James and the Giant Poppy

As we enter, once more, into the depressingly-inevitable annual period of more-widespread and focused moral outrage reserved for poppy-refusenik James McClean, it is refreshing to encounter a more considered contribution to the debate from a proponent of the Remembrance symbol, as opposed to the usual abusive, outraged, reactionary and knee-jerk bully-boyism we have come to expect in relation to the matter.

The author of this contribution, ‘DowntheMannyRd’, offers sincerity and good will in encouraging James McClean to reconsider his refusal to wear a poppy this November. Such a respectful approach is to be welcomed, but, in stating that it is “time we gave Mr McClean a History lesson”, I fear he has misjudged the Derry native, who re-explained his position on the matter to his club’s Albion News just last week in anticipation of an onslaught of criticism and verbal abuse over the next fortnight.

 

The annual poppy fanfare in Britain has become increasingly hysterical, fetishised, militarised and conformist to the point where it is all rather unsettling and disconcerting. Nevertheless, the author denigrates McClean’s feelings of cultural discomfort with regard to the symbol as being “irrational” and outlines what, for him, is the true meaning behind the flower’s use in contrast to what he feels is the “revisionist interpretation” of those who denounce what they perceive as “poppy fascism”:

I can wear a poppy with pride, and equally share my disgust at the murder of innocents committed on [Bloody Sunday]. To wear a poppy does not express full and unwavering support for every action made by members of the British military in its history.

 

Poppies are sold by the British Legion to remember those lost in conflict fighting for their country. The poppy was chosen after John McCrae’s now infamous poem, In Flanders Fields (“In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row”).  The money raised by the sale of these poppies goes to veterans and the families of those killed on duty for the British military.

 

With the centenary of the First World War upon us, the poppy has been worn by millions to commemorate Remembrance Sunday, the anniversary of the armistice which ended the conflict in 1918. It is a symbol to show that the wearer is remembering the sacrifices made by military personnel for their country. It is not a celebration of Britain’s military history.

Symbols mean different things to different people, however, irrespective of how one person or group might wish for a particular symbol to be perceived. That is the very nature of symbols. Meanings and interpretations can indeed change over time, but “poppy fascism” is not an imagined concept or something that has been concocted via a novel or malicious re-interpretation by “revisionists”; it is a very real force of social expectation, upon those in the public eye especially, reinforced by moral coercion and it is fast destroying any true meaning or sentiment for peace and the idea of the futility of war that the symbol might originally have possessed.

The increased pervasiveness of the symptoms of “poppy fascism” may be a relatively recent development, thus perhaps giving ‘DowntheMannyRd’ the impression of some sort of latter-day rewriting of the poppy’s meaning by persons with some sinister ulterior motive, but those referred to as “revisionists” are merely observing and critiquing the unedifying phenomenon that the term “poppy fascism” has come to describe.

The Remembrance poppy is a British cultural tradition – it is not an Irish nationalist custom – and it would be naïve to deny that the symbol has long been hijacked by the establishment in Britain for use as a political propaganda tool in aid of asserting legitimacy and evoking positive sentiment for, or glorifying, the British armed forces and their various neo-imperial adventures via the whipping up of a type of forced collective national sympathy.

The poppy, and what it purportedly represents, is now an excuse for blind jingoism. It is abused as a means to shut down legitimate debate in respect of some of the more questionable and dubious aspects of Britain’s foreign policy. The general gist of the loaded sentiment underlying its promotion can be framed as follows: “But you can’t be critical of our armed forces; you must respect them and what they have done by wearing a poppy as they died defending your freedom.”

There is an insidious and contentious presumption that, if you are unwilling to participate in this grand spectacle of British public life, then you are conspiring to disrespect the war-dead. It is implied that the only valid or true form of respect or commemoration is through sporting the symbol.

The mythical sentiment contains such a deeply-emotive presupposition that it presents very little rhetorical leeway for permitting a credible challenge of the message’s import without the challenger either having to offer a complex, sophisticated and multi-faceted rebuttal in explanation of his or her disagreement with the premise and/or his or her eschewing of the poppy (which is so often dismissed as “disrespectful” regardless) or else simply coming across as crass, heartless and grossly ungrateful.

It is framed in such a way that serves to further the establishment agenda of stifling or limiting potential criticism of state militarism and helps accomplish an almost-frivolous or perfunctory conformity of support through a combination of induced guilt, shame and the threat of social stigmatisation.

As if the brave and self-sacrificial loss of their life, futile in so many cases, for this establishment-propelled lie, centred around a romantic notion of “fighting for freedom” – essentially a cover for war for imperial expansion – was not insulting enough, Britain’s war-dead are further debased through being institutionally exploited, via what has become an oft-garish and socially-forced token gesture, as little more than rhetorical shields for the purpose of evoking an impression of approval for and insulating from real critique establishment policy and the decision-makers actually pursuing Britain’s senseless wars for their own advantage.

According to Alex Netherton, “There is also a strong argument that the Poppy is an indictment of a government that simply won’t do its duty and provide for soldiers it sends to suffer and die.” I would concur.

The 2014 poppy memorial at Tower of London (POA(Phot) Mez Merrill/MOD; Royal Navy; OGL).
The 2014 poppy memorial at the Tower of London (POA(Phot) Mez Merrill/MOD; OGL).

In his endorsing of last year’s bombastic Tower of London memorial, David Cameron, stated that the spectacle served to remind us of “how many people gave their lives not just in [World War I], although obviously the slaughter was horrendous, but also in so many conflicts since then where our armed services personnel have been defending our freedoms and our way of life”.

Thus, the poppy is connected to the supporting of present or ongoing conflicts and a failure to honour or get behind it is subtly equated to or conflated with opposing the very notion of “freedom”, which is, of course, the ultimate definition-free, manipulated and malleable propaganda term in itself. For just who would be so awful and odious as to oppose the great British value of freedom?…

Of course, it is deeply hypocritical when those who bully others in the public eye over their non-wearing of the poppy are so quick to remind non-wearers that the modern freedom the latter enjoy not to wear one is the consequence of the military sacrifice the former claim the poppy commemorates, thus, simultaneously and contradictorily, attempting to enforce or extract a visible statement of thanks by way of supposed moral duty; somehow, they lack the self-awareness to see the astounding illiberality of their own position, one that goes against all for which they claim the symbol stands. Besides, aren’t the meanings of gestures and apparent sentiment devalued when they are forced?

As Rachel Shabi indicates, there is also this poisonous and insulting over-riding sense that support for war is the only way to avoid the charge or suspicion that one might be in some way anti-British. Indeed, James McClean is accused of exactly that for his refusal to participate in and subscribe to the British nationalist programme.

Last weekend, supporters of McClean’s former club, Sunderland, chanted “No surrender to the IRA” and imperiously sang ‘God Save the Queen’ at the player for ninety minutes in an effort to insult him as he played against their club for his present club, West Bromwich Albion. Various opposition supporters have been booing him regularly all season over his principled stance on the poppy combined with his decision not to have participated in an observance of the British national anthem before a pre-season club friendly game in the US earlier this year.

As Nick Miller writes:

The abuse continues around the country, and for what? McClean’s stance is personal: he is not encouraging anyone to do anything they aren’t in favour of, nor is he discouraging anyone from doing anything they are. McClean is harming precisely nobody by simply holding a personal view and explaining it with intelligence and clarity.

It is not hard to detect the xenophobia in which the unsavoury abuse, directed at an Irishman having the temerity to “step out of line” by standing up to majoritarian pressure in Britain, is rooted. Are dissenting or contrasting opinions and identities not welcome here?

When McClean celebrated his club’s 1-0 victory in that game against Sunderland in front of the visiting opposition supporters, who had taunted him all game, with a triumphant fist-pump after the final whistle, a minor scene of jostling broke out as he was physically confronted by a group of Sunderland players and shoved by Danny Graham.

To compound the farcical nature of the situation, already blown way out of proportion by the media, McClean then had to endure the tediously-inevitable victim-blaming – there were the ludicrous suggestions that he had brought it all upon himself and suggestions even that he actually enjoyed it or craved the negative attention of being on the receiving end of such invective – as if he had somehow forced others to abuse and accost him or was responsible for their agency and actions, or as if he had done something that would remotely justify or deserve such treatment.

McClean is undeniably tough, strong and resolute in character, but would or could anyone, bar perhaps the masochist, enjoy being victimised and vitriolically abused week in and week out whilst trying to do their job?

Considering that the difficult political predicaments that have forced him into taking the stands that he has with regard to the poppy and ‘God Save the Queen’ have been imposed upon him from above rather than introduced on to the field of play by himself, to accuse him of pushing his own politics on to the game is also unwarranted. If he was able to, he would simply just play without such distractions.

McClean’s manager, Tony Pulis, although otherwise generally supportive and complimentary of his player, said the Derry man was “not the sharpest tool in the box” – in spite of the McClean’s eloquent and thoughtful public explanations of his principles in the past and present – as the Football Association issued the player a “formal warning” for the rather-harmless celebration and for having “sparked” the scenes.

It is discomfiting that they did this whilst remaining quiet on the bigotry to which McClean was subjected for the entirety of the match, as well as, indeed, on the conduct of those Sunderland players who actually instigated the physical scuffle that rendered the on-pitch episode in any way newsworthy.

The FA might have used their voice and power more effectively had they encouraged Sunderland to engage with the supporters responsible so as to educate them as to why their actions were inappropriate, offensive, unjustified and ultimately embarrassing for their club.

McClean has no issue respecting the sacrifice of those who died during the World Wars. He simply does not need to use a contentious, politically-loaded symbol to do so. Donning a poppy is not the only possible or permissible form of respect or remembrance for those who died at war. If others wish to decorate their lapels with a flower that has particular meaning for them, that is entirely their prerogative and entitlement.

McClean has no issue with that and has never sought to deprive any other person of their cultural symbols, customs, celebrations or entitlement to attribute their own personal meaning to whatever gestures they wish to make.

‘DowntheMannyRd’ suggests that “McClean and many others should be made aware of … [t]he sacrifices made by Irishmen and countless others across the globe in military conflict”. McClean is already knowledgeable of the many Irish who died during the World Wars. In a letter he had written on his stance whilst playing for Wigan Athletic last season to outline his reasoning then to his chairman, Dave Whelan, he stated:

I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those.

 

I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one.

The poppy has undeniable contemporary militaristic connotations, however, and thus has always been a contentious symbol in Ireland, especially for the nationalist community in the north. There is absolutely nothing irrational about McClean’s position; as an historian, ‘DowntheMannyRd’ should be well aware of the British army’s record during the Troubles: there was the killing of innocent and unarmed nationalist civilians; the mass rounding up and internment of suspects without trial, the vast majority of whom were nationalist and so many completely innocent of that of which they were suspected; the collusion with supposedly-illegal loyalist paramilitaries; the military torture of suspected-republican detainees; and the systematic intimidation of the nationalist population. Or what David Cameron patronisingly tells us was the “defending [of] our freedoms and our way of life”…

Whilst collective memories remain raw, the long, hard and difficult quest for the truth is also still ongoing in respect of many of these matters, now known as legacy issues. It is only truth that can generate full and lasting trust so as to encourage or inspire more olive-branch gestures of cultural cross-over, if that is what commentators like ‘DowntheMannyRd’ ultimately seek.

This all might be very easy for an Englishman or Briton to overlook, but I think McClean can be forgiven for giving the whole poppy pageantry another pass this year. James McClean knows his history just fine and is in no need of education.

This piece is also published here on Daniel’s blog.

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Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins is a Manchester-based Irish football supporter originally from the north-west of Ireland.

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