A new article today on Conservative Home by Luke de Pulford asks questions about British values: what are they? how do we define them? and are we too timid in defining them? De Pulford does this by comparing the British reaction to the poppies at the Tower of London and Kim Kardashian’s recent photograph of her oiled up bottom. At the heart of his argument is this statement, putting them down as opposites:
Which is a roundabout way of saying that contemporary British values are hugely diverse, overlaid, and, frankly, contradictory. At one polarity, the modern totem of Kim Kardashian’s bum. At the other, the resonating collective memory of our war dead. One represents the selfishness implicit in fame-seeking and garnering an economic plenty; the other the selflessness required to lay down one’s life for others. Happening within the same week, these two events perfectly express the incoherence of the modern Brit – we just don’t really know what we’re about anymore.
Actually I think we can argue that these two instances are more similar than the author suggests, particularly in our consumption of them and participation in them. The photograph of Kim Kardashian’s bum, aiming to ‘break the internet’, was shared on social media, was passed around and became one of those things that people had to share, had to comment on, and had to make a joke about. Our reaction to the poppies at the Tower echoes this: that so many people had to go and look at them, take millions of photographs of them, share how amazing they felt it was, talk openly and extravagantly about how much it inspired them in causing them to reflect on the sacrifices of Commonwealth servicemen (and perhaps more) in World War One.
But perhaps it’s interesting that we consume both that titillating and sexy imagery and our acts of social remembrance and history in similar ways. We see them both as things to be shared, as things to point out, as things to comment on. They are the issue that day or week that everyone else is commenting on so therefore we have to participate in the same way. This is not to denigrate the poppies which were clearly an incredibly impressive and emotional piece of artwork, but over the Remembrance period it came to feel like people were going because everybody else was going. The fact that this has become our common way of reacting to events (historic, emotional, banal, political) socially, is extraordinary: as is the fact that it is so common we don’t think of it as extraordinary.
It would be interesting to know how many of the 5 million people who went to see the poppies at the Tower of London went on Remembrance Sunday to a local remembrance event and watch former servicemen and women with their medals lower their flags at the sound of the last post. The poppies became celebrities, with people as keen to take a selfie of themselves standing next to them as they would next to One Direction. The stunning piece of public artwork became celebritised, became consumed and experienced in a similar way to Kim Kardashian’s arse.
Rather than arguing that these represent the polarities of British culture and British values (they may well represent the polarities of taste?), perhaps we should consider that the British publics’ reaction to both is further evidence that ours has become a culture of consumption – whether we are consuming sex or history.