Home/Daniel Larison/Why Guy Fawkes Is a Joke, and Aristogeiton and Harmodios Are Supposedly Heroes

Why Guy Fawkes Is a Joke, and Aristogeiton and Harmodios Are Supposedly Heroes

One might start the bill of particulars with the mask itself. It’s a caricature of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 tried to blow up King James I and both houses of Parliament and as a consequence is burned in effigy each Nov. 5. It’s true, I suppose, that as time has passed, Fawkes’s memory has eroded into something warm and cozy. But the real Guy Fawkes was a bit of nasty business, and had he succeeded, it would have been the 9/11 of British history, and his reasons were as spurious as the guys’ who took the planes into the buildings: It was religion vs. religion. You’d think that stuff would be gone from the world, but four centuries later it’s still around. ~Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post

After reading the reviews by Daniel McCarthy and Leon Hadar, I was already looking forward to seeing V for Vendetta. Aware that John Podhoretz has trashed the movie, I was becoming very keen to see it on the assumption that someone so wrong about so many things also probably has bad taste in movies.

Then I read Stephen Hunter’s review, which in some ways actually strikes me as worse and more annoying than Podhoretz’s, but for an entirely different reason. He doesn’t like the movie, of course, but then he takes this odd shot at Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot with one of those statements that required just enough knowledge to show Mr. Hunter to be semi-educated.

It has reminded me of something else potentially far more worrying than strange characters blowing up government buildings: progressives really believe in Progress and think a significant part of Progress is the diminution or irrelevance of religious belief as a significant motivating factor in human affairs. After 400 years, it should be a thing of the past, yet it keeps cropping up–how unfortunate! After 400 years, shouldn’t we all have moved past even remembering, fondly or not so fondly, a character such as Guy Fawkes? Someone who moved to fight a tyrannical government from purely political motives (“for freedom”) would be lauded and approved, I suppose, but to do it for “spurious” reasons of religion suddenly makes Fawkes an undesirable.

Give a Guy a Chance!

One gets the impression that if Guy Fawkes had had “good” reasons to blow up Parliament (you know, like the promotion of greater democracy, which makes the bombardment of Iraqi villages moral and upright) everything would be fine. If, like Aristogeiton and Harmodios’ private murder of Hipparkhos, he had killed James I over a homosexual lovers’ quarrel, the official progressive story would tell us that Guy Fawkes was a hero and a great defender of the rights of Englishmen, etc. He would also be lionised out of all proportion as a conscientious hero, who fought against a regime that oppressed him and his fellow Catholics.

Oh, but wait, there’s the rub. You can’t be a Catholic fighting against Protestant oppression. Certainly not in the 17th century, and not really at any time after that. (It’s also very, very hard to be a traditional Catholic and engaged in a homosexual lovers’ quarrel.) Everyone who believes in Progress knows that Catholicism hasn’t got anything to do with resisting tyranny–no, in the official story, Catholicism is part of the oppression (as is Christianity more generally, but of the different kinds of Christianity Catholicism is among the ‘worst’ in the progressive hall of shame) and nothing more. I’ll leave it to actual Catholics to explain how the entire theory of the justified resistance to tyranny is one of their contributions to our civilisation, and to tell how no other religious tradition other than the Christian has ever so consistently and thoroughly elaborated such a theory.

In the progressive view, to commemorate Guy Fawkes would be like commemorating Andreas Hofer’s resistance against Napoleon or admiring the resistance of the Don Cossacks fighting the Bolsheviks. No one would want to say anything in praise of some “backwards” Tyrolean patriot resisting the godless French or the crude, often brutal Cossacks who had more of a sense of honour and decency in their moustaches than all the Bolsheviks combined possessed. No, it is far better to venerate right-thinking people who order whole cities to be fire-bombed, allow entire regions to be laid waste or order attacks on countries for reasons that are not so spurious as “religion vs. religion.” You know, like freedom.

That reminds me of a great quote from Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill (an unfortunately named, wonderful book–honestly, I have never understood Chesterton and Belloc’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution and her impious offspring). Here is Adam Wayne, the hero of the novel, speaking to the cynical King Auberon:

I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of man, the virtue of a man.

Ostensibly or actually “reactionary” opponents of tyranny and political insanity cannot be admired when they resist injustice, because the progressives’ commemorating opponents of injustice has usually had less to do with defending a principle of justice and more to do with using history to batter their opponents in the present. Thus the basically honourable men who fought on the “regressive” side of so many conflicts are treated with contempt, turned into jokes a la Guy Fawkes or simply forgotten, while the “progressive” side, no matter its atrocities, moral ambiguities and dishonourable conduct, will receive nothing but praise and lauds. In the official story, in which all that silly religious superstition ought to have died out long ago (and along with anyone supposedly daft enough to be motivated by his religion to take direct action), there can be no starkly religious opponents of injustice fighting against oppression commemorated, unless they fit into the far more “warm and cozy” mould of a Bonhoeffer. Once religion has been cast in the role of a prop for oppressors and the tool of villains, as it usually is for the progressives (and also perhaps for the makers of Vendetta), the idea of a committed religious person who is not simply using religious language as a prop for expressly political concerns (be it social justice or the Union) ceases to make sense. Someone who is at once traditionally religious and motivated by his religion to take political action of one kind or another can only be frightening and threatening, and not heroic in any way. Chesterton disagrees, and so do I.

What is the difference between the Gunpowder Plot and terrorist attacks that use and target civilians? In other words, why would the Gunpowder Plot, if successful, have been completely different from 9/11, and why is the comparison of the two a ridiculous one? The answer should be rather obvious. Fawkes targeted the heart of the government he was out to topple, and he sought to do it without threatening the lives of civilians. He did not seek to blow up a train, a hotel, a marketplace, a stock exchange, a bustling port, a school or a place of worship, or any other place that would involve the deliberate targeting of civilians. He targeted the seat of a government he believed (and not entirely unreasonably) to be illegitimate. Given the same chance under similar circumstances, I doubt that most of the heroes of Whig history would not have done just as Fawkes and his crew tried, and failed, to do.

A few caveats about the movie. As a product of the Brothers Wachowski, V for Vendetta will likely be in many ways crude, juvenile and badly written. Because of their biases, which were all too apparent in The Matrix trilogy, it assuredly will mock the usual Christian and conservative villains who will stand in as the stereotypical wielders of oppressive power. (I should say that it is a touch of some casting genius that Hugo Weaving, the former Agent Smith, will now play V the Fawkes-masked anarchist.) When the soundtrack for The Matrix contains Rage Against the Machine, you cannot expect much intelligent insight on matters political from the Brothers Wachowski. The scenes dedicated to “character development” will be uninspired and bloated as scenes specifically dedicated to “character development” always are in movies where the action alone drives the plot. For the record, the constant running down of Natalie Portman in a number of the reviews both for and against the movie has been grating on me. Ms. Portman’s recent spate of bad scripts (yes, Closer and the second Star Wars trilogy were crimes against film) has marred her reputation as a very competent actress. Besides The Professional, where she first gained her fame, I refer Portman skeptics to the thoroughly entertaining Beautiful Girls.

In fact, there might be a lot objectionable about the movie that these reviews do not convey, but for the sake of Guy Fawkes I will give it a chance.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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