James McEnaney: How the national anthem became Jeremy Corbyn's Catch-22

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says Jeremy Corbyn is damned if he sings and damned if he doesn't

IF you've never read Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (you philistine!) then now is as good a time as any.

Set during World War II it follows the experiences of Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier in the fictional 256th squadron of the US Air Force operating from the Italian island of Pianosa.

The title of the novel refers to a number of unwinnable and utterly ludicrous dichotomies, such as the impossibility of being declared 'crazy' and spared further combat missions:

Britain's mainstream media - well known for always maintaining a rigorous sense of perspective - has been careful to offer a measured and appropriate response to this shocking turn of events.

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch", Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.

Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

It is all but impossible to read Catch-22 without being swept away in periodic fits of sinister hilarity. The sheer, brutal absurdity of life for the men of 256 Squadron, trapped between the rock of anti-aircraft guns and the hard place of their own commanders, is intoxicating for readers because we see a similar reality every single day, woven into the fabric of a world at times so ridiculous that incredulity can feel like the only defence.

And today we have seen it again.

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Yesterday, during a Battle of Britain memorial service in St. Paul's Cathedral, Jeremy Corbyn - a republican socialist - chose not to join in with a rendition of God Save the Queen.

Britain's mainstream media - well known for always maintaining a rigorous sense of perspective - has been careful to offer a measured and appropriate response to this shocking turn of events.

The front page of today's Metro went with 'NOT Save the Queen', the Telegraph bleated that 'Corbyn snubs Queen and country' while the Daily Express ('The World's Greatest Newspaper', apparently) described the Labour leader's behaviour as 'shameful'.

The BBC has maintained live updates on the 'anthem row'. The Daily Mail is presumably in the process of chartering a fleet of sky-writing planes to decry another man who 'hates Britain'.

All because Jeremy Corbyn didn't sing a song.

If Corbyn had sung along the headlines would read: 'Not all he Jez he is', 'Corbyn hypocrisy an insult to veterans' and 'Principles abandoned as Jeremy falls in line'.

Oh but it's the symbolism that matters, right? In refusing to implore a deity he does not believe in to protect an institution he opposes Corbyn was in fact spitting on the memory of those who died for our freedom. Show some damned respect, or something.

But it's worth considering what happens if we step through the looking glass (or, depending on your perspective, back through it) into a world where the Labour leader did conform to the expectations of right-wing papers and politicians.

Here the headlines would read: 'Not all he Jez he is', 'Corbyn hypocrisy an insult to veterans' and 'Principles abandoned as Jeremy falls in line'. The Cheshire Cat would approve of this madness.

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not sing God Save the Queen - instead he stood silently and respectfully, having already released a statement praising the bravery of those whose victory over the mighty German Luftwaffe arguably changed the whole course of the war.

In that statement he pointed out that both of his parents played their part during the war, lauded "the tremendous courage and determination" of "that whole generation" and reminded us that "we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude" to the RAF's "heroism" during the Battle of Britain.

He also stressed that the "loss of life - both civilian and military - should be commemorated so that we both honour their lives and do all that we can to ensure future generations are spared the horrors of war".

But that isn't good enough. The appropriate way to honour the memory of those who fought for our freedom isn't with silent contemplation and reflection - real respect is apparently measured in the musical equivalent of vacuous, flag-waving jingoism (the phrase 'narrow nationalism' might even come to mind). Or taxpayer funded arms fairs . Or selfies . Or point-scoring.

The truth is that faced with an openly hostile, hypocritical and disreputable press there is no way for Corbyn to avoid criticism: either his refusal to sing is an insult to those who died or his hypocrisy in doing so belittles their sacrifice. Catch-22 in all its bewildering glory.

The truth is that faced with an openly hostile, hypocritical and disreputable press there is no way for Corbyn to avoid criticism.

It's all rather hilarious (albeit in a bleak, dystopian kind of way) but, as ever, a bit of genuine perspective wouldn't go amiss.

Back in the real world - you know, the one with a majority Conservative government ideologically wedded to economically and socially disastrous austerity policies - Britain's working poor (or, to use the Tories' preferred phrase, 'hard-working families') are to be made even poorer as "over three million families lose an average of PS1000 a year", the rights of workers are to be further eroded through the Trade Union Bill and the government still refuses to meet its moral obligations when it comes to the ongoing refugee crisis.

But a politician displaying honesty? Integrity? Principles? We can't have that! We've got headlines to write and a public to bully.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Look over here! This one's not joining in with the sing-a-long! Get him up against the bloody wall!

Picture courtesy of Chris Beckett