Even the humble poppy can’t escape the culture wars

Even the humble poppy can’t escape the culture wars

War over the poppy has become practically a national truism that anyone who fails to wear one is a traitor

London: Consider the innocent poppy — for some time in this country a symbol of the memory of the fallen soldiers in the First World War, and all servicemen and women killed in conflict.

Now, I don’t want to go too far out on a controversial limb here but that seems like a … good thing? Or — I ask whirling around to camera — is it? Because, in a sign of the absurdity of our times, even the humble poppy has been caught up in the all-consuming culture wars.

Culture wars represent a clash between traditional and progressive values, and they emerge in times of toxic division, like poisonous mushrooms popping up in mulchy earth. So people’s opinions about things — poppies, for example — are less about the thing itself and more about what it represents, and how that chimes with their political values. Post-Brexit, culture wars are ubiquitous in Britain, an overspill of the giant stew of stupid that is now swamping this country.

The war over the poppy has been building for some time, and it has become practically a national truism that anyone who fails to wear one is a traitor. The obvious irony of people being told there is only one way to remember soldiers who died fighting for freedom is lost here. But, hey, patriotism is complicated.

Well, it used to be. Now, of course, everything is very black and white, and patriotism means believing this country is the national equivalent of Superman, mightier than everyone else, and wholly capable of going it alone. And rather like patriotism itself, poppies have been firmly appropriated by the likes of Ukip and the far right. Poppy Watch has been off the charts this year, with Moeen Ali having to issue an apology when his poppy fell off in an official photo. “My daughter is called Poppy. So I won’t forget … Will you?” tweeted fundamentalist preacher Katie Hopkins last week. Presumably she named her other daughter India so she could always remember the Bhopal disaster.

You’d think the remembering was the important thing here, but all importance has been placed on to a symbolic object, which is what happens with culture wars. So are poppies still nice, or are they a symbol of reactionary nationalism? Are white poppies, a symbol of pacifism, an acceptable compromise — or are they, as Chesterfield borough council deemed earlier this month when it refused to let a pro-peace group lay a white poppy wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony, “inappropriate”? Sorry, poppies: you might have survived the battlefields but you’re not coming through this war unscathed.

This is the problem with culture wars: things that once seemed straightforward are suddenly riven with perils and connotations. Populist politics and social media, which is built on combativeness and grandstanding, both encourage this nonsense. So to guide you through the rest of the year, here are some of 2017’s other stupidest culture wars:

Sexual harassment

Is sexual harassment good or bad? Bad, I’d heretofore thought. How one-sided of me! Last week the Today programme, for reasons of balance, held a debate on the matter and, in the pro camp, Petronella Wyatt deemed it “flattering”. Indeed, if you read certain male columnists, you’d think that anyone who dislikes being felt up by their boss is a self-pitying left wing metropolitan millennial, whereas real women on the right love a roll in the hay, apparently. We are one tweet away from harassment being an elitist issue, ladies.

Dunkirk

A lot of people (men, if I’m being entirely honest) got excited about the film Dunkirk last summer, but then Nigel Farage tweeted a photo of his Big Sad Face next to the movie poster and wrote “I urge every youngster to go out and watch Dunkirk.” Incredibly, director Christopher Nolan declined to use that promotional quote, but maybe he hadn’t recovered from the overwhelming irony of a man who campaigns against the EU, which has helped maintain peace longer than at any other point in Europe’s history, promoting a movie about the war that nearly destroyed the continent.

Experts

One year on from Michael Gove’s famous claim that Britain has “had enough of experts”, anyone with expertise who queries the wisdom of Brexit is still being roundly trashed, from Mark Carney to Michael Bloomberg. And you, too! Brexiters repeatedly claim that the only reason Brexit might not turn out to be the magical wonderland voters were promised is because some people are unpatriotically questioning that theory.

It’s also probably because you’re not wearing your poppy enough.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2017