Thursday, 2 November 2017

Poppies, Patriotism and Power

And so it is November. The annual pomp and ceremony of Remembrance bears down upon us, and the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Appeal takes centre stage. Public figures – especially those who don't look properly “British” or who have ever expressed political views deemed not sufficiently patriotic – face the poppy test, as self-appointed arbiters of appropriate remembrance-related behaviour take aim over social media, letters pages, forums, and even broadcast media.
I don't know if I was just shielded from this as a child, or whether it has changed. When I was growing up, in the 80s and 90s, in the south-east of England, poppies were ubiquitous, certainly. There was a clear expectation that they be worn. What there wasn't, that I could see, was the vitriolic attacks on those who weren't wearing one, even without knowing the reason. There wasn't the association of the poppy, whatever the stated significance from the RBL, with support for current troops, and generic patriotism. It didn't have the connection, apparently despite the intentions of the RBL, with positive attitudes towards war now. To the best of my recollection, the meaning they seemed to signify was simply the honourable remembrance of the fallen, or at least the military fallen, in all wars, while being agnostic as to whether the wars were good or not.
A PPU White Poppy for Peace
Nowadays, I wear a white poppy. This isn't any rejection of the RBL; when I can afford to, I will donate to them as well, but I won't wear their poppy. The Peace Pledge Union's white poppies are sold by them more or less at cost (any surplus goes into their general funds), and are not raising money for any specific public benefit. Because of this, one of the arguments against them is that the money somehow goes to the benefit of PPU staff. What it really goes to benefit is the other work of the PPU, in peace education and resisting militarisation, and the PPU's turnover is, according to them, similar to the salary of the RBL's chief executive. White poppies aren't feathering any nest.
The point of a white poppy is largely visibility and awareness raising. The poppy is to remember all victims of war – including those fighting in them. The precise intended effect varies as the overall political situation changes; as there is concern among peace activist about militarisation of society, including militarisation of schools, and as some – despite the intentions of the RBL – associate the red poppy with this trend, one of the factors behind the decision to wear the white poppy is, for many, a sign of resistance to this militarisation. This is a major area of work for Quakers in Britain, as well, that goes on year-round – but many Friends choose to wear the white poppy as a visible sign of support for these efforts, among other reasons.
Many people who wear white poppies also wear red poppies. I can't begin to claim to understand all their reasons, though I imagine they are varied. I know some say they wish to support the RBL, specifically. Some say they wish to show additional remembrance for armed forces victims of war, so wear the red poppy as well. I rather imagine that some do it for a quiet life, given the reaction some give to people not wearing a red poppy. The association with general support for the armed forces, not just in the context of remembrance, is one reason that I know many people decline to wear the red poppy. Another is the association with patriotism.
For me, if it were just the perception of support for the armed forces generally, or the association with patriotism, I might choose to wear it. I can see myself trying to push back on those trends, because I do believe in the principle of remembrance that the poppy is supposed to represent. Taken together, it's just too much for me to feel able to push back on. The reason for not wanting to be seen to generally support the armed forces is hopefully reasonably clear, given that I'm a Quaker; while I bear no ill-will to people who have, for whatever reason, chosen to make their living in that way – especially given what a lot of those reasons are – I cannot support the armed forces as an institution, particularly not in the form and purpose they currently take, the profile they take and the use to which they are put. But what about patriotism? There's no obvious reason for a Quaker to reject patriotism, right?
Well, I can't speak for other Quakers. This isn't even something I've discussed with that many, so I can't give an overview of my impression of the range of opinions out there among Quakers. I can explain for myself, however, why I am not a patriot – in the usually understood terms, anyway – and how it relates to my Quakerism.
Patriotism is, at its simplest, love of and loyalty to one's country. Now, I appreciate what my country has done for me; it has educated me, it has cared for my health despite the complete mess my body and brain seems to be, and it has protected me to some degree. I even feel a little pride for some things from my country's history, like the leading role in the formulation of the European Convention of Human Rights. It was also the place of birth of my faith, back in the 17th century. Yet I had no role in any of those things, and now my country, the people in it, and my government do many things that I cannot accept being done in my name. Xenophobia and racism are on the rise, government policies and propaganda encourage the persecution of disabled people, and despite the changes in public policy towards them, LGBT+ people are suffering increasing levels of hate crime. I take what responsibility I can for these things, by fighting against them as best I can, but that is me, not my country.
More to the point, my faith tells me that people are all important, all precious. That is not affected by the country they call home, their place of birth, or their nationality. Countries are more than just administrative divisions, and they are more than identities. They are the means of putting up barriers between people, and a tool for the exercise of power – power so often used for the wrong things. I am no anarchist; I do not trust sufficiently in the innate goodness of people that I think they will behave reasonably towards one another, support those who need support, and protect the vulnerable without a government to ensure these things. But governments do much more than that, and by and large they do it wrong. They foster division in their own people in order to maintain sufficient support from the population, and they create division between people in different countries. They exercise power given them for good reasons, but use it to do things that cause tangible harm. In these circumstance, I cannot love my country. I love humanity, and the idea of countries, as they currently operate, stands against that.
So yes, I want more support for those who have given of themselves in war. I want to prevent war happening. I would sooner see Dulce et Decorum Est read at remembrance services than For the Fallen, though I'm not sure how many would get the irony. I want children to be educated in a way that lets them form their own opinion about the use of force, rather than see the military glorified in schools. I support the Peace Pledge Union, and I support the Royal British Legion. But with the meaning it has taken on in the popular consciousness, with the way it is used to test people for their proper opinions, I cannot wear a red poppy. I cannot accept what has become a cultural shibboleth of support for state, nation and military. And I am sad that it has come to this.
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