Patriotism and pyromania
Police action against 'poppy-burners' reveals the murky chauvinist undercurrent to Remembrance Day, argues James Turley
It is that time of year, again, when the world is colonised by plastic poppies. No establishment luminary will be seen in a public forum without one of these slightly naff trinkets pinned to his or her lapel; and thousands more people around the country will likewise sport the designated symbol of remembrance for the war dead.
A consensus this cosy is invariably a brittle thing, and now the establishment is faced by a troubling bout of poppy-burnings. Last year, noted Islamist lunatic Anjem Choudhary, who founds new front organisations almost as fast as the state can ban them, burnt a poppy at a protest, which cost him a £50 fine. Obviously that is a small price for him to pay, as he intends to repeat the stunt this year too.
More troubling is the fate of three Northern Ireland teenagers, about whom little is known except their ages - two are 17 and one 16 - and that they were pulled up before Coleraine magistrates court, charged with ‘incitement to hatred’. The 16-year-old also faces charges relating to ‘improper use’ of a social networking site, thanks to his publication of damning visual evidence of the ‘crime’ on Facebook.
From the point of view of any oppositional tendency, the criminalisation of dissent from this distasteful chauvinist jamboree is worrying. On a different level, however, one wonders whether this is really such a good idea from the point of view of the ruling class, and more specifically the paid persuaders for poppy-mania. It is not as though the general population is opposed to the remembrance ceremonies, or as though it is hard to portray such stunts as infantile and offensive.
But getting the police and courts in on the deal surely has the opposite effect. After all, if - as we are told - the poppy is simply a symbol for sober reflection on the depredations of war and its devastating impact, then the state would have nothing to hide. Attacking the image by burning it would then be plainly anti-social, and indeed ideologically unacceptable to all who do not possess a Hitleresque enthusiasm for the purifying effect of military carnage. The ever-reliable mechanisms of social ostracism would surely be enough to deal with such cranks.
The poppy appeal is not simply about commemorating the dead, however. It is about our dead - it is about a hundred years, give or take, of British history, during which ‘our brave boys’ (and girls) have been massacred in two truly apocalyptic wars, as well as picked off in countless relatively minor scuffles provoked by the decay of the empire.
The poppy ideology is, in fact, a bait-and-switch; the very real generalised empathy of the population to those who paid for capital’s rapacious drive to war with their lives is mobilised to support the very same institution - the state - which feeds the meat into the mincing machine. Like all ideology, it is participatory: the annual ritual of pinning the poppy to your lapel seals the compact, just as a few words of mumbo-jumbo transubstantiates cheap wine into the blood of Christ. The British Legion’s orgy of emotional blackmail, which complements the whole thing - pictures of gravely wounded soldiers and bereaved families all over the tube - does not hurt, either.
Even this does not get to the bottom of how ingenious a device the humble poppy is. After all, if there is one thing everyone knows about World War I, after all, it is that old quote about ‘lions led by donkeys’ - the combination of hubris and incompetence that saw whole regiments of young men marching almost defenceless down the barrels of then-new machine guns. The carnage of the Somme, even by the standards of the bourgeoisie, was largely avoidable.
This annual funeral rite has the additional effect of smoothing over what is by any imaginable measure one of the worst crimes in history; it becomes a diffuse sort of tragedy, which even the successors to the perpetrators can mourn as part of the grand national collective. (More worryingly, even some on the far left feel comfortable sporting the thing - remembrance poppies were in evidence at the annual Socialism weekend school of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which tends to coincide roughly with the remembrance Sunday pageantry.)
So what, then, of the poppy-burners? Fire has the effect of inverting significance - the classic ritual of flag-burning is as direct an opposite of flag-waving as possible, and so it is with the poppy. Burning poppies amounts to an inversion of the widespread empathy with the armed forces - it is an expression of hatred towards them.
More to the point, it is always a particular effigy that faces immolation. It is the British army that is at issue here. An Islamist like Choudhary obviously has more than enough reason to despise the most loyal lieutenants to America’s ‘new crusade’ of the last decade; and while no details at all are forthcoming at present about the Coleraine trio, it is worth noting that her majesty’s armed forces do not exactly have clean hands when it comes to the Six Counties either.
In that respect, it is a purely negative gesture. It would be easy to portray such actions as commendable expressions of anti-imperialist sentiment; indeed, this is precisely the attitude taken by one Abhijit Pandya, a far-right Tory and blogger on the Daily Mail website: “Burning poppies by a few Muslims: it’s just a product of the intellectual left’s loathing for the nation-state,” runs his headline; as ever, the Mail makes it its business to tell those upstart Americans that nobody throws a tea party like the British.
“In essence, my thesis is as follows,” he declaims: “Choudhary and his gang of poppy-burners are much more a product of anti-nation thinking that is fundamental to the left’s critique of the world than of multiculturalism or failures of immigrant assimilation policy ... It is thus more appropriate to suggest that there is no Edmund Burke in this British Islamo-Marxism that is waiting for its apocalyptic day of sharia law, but there is quite a bit of Chomsky, and probably more of that than thoughts inspired by Islam.”
As it happens, Pandya’s par-for-the-course paranoid red-baiting has a very precise grain of truth to it. However dominant chauvinist ideology may be, there is a certain elemental drive to internationalism present in the working class, and less sharply among the popular masses more generally. It is not, as our columnist suggests, imported ‘from the outside’ by ‘left intellectuals’; rather, it is the left as such which has traditionally been able to give that internationalism content. Even something as degraded as the Soviet-defencist cretinism of the ‘official communist’ movement was an outlet for that drive. The multiplication of Occupy protests in recent weeks, though diffuse in form, is underwritten by the same tendency.
In historical terms, however, the left has shrivelled - devastated by the end of the cold war and the ruling class offensive that accompanied it. Into the breach step the likes of Choudhary (and, for that matter, Christian fundamentalists), with their own reactionary-utopian, but globally minded, political projects. Islamism is only a force in this country because spontaneous bonds of solidarity do exist across borders. Conversely, its ability to scandalise the establishment into imposing police actions on protest stunts is partly cheap demagogy, but more significantly due to its disloyalty to the state - or, at least, this state.
Inverted chauvinism, however, is not many rungs above the original article, politically speaking. It is abundantly clear, at this point, that Anjem Choudhary is an idiotic reactionary provocateur, and poppy-burning is just the sort of hysterical stunt he substitutes for attempting to convince people of his odious programme.
The burning of American flags is certainly an understandable response to the crimes for which flag-waving is an apology; but it would be better (and, indeed, more scandalous) to hoist a different flag - perhaps a red one. Alternative symbols to the poppy, unfortunately, are a little thin on the ground; there is, of course, the white poppy, a creation of pacifists between the wars which persists (albeit somewhat less visibly) to this day. One minor, but nonetheless important, task of a mass communist movement would be to invent a better one.