It’s November in Canada again, so once again there’s debate over the wearing of poppies. It was brought to my attention by an angry rant on my Facebook feed threatening to kick the shit out of those who wore the “disrepectful” white poppy as a symbol of peace instead of the more traditional red poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
I want you to think about that: that the wearing of a peace symbol instead of (or alongside of) a symbol of remembrance is apparently offensive enough that some people feel the need to threaten the wearer with violence.
I was so upset that I blocked the person who wrote that comment but it was just one of several similar rants prompted by a rather biased Sun Media story titled “Students Don’t Care If White Poppy Offends Vets.” Thankfully the rest of the Facebook rants I saw simply abused peace activists as “ignorant” and “ungrateful” rather than threatening to assault them if they dared to wear a different symbol. But based on several impromptu internet polls circulating, roughly 70-75% of Canadians consider the white poppy offensive, and 20%-25% of the remaining people polled do not. Less than 5% answered “I don’t know”, which tells me that this is an issue that’s hitting some serious emotional hot-buttons; especially when one considers the rash of absolutely sickening threats posted in various “comments” sections on the articles about this debate.
This year’s uproar seems to have been triggered not so much by the announcement that student activists from the Rideau Institute would distribute white poppies at the National Rememberance Day Ceremonies (although as an activist I think that was hardly a good strategic decision considering the amount of blowback the plan has gotten) but by Veterans’ Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, who went out of his way to let the media know that he felt it was disrespectful.
Now, I’m a very cynical person on a lot of issues and the lengths to which the Conservative government will go to draw attention away from the current Senate scandal is certainly one of them, so maybe I’m being unfair. But when the same Minister for Veterans’ Affairs who oversaw the outright gutting of his department to the provable detriment of actual veterans starts claiming disrespect, I do feel that there’s a certain amount of pot-calling-the-kettle-black happening. In short, I firmly believe that Fantino is trying to make political hay out of this issue… which is exactly what he’s accusing the student activists of doing, despite the fact that the white poppy campaign has been around for a very long time indeed. His accusations of “ideological extremism” ring a little false to my ears, especially when you consider the harm his government has done to veterans for their own ideological reasons.
Should the students be distributing white poppies? Yes: They have every right to do so (despite the Royal Canadian Legion’s rather draconian stranglehold on the display of the red poppy) and I certainly don’t understand how declaring support for peace equates to disrespect for war veterans, so long as the pro-peace opinion is expressed politely.
Should the students be doing it at the National War Memorial during the nationally-televised Remembrance Day ceremony? I think perhaps not: At the very least they run the risk of distracting from the solemnity of the occasion and at the very worst they risk goading reactionaries into carrying out their threats of physical assault; I can’t really see how either of those things will make the point that the activists are trying to make.
Should people be threatening to hurt those wearing the white poppy? Absolutely not. I think the reason I’m so upset by some of the threatening comments circulating is how very, very badly those doing the threatening are betraying veterans by doing so. I personally despise invoking argumentum ad Hitlerum but when you’re threatening to beat or kill someone whose political opinions and freedom of expression differ from your own, when you advocate locking up people with a different viewpoint, you are actually behaving like a goddamn Nazi. It’s appalling. Making that kind of threat betrays everything that Canada’s veterans fought and died for… and it’s just disgusting that these people seem to think that betrayal somehow “proves” their patriotism.
And should politicians and activists be trying to make political points over this whole debate? Not even a little. And on that front the student organizers are as guilty as MP Julian Fantino… not that the white poppy is disrespectful of veterans — it’s emphatically not — but this particular student group tried courting the media just as Fantino did (albeit far more clumsily.) Their offense is a difference of degree, not kind. And because of that, I won’t be wearing any poppy this year, red or white.
I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’ll say it again: the red poppy should be a non-partisan symbol but I don’t feel that it is anymore. I genuinely can’t wear one in good conscience because I believe it’s been co-opted by the Conservative Party as a smokescreen for a legislative agenda which has hurt veterans. I see a lot of politicians (from all parties) wearing poppies and sticking yellow-ribbon magnets to their cars… and then I see them voting without debate in Parliament for military actions which send troops into harm’s way; voting for spending cuts which means that those troops lack proper body armour or shoddy and dangerous equipment; and worst of all voting to cut programs which aid those wounded in mind and body and who come home to our bitter joke of a “support system” which is utterly failing veterans. What I feel — and let me stress that this is my personal opinion — is that wearing a red poppy buys into that co-opting and is therefore actually insulting to veterans, which is why I refuse to wear one.
I won’t wear one because of how I feel; but neither will I condemn someone who chooses to wear a poppy (of either colour) because of how they feel.
For the record, though, I do still put my change into the little Legion boxes, I just don’t take a poppy: The Legion is an imperfect support system for veterans — I think the kindest thing one can say about it is that its simply geared towards helping elderly WWII veterans rather than twenty-something Afghanistan ones — but it’s what they’ve got available. It’s not the Legion’s fault that veterans aren’t getting the help they need, and it’s not the Legion’s fault that the politicians who’ve gutted the veterans’ support system are the same ones smugly standing on the steps of cenotaphs across this country wearing their symbol.
As a quick aside — how many people these days understand why the poppy was adopted as a symbol commemorating those lost in war? Sure, they feature in John McCrae’s poem which every Canadian schoolchild learns at this time of year, but how many people understand that the poppy-flower can’t grow in ordinary, packed-down soil? Poppies of any colour only grow in loose soil that has been churned up… by shellfire, for example, or that of a freshly-filled grave.
In past years I’ve worn the white poppy for peace, and frankly I like the symbolism: I respect veterans for their sacrifices and can see no better way to honour that than by trying build a world where new veterans don’t get made. It is possible — and I’ve had to repeatedly point this out to people on both ends of the political spectrum — it is possible, even reasonable, to be both anti-war and pro-veteran.
But now I feel like I can’t wear a white poppy either: Partly because I do think that the Rideau Institute activists have deliberately courted media attention; partly because I’m annoyed that their political naïveté has allowed Fantino to drape his government’s disgrace in the flag; and partly because I consider that they’re being inconsiderate to the wishes of actual veterans — as in, did they bother to consider (much less consult) actual veterans before making that decision?
And I won’t be wearing a white poppy because I’m also afraid that I’ll be attacked — either figuratively or literally — by red-poppy partisans. That fear isn’t something those partisans should even remotely be proud of. The student activists may have done something moderately insensitive, and the politicians may be opportunistically leaping on that mistake, but the people so-publicly frothing with self-righteous rage and threats of violence are the ones who are truly doing something shameful.
Every year, despite the fact that Remembrance Day isn’t a calendar holiday (and I think it should be) my employer closes our offices for the day. He goes to Confederation Park for our local Remembrance Day ceremonies. I do not: I have no wish to enable my disgraced MP as he mouths empty platitudes for a photo-op. Instead I’ve developed a ritual of my own: I reflect quietly on the day in the comfort of my own home; I sit with my loved ones; I have a good cup of coffee; and I read the poetry of Wilfred Owen. There are those who may be offended by that, but I endeavour to do it with the correct attitude of solemnity and respect.
And If you’ve never read Owen’s poetry, then you damned well ought to… especially if you’re planning on wearing a poppy.