Sunday 22 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'The poppy - a symbol of fascism or just respect for the fallen?'

The all-white mural at Southampton university
The all-white mural at Southampton university
Emily Dawes
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Every now and then a story comes along which is so odd, and just so... ignorant that you have to check to make sure someone isn't pulling your leg.

That's partly a consequence of what we now call 'fake news', but lies, distortion and urban legends have always been with us, we just like to give them different names to make them seem fresh.

The story which caught my eye was so flagrantly daft that I immediately thought of Poe's Law.

Poe's Law is the adage which basically states that in a time of internet madness, it is virtually impossible to tell a parody or a deliberately made-up story from a legitimate item of interest.

I searched for any humorous hints but nope, the whole thing is kosher, above board and entirely mad.

Ah, but what is it, I hear you mutter?

Well, student leader Emily Dawes from the University of Southampton was upset at a mural in her college which "depicted only white men".

Now that's fairly standard these days.

But the fact that the mural was of "white men" who had been students at the university before going off to die in World War I cut no ice with Ms Dawes.

In fact, she boasted that ahead of next week's Armistice Day: "Mark my words we're taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room even if I have to paint over it myself," before she then tweeted "Fuck yeah - grl pwr!"

Of course, there were plenty of different races from the then still-extant British Empire who died in the Great War, but the fact that none of them went to Southampton university was enough to enrage this - I kid ye not - "American, feminist, vegan".

As is usually the way, Dawes was very brave until she got some blowback from people who were outraged, and she promptly issued a mealy mouthed apology, resigned her position and claimed that she had been bullied and was the real victim.

Every year something like this happens, and it almost appears as if Armistice Day and the poppy are merely echo chambers for whatever the concerns of the day happened to be.

In the case of Dawes and her supporters, the destruction of an entire generation of young men came second to her own views about race and gender.

If Liadh Ní Riada did one good thing during her rather disastrous tilt for the Áras (and that's a very big 'if'), it was admitting that she, a Sinn Féin candidate, would be prepared to wear a poppy if elected.

That, of course, enraged her Shinner base, and made no impact whatsoever on those of who would never vote for someone from that party, but her comments deserve some credit.

As it happens, I wear the poppy every year.

Like many working-class Dubs, there were family ancestors involved, but even more than that, I wear it in memory of a reclusive neighbour we used to call 'Mad Larry'.

Like countless other Irish heroes who suffered shell shock in World War II, he was treated abominably on his return and I still wince at the way he was shunned.

But, equally, it's none of my business who wears one - and while I'm proud of my shamrock poppy, there is something depressing in the way the English have insisted that the symbol must now be worn at all times in all circumstances.

The Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow got into trouble a few years ago for deriding what he called the 'poppy fascists' and he was right - just look at the abuse dished out to Stoke City footballer James McClean.

McClean has made a conscious, considered decision to go poppy-less and every year he gets bullets in the post for his troubles. There was a time when we could respect someone's decision even if we didn't agree with said decision. But the hassle McClean, and others like him, receive for not wearing one is a reminder that totalitarianism is only ever a short distance away.

Donald Trump has even been dragged into the debate and one host on London's LBC radio station has insisted that anyone who likes Trump is not 'qualified' to wear one.

So, on the one hand, you have people who complain about other people who don't wear the poppy. Then on the other, you have people complaining about the wrong sort of people wearing one.

I was accused of being a fascist last year when some bloke copped that I had a very small, very discreet poppy on my lapel. The argument that it actually remembers those who fought against fascism was, of course, dismissed.

But that idiot showing off to his mates with his loud assertion that anyone who wears one was, to use his full quote, "a fascist, warmongering bastard" also brought up an inadvertently interesting point that has bled into every other aspect of modern life as well - the projection of your own neuroses and prejudices on to other people.

So, if you decide that the poppy is a symbol of fascism, it doesn't matter if everyone else who wears one does so as a symbol of remembrance and respect.

You have decided that they're fascists, on the basis of your own very subjective and entirely irrational conviction.

So wear one with pride, or don't wear one at all.

But remember, no matter what choice you make, someone, somewhere will still call you a fascist...

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