Tuesday, 22 November 2011

poppies, guy fawkes, symbols.

By the vagaries of the calendar, and the strange chance of world events, there's been a nice confluence of events this week.

Firstly, we've got the ongoing spectacle of the OccupyLSX movement camped out in front of St Pauls and other places, inchoate, incoherent. Against something. But with many differing things that they are for. That incoherence is, of course, something that our press has picked up on, and critics of the movement have picked up on, and run with. Which, to be honest, is more than slightly missing the point. Many great (and, to be fair, not so great) political movements, from time immemorial have pretty much been based upon what they are against, rather than what they are for. If I may point to the mob that stormed the Bastille, for an example. They didn't - as far as I am aware - have a well-worked out list of demands and, well, a manifesto. They had grievances. No more, and no less. Anybody who thinks, maybe, I'm dramatising OccupyLSX by comparing them to the French Revolution - fair point, well made - but what about, say, The Poll Tax protests? Again, grievances. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people who protested and - in the end - rioted against the Poll Tax didn't do so because they had a well-worked out plan for local government taxation. What they had was objections to the new one that had been applied to them.

One could go all through history and pretty much make the point that most protest movements, and many of the revolutionary movements, didn't have any idea what to do when the hated inequities had been removed - Mohandas K wanted the British to leave India, but it was only when his goal was in sight that he and the rest of the Congress party really began thrashing out the constitution, the post British set up. Martin Luther King wanted an end to segregation, in schools and elsewhere, but did he have a plan for post segregation education? I'm pretty sure he didn't. In comparison, I can think, off the top of my head, of several such movements throughout history which had a set list of demands which got precisely nowhere, at least at the time - The Pilgrimage of Grace, for instance, or the Chartists. In fact, one could make a reasonable argument that the protest movement which says "this must stop" and then leaves the door open to negotiations and deliberations about what comes in place is more true to the spirit of democracy than an organisation which has a set list which it then - basically, let's make no bones about it - petitions power to allow. The latter harks back to the top down, divine right of kings era.

What interests me just as much, however, about the OLSX laddies, is the way they and many others have appropriated event 2. Event 2 being Bonfire Night and the bogeyman of Guy Fawkes. There's always been a sneaking admiration for Mr Fawkes in all the bonfire celebrations. The "hurr hurr, he was the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions" riff. The "He should have blown all the buggers up" riff. Etc etc. This has gone somewhat tediously global with the (passable) film adaptation of the (vastly superior) Alan Moore comic "V for Vendetta". Alan Moore, hoary old anarchist that he was, gave V a nice Guy Fawkes mask, and this has now, in several years, infiltrated pop culture to such an extent that internet hackers and anti-capitalist demonstrators are all wandering around fetishising...what?

An ultra-reactionary Catholic terrorist who wanted to blow up the (admittedly massively undemocratic by any reasonable modern standard) British Parliament, and return the country to a pre-lapsarian Catholic past. Possibly, I'd assume, with Auto-da-fe. Probably with a nice dollop of the Divine Right of Kings (as long as they were, y'know, *Catholic* kings). And - one would assume, judging by the rest of Europe at the time - repression and oppression of Protestants, rather than what was rapidly becoming British *discrimination* against Catholics. I make no bones in saying that the discrimination is not something I support, or excuse, but the burnings and purgings, the massacres and executions were pretty much a thing of the past (apart from when yer lovely fella Cromwell exported some of the tropes to Ireland, anyway).

Yeah, I think I'll pass on that one.

What yer fellas there are doing, really, is looking at the past through the eyes of today, and with the pre-occupations of today. It is - and this is a phrase I tend to use a lot of late - pure Whiggishness. That today, Catholicism and Catholics are neither generally oppressed nor oppressors is a post-Enlightenment wonder (the Enlightenment, of course, that fruit of minds Protestant and Catholic, but probably kick-started by the lovely secular Jew Baruch Spinoza). That's all well and good, and a marvel of the modern age, that we in the West and - sporadically, the rest of the world - live in an age where that doesn't matter . But it's to forget the important point, which is, *it would have mattered then*. A Catholic takeover of the UK in 1605 would have had long lasting repercussions, and brought us more in line with the continent, which at the time wasn't particularly - Holland aside - covering itself in glory in it's support for freedom of thought.

But what the whole malarkey shows is, of course, the power of symbolism. A figure like Fawkes burning merrily, once a symbol of Protestant Hegemony (hey, first useage of the trademarked name), mutates over the centuries to become a figure of rebellion against an o'erweening state. Never mind the essential fact that, in comparison with today, the last thing you could call the Stuart state was o'erweening. Shambolic, and not really there in comparison to now, would be a better description. The modern conception of the state is not really born until post the 30 years war, for a start. What he did, what he was for, gets replaced by "What we like to think he represents". And so, we may make the statement that "those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them" and scratch our chin wisely, because we have just given you profoundity in spades. And all the while, we learn the meaning of history through the lens of the now, rather than the lessons of history.

Ergo, to give a random example that has been cited in argument with me, the fact that Alexander the Great had male and female lovers means that gays in the military are fine. Well, no. It doesn't mean that at all (gays in the military *are* fine, by the way, I'm not saying otherwise). It means that his society had differing views of personal and sexual morality than societies built around the Judeo-Christian model. Had differing views about what "maleness" was. Or, another misapprehension, Robert the Bruce fought the English, therefore, Robert The Bruce (descended, just as the English Kings were, from the Normans, and holding lands in England) was a heroic Scottish patriot. And not in any way an aristocrat who thought the Scottish throne was his by right, and so went to war with the English who had invaded. And on and on, the misappropriations of history go, each new generation adding their own little lustre to things, their own twist, their own interpretation, always through the eyes of now.

And so to symbol 3. The Poppy. Of course, the coincidence of the forthcoming Armistice Day with Bonfire Night happens always. But again, we see the misapplication of symbol. We are told that the Poppy is to recognise the sacrifice of the war dead. Ok. Fair point. Nobody objects to recognising that people died horribly. Then, we are told, that they fought to preserve us, our way of life, etc etc.

This, of course, is essentially not true. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not an apologist for the Kaiser, or indeed, for Hitler, but we went to war in 1914 to preserve Belgian nuetrality. Treaty obligations. Just as we went to war in 1939 to preserve Poland, who we similarly had a treaty with - albeit, one of extremely recent minting, unlike the Belgian treaty (and despite, by the way, the amount of times in film and tv that we are shown that clip of Chamberlain's sonorous proclamation, I've lost count of the times people have told me that Germany went to war with us. No, no, no. In both cases, we declared war on Germany).

Again, y'see, the idea we went to war with Germany both times for the self-preservation reason is profoundly Whiggish, and the hindsight view of history rules supreme in such pronouncements. That the struggle with Hitler very quickly turned existential is not in doubt. That he was also a reprehensible figure, responsible for genocide and horror, is not in doubt outside certain circles where they enjoy doing that silly salute, or amongst certain silly men in the Middle East. That we went to war with either Hitler or the Kaiser to "preserve our way of life" (or, as some modern schooled youngsters have told me, in the case of Hitler, to "save the jews") is, of course, not true. We went to war with both for the same reasons we went to war with Napoleon, that we went to war with Louis XIV, and, pretty much, back to Cardinal Wolsey, that we went to war with any nation in Europe - to stop one nation dominating Europe. Balance of Power.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable to argue - as some revisionists have - that we could have stayed out of either of the World Wars, that our national interests were not served by entering either of them. Personally, in the case of the latter, I think that shows a profound misunderstanding of the Nazi regime, and also - through the eyes of hindsight, which is what the revisionist historians are using - a moral blankness (because to such people, knowing what they know about the Nazi regime, to argue that standing aside and letting Hitler do whatsover he may want to preserve our - even at the time - morally dubious Empire - is a little confused, both practicing the hindsight version of history whilst at the same time not letting the morals of today impinge on one's considerations). But, fair dos, it's an argument one can make. It's an argument that one can make that actually *has more worth* than the idea that "they went to war to preserve our freedoms*. Because it at least recognises we went to war out of deemed national self-interest. Whereas the "to preserve our freedoms" concept ignores the fact that, down the age from World War I onwards, none of those wars we fought were about that, although, as stated in World War II's case, it certainly *became* about it (in fact, it ignores the basic fact - oft ignored - that the war, any war, generally marked the end of the consensus we - allegedly - fought to preserve. Hence, post Napoleonic War, rights slowly begin to be extended to the masses, World War I, votes for women and the slow death of deference, change in social mores, standards, World War II, welfare state. Huge wars - ones involving the levee en masse, to use a Napoleonic phrase, *change* our way of life. They very rarely *preserve* them).

But - and here comes the kicker - having set up the false symbol, that it represents millions who died to preserve our freedom, our way of life (Who knows whether the Germans in World War I had any plans to invade the UK? Who knows what "way of life" they would have imposed had they done so? and who knows, for instance, the difference in democracy between the Kaiser's regime, and 1914 England? Who has looked into how democratic Germany was versus how democratic the UK was? Who knows what "our freedoms" were then? Who, actually, knows what "our freedoms" are now? Or do we just have images of Germans in those ludicrous pickelwhatsit helmets, and think "well, they must have been bad, they weren't us". Eat babies as well, you know), we've got to a stage where dissent against this symbol is seen as inherently wrong.

Case in point, the continuing fracas over numpty poppy-burning Muslims Against Coherence (or whatever their title is). Up and down the land, Anjem Choudhary only has to make a little appearance on a tv news show, or in a newspaper gagging for controversy, and threaten to burn a poppy for a torrent of illiberal, undemocratic, racist hogwash to emerge.

One doesn't have to be a supporter of Mr Anjem to make this observation. In fact, I'd go further and say, as a particular, strenous objector to his particular brand of medievalism crossed with the Society of the Spectacle, I can make this observation. I find his views just as reprehensible, if not, in many ways, more so, than the hogwash he engenders from seemingly decent humans.

It isn't merely the objections to burning the poppy - "it should be illegal", or court cases brought against those who burn the poppy (although, I would and did find that objectionable enough)...as though differing opinions and political stunts should be illegal because people with delicate sensibilities find them "offensive" (but, strangely, it's often those very same people are the first to object when you pick them up on more directly offensive behaviour - if you can't see the difference between burning a paper flower and - say - daubing a mosque with a cross, a poppy symbol, smashing windows of shops and hotels and generally being threatening - as in a recent case, much cited by the far right as an example of "how our laws protect them, not us", then I'm worried, to be honest, at the level of your comprehension of reality. Or, to bring another example into play, those very same people are up in arms if anyone is prosecuted for burning the Koran - which, by the way, so am I, but for profoundly different reasons - but get irate at the burning of a paper flower...oh, and here's a beautiful irony, they - who would, were the rule of law relaxed somewhat, probably riot and burn down the houses of alleged poppy burners at the same time look down in mocking superiority when the Arab world erupts into the same because of some alleged "insult to the Prophet". That's us, the supposedly above all that country that still burns images of a 400 year old dead terrorist...and slightly sides with him?) - but all that then flows from it. One of my favourite riffs is the statement that if second or third generation descendants of immigrants don't like this country, they should be deported back "to where they came from". So, that's a policy of deportation back to Luton, right?

Of course, the racism of this statement is barely challenged. Instead, home-spun wisdom along the lines of "when in Rome, do as the Romans" is proferred (because, of course, when in Rome, we don't behave like tourists and integrate wonderfully into the culture there). But, for instance, should the third-generation descendant of - say - a Jew who fled the Nazis offer a criticism of this country, very rarely (outside, of course, this aforementioned circles of men who enjoy doing the silly salute) is the same solution - deportation back to Germany, in this case - offered. And at what point, exactly, do we accept that someone can have these illiberal views and *still be counted as British* if their antecedents are not British? 3 generations? 4? 5? Or when their skin colour becomes, y'know, white?

All of the above, of course, is not to say that the views are not wrong, because they quite spectacularly are (although, every criticism hurts a little because even the most lunatic usually has a germ of a point wrapped up in it - no matter what your opinions on the western interventions in the Muslim world, for instance - mine are possibly a little more hawkish than most who would make this argument - we very rarely view the casualties in the same way as we view casualties amongst "OUR BOYS". And making the essential point to such defenders of "OUR BOYS" that more of our soldiers, most probably, died in the first five minutes of the battle of the Somme, or Ypres, than died in the entirety of our recent excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq doesn't quench their somewhat maudlin shroud-waving. One doesn't have to be harshly contemptous of the waste of any life in any war to also grasp an essential overreaction and overcompensation mechanism that's going on in such behaviour. Royal Wootten Bassett, hold your hand up here. Just as every criticism - not matter how racist - of Mr Anjem's stunts has a germ of truth in it too).

It's not to say I view Mr Anjem and his merry band of - hah! - Crusaders with anything less than contempt, because I do hold utter contempt for them. But it is to say, that I view the rights and freedoms we have acquired, over the years - protected, on many an occasion, by those very "OUR BOYS", even were that not their original intention, or the intention of those that declared war (you see the caveat?) - as having far more importance than my contempt of Mr Anjem.

The way to combat such idiots is not to prosecute them for having views that we find reprehensible. The way to combat them is to defeat their ideology. The only way to defeat an ideology is to show that the ideology you stand for - western liberal (small l, kids, small l) democracy - is superior to their fascistic, theocratic fantasies. That's not to advocate going easy on them, should they, say, support or fund terrorism. That's not to pretend they aren't there. That's not to allow them credence as freedom fighters or people we should give respect to. That's definitely not - as has been the case in certain halls of academia - to allow them the facilities and support to organise and spread their nonsense and exploit and radicalise people who may have legitimate concerns about western foreign policy, their culture being traduced, racism, what have you. But to robustly stand up for one's values, to defeat them in argument, not to cower behind laws created merely to suppress, to BE the liberal democracy we claim to be. The liberal democracy that, much as Mr Anjem wishes he wasn't, he's part of too.

And it would help, really, if we started to appreciate what those values were ourselves. And instead of indulging in group-think, flag-waving, shroud-wearing and misunderstanding about what they are, we need to fight for them, live them, preserve them, learn and redefine them anew each generation. Sometimes - one would hope less and less rarely - this may take going to war to preserve them. But when we do, let's ensure that's why we do, and if we go to war for some other reason, let's be honest enough to admit that likewise. The only existential threat our society currently faces is the one from ourselves, and our tendency to flee from the values we claim define us, whenever we are presented with a situation morally difficult.

Understand your history. Not your myths.

Rambling, I know. But I think it get's what I want to say across...

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