Friday, July 15, 2011

A Cultural Shorthand For A Sentiment We No Longer Feel

In light of Charlie Gilmour's sentencingMediocre Dave questions the meaning of war memorials.

Today is a good day to talk about statues. Charlie Gilmour has just been sent down for 16 months for violent disorder during student fees riots. He notoriously swung from a union flag hanging from the Cenotaph before later harassing some royal cars, smashing up Topshop, concealing a mannequin’s leg and angrily refusing to eat cake. As the Mail puts it, ‘although Gilmour was not sentenced for his behaviour at the Cenotaph, he was told his actions were ‘reprehensible’.

The Judge in this case, Nicholas Price QC, was quite clear, though, that Gilmour’s actions at the “empty tomb”, despite not being the crime he was prosecuted for, had certainly been reflected in the sentence. He was explicit in highlighting that Gilmour’s reckless behaviour was made significantly worse by the cultural significance of the space he did it in.

“For a young man of your intelligence and education and background to profess to not know what the Cenotaph represents defies belief,” he said.
“You have shown disrespect to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, to those who fell defending this country.”

But Gilmour was given some credit for apologising for his actions.
“You expressed yourself in a fitting way when you said how deeply ashamed you are for what is, as you acknowledge, the terrible insult to those who gave their lives,” the judge said.

For Price, it is inconceivable that an intelligent person could fail to understand the importance of the memorial. Everyone knows what it represents, and in failing to give it the reverence it is seen to deserve, Gilmour has disrespected our war dead with an insult which penetrates right to the heart of our national values.

The soldiers died, Gilmour was told, to protect his freedom and the freedom of all in this country. It is because they gave their life that Gilmour has the right to peaceful protest, and so not only did he disrespect their memory by using the flag as a rope swing, but also by failing to live within the limits of the freedom they apparently won. And this is where I start to lose my footing with established wisdom on the subject. Firstly, because of the obvious obliviousness on the part of the Judge to the irony both of lecturing a man about the privileges of freedom while simultaneously condemning his behaviour and curtailing his liberty and of chastising him for his failure to remain peaceful in the same breath as recalling the example set by soldiers in a war. Secondly, and more unsettlingly, because when one looks at the situation afresh, nothing seems more disrespectful to the thousands of dead than, decades later, to appropriate their suffering as a tool with which to admonish a foolish man for his drunken idiocy. The reverence that Price expected, the reverence we are instructed to feel about those killed in combat is a function of the gross hypocrisy surrounding the issue. At the heart of this hypocrisy is the problem of statues, monuments and artifacts of commemoration.

Today, the Queen, our head of state, unveiled a new statue to honour the work done by the men and women of Bletchley Park during the second world war. These were the nation’s best cryptographers, logicians and mathematicians and, by creating what is sometimes regarded as the world’s first computer, they were able to crack the Enigma machine’s code, which was a decisive moment in the course of the war. Little mention today was made of the fate of Alan Turing, one of the most significant thinkers of Bletchley Park. Turing was gay, and because homosexuality was a crime he was given the choice between prison or ‘treatment’ in the form of female hormones which amounted to chemical castration, which he accepted. Eventually he was found dead from cyanide poisoning, in what is presumed to be suicide. Neither Gordon Brown’s 2009 apology on behalf of the British government nor today’s statue can undo the suffering that was inflicted on Turing by a state whose ill-conceived values he was unable to live by. What we instead witness is an effort to disguise the sordid ideology on which we have built so much of our society behind a whitewash of reverence, ‘respect’ and patriotism. By honouring the work of the Bletchley Park team, the establishment is merely exploiting their legacy to celebrate itself. Turing is best known today for lending his name to the Turing Test, a means of identifying artificial intelligence. Turing enables us to differentiate between genuine humanity and its mere cynical imitation.

The Cenotaph, as our primary war monument, is possibly the most focused example of the self-serving and dishonest logic of commemoration. The inherently false values are perhaps best expressed in three words engraved on one side: “THE GLORIOUS DEAD”. Why, we must ask ourselves, is there not a monument to our glorious living? There is a legend that when the Cenotaph was unveiled soldiers who had returned from the war impoverished, wounded and hungry remarked ‘we asked for bread and you gave us stone’. Consider those words for a moment, and you begin to understand the truly chilling nature of war memorials. When sleeping rough in Westminster is criminalised in September, a proportion of the homeless people the Police will be moving along will be ex-soldiers who we will claim to honour in November. They can’t sleep in the Cenotaph. The state’s failure to adequately provide for veterans reveals its appreciation for soldiers’ sacrifices to be little more than a pose. The glorious living are an inconvenience, the glorious dead are a tool. They are to be celebrated, because their memory is a short hand for the values which keep us in line. Today, their deaths were used to criticise a twit because he had played on the cold stone with which we celebrate their suffering, and their memory was appropriated in the courts to add generations of emotional weight to the establishment’s artificial distinction between ‘proper protest’ and that which deviates from what is acceptable by providing a genuinely confrontational challenge to the state’s authority. Is this what those men died for? I suspect it probably is.

Every major war shapes our attitudes to war itself. In the days of empire, war was glorious and masculine. In the 20th century WWI and WWII were honourable, noble, righteous, necessary. As we watched Vietnam the tide began to turn, as we started to weigh up the moral authority with which the Western powers engaged overseas, the demographic of the men who died and the atrocities that were committed against indigenous people. For many of us raised on Iraq, war is an expensive, misguided, illegitimate affair, as much an assault on the decency and character of a people by their government as on one nation by another. Is it any wonder that those who engineer war are so keen to remind us of The Great War? Is it any wonder that we still talk in outdated terms of ‘trenches’, ‘the front’ and ‘no man’s land’? Is it any wonder that the symbol of our remembrance is the poppy of 1918, not the deserts or the oil fields of 2011?

Jon Snow sparked a modicum of controversy in November for declining to wear a poppy on television in the weeks leading to the 11th, as he found the gesture lost its meaning if it became just another unthinking habit. TV studios have baskets of poppies on stand by so that everyone who is to appear on camera can be fitted with one, ensuring that a consistent and unconfrontational set of values are presented at all times. Wearing a poppy to ‘remember’ the dead has become a default for the public figures who appear within the mainstream media, a cultural trend to which one conforms. The ubiquitous prevalence of poppies is, to any student of symbols and their political potency, disquieting. They hang, pinned to the lapels of every apolitical figure, as an uncritical invocation of horrific bloodshed nestled harmlessly into everyday life, or plastered all over crosses in what could almost be taken as a deliberately cold and humourless pun on religion as the ‘opiate of the masses’. They are a totem, a prop, a signifier which tells onlookers that the wearer is compassionate and caring about soldiers’ deaths but they fail to do anything to prompt deeper thought. There are those who seek to counter this without appearing unfeeling by sporting a white poppy for peace, rejecting the militaristic jingoism and the glorification of war that is suggested by the red poppy and instead embodying the only fitting sentiment that could adorn an sincere war memorial; ‘this must never happen again’.

War memorials are dishonest. They are a way to satisfy our guilt and our concerns whilst allowing us to excuse ourselves from addressing the real tragedy. Stone is an imperfect material with which to express genuine sorrow or gratitude. War memorials are a cultural shorthand for a sentiment that we no longer bother to feel. They are a two minutes silence, when what is required is a scream. They are an exploitation of tragedy. They are a celebration of death. We should not celebrate the casualties of war. We, who have the luxury of not being soldiers, should not take a second’s pleasure, satisfaction or pride in their suffering.

This morning I was prompted to remember the provocative and flippant intellectualism of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:

“All the mourning’s veiled the truth; ‘it’s not lest we forget’ it’s ‘lest we remember’. See, that’s what all this is about; the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two-minutes silence, because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

1 comment:

Helen (@absintherobette) said...

Quick correction - "the work done by the men of Bletchley Park during the second world war" - most of the people who worked there were women. The Queen even emphasised women's contribution in the video you linked.

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