Charity pressure II: “Poppy Fascism”

Following on from my earlier post about being under pressure to give money to charity, another row has broken out about the decision of a British news presenter, Jon Snow, not to wear a poppy when broadcasting. For anyone wondering, Remembrance Sunday is the second Sunday in November (the 14th this year), held to be nearest to the 11th (Armistice Day), which is the day the Armistice was signed to end World War I. The Poppy appeal raises money for the Royal British Legion, a charity which supports former members of the armed forces and their families (this is an explanation of where the money goes). The reason they use a poppy is that the flower appeared in large numbers in the battle fields in Flanders after the end of World War I; the seeds may lie dormant in the soil for years but germinate in soil which has been disturbed. The symbolism of the poppy’s colour (red) is obvious.

Personally, I rarely get a poppy; I remember doing so when at school and perhaps I have once or twice as an adult, but certainly not every year. However, it’s the “done thing” for TV presenters, news readers and the like to wear them when they appear on TV in the week or so leading up to Remembrance Sunday, which is why Jon Snow has raised a few eyebrows by appearing on TV without one. Snow explained, in response to a comment on his blog that he was “dishonouring” the war dead by appearing without one, he responded that they died so that we could choose when to wear a poppy or not, and to insist that everyone wears one is “poppy fascism” or intolerance. Enforced greetings and symbols, badges and so on are hallmarks of totalitarian states, whether imposed on certain groups or on everyone (e.g. yellow stars in Nazi Germany, the badges everyone wears in North Korea).

A few years ago, someone called Carol Gould wrote an article in which she complained that she had been accosted near Edgware Road by an Arab who saw her poppy and demanded to know if she was of “the Jewish” (I responded here). She then claimed that a cab driver had told her she was asking for it by going to “little Beirut” and displayed “white working-class anger” at the “Islamic takeover” of Britain. She claimed that nobody among the staff at any of the establishments on the Edgware Road wore one, and exaggerated the atmosphere of devotion of British people generally for the event. As someone who, unlike Carol Gould, has grown up in this country, I can say that, while there is some degree of respect for the occasion (such as the two-minute silences in shops, for example), the events are broadcast on TV and radio and kids are taught about it in schools, there is no general atmosphere of reverence and, while attendance at the Cenotaph (where the national commemoration takes place) is large, many of those attending are sent by various organisations. The idea that everyone wears a poppy is simply wrong, even for the white population.

As for why Muslims don’t often wear poppies, there are a number of reasons — many of those on the Edgware Road are not British citizens anyway, and many of the younger generation don’t feel any connection to the forces, particularly since the 1990s when they have mostly been involved in American-led wars against Muslim enemies (though not always; British forces were deployed as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s). Many younger people of any ethnic minority background would not even consider joining the army, regarded it as a white-dominated institution, and there have been many tales of non-white recruits being victimised. On the other hand, there are those in the older generation of British Muslims who did serve in the British Army during World War II, particularly against the Japanese, so they and their descendents are perhaps more likely to be seen wearing them.

Personally, as someone whose grandfathers both served in that war, I think it’s good that this country looks after its old soldiers and that this is done through a mass appeal, not through taxation. However, we also all do contribute towards soldiers’ welfare through taxation, particularly the rehabilitation of injured soldiers as happens at Headley Court and Selly Oak (there was a feature on Headley Court in the Guardian yesterday), so nobody should feel guilty for not contributing. This is, after all, one charity appeal among many, and as was the case with the earlier piece on charity pressure, we may all have causes we find more pressing and more deserving of our money than this one, particularly at a time when the elderly and disabled are going to be badly hit by reductions in public spending, particularly in poorer parts of the country. While I acknowledge that I’ve never been “charity mugged” to buy a poppy, it’s important that the symbol does not become a matter of conformity and that wearing one is not a test of loyalty, particularly given that displays of loyalty and patriotism aren’t part of the national culture for most people anyway.

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