Saturday, 10 November 2012

The White Poppy

The poem that inspired the red poppy symbol
In early November the red poppy of remembrance becomes an almost ubiquitous sight on British lapels. These paper and plastic symbols are sold by the Royal British Legion and the Haig Fund. It is estimated that the Poppy appeal sells around 35 million red poppy symbols a year and raises £75 million for people who have carried out armed service and for their dependants.

In Britain, all politicians, all TV presenters and all professional sports players are expected to wear the poppy or endure a tide of criticism from bitter reactionaries. In 2009 the Guardian journalist Marina Hyde pointed out that an impressive 15 of the 20 Premier League football clubs had had the red poppy symbol especially emblazoned on their shirts during Remembrance Week, yet the Daily Mail worked themselves up into a frothing fit of rage over the five that hadn't.

The Channel 4 news presenter John Snow described this tide of criticism aimed at any remotely public figure or organisation that doesn't display the red poppy symbol during the week preceding Remembrance Sunday as "poppy fascism". A striking term, given that so many of the fallen that we are supposed to be remembering died fighting the fascists of Europe during World War Two to secure the right for British people to express themselves freely.

The idea that the absence of a plastic and paper poppy on your lapel represents some kind of insult to the country's war dead is actually a disgusting cheapening of the whole occasion. The idea of Remembrance Sunday is to remember the war dead and to consider the tragic consequences of war, not to bicker over symbolism and deride those that decline overt displays of symbolism as disrespectful or unpatriotic. In fact, those that would cheapen the occasion by whining and complaining that another person isn't wearing a poppy are showing infinitely more disrespect to the idea of remembrance than those that they criticise.

This WWI war bonds poster is an example of the 
 red poppy symbol being used as war propaganda .
One of the ironic things about the right-wing reactionary types that tends to engage in 'poppy fascism' is that they don't even seem to realise that what they are doing, is in effect, is enforcing their own brand of political correctness. They are essentially saying that it is politically incorrect to not wear a poppy, however when it comes to other forms of political correctness (lets say gay rights or criticism of overtly racist language) these very same people are more than likely to start chuntering on about how "political correctness has gone mad".

An even more provocative gesture than the not-wearing-of-a-poppy, is the wearing of a white poppy. The white poppy is a pacifist symbol to remind us that not only military personnel suffer and die in conflicts. The colour white was chosen both because white is the traditional colour of peace and because during the First World War, conscientious objectors were presented with white feathers of 'cowardice' by women. Many conscientious objectors such as Quakers and members of the other Peace Churches were imprisoned and abused at Richmond castle in North Yorkshire during the First World War. These included 'the Richmond 16' who were taken to France from the castle, charged under Field Regulations and then sentenced to death for their refusal to fight. The death sentences were later commuted to ten years hard labour. The act of conscientiously refusing to fight even under the threat of death, must be considered an outstanding act of bravery. The white poppy appeal is tiny in comparison to the red poppy appeal, only selling around 50,000 a year (0.14% of poppies sold during remembrance week).

The organisers of the Red Poppy Appeal, the Royal British Legion have stated that "it is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn't have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all". However the right-wing reactionary types ignore this message of respectful remembrance and freedom of choice. Margaret Thatcher was a vociferous opponent of the white poppy symbol, a fact that massively popularised the white poppy appeal in the 1980s. The right-wing tabloid press sided with Thatcher and ran witch-hunt articles against the organisers of the white poppy appeal, many of whom were elderly pacifist ladies. Politicising Remembrance Sunday by turning it into a demonisation campaign against elderly pacifists was not just distasteful, it was an affront to the whole idea of remembrance. The same can be said of the modern day reactionary 'poppy fascist' brigade.

In 2006 the white poppy did find an unexpected supporter, a man called Jonathan Bartley, the head of the religious think-tank, Ekklesia, and former advisor to John Major (Margaret Thatcher's successor as Tory Prime Minister) who suggested that it may actually be more Christian to wear the pacifist white poppy rather than the red one, an understandable stance given Christ's message of peace and love. Bartley also claimed that the red poppy had become a symbol of political correctness with public figures forced to wear one as an "article of faith". This is the idea that the red poppy has become more of a badge of political correctness and conformity, rather than a symbol of remembrance. Many people find themselves wearing the poppy simply because it is expected of them, not because they have any intention of remembrance. The enforced ubiquitousness of the red poppy has diminished it's meaning.

In November 2012 The UK Prime Minister David Cameron took the wearing of the red poppy whilst completely disregarding it's meaning to a whole new level. He undertook a tour of the middle east with a group of leading British arms manufacturers, with the express purpose of selling weaponry to despotic regimes, all the time with a red poppy of remembrance on his lapel. Even worse than that, he even proposed that Britain attempt to bypass the EU arms embargo on Syria in order that British firms could escalate the bloody civil war by flooding the country with weapons, again with the red poppy on his chest.

David Cameron wearing the red poppy symbol whilst on a mission
to hawk military hardware to middle eastern despots.
To wear the red poppy whilst brazenly hawking weapons to despots and speaking of busting arms embargoes to provide British weapons to one side of a bloody civil war, surely diminishes the red poppy symbol to utter meaninglessness. The same kind of meaninglessness achieved by the Nobel committee when they awarded  the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize to the warmonger and chief architect of the Operation Menu war crimes in Cambodia and Laos, Henry Kissinger.

Although I am a pacifist, I am very sympathetic to the suffering of military personnel, after all several of my paternal relatives fought and died in the Second World War. My maternal grandfather on the other hand was a Quaker conscientious objector, who didn't fight in the war, but did serve in the merchant navy during the conflict. A war contribution every bit as dangerous and deadly as active service. I'm sympathetic towards both poppy appeals, although I have a preference for the white poppy because it doesn't have the baggage of having been used as overt war propaganda like the red one has.

Look at the image above, the one of Cameron and the middle eastern despots he is trying to sell British weapons too. The presence of the poppy symbol is a double insult to the concept of remembrance. Not only is Cameron there to sell weapons, whilst wearing a symbol of remembrance, the people he is attempting to sell them to are a bunch of despotic dictators. All of those brave men that fought and died during the Second World War that Cameron is supposedly 'remembering' (my relatives included), did so on the pretext of fighting against dictatorship and oppression for the causes of freedom and democracy. The people that red poppy wearing Cameron is pictured with are dictators and opprossors who would use their British weapons to continue their fight against the very concepts of freedom and democracy.

I was already inclined to wear the white poppy in remembrance of the many thousands of merchant seamen that were killed during the course of the Second World War. However now I'm certain of one thing, now that David Cameron has utterly besmirched the red poppy symbol by wearing it whilst demanding that British arms companies should be allowed to profit by providing weapons to Islamist militants in Syria (the same militias that just the week before were committing grotesque war crimes in Saraqeb), I won't be wearing a red poppy, I'll buy one of the 0.14% of poppies that are white, if I can find one.