Sunday, July 25, 2010

Guy Fawkes and Popular Culture

Posted by Chris at 10/2/2006 4:15 PM...

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England's overthrow.

By god's mercy he was catch'd
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

Guy Fawkes and his associates hoped to overthrow the Protestant government of England in November of 1605, mostly because James I did not live up to their expectations of more tolerance, freedom, and equality for Catholics when he assumed the throne after the death of Elizabeth I. Their plan was to use a large amount of gunpowder to destroy Parliament while James was in attendance, and replace the government with something more to their liking. Perhaps they envisioned a Stuart restoration or a Republic along the Dutch model, but that isn't clear from the (few) sources I've checked.

What is clear is that they were members of an aggrieved and oppressed minority that was turning to revolution to right what they clearly saw as an unacceptable violation of their rights as Englishmen. Violent revolution seems to have had a long tradition in both Europe and England, and for awhile, North America, so the Gunpowder plot should be no huge surprise. That the conspirators tried it with little popular support behind them is a surprise, placing it in different territory from the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 or the American Revolution. Bonfire Night and the rhymes associated with Guy Fawkes show pretty clearly what the English public thought of overthrowing their King at the time.

So what does that have to do with popular culture anywhere but England and it's dominions?

Heather and I finally watched our V for Vendetta DVD Saturday night. I've been a fan of V for Vendetta since its origins as a comic when I was in high school in the mid-1980s. Since I don't have the original books, I ordered the trade paperback graphic novel version as soon as I saw the first trailer for the movie. I was pleasantly surprised with the resulting moving, and was extremely pleased with the casting. Hugo Weaver as V was an inspired choice, although at the theatre I couldn't keep from thinking of his portrayals of Agent Smith (The Matrix) and Elrond (The Lord of the Rings).

I've been attracted to dystopian/post-apocalyptic literature, particularly science fiction since reading George Orwell's 1984 in junior high school (it was forced on me in an English class, I wasn't precocious enough to find it on my own. Left to my own devices I would have blithely continued reading little other than science fiction and fantasy novels.). Still, despite the popularity of films like the Road Warrior, Escape from New York, and The Matrix, I don't usually see the dystopian genre as something that has a huge appeal for most Americans. We're supposed to be an optimistic, forward-looking people who believe in the ideology of eternal progress and development, not gloomy Europeans.

Then there's the message behind both the book and the movie: government's purpose is to serve the governed, sometimes people must rise up to throw off their oppressor. This used to be the driving force of American ideology. Although I doubt it was an intentional thing on the part of my parents, I internalized this idea at a prettty young age (Thomas Jefferson, don't you know), but it seems curiously absent from mainstream American political consciousness over the past half decade. Like the English in V for Vendetta, Americans have let their fear overcome their traditional ideas of the place of free speech and government accountability. This is almost a habit for Americans, a tendency illustrated by various Red Scares during the 20th century and anti-Alien and sedition legislation going back to the late 18th or early 19th century.

So how did this get into American theaters?

I'd like to think that the political pendulum is swinging back toward the center and that Americans will demand that our government respect our rights and responsibilities under the Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and International Law, but I'm not so sure. Given the lack of public outcry against the President's new torture bill, attacks on the principle of habeas corpus, and his revelation of a dozen secret prisons around the world, I suspect we will have to wait for the results of both the 2006 and 2008 elections for an answer. I am heartened, though, by the response of some of the younger members of the online gaming community I am part of: they latched onto V , both the image and some of the message.

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