Thursday, 12 November 2009

How the fight against fascism became fascist

fas·cism n.

a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

From the Free Dictionary

I was teaching yesterday morning, 11-12. When I got into work I found an email from Central Bot saying that the Institution would be observing a 2-minute silence for Armistice Day. This immediately put me in a weird position: I have never observed the two-minute silence in my private life for a number of reasons. To begin with, as a general rule, I do feel that it is a tragedy that millions have given their lives for god, country, and whoever thought of sending them out to die to start with. This is a constant belief of mine. War is never right, the loss of life can never be truly justified, and this applies to all wars, ancient and modern, the Balkans, The Somme and of course Afghanistan. They are all wrong, violence as a means of solving tensions has never worked. It just creates more.

In addition, I always felt somehow excluded and threatened by the 'poppy' culture. I was always fascinated and at the same time mortified by the nation's obsession with war. In this country there are 'War Lanes', football stands named after battles, no 'Peace streets', something I haven't experienced anywhere else. War and fighting, and their terminology permeates everything else. On top of that, I always thought that the significance of the poppy became a celebration of 'Britishness', something like flags on top of cars during any sporting event. You either belong in this or you don't. If you don't, you'd better watch out.

But when faced with the institutional directive to observe the silence, I was at a dilemma. I live and work in a country where this is important. Moreover, in my function as teacher, I am to respect the culture and observe the silence. However, isn't my role as anacademic to also questiondirectives and authority? Isn't academic freedomimmune from phenomena of mass control? Apparently not. To my shame, I asked the students to observe the silence, and looking out the window, I saw everyone else, whether they believed in it or not, whether they knew what Armistice Day was about or not, stand in silence, in public, for 2 minutes.

When one ideology becomes dominant to the extent it imposes itself oneveryone's life and activity, surely it is too close to fascism for comfort. OK, we don't have the blackshirts with poppies going around bashing everyone to death. Not yet at least. But the public ridicule and aggression towards anyone who contravenes this, based on personal beliefs (such as John Snow), shows that this surely is fascism. Perhaps we should be allowed to remember the war dead in private if we choose to, but not be forced to do so in public to show our respect.

I will not make the same mistake again. If anything, next November 11th I will do things differently. For now, I am ashamed.

Claude in Hagley Road to Ladywood also comments on the poppy-bashers....


Oliver Mason said...

Being German, I feel especially excluded in a sense, as I would guess most British casualties have been caused by German soldiers; the poppies thus commemorate people killed by my countrymen. But there is no equivalent culture in Germany, probably because from a German perspective, WWII was much worse, both in terms of casualties and lack of moral justification; WWI was more like a 19th century leftover conflict, albeit on a larger scale.

I too find it strange that you hardly find a week (or even a day?) without a war documentary or movie on the TV, where there is indeed an obsession with war. And I found it disgusting how the Brown-mispells-name-in-handwritten-letter affair was blown out of all proportion. Instead of being grateful that the PM (who is surely a busy man in these times) takes the time to hand-write a letter (can you imagine that happening 90 years ago?), he is shown as an insensitive brute because of his poor handwriting.

So, I don't wear a poppy because it only remembers one side of the war dead, and I didn't observe the silence, as my seminar started a few minutes late, and students had simply been chatting beforehand. And I share your sentiment that it has become somewhat institutionalised.

A slight topical aspect came into my teaching, though, as I showed the students a film extract that I've been using for the past years to demonstrate issues of transcribing speech. This is a taken from the fourth series of Blackadder. It was pure coincidence that two of the seminars happened to take place yesterday!

Blackbeard said...

Hm...starting late, I like it :-).

On the whole I feel that in the last 10 years there has been an unmistakable swing to the right, with a radicalisation (also expressed and perhaps led by the media) which is extremely dangerous, as the BNP's recent success demonstrated. I fear that we are on a slippery slope here as a society, not just in the UK. Perhaps we should be making a more active stand against this, but the institution has overworked us so much we're just grateful to get home for dinner.

nahna said...

I too received dreadful sights, as I appeared to "disrespect" this custom. I found that the middle-aged and the older feel really strong about it and, although this concept continues with the younger ones, the latter are more relaxed. And no matter how much ironic this "celebration" is, it is my belief that it offers some positive features as well..

Biluś said...

Thanks Blackbeard for raising this - you (all) are absolutely right. I think even beyond political ideologies like fascism, this kind of trend seems to be a particularly disturbing unthinking herd mentality in the culture, where there's a topical fad-of-the-day and we are all expected to play a bit-part in the public spectacle, at the risk of the great big wagging finger of public opprobrium if we don't (there's some kind of sick continuum from the death of Diana to the current 'war - it's good for you' obsessions in The Sun, for example). For myself, I was totally unaware of the whole thing, and nobody in the course mentioned it, so business as usual... as it should be.