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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
Last year, at my usual place of study, Bon’s Off Broadway, I picked up a poppy at the counter and made the prerequisite donation. A little later I noticed something disturbing, at least symbolically. While using the washroom, I saw a poppy in the urinal. I’m fairly sure it got there by accident (those straight pins fall out pretty easily), but it didn’t make me feel any better about peeing on a symbol of peace, gratitude and respect.

I wouldn’t have been too concerned about this if not for a few subsequent events, which made me wonder about how much respect ordinary people, and even politicians, give to those who risked or actually laid down their lives.

In a Georgia Straight article from last year, Verne McDonald, a former signalman and Seaforth Highlander who now serves as sergeant at arms for the Billy Bishop (No. 176) branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, gave his thoughts on how we commemorate (or don’t commemorate) Remembrance Day.

McDonald pointed out how the Cambie Street Remembrance march of 2001, just a couple months after 9/11, had the largest public turnout he’d seen in decades. He said he was “suspicious that they had come as a gesture of solidarity with politicians' callous plans for a new generation of soldiers” and “were expressing their wish that another generation would go and put on the uniform in order to die or be wounded in horrible ways.”

Perhaps it stuck McDonald as hypocritical and shallow that the crowd should have showed up in that year’s atmosphere of patriotic militarism due to the then-recent terrorist attacks. That patriot militarism, even in Canada, has yet to wear off, with the war in Afghanistan entering its seventh year this month with no clear end in sight.

McDonald also accused local city officials of conveniently using the veterans to make themselves look good in the media spotlight, claiming “politicians generally see veterans as a symbol to exploit.” He cited the parade of 2005 when “several veterans who paraded at Victory Square were afterward admitted to local hospitals to be treated for hypothermia and respiratory complications after being left in driving rain at 2ºC for more than an hour.” This, in stark contrast to the local officials who “stayed dry under their marquees and never even considered the idea of shortening the ceremony for the sake of the people it is supposed to honour.”

The only concession McDonald was able to grant the politicians was the “free parking for veterans' plates begrudgingly allowed by city council this year.” He’s quite right when he says, “Cannon fodder then, and now a different kind of fodder.”

But it’s not just the politicians who seem to be paying less than the respect owed to veterans. And here’s where I come to my “subsequent events.” On hippie-infested Commercial Drive, where I live, I was surprised at how few poppies I saw on people my age. Granted, people are forgetful (I myself didn’t remember to wear one everyday), but I actually spoke to a couple at Café Deux Soleils who argued that wearing the poppy glorified war, and that they were making a statement by not wearing one.

Of course, this begs the question, “How do you distinguish someone making a statement by not wearing the poppy from someone who just forgot about the whole thing?” For this couple it didn’t really matter: I was promoting war by romanticizing veterans. Fair enough. Soldiers are sometimes victimizers. But are they not also, and primarily, the frontline victims of war? Is it not usually the poorest and least well-off that are sent to fight and to be killed or wounded, physically and mentally? Isn’t this why we respect their sacrifice?

The other incident, again at Deux Soleils, a true hippie-haven, was when I was pointed out among the crowd by a performing “slam” poet as he uttered a line about wearing the poppy, because I had one on and performed earlier during the open-mic part of the show. His slam poem ended with a snide reference to voting.

I couldn’t help myself. As the crowd cheered his self-righteous, anti-establishment poem, I yelled at the top of my lungs, sarcastically, “Yeah man, fuck voting! Fuck democracy, man! Fuck the establishment! Down with all that shit, man!” And when the whole room was silent and staring at me, I abruptly shut up.

Hopefully they all got my point, which was this: We humans have a tendency to throw away our freedom, which the veterans fought for, and if we either casually or self-righteously refuse to remember and respect them, then we will have truly lost that freedom. Whether you’re a politician or an ordinary citizen, I think there is a tremendous need to appreciate our admittedly flawed, but precious and fragile legacy of democracy. Symbolically, we should stop pissing on our democratic system. Because if we don’t, we’ll lose it altogether. Not symbolically, but for real.


A very slightly different version of this article first appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver, issue no. 177, November 22 to December 5 2007.
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

This is a great article, and I agree with what you say about the symbol of the poppy and your actions at the Cafe Deux Soleil.
But I have another stance on the poppy. That its lost meaning is due to a bigger problem. It has to do with the good old theories of Derrida and Deconstructionism. Here's a question for you: How many of the people at the cafe were wearing Keifas (traditional Palestinian scarves) ? How many were wearing Che Guevara t-shirts two years before? And I bet if we look further in the past they probably were wearing Malcolm X baseball caps back when he was popular. Maybe next year we'll all be wearing Gandhi sunglasses.

The point is Canada's poppy is going under this crazy phase of deconstructionism. The only reason it's happening to a lesser degree when compared to the Keifa, Guevara, or Malcolm X is because Canadian WWII history is mandatory in Canadian high schools and so we actually have an incling of knowledge on the poppies' history and why they're worn. Yesterday, I saw a girl in a violet-pink Keifa, that they sell at the trendy-stores, merely glance at UBC's Palestinian students' club who were selling authentic Keifas with large posters explaining their significance to Palestine, she then continued to walk on. It was a striking scene for me, but not a unique one as I've been observing it since X-shirts went on sale.
The reason I'm mentioning that it's happened before for as long as I can remember is to point out that there's nothing to stop deconstructionism yet. The less we are educated about the Canadian Veterans the sooner the poppy will be misrepresented in the way you described it was at the cafe, "to glorify war." And the more Derrida's "text" will lose all meaning.

alishahnovin

alishahnovin

One line in article kind of stuck out to me: "That patriot militarism, even in Canada, has yet to wear off, with the war in Afghanistan entering its seventh year this month with no clear end in sight."

Is it patriot militarism that Canada is still in Afghanistan? Sure, seven years is a long time to be fighting - longer than both World Wars, in fact. But is it because of patriot militarism that it's been going on this long? I'm sure that if Canada had the ability to get the job done and leave, it would. I think it's been going on so long due to the large distraction that Iraq has been. Canada may not have had a part in Iraq, but global attention was turned away from Afghanistan. Even beyond that, there's a subtle irony with Afghanistan as well as Iraq - that there's simultaneous construction and destruction going on within the countries as Canada is helping rebuild one of the countries it's simultaneously at war with. At least with Iraq, Canada's helping rebuild it without taking part in the damage.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure Canada's role could be attributed to patriot militarism.

As for the wearing of Poppies, I think wearing any form of symbol is always an issue with teenagers and young adults. For one, fashion is an issue. I remember in High school I couldn't wear a poppy on some days, unless I wanted to poke a hole in my rain coat. I didn't care so much if the colors clashed, or more "fashion conscious" reasons - I just didn't have the appropriate wardrobe for poppy-wearing - no wool overcoats, or lapelled jackets. But another issue is that of friends. If all your friends are wearing poppies and encourage you to, you're far more inclined when you're a young adult. And you're far less inclined were it the contrary - if they all think it's some sort of statement of solidarity with "the machine."

I half-jokingly thought - what if poppies were made available only to adults. The adults who want to wear them, who have the money and ability to make a donation. That way, those who see the importance of it would be willing to make the donation to show their support and remembrance. But what happens when you make something largely unavailable, and attach a monetary symbol to it? Instantly you poppies would become status symbols - for both adults and teenagers.

With regards to what Alamir was getting at - with the Che shirts, the X hats and shirts, the Keifa scarves... I think we've seen many examples of how ludicrous society can be, particularly when it becomes some trendy political statement. But the most surprising to me, out of them all, were the sudden fashion trend of those rubber-band style bracelets which went from supporting various causes, most notably LiveStrong, to suddenly being trendy "badges of honor" of how scandalous you can be at a house party.

Alamir

Alamir

By the way, I was just informed that they provide white poppies to wear too. They're too commemorate everyone who died in the war, not just the soldiers. You have to order them in apparently.



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