Exposing the politics of the poppy
Everyone knows about Christmas creep and hates it. It’s the time of the year when stores begin putting up their decorations and we’re bombarded with suggestions about the perfect gift we can buy to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Once upon a time, the onslaught of merriment would begin in early December. Now we’re lucky to get past mid-November before the glad tidings are everywhere.
It is fashionable to rail against Christmas creep, though it does no good.
It is not fashionable to rail against poppy creep, but here goes.
Remembrance Day is Nov. 11. The most visible way to show you care about the sacrifice made by veterans of Canada’s wars is to buy and wear a poppy. A lot of Canadians do that. Millions in fact. The money that is collected is used for important work by the Royal Canadian Legion. So far, so good.
What I find objectionable is how the poppy seems to be used by some people to show their patriotism. It’s literally a cheap trick. The average donation for a poppy is less than a dollar. In fact, the Legion says you can pick one up for free if you want to. So that’s the cost for showing everyone that you’re doing your part to remember.
Politicians usually start wearing poppies first. And if one politician wears one, they all have to wear one for fear of being called out for disrespecting our veterans.
Then anyone who’s in the public eye pins on a poppy. National Hockey League coaches. TV broadcasters. Executives of big corporations. No one can take a chance that someone else in their business will appear more respectful than they do.
And all this happens before Halloween is over and the calendar turns to November.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with wearing a poppy. I’ve bought mine already, but I won’t put it on until a week or so before Remembrance Day. I don’t have to advertise that I honour the more than 110,000 Canadians killed in our wars. I try to honour them every day. Quietly. You can too. There are more than 6,000 war memorials in Canada. There’s a very good chance you walk by one of them, perhaps even several of them, every day. Maybe you should stop once in a while. Read the inscriptions. Remember that most were erected after the First World War, not by governments, but by communities getting together to commemorate what they had lost. Consider the pain each memorial represents.
If you are a little more ambitious, you can travel to places around the world that are, in some ways, more Canadian than your own neighbourhood.
You can go to Vimy, France. There’s a monument there you’ll never forget. You may have seen pictures of it. You may have noticed it on the twenty dollar bills in your pocket. But until you’ve seen it, you have no idea. Its majesty and power will seize you at first glance. Get closer and you’ll see 11,285 names etched into the Vimy Memorial. They are Canadians who were killed in France in the First World War, but whose bodies were so shattered they have no graves. Pause. Think about that.
Or you can go to Normandy, also in France. There’s a beach there where Canadians landed on D-Day.
“Landed,” though, is a far too gentle a word to describe what happened. Walk along the sand. Try to imagine what it was like to run up the beach with machine gun and mortar fire trying to kill you. Think of the terrible noise and the sheer terror.
Or you can go to the cemeteries. There are a lot of them. Too many of them. They’re in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Hong Kong, South Korea and a few more places. Each and every one is completely overwhelming. You’ll see row after row after row of headstones. And you’ll see the maple leaf carved into each marker. You will never feel closer to people you never knew.
Wearing a poppy is a good start. But if it’s just something you do because everyone else is doing it, or because it would be bad for your image if you don’t do it, then it doesn’t matter how early you put it on.
Poppy creep won’t disguise the hollowness of the gesture.