Friday, November 11, 2011

Pro Patria Bullshitti

Late in his career, Tony Judt came to worry that we were becoming decoupled from our history.

He didn't mean that we weren't paying attention to history, of course - I imagine that more books are written and more elegiac films and documentaries crammed into multiplexes and televisions than ever before.  He was concerned that, with the approaching disappearance of the generations that experienced the great convulsions of the first half of the twentieth century, we were in danger of losing all sense of what those horrible, continent-shattering events actually meant.

There's no doubt that, for the dwindling band who can recall loved ones lost in the great European conflicts, remembrance is intensely personal in a way that the rest of us probably can't comprehend.  So too for those who have lost family members in our more recent wars.

Naturally, you won't lack for coverage of, say, the First World War today.  Even Channel Five managed a fair stab at the Flanders' fields stuff and the symbols of remembrance themselves are, as ever, ferociously defended from all threats, however non-existent they may be.

And yet, how well-served are we by rituals that emphasise courage, duty and sacrifice in a globe-spanning conflict?  Such ceremonies are no doubt a balm for the bereaved and a salute to those who were killed in our name, but they serve the nation poorly in historical terms, I think.

Judt worried that such historical events have come to be seen less as the lived experience of men and women within a particular context than they are a trite moral lesson; an educational tool for children or a tear-stained final act in a Spielberg blockbuster.  A theme park ride, rather than the attempt to inhabit the past that the discipline of history is meant to be.

For really, what is the 11th of November in modern culture?  A moment of quiet personal reflection for most, but it's increasingly becoming just another cash-cow for the glorified entertainment industry that we call our popular press.

Year in year out, you can bet there will be some poppy-related scandal - some paper-flower-shunning TV personality; demonstrating football fans or publicity-hungry extremists to be held up and showered in the hot piss of public outrage.

Are we so belligerent that we need to seek out idiots to feed our perpetual sense of injured victimhood?  These displays of ostentatious media fury are less motivated by popular anger than they are by a cynical hunger for newspaper sales and web-hits.  Jon Snow's much-publicised "Poppy fascism" is a product of the profit motive, rather than of an excess of nationalism or conformity.

This, more than public desire to commemorate the dead, has become our yearly ritual - some soulless hack picking up a paycheque for shouting down a hook-handed Muslim lunatic. You'd think that a nation that has sat on its arse watching The X-Factor while three hundred and eighty-five of its citizens were killed in a ten-year war might have the self-awareness to forego its annual catharsis over a bunch of paper flowers, but apparently not.

The generation that lived through the First World War well remembered afterwards the mad war-fever of 1914 and the ensuing, merciless slaughter of the Western Front.  To them, the war was a catastrophe that left few untouched, visiting disaster upon entire towns and cities.  It showed once and for all that such industrial violence would kill the strong as indifferently as it did the weak, and raw recruits as arbitrarily as three-year veterans.

This week, the lessons we've learned are that foreign football authorities are disrespectful and that intentionally inflammatory arseholes must be banned.  We have David Cameron - a man who shows no compunction whatsoever either for putting British soldiers in harm's way or for assisting in the wholesale destruction of entire cities - lecturing FIFA on the True Meaning of Armistice Day.

Well, you'd need a heart of stone not to appreciate the irony.

Certainly, an exploited commemoration is worth a thousand times more than public indifference, and cultivating a more rounded view of our history is the responsibility of historians and documentary-makers.  The British public show admirable generosity and decency year on year by supporting veterans' causes.

I just regret that Armistice Day has been intentionally turned into such a fucking circus, as if Ypres or Verdun were just another gap in the market.

No comments: