I haven’t blogged recently, because I have been studying hard. Maybe this has made me a little less lighthearted than usual. I ask myself that because today is Armistice Day, and today I found myself questioning the conflicts I see between a private act of respect, the State’s duty to honour those who fell in its name, and the grief bandwagon which rolls across so much these days, crushing dissent in its path.
I have been considering the work of the French Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, who drew a distinction between what he saw as State power and its formal mechanisms, and State control, with its greater subtleties. Althusser argues that while we are aware of the former, the latter is exercised through apparatuses such as political parties, schools and the media to foster an ideology which ‘is sympathetic to the aims of the State’. Within that, the status quo is maintained, and the individual feels that he or she freely chooses something which is in fact being imposed upon him. Althusser called this more subtle mechanism of control ‘interpellation‘.
Now, I find this a really interesting idea, and one that challenges my response to all sorts of issues and convictions that I have never really questioned before. I am not sure whether or not – having given my aching brain even more work to do – I will, in the end, alter any of my fundamental beliefs. But I think it is something worth considering. Hence my pondering on the significance of the enormous campaign that lies behind a small but symbolic flower.
Another critic I have read recently argues that ‘Ideology’ is like halitosis, in that it is something everyone else has, not you.
I honour the memory of those I know who were young and terrified but who were still able to face machine gun fire for the sake of a country they believed in. I honour the memories of all those whose bravery took them far beyond the modern conflict of a nightclub brawl on a Saturday night, and out into the heat and dust of a strange landscape where the enemy lurks and waits. But by honouring them must I also believe that killing to protect certain beliefs is always right? That our beliefs are of course ‘right’ and that those of an enemy must be ‘wrong’?
I listened to a WWII veteran being interviewed today about his experiences on the ground during the bombing of Dresden. He said that beforehand he had seen men die; had killed. But nothing had prepared him for the horror of seeing women and children burning in the street before his eyes. Later, on the news, came reports of the stoning of two women in Afghanistan. More deaths: those we caused in the fight against fascism, and those we try to prevent in the fight against religious extremism. There are no poppies for the civilian casualties of warfare.
It’s easy, today, to quote a half-remembered line or two from the War Poets, or believe that embroidering poppies on football shirts is a patriotic act, but its harder to question the cost of warfare, and to remember, as Donne did:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…