Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Anthem for Doomed Truth

The problem with freedom is that other people simply refuse to use it in ways you approve. Take Jeremy Corbyn: elected leader of Britain's Labour Party one day, refusing to sing the national anthem the next. War veterans are right to feel upset. They didn't fight for freedom just so people would have the freedom to choose their gods, politics, and songs to sing. And it’s not as though Jeremy has a problem squeezing a lung or two in public. Earlier in the week, he gave a rousing performance of the Red Flag in a London pub. It staggers belief! The new Labour leader singing the semi-official anthem of The Labour Party. Just what was he thinking?

You see, amid all the media outrage is a rarely spoken truth about freedom: we are free to do whatever it is that the majority tell us to do. Britain is a liberal and wonderfully open-minded nation, so long as you're thinking and saying what the liberal and wonderfully open-minded people think and say. Heaven forbid that you dare offer an alternative point of view on war, terrorism, migration, civil liberties, Europe, policing, crime, gender, housing, cycling, unions, beards, smoking, drugs, druids, drones, Scotland, trains, tattoos, teaching, One Direction, ethnic studies, football, Crufts, television, HS2, or ethic spoon medicine. Dare to defend a rapist and the mob will tear you to pieces, just like they did with TV presenter and journalist, Judy Finnigan, when she recently tried to make a nuanced point about a footballer's rape case. Don't mention hunting lest you provoke the opprobrium of the Countryside lobby who attacked BBC naturalist Chris Packham when he dared to express an opinion on a subject he's considered an expert. A man can't even say that Elton John's latest album rots his ears without that being taken as an attack on the entire LGBT community.

Of course, both the political left and right have their own protected airspace. On the left, it's union rights, minimum wage, and equality. On the right it's the monarchy, law and order, and immigration. There are broader taboos which exist in the public sphere and you can usually tell when you've strayed because you'll receive the 'you can't say that' warning from work colleagues. It's the nature of public opinion that the current safe zone moves like starlings on the wing: a large homogenous mass, keeping the stragglers in order should they move counter to the prevailing direction.

The problem with this is that it rarely allows true freedom of speech and popularity doesn't itself prove an objective truth. Simply because something is acceptable to the masses, it doesn't mean that an attitude is right. In the 1970s, racism, sexism and homophobia were lauded as good old honest British traits. Those who didn't play by the common rules were condemned as either outdated or misguided when decades later they would be seen as visionary or brave.

In truth, most of us know this already. There's nothing here that isn't common sense. It really comes down to how we each act based on our convictions. Most of us are pretty cowardly when it comes to our deeply held convictions. We sometimes profess to likes and dislikes simply in order to fit into the crowd. It's why the ballot box is protected and votes are (supposedly) anonymous. It takes a brave person to stand apart when they know it will draw people's ire.

Personally, I'm not much of a republican but neither am I much of a monarchist. I dislike the media sandstorms that surround the Royal Family but I appreciate the value of having a non-political head of state. I am, however, a confirmed atheist and singing 'God save the Queen' always sticks in my throat. Yet I'd have probably mumbled along to save myself the trouble of explaining myself. Laziness would have led me to mumble something. And perhaps that's what we're missing here. Corbyn could have taken the easy route. He could have moved his lips and no questions would have been asked. He didn't and that says something creditable about his character. It's just a shame that it plays into a convenient narrative for the right wing press.

Because, really, veterans are wrong to feel offended. They should be proud that their sacrifices allowed us to have a nation where individuals still have a right to express their opinion. Sacrifice in the name of your country is one of the noblest acts but let's not confuse it with the cheap tricks of politicians and the press who use talk of sacrifice, honour, memory and patriotism for their own shameful ends.

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