Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Fifth of November

(I haven't block-printed my own Guy Fawkes mask yet. This is from

A quick history:

On November 5, 1605 a Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was found installing kegs of gun powder in the basement of British Parliament. Along with several others involved in the Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes wanted to abolish the (astoundingly un-protest friendly) Protestant government, who were quite repressive towards England’s Catholics and other religious minorities. Fawkes was arrested, tortured, gave up his collaborators, and was executed for treason.

Since then, burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes has been a British tradition on November the 5th.

One is, poetically, admonished to “remember remember” this date.

Between March and May of 1982, graphic novelist Alan Moore and artists David Lloyd and Tony Ware created the book V for Vendetta. The character V wears a full Guy Fawkes costume and works to overthrow a repressive regime set in a nebulous but not too distant future Britain.

With the help of the 2005 movie of V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes has evolved from a violent religious zealot whose defeated treason was the cause of celebration to a sort of folk hero, a Masked Man of the People, who’s attempt to overthrow a regime he found unconscionable is more quickly remembered. The wider the gap between the powerful and the populace, the 1% and the 99% grows, the more I applaud this shift. The Guy Fawkes mask is the signature attire of the anti-corporate hactivist group Anonymous. They are marching in London tonight, not to burn Guy effigies, but to draw attention to a variety of social ills.

I love this. Ever since a friend first introduced me to V for Vendetta, via the movie, a few years ago, I’ve been not obsessed but sweetly delighted to think of ways to revolt against repression and oppression on the Fifth of November, (and really, any other day of the year.)

The key here, I think, is to look most deeply at the sources of our current oppressions. It was easy for Fawkes—his world wasn’t much bigger than England and there was a clear King and Parliament enforcing a world order that excluded him. Blowing that power structure up was a clear solution to the problem he faced. We live in a much more tentacled and nebulous world these days. And much as I love the cannons firing off in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, I’ve personally seen enough injured and traumatized people to be a fierce pacifist—no violence, even for a revolution of goodness. Especially then.

But, back to the source problem. People feel hemmed in, stuck, powerless, aspirationally impotent and all other manner of truly soul-sucking forms of oppression in too many quadrants of life and the challenges of the world. We run into “no” more often than “yes” and often in an unpleasant, lazy passive-aggressive sort of way—from workplace politics to ameliorating global ills from a glaring lack of universal human rights to rampant climate change.

The source of most of the troubles, as I understand it, is usually the person making the most money off the status quo. In our current world, money equals freedom and power, and those with those  hoard it like a small pack of feral Scrooges with all the—literal—resources of the world at their disposal to maintain their treasures.

It’s disgusting, the difference between the haves and the have-nots. The discrepancies between high and low wage earners in the corporate world, the money that fossil fuel companies make as they sell us gas at the cost of our planet, what poverty and success look like in different parts of the world, and so on.

I’ve been poor, albeit a highly educated New England/American version of poor. Even at this rarified level—dancing around the Federal poverty level for a single adult with no dependents—isn’t pleasant or poetic. There is a sucking in of pride and a recalibration of sense of self and dignity when trying to figure out if you qualify, fiscally and morally, for food stamps and other aid programs. To be over-qualified for jobs that do not notice your applications as you scrounge part-time seasonal, temporary, or service industry jobs where you get paid little and treated poorly, and field calls from student loan officers is a particular sort of humiliated frustration that I would wish on no one, and I know that my wishes do absolutely nothing to keep thousands of other out of this unhappy boat.

Either in poverty or without, there is a pervasive sense in our culture of neither being nor having enough. To me, whatever engenders this feeling of inadequacy is the source of much of our personal and global ills. Our rapacious appetites in pursuit of these goals are belittling our souls, making us run roughshod over human rights, our better natures, and also causing the violent destruction of global ecosystems. And, we’re not particularly happy living like this—we are busy, we are stressed, we refer to life as a rat race, and so on.

So, let’s stop living like this. Our culturally indoctrinated ideals of enough, success, and normal are causing great and oppressive unpleasantness. Easier than dismantling a government or a corporation—let’s hope on this side of the grave that we can continually re-affirm the difference between the two—is to divest ourselves, emotionally, from this economy, and to not play by the rules of expectations beyond our own.  The best I can suggest concretely is to follow Wendell Berry’s advice, here, and pretty much anywhere else you can find it.

Not to spoil the end of V for Vendetta, but there is a scene were a huge crowd of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks removes their masks and you see the sea of different, but united, faces present to effect a change in the oppressive systems that bind them in. I always grin and tear up at this part, because I believe that we are all revolutionaries, all hungry to live in and make a better world.

All we must do, then, is unmask and know ourselves as such. And remember there is strength in numbers—we are in this together and no one is alone.

(One of the more heart-twisting maskers revealed in the film V for Vendetta. Image from

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