I was planning to write a piece about Guy Fawkes for 5th November but in googling some sources came across this excellent piece by Bill Dunlap that says it all from my point of view. Bill ran the piece on his blog, Grumblings from a grumpy old man, in 2008 and has kindly given me permission to republish it. Like Bill, “I cannot for the life of me figure out how Guy Fawkes became a symbol of revolution”.
I cannot for the life of me figure out how Guy Fawkes became a symbol of revolution. I see all these anarchist types wandering around with their V masks, and I wonder if they even know who Guy Fawkes really is? It baffles me why a reactionary like Fawkes has been so heartily adopted by the American left. Why did the main character of V for Vendetta wear a V mask rather than a Che mask, or a Lenin mask, or even an Abbie Hoffman mask? Why Guy Fawkes, for the love of heaven?
The Gun Powder Plot was not, in any reasonable sense of the word, revolutionary. It was counter revolutionary in the strictest interpretation. The English Reformation was a social revolution that freed Britain from Papal tyranny. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the old Norman aristocracy lost their influence in favor of the new merchant class. Guy Fawkes himself was the son of an upwardly mobile middle class Protestant family. His father was a minor official in the Church of England, and his mother was the daughter of a dry goods merchant. Fawkes’s conversion to Catholicism may have stemmed from teen rebellion.
Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder Plotters wanted to destroy the new Church of England and return England to Papal control. How can this possibly be seen as revolutionary? Despite popular belief, Guy Fawkes was not the ringleader. That dubious honor went to a hereditary Catholic by the name of Robert Catesby. The Gunpowder Plot could have been thought up by Sir Edmund Blackadder. The conspirators rented a house next to the Winchester Complex, planning to mine beneath the House of Lords, pack it with gunpowder and blow it up during Parliament’s opening session. That way they could get King James, most of his court and family, and all the influential Protestant nobles. The opening of Parliament was delayed three times on account of the Black Plague, yet the tunnel was still not completed. So they rented the cellar beneath the House of Lords and stocked that with gunpowder instead.
If Robert Catesby was Blackadder, then Guy Fawkes was Baldric. Even though Fawkes knew that the plot had been revealed by a Catholic nobleman who was appalled at the plot, he tried to go through with it anyway. The guards were looking for him. They caught him in the cellar with 32 kegs of gunpowder and with fuses and matches in his pocket. He still tried to lie his way out of it. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured while his buddies epically failed at getting away.
That was the historic Guy Fawkes. He was not the great defender of freedom as portrayed in V for Vendetta. He was an expendable flunky in a hare-brained plot to stop the wheels of progress and to return England to the “good old days” of Papal domination. The only advantage to that would have been to the Catholic nobles such as Robert Catesby, who wanted their old power and influence back. Fawkes himself became a figure of ridicule amongst the British, as shown by this rhyme.
Remember, remember the fifth of November
It’s Gunpowder Plot, we never forgot
Put your hand in your pocket and pull out your purse
A ha’penny or a penny will do you no harm
Who’s that knocking at the window?
Who’s that knocking at the door?
It’s little Mary Ann with a candle in her hand
And she’s going down the cellar for some coal
Guy Fawkes became identified with the Anarchist movement in the early 20th Century. British Anarchists put up posters with the modern stylized sketch of Fawkes, declaring that Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intent. This was, of course, using Guy Fawkes as a figure of ridicule. It was meant as a sort of black joke. Somebody lacking a sense of humor started taking the joke seriously, and the next thing we knew, we had V for Vendetta, and kids wearing Guy Fawkes masks in honor of a man who was trying to put Britain back under Papal control.
The irony is that these kids in their Guy Fawkes masks are pretty well accomplishing what Fawkes set out to do. They want to destroy government control without replacing the structures that have been destroyed. In this they actually share the same goals as their neocon opponents. The result is that money rushes in to fill the vacuum left by the lost structures. The more government is torn down, the more control falls into the hands of those who have the most money. This has been going on for twenty eight years and nobody has yet figured out that our loss of civil liberties is equal to the amount of government regulations that have been eliminated. The American left has not figured out that tearing down the government is a bad idea which will accomplish the opposite of what we want. The bad guy in V for Vendetta said at the people need to realize that the people need the government. This is very true. A dear friend of mine, who is a big V for Vendetta fan, adds that the government needs the people’s consent in order to govern. This is equally true. Government and the people exist in a symbiotic relationship. When that symbiosis fall out of balance, disasters like the present economic melt down occurs.
This leads us to the present cult of the Constitution. America has become as conservative as the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. The American left has not yet realized that by trying to return us to the original Constitution, they want to return us to the times when only property owners were citizens and could vote. Women were chattel, and African Americans were bought and sold like cattle. America has grown beyond those times, and trying to return us to them is only going to place Wall St. in charge of our lives. Looking backwards, even to the days of the American Revolution, is as reactionary as the Gunpowder Plot. There is also the truth that it is easier to destroy what we have in a vain attempt to make the clock move backwards, than it is to build. The more we destroy the government, the more of our civil liberties fall into the hands of Wall St. The only logical step is to rebuild the Government into what we want it to be.
This is perfectly Constitutional. The Constitution was never meant to be Holy writ, nor is it a mortal sin to change and revise it. The writers of the Constitution knew fully well that the world changes. They wrote the Constitution in order to deal with the changing conditions of their own time. They knew the world would continue to change, and built structures of change right into the Constitution. Hence the constitution was changed to allow all economic classes to vote. In 1971, Richard M. Nixon signed an amendment that changed the voting age from 21 to 18. Women won the vote in the early 20th Century. African Americans were freed by a Constitutional amendment. We have all the tools we need to change the government back into what we want it to be. All we need now is a plan.
Planning is the difference between revolutionaries like Jefferson and Burr and morons like Catesby and Fawkes. Rather than have some vague idea about returning the country to what Tom Jefferson wanted, we need a clear idea of what we want and need as a nation. There were many movements which had clear and precise goals as to what they wanted the government to be. The Labor movement, the Suffragist movement, and the Civil Rights movement are three clear examples of revolutionary movements that have changed the nation. Despite the best efforts of the neocons and their religious lapdogs, we still enjoy many of the benefits we gained from those movements.
Remember that the Constitution was written to be an instrument of the will of the people and not chains to bind us to a past age. Trying to return the Constitution to the days of the founders is like Guy Fawkes trying to return England to the tyranny of the Pope. It simply cannot be done. Maybe Guy Fawkes is really the appropriate symbol for the 21st Century American left, as they lead us to the future with their asses firmly in front of them.
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
Hip hip hoorah!
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A fagot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.