Saturday, November 9, 2013

Defending the White Poppy. . . .

Unlike the writers at the Huffington Post, I don't believe that you can "win" debates with simplistic aphorisms issued on Twitter. And unlike Brett Wilson, I don't believe that simply calling people "morons" constitutes actual political argument. And I don't believe that the people behind the so-called white poppy movement are morons in any sense of the word. But people who question patriotism and patriotic rituals have always been prime targets for those with emotionally charged nationalistic feelings. Such people are irrationally offended by those who have the gall to call into doubt the rituals that are connected with our history as a national or international entity. But I will not be silenced by the likes of Brett Wilson, a man who claims that our involvement in past wars defended our freedom, but who takes that freedom so lightly that he genuinely seems to want to silence those who would disagree with him.

First of all, let me say that, despite what Brett Wilson (or anyone else) says, my reasons for wearing the white poppy, as well as my objection to the red poppy are not based upon my belief that the red poppy somehow celebrates war. Rather, I believe that there are more sophisticated, historical and political issues at stake here. Now, I have heard a number of vet in recent years object to the red poppy campaign, as well as the contemporary nature of Remembrance Day, because of the political nature that it seems to have taken on. One such vet was well quoted by Mound of Sound in his blog today. These kinds of objections to Remembrance Day are significant. There is no question that an a good argument can be made that contemporary politicians have taken advantage of Remembrance Day, politicized it in a way that robs it of the purely honorary essence that it once seemed to have had. However, though I have had veterans in my family, I am not a veteran of an orthodox military event. Thus, my objections take a different kind of form.

Let me address the most controversial nature of my objections to contemporary Remembrance Day. I understand that these opinions might be considered provocative, but they are not, I believe unreasonable. I believe that the wars of the last hundred and fifty years or so have almost all been essentially bogus. Instead of being about "freedom" or democracy they have mostly been creations of wealthy classes which are designed to accumulate profit and jockey for global economic position. To fully develop this argument would require a great deal more space than is available to us here. But a number of radical thinkers have developed such arguments in the past and these include writers like Franz Fanon, Howard Zinn, Eric Hobsbawm, Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many more. It is for this political and historical reason that I believe that the white poppy makes sense - in my mind it still honours the veterans, but not as victims of foreign wars, rather as victims of our own political and economically powerful classes that have used men for generations as cannon fodder in struggles for economic dominance.

Leading off this political argument is another important objection I have to contemporary Remembrance Day rituals. It is this, public discourse never tires of telling us that it is to our Veterans that we owe our so-called "freedoms" and "democracy." The various wars that were more or less spin-offs of the supposed battle between 'capitalist' and supposedly 'communist' nations were, I believe largely manufactured by political classes that were once again defending their economic power. Many of these were colonial-style wars fought in the "third-world" in which the people were victims of a global economic war that had nothing to do with democracy or freedom. The war against fascism might be said to be a war that defended our "freedoms" and "democracy," but even this war was, according to Roosevelt (one of its greatest proponents) entirely preventable. The rise of fascism was largely supported by the economically powerful in most nations (including England and the US) until they had no choice. In other words, fascism was (even according to most the economically powerful) a natural extension of capitalism. And those who really opposed fascism (like Roosevelt himself) had a very big job getting the economically and politically powerful to support the war. And perhaps most importantly, the rise of fascism (at least in Germany) was in large part a direct result of the Treaties of Versailles which failed to consider the longterm impact of war reparations. The upshot of this argument is that I believe that the people we really owe thanks to for our "freedoms" and democratic rights are the activist (many of them trade union activists) who spent their lives fighting for democracy, and human rights against the rich and powerful who did everything they could to limit democracy and human rights in our own countries. The wars of the past hundred and fifty years or so had little to do with democracy or human rights. While the soldiers of the Western allies, for example, were busy fighting World War One, their governments were actively suppressing democratic and human rights movements at home. The rights of universal suffrage, the rights to a safe workplace, the rights to minimum wage and pension, the rights of minorities to be equal before the law, etc, all these rights were not a result of fighting in foreign wars, but were the result of generations of activists fighting their own governments and wealthy classes. Here is the simple fact, if it were not for trade union activists not only wouldn't you not have the right to vote, your could still be shackled by your employer and children could still be forced to work 16 hour days.

Thus, bluntly put, I believe that Remembrance Day is little short of a kind of collective scam designed to bestow legitimation on wars that were not about freedom or democracy but were about making money and profit for a very elite economic class. I wear the white poppy as a protest against the common nationalist scam that have been most of the past wars and role that Remembrance Day plays in covering up this scam. It is actually an age old story - the powerful want us to believe that the wars we fight are "very sadly necessary" but noble in their righteousness. Because if people stopped believing this they might actually look closely at the causes of the wars and the class system that they all to often protect.

No one, least of all Brent Wilson, is compelled in anyway to agree with me. However, if such really believe that past wars were fought to defend our "freedoms" then they should be the first to defend my right to say such things and wear the white poppy even if they disagree. However, more importantly, to disregard these arguments out of hand is, I believe intellectually dishonest. While Brett Wilson and his ilk seem to be perfectly content throwing around simplistic aphorisms in defence of mindless patriotism, I feel disposed to study history and interpretations of that history by intellectual giants who prefer talk about the negative effects of reactionary, nationalistic, jargon.

There was a period in my youth, after the Vietnam War, that the majority (or a good sized minority) was skeptical about the motivations of Governments and elites to be involved in foreign wars. These times seem to have slipped away and people have forgotten even recent history. Brett Wilson's simplistic patriotism will not silence me, nor should it silence the white poppy movement because if my analysis is even partially correct than it is incredibly important that we make that discourse public, and if my analysis is entirely wrong then silencing the white poppy brigade would be the ultimate insult to veterans who supposedly fought so we could say whatever we want.


Dave said...

While I respect your opinion, I simply and plainly, disagree.

I too abhor the politicization of Remembrance Day. It's purpose has been utterly corrupted by a self-serving political class intent on spinning themselves into the dedication and sacrifice of a much different group of people.

Remembrance Day has a single purpose: To honour those who died in the wars to which they were sent at the time they were sent. You can rewrite that narrative if you wish but I see that you have complicated that position with your own political views.

I don't.

Should I have let the Falkland Islanders, British citizens, become the wards of an Argentine dictator? Or, was it better that we remove the military government and then let the Falkland Islanders decide for themselves? (I don't care what your answer is. I know how I felt at the time and I was right, no matter how many people want to tell me I was wrong). But that's the political question. That was not and is not the basis on which a sworn combatant goes to war.

You can support anything you wish. Lucky you. In the peacekeeping missions I have been ordered to around the world the one thing I have learned is that most people in this world enjoy no such luxury.

I will take the day to demonstrate a sense of loss for the friends who died in combat. I will remember the generations who went ahead of me and sacrificed themselves. It's about them; not some political view or the discussion of the rightness of a conflict.

I did not agree with the Viet Nam war. That does not mean I will not pay my respects to the young kids who fought it and died. They are not the politicians who sent them and they are not to be forgotten.

Buffy Saint-Marie's universal soldier is but a myth.

Kirby Evans said...

Dave there is no sense replying to your comment for the simple reason that you expressed all you needed to when you wrote "I don't care what your answer is. I know how i felt at the time and I was right."

If you don't care what anyone else says then you are not interested in discourse or finding the truth. Your only interest is in an internal monologue that comforts you in own opinion.

Omar said...

A brilliant piece, Kirby. Thank you. I have not involved myself in any RD ceremonies for about a decade now. I also don't wear a poppy of any colour. I believe we all need to remember and (more importantly) understand the circumstances and events that leads to our involvement in the ghastly practice of war. The first and second world wars in particular. But to elevate and revere past armed conflict to an almost religious glory is wrong. Period. Sometime today the local high school's Memorial Club will take to the streets and become an overtly nationalistic, marching, flag waving, chant bellowing goon squad that more or less emulates the overtly nationalistic, marching, flag waving, chant bellowing Nazi goon squads that helped pave the way to the WWII nightmare we had to go in and put down in the first place! Does THAT make any sense? I don't believe it does. What do I plan on teaching my three and a half year old daughter about November 11th? Remember and reflect and let the glorification and hero worship die a deserving death.

doconnor said...

Kirby is right to point how that "how i felt at the time" could have been the result of a deception.

On Argentine side the Falklands war was was a blatant example of what Kirby is talking about. The government went into the war to distract from its own problems, but its plan utterly failed and the dictatorship was overthrown as a result.

However from the British side, I don't see how they could have avoided war against an enemy determined to attack for selfish and unjustifiable reasons, short of surrender.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Omar, Thanks the great comment.

@ doconnor - a large part of my position is encapsulated in the contention that when wars are made necessary that are almost always done so by some previous, unjustified escapade. The Falklands Island conflict is a perfect example. The British only possess the Falklands because of a long, deeply problematic period of colonialism. They don't belong there in the first place. If they had owned up to that a long time ago the war would have been unnecessary. THus we have two governments at different times and in different ways pursuing an unjustified policy of aggression and/or expansion. The more I learn about history and governments the more I believe war is avoidable. That is not to say it must always be so, but a realization such as this would lead us to remember the past in a significantly different way.

doconnor said...

It's not like the British are imposing themselves. They recently had a referendum where the option to remain an Overseas Territory of Britain passed 1,517 to 3. There are not repressed natives as the islands where uninhabited before European discovery.

Kirby Evans said...

Indeed doconnor but to simply state this overlooks the history that led to the conflict and that was my point. After all, Cuba could have a referendum concerning its natives . . . oh wait, they already killed them all.

doconnor said...

I think the desires of the current population should override all the sorted history. I don't think the supposed sins of the British almost 200 years ago justify inaction by them in the present.

Kirby Evans said...

Two things doconnor - one - is that you have to take history and the current events into consideration. If you don't take any history into consideration then a colonizer can simply put enough of its own people into a population and then declare democracy and say "see a majority want it that way."

two - is that my point from the beginning is that it is the worst kind of empiricism to simply look at one set of facts and then declare a conflict justified or righteous. In fact most nation-states justify war precisely this way because it is a convenient way of whipping up patriotic furor - as the French did concerning Alsace-Lorraine as a justification for WWI. If my father stole your father's watch it doesn't simply become my watch if your father and my father die. Similarly, the treasures that the NAZI's stole don't belong to the German government of today simply because the people they stole them from are dead.

doconnor said...

People aren't watches. They can decide for themselves. If a child is stolen from her parents at a very age but is treated well and raised into adulthood. When the crime is discovered should the birth parents be able to forbid their child from seeing the people who raised her?

There have been lots of places where a colonizer has flooded an area with their own people generations ago. What should be done with them? Should the Jews leave Israel? Should the Protestants leave Northern Ireland? Should we leave Canada?

Kirby Evans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Evans said...

The thing is that I can't keep answering these comments if you simply aren't going to pay attention to my responses, and this is a prime example.

I'll try one more time.

No comparison was made between persons and watches, and your suggestion that there was such a comparison means that you were being obtuse or intentionally misleading. I was clearly referring to material possessions stolen as part of a colonial process. Land is one such possession, there are many others.

Even if places were flooded generations ago, in a post colonial age we must recognize the theft and act accordingly. Yes, sometimes this means lands should be returned. In many cases other material possessions must be returned or properly shared, such as natural resources. The NAZI thievery is simply a good contemporary example - whoever has these goods simply does not own them rightfully regardless of how long they have possessed them. However, the issue is obviously larger and needs to be addressed by a post-colonial attitude which recognizes the past and treats people with respect regarding the events. In most post-colonial situations the colonizers don't ask for a return to pre-colonial boarders, and the stark presentation of such a situation, as you made yourself above and as many people do, is, again, intentionally misleading. Instead, indigenous groups are working for greater respect, greater autonomy, and a greater share in the wealth that was stolen and, in many cases, continues to be stolen from them.

To get back to the original issue, and as many interesting post-colonial writers have pointed out, conflict can be avoided or lessened with a simple recognition of past transgressions or wrong-doing and acting accordingly. Each case is different but holding on to traditional colonizer attitudes will result in conflict nearly every time.

Instead of intentionally simplifying the issue by asking questions like "should we leave Canada" when no indigenous group has called for such a thing, why not pay closer attention to what I have said?