Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II. I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time. And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”. My sharing was met with some resistance. One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.
This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember. On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told. Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate. I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected. After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time; that of looking down on the Americans. Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.
But what do we make of it all? And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?
Groundhog Day and the cycle of history
If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time. In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.
The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past. In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears. The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace. No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership. No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.
In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence. And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future. Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.
Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line. It doesn’t. The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President. Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more. Many Americans are thrilled – but not all. At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.
Is love even here?
For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair. It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past. The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”. For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.
I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business: is love even here? It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here. And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.
These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).
The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign. Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.
Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era. In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers. In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.
Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns. In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”. In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters, was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.
But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did. It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era. This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.
We are all one. When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.
Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding. In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory. The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages. And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.
Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.
Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”
It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay. No. But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious. We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”. What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view? What deeper needs are being expressed? And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with. In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.
Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are. As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach. We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations. These are not small things.
Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day. Our blind spots become those of our children. Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws. We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands. We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.
Creating narratives for future generations
In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding. For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.
For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support. It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.” This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.
I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores. I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad. Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support. For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.
Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:
“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA. Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history. Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions. It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.