it was a contest of geography, “ethics,” history, and tribalism — politics, in short. But if the personal is political, I have to wonder whether the inverse would not also be true, that the political is personal — and if personal, how, then, irreligious?

Mind, I’m thinking of “religion” in brass tacks, not exactly as having to do with doctrine or theology, or who’s wearing what kind of robes and saying what kind of thing about a certain flavorless wafer. John Gray defines religion as “a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.” Middle sister lives in an atmosphere of paranoia, of shifting eyes, under a cloud of conflicting stories and images, all of which are angling to answer gut-level questions about goodness, morality, deserving, and righteousness. At any given time, a person with a certain affiliation is “levelling” something against a person of another affiliation, yet the question lingers: on whose authority?

This is where Milkman digs in. Setting aside the particulars of who, where, and when, Burns turns over the why, inviting readers to ask not broadly political questions but specifically personal ones: to ask which stories and images give meaning to our lives. So, as regards this psycho-political atmosphere…our present troubles are indeed religious. There’s no doubt about it.