In the weeks leading up to November 11th, mid-autumn England is blanketed each year with a second springtime of faux poppies. Scarlet pins—some petit, with enamel outlined in gold, some outsized and sporting floppy crocheted petals—adorn the lapels of millions of damp-smelling woollen coats across Great Britain and its former colonies. On street corners, in tube stations, booths selling red paper poppies from blue boxes crowd the footpath. If you were to descend and take the train, you would see carriages affixed with scarlet vinyl decals; alighting and ascending to street level, you’d see fallen poppy pins mingling with leaves in the gutters and slicking the road with their trampled blossoms.
Since the end of WWI, the “remembrance poppy” has emerged in Britain and its former colonies as a way of commemorating the armed forces, a symbol on par with the American yellow ribbon. And while some hard-core poppy wearers sport pins all year round, the flowers come out in force as Remembrance Day—the Commonwealth equivalent of Veterans Day—approaches. While it owes its origins to the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields,” written to memorialize the dead of the Second Battle of Ypres, the remembrance poppy has come to stand not merely for those who died in WWI—a figure that in the United Kingdom alone numbered over 700,000, with an additional 1.675 million wounded—but for all British Commonwealth soldiers killed in any conflict. And with each passing Remembrance Day (so strongly tethered to its floral symbol that it is sometimes colloquially called Poppy Day), the poppy has become—ironically—increasingly weaponized.
When Georgia native Moina Michael returned to her professorial work after a leave of absence spent volunteering for the WWI war effort, she found her classroom full of disabled veterans in need of social and financial support. Recalling the first lines of McCrae’s poem, which had moved her deeply when she first read it, Michael decided to manufacture silk flowers in order to raise money for servicemen like her students, as well as to memorialize the dead. Though Michael was American, her idea found its greatest success not in her own country but in the United Kingdom, where the poppies rapidly caught on. In 1921, the newly founded Royal British Legion (a charity that aids British veterans) adopted Michael’s symbol, buying and selling 9 million artificial poppies to help former soldiers seeking work and housing. This was the first so-called “Poppy Appeal.”
A century after the end of WWI, the RBL’s Poppy Appeals have become annual fixtures in Britain and many Commonwealth countries. In recent years, Poppy Appeal launch events have included major spectacles, like a concert by a pop band and a performance by paratroopers (whose special parachute design more closely resembled a Red Baron tribute than any recognizable species of terrestrial flower). RBL’s 2018 target was to raise £50 million through sales staffed by some 150,000 volunteers. In addition to the paper badges sold in person, the RBL’s online “Poppy Shop” features not merely the typical pins, but a massive array of scarlet products, including cufflinks, headscarves, camo-print duffel bags (though the efficacy of the camouflage is somewhat compromised by the presence of a bright red flower in the center), oven mitts, dog beds, a “spiced fig and cassis poppy reed diffuser” (unfortunately out of stock!), and, inevitably, football club cross-promotions. For a mere £2.99, Scunthorpe United fans can show their patriotism and their team allegiance all at once by sporting a pin that resembles the unhappy conjoined-twin lovechild of a flower and a football insignia. A special Valentine’s Day section of the website features such romantic gift ideas as a pin commemorating the Royal Army Dental Corps.
This deluge of poppy apparel, poppy kitchenware, poppy home décor, and poppy etceteras––combined with the social pressure to conspicuously consume and display these products––has turned a solitary act of reflection upon war and its casualties into a massive public spectacle centered less on the act of remembering than on the performance of it. Come each November, News Corp tabloids boil over with poppy-related content. These papers offer endless dissections about the shades of meaning behind different poppies and play host to never-ending debates about the proper way to wear the pins (on the left side or the right? With the leaves angled this way or that way? And what’s with the Queen wearing five at once?). In these accounts, poppy-wearing is explicitly coded as Good, while those who neglect to wear the pins are breathlessly named and shamed. In this way, the poppy has become a wearable form of virtue-signaling, an accessory meant to telegraph its wearer’s patriotism and respect for the dead—and by extension, the conscientious poppy objector’s ingratitude and disloyalty to the nation.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai
If there’s social pressure on us plebes to wear these pins, for public figures, having a remembrance poppy is virtually compulsory. Simon Cowell’s mummy costume for The X Factor’s Halloween special last year came complete with the signature pin, thereby suggesting some kind of bizarro alternative timeline wherein Ramesses the Great was a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles. In a move that was widely derided as “poppy fascism,” the Cookie Monster burrowed a Remembrance Day pin into his blue-furred flesh before an appearance on The One Show in 2016 (The Huffington Post noted in an uncharacteristically arch aside, “There was no word as to whether Cookie Monster opted to wear the flower himself, or if he was asked to do so by the BBC”). British celebrities who choose not to wear a poppy court controversy: In 2006, in response to numerous expressions of “disgust” from the public, Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow was obliged to publish an op-ed apologia explaining why he opted not to wear a pin while working. Snow justified his choice by saying that he never wore insignias of any kind on air, regardless of whether he supported the cause or not, making his stance on the issue an essentially apolitical one. For others, the decision to refrain from wearing a poppy is more charged—and the backlash, accordingly, more extreme. Perhaps the most high-profile conscientious poppy objector is James McClean, a footballer from Derry who has played for both English Premier League teams and the national team of the Republic of Ireland. McClean is from Creggan in Derry, as were six of the 14 unarmed civilians killed by British soldiers during Bloody Sunday. To wear the poppy, he explained to media outlets, would therefore be to honor the very soldiers who had devastated his community. Yet McClean’s choice to forego the poppy jerseys donned by the rest of his teammates has garnered him boos from the stands and death threats online.
In another incident involving a prominent athlete, conservative Twitter was thrown into uproar when an official team photo published by the English cricket team showed player Moeen Ali without a poppy. Ali later clarified that his pin had simply fallen off—pictures from later that day show him poppy-clad—but such statements did little to stem the tide of online abuse questioning his right to play for England. Ali, who is of Pakistani descent, has complained elsewhere of the racism he has faced in the professional cricket world; as this pseudo-event highlighted, outrage over nationalism-tinged symbols like the poppy can easily serve as a racial dog-whistle. What’s more, even forgetting the fact that the team photo incident with Ali was due to nothing more than a faulty pin, the way that Ali’s critics construe the refusal to wear a poppy as a statement against purely English soldiers ignores the vast number of WWI soldiers from then-British colonies who also journeyed to the front lines.
As the fixation on the red poppy badge has mounted, simply wearing a remembrance pin is not enough—it has to be a pin of the right kind. In the 1930s, a number of women involved in the Peace Pledge Union were fired for wearing white poppies to promote pacifism and protest against the increasingly militaristic overtones of Remembrance Day events. In more recent times, TV presenter and Murdoch tabloid alum Piers Morgan––who spent his Remembrance Day retweeting an inane gossip article by and about himself—accused a wearer of a white poppy badge of supporting ISIS and the Nazis. Given the intense scrutiny paid to poppy etiquette, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some public figures’ refusal to remove their pins for fear of giving offense has itself engendered controversy. David Cameron declined to take off his poppy pin when requested to do so during a 2010 diplomatic visit to China that coincided with Remembrance Day—which Chinese officials interpreted gloating over the results of the Opium Wars. In another incident involving Cameron, 10 Downing Street garnered widespread public ridicule when, in an attempt to avoid poppy-rabid criticisms about his Facebook profile picture lacking a pin, Cameron’s office tried to cut the issue off at the pass by adding in crudely photoshopped version, an absurd incident that came to be known as “Poppygate.”
Of course, the frenzy surrounding the presence or absence of a poppy on a Prime Minister’s blazer is not the only example of a political controversy whipped up over a symbolic ornament. Similar strains can be seen in the “outcry” that surrounded Obama’s decision not to wear a flag pin in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. As in the case of Ali’s poppy, the flag pin was touted as a symbol of unity, but in reality became a tool to divide a supposedly virtuous moral in-group from a supposedly unvirtuous moral outgroup (a division that conveniently happened to follow lines of racial exclusion as well). Both poppy and flag pin enthusiasts seem to subscribe to a civic remix of solefidianism, in which good citizenship is achieved through not actions or words, but through symbols––and ones that can be easily bought and sold at that.
Patriotism is not the only supposed virtue available on the market, of course: Beyond the political sphere, the corporate world is full of other instances of product-mediated virtue-signaling. In the private sector, pink-washing products with breast cancer ribbons has come under fire as a mercenary practice that burnishes the image of the corporation involved and give a consumer’s self-regard a boost, while ultimately making a dubious difference in the actual funding of cancer research. Yoplait’s partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation pledges that for every pink yogurt lid consumers mail in, the company will donate $0.10 to research. Under such a plan, someone who fastidiously ate a container of yogurt with every meal for an entire year, licked clean every single aluminum lid, and mailed them all in would raise just over $100, at which point it would seem a lot quicker and more effective to just ditch the yogurt and cut a check. But of course, the appeal of the yogurt is that it allows one to feel as though with every meal one is contributing to the world, and which is what Yoplait and other pink-washing companies count on.
Likewise, in recent years, poppy-mania has metastasized beyond the RBL’s street corner sales to encompass far-flung commercial arenas eager to cash in on the Poppy-Industrial Complex. A satirical Twitter account established to document instances of this, Poppy Watch, has recorded frozen pizzas with pepperoni “poppies,” poppy underwear, a poppy tag affixed to the leg of a hawk employed to catch subway pigeons (presumably remembering the fallen all the while), and a disturbing number of human-sized poppy costumes that make their wearers resemble engorged red blood cells. But beyond the ludicrous examples like these, the scenes captured on Poppy Watch often accidentally disclose something about the deeper nature of Britain’s poppy fetish. One image in the feed shows a supermarket meat counter with the label “All Our Meat Is British––Lest We Forget,” inadvertently implying that the cutlets on display below are fresh from the battlefield. Lapses like these are indicative of how Britain’s obsession with symbolic acts of commemoration has come largely at the expense of a true national reckoning with the legacy of WWI, or any of the subsequent armed conflicts in which the United Kingdom has involved itself.
In an overt manifestation of poppy critics’ fears that a symbol meant to provoke contemplation about the human consequences of war has now become a way of increasing its attraction, the armed forces sometimes use poppies to decorate military equipment. In one set of images collected on Poppy Watch, a flower-bedecked tank points its guns upwards, while a red-splotched bomber jet waits for take-off on the runway. Poppies have ceased to evoke the blood of the dead for viewers, instead becoming a kind of emotional camouflage, capable of plastering over the realities of war with images that are cute, familiar, and for some viewers perhaps even comforting. An explicit desire to do away with the anti-war potential of the poppy can be seen in the actions of the RBL as well: When the organization chose “The Green Fields of France” as its 2014 campaign song, it excised the final stanza, which contains a description of “the killing and dying… all done in vain” as wars are waged “again/and again, and again, and again, and again.” Such cuts take aim at the associative link between poppies and bloodshed, allowing them to become free-floating symbols of patriotism based not upon remembrance, but upon strategic forgetting.
This last point leads me to perhaps the greatest issue with the poppy pin as it is now, which is that at no point is the symbol an invitation to conversation. A narrative that focuses on valorizing the sacrifices of individuals allows no room for consideration of the systems that forced these sacrifices in the first place; it permits no analysis of the senselessness of a war, or the criminality of a war, or the actors who profiteered from a war, or the ways in which the burden of military service disproportionately falls upon the economically disadvantaged, or the fact that warfare frequently means the extreme curtailing of civil liberties for civilians. This narrow (and often feverish) focus on token gestures of remembrance seems to pay respects to the dead of the Great War. But in reality, the rote donning of a seasonal scarlet corsage replace any meaningful consideration of the enduring impact of the conflict, or the causes that led to its senseless bloodshed.
This article was originally published in the January – February issue of Current Affairs.
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