The Opium of the Poppies

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I have lived in the capi­tal of the remar­ka­ble coun­try that is Bri­tain for some 20 years now, long enough to learn a thing or two about it. As a young Ita­lian man, hun­gry for art and music, I grew up in the spell of the sup­po­sed supe­rio­rity of its popu­lar culture. This place is so many inte­re­sting things at once.

In ran­dom order: a Britpop-spreading and Iraq-bombing impe­ria­li­stic quasi-winner of two world wars; an inde­fa­ti­ga­ble pur­veyor of pop cul­ture and mar­ket ideo­logy, per­ma­nen­tly torn bet­ween Europe and the Atlan­tic; a pro­fi­teer and abo­li­sher of sla­very; the inven­tor of pri­vate pro­perty and codi­fier of class divi­sion and indi­vi­dua­lism, but also of unio­nism; a histo­ric safe haven to inter­na­tio­nal dis­si­dents and, at the same time, luxu­rious trai­ning ground to their persecutors.

In short, Bri­tain is an ove­ra­bun­dant source of the main traits of what Western iden­tity pur­ports to be. An extraor­di­nary place indeed.

It’s Novem­ber again, and Remem­brance Sun­day is over us. In this eerie, post-atomically mild tem­pe­ra­ture, we see the West Lon­don streets (in Newham, where I live, they are barely noti­cea­ble) swar­ming with those blood red lapels again. Of course, I’m tal­king about pop­pies, which, year after year, are beco­ming an increa­sin­gly pola­ri­zing symbol.

The pop­pies are a cha­rity item; to wear them means that you remem­ber the sacri­fice of the fal­len of the pre­sent and past wars. It is a tri­bute of loving memory for those who were sent to fight in WWI, aka that sen­se­less abat­toir that was sup­po­sed to end all wars (!). But their posi­tive sym­bo­lism as gra­te­fully due tri­bute is lar­gely out­done by their abra­si­vely urgent poli­ti­cal neces­sity. Along­side the ove­ra­bun­dant usage of the noun “hero” and the adjec­tive “heroic” by the main­stream media.

It isn’t dif­fi­cult to see why. Not to call the vete­rans of the many, frankly inde­fen­si­ble, Bri­tish cam­pai­gns of the last 20 years “heroes” would sound irre­trie­va­bly offen­sive not only to those who lost their lives, but also to those who had grown up in the mytho­logy of mili­tary honor. And maybe coming back home hor­ri­bly mai­med or to a likely future of unem­ploy­ment and post-traumatic stress.

But to a forei­gner — and in Lon­don there are quite a few — they come across as a lit­tle red bar­rier, the ulti­mate obsta­cle to inte­gra­tion. The perio­di­cal waves of into­le­rance toward those not wea­ring them is, too, the symp­tom of a divi­sion bet­ween ‘us’ and ‘them.’

As an unre­pen­tant Mar­xist, I put no trust in natio­nal iden­tity, and feel much relie­ved for that. But if there were any­thing to be really proud in being Ita­lian in these stin­king years of post-Berlusconism, that would be the com­plete lack of mili­ta­ri­stic pride in con­tem­po­rary Italy. Of course, that is not due to cli­mate, moz­za­rella di bufala, great tenors or having had a pathe­tic royal family.

Patrio­tism and natio­na­lism have always been a pre­ro­ga­tive of the unsa­ti­sfied Right, whose fru­stra­tion was due to the undi­spu­ta­ble ‘bac­k­ward­ness’ of the coun­try. Maybe the fact of having been domi­na­ted for cen­tu­ries, after lay­ing the foun­da­tions of Western civi­li­za­tion, gave us a heal­thy deta­ch­ment from the need to sub­ju­gate others and the rela­tive pomp and cir­cum­stance that goes with it. Wha­te­ver the rea­son, we can — yes, very proudly — ful­fill Brecht’s immor­tal words: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

One last thought, before I con­clude. The poli­ti­cal use of history that the Bri­tish have unpa­ral­le­led skill at deploy­ing is fasci­na­ting and dan­ge­rous at the same time, par­ti­cu­larly now that the govern­ment calls “morally inde­fen­si­ble” the reluc­tance to bomb Syria.

Bene­detto Croce, the most famous Ita­lian phi­lo­so­pher of the 20th cen­tury (he was a libe­ral, of course; the grea­test was a guy cal­led Anto­nio Gram­sci, who rot­ted cap­tive in Mussolini’s jails most of his brief life) used to say: “Every history is con­tem­po­rary history.” He is right, if maybe not in the sense he inten­ded. But it is some­how hard to deny that we con­stan­tly (re)write history in order to legi­ti­mize the present.

(il manifesto global,  08/11/15)

Autore: leonardo clausi

Si tratta di prendere Troia, o di difenderla.

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