Standing up for what you believe inYou see some odd sights now and then in a city like Glasgow. I recall some years back leaving Celtic Park on a dark, wet night after a victorious match against Rangers and seeing a rather drunk young man wandering around. Nothing unusual about that you might think but I did notice that he was wearing only one glove. My brother, more switched on than me on that occasion informed me that the glove, being red was no doubt worn by the young man so that he could hold it aloft in the away end to symbolise the red hand of Ulster. It was no doubt lost on him that the symbolic red hand goes back centuries before the plantation of Ulster and was in Elizabethan times a potent symbol of Irish resistance to English incursion. It occurs in ancient Celtic mythology where Lambraid Lahm Dhearg (Lambraid of the Red Hand) was a major figure in the Fenian cycle of the legends. I wonder if that young man I saw that night would still attempt to wind up Celtic fans with his red glove if he knew all of that.
Symbols of course are one of the many ways human beings convey meaning to each other. They can be very potent as anyone who has ever worn a Celtic shirt can testify. The looks you receive range from encouraging smiles to naked hatred and everything in between. All of this from people who have never met you and make a judgement based on your choice of clothing. Such ‘pre-judging’ is of course the root of the word ‘prejudice.’ We are all guilty of it to a greater or lesser degree. I recently went horse riding with a group of children and forgot that essential item of equipment; my wellies. The only pair they had in my size was of the garish union jack coloured variety. I was not overjoyed at having to wear them and this speaks volumes of my own feelings about the flag of the political entity which I was born into. The flag in itself is of course a construct of English, Scottish and Irish flags and was intended to be a symbol of unity but all of my life I have associated it with narrow minded people who flaunt it as a symbol of exclusivity and triumphalism. The misuse of symbols such as the union flag and red hand can change their intended purpose and it would be remiss not to note that others have used the Irish tricolour in a similar manner.
It seems to be a facet of human psychology that many of us instinctively feel more comfortable among our own clan or group and this is perhaps a leftover from our hunter-gatherer past when there were very few people in the world. Today we mostly live in cities and are forced to interact with a bewildering variety of people from various cultures and while some see this as stimulating and interesting, others feel threatened by it. In countries such as the USA and UK there have been attempts to invent all-encompassing values and traits which people are encourage to adopt as signs that no matter what their ethnicity, they are proud citizens of the country. It hasn’t been a great success mostly because of the ham fisted and intolerant way it has been handled by politicians and the media.
You don’t have to look far to see the media agenda as it seeks to enforce conformity upon the population. At this time of year the ‘poppy debate’ resurfaces with tiresome regularity. In any so called democratic society, it is a matter of choice whether one wears a poppy or not. However the media still turns the spotlight onto public figures who exercise their right not to wear one. An example being Derry born footballer James McClean a young man with every reason to respectfully decline to wear a poppy given the actions of the British Army in his home town during the troubles. He wrote an open letter to the chairman of his club which explained his reasons in very eloquent terms…
‘’I wanted to write to you before talking about this face to face and explain my reasons for not wearing a poppy on my shirt for the game at Bolton.
I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars - many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one. I want to make that 100% clear .You must understand this. But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me. For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different. Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if like me you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth. Mr Whelan, for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially - as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.
It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.
I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. Since last year, I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent. I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.’’
James has been subjected to the usual brainless comments from the right wing press in the UK who fail to see that the ‘Freedoms’ they claim our forces fought for must surely include the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a poppy. He has also received abuse online and if the internet has a downside it is that it provides a platform for less enlightened folk to spout their nonsense with impunity. Attempts to make people conform and think the same way are described as brainwashing in states such as North Korea but the west is just as adept at using the media to manipulate people. American linguist and intellectual Noam Chomsky has long been a critic of what he sees as media propaganda in the USA and its attempts to manipulate the masses and create what he calls ‘manufactured consent’ for the policies of successive governments. He said of American mass media that it is…
"an effective and powerful ideological institution which carries out a system-supportive propaganda function."
The goings on in the UK and Scottish media during the recent referendum campaign served to remind us that the media in this country is perfectly capable of manufacturing propaganda when its masters require it. We see it too in the ‘manufactured’ glorification of the military going on in the UK at the present time. Chomsky poured scorn on essentially meaningless phrases like ‘Support our troops’ common in the US media precisely because it distracted the average citizen from seeking the real reasons why our young people were being shipped to overseas battlefields. Those who question why the soldiers are being put in harm’s way can thus be portrayed as disloyal or even traitors. No one doubts the bravery of the average soldier but in any democracy the military and its masters must always be accountable for their actions to the people.
James McClean does us all a favour when he reminds us of a basic pillar of any society which calls itself democratic and that is the right to follow your conscience. I hope to God that this time next year we are grown up enough as a society not to have to repeat this tiresome debate. It is of course all a matter of respecting each other’s views even when we don’t share them. As a brave young man said…
In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.’’