What the Guy Fawkes Mask and Confederate Flag Have in Common

The appropriation of symbols is interesting indeed.

Today being the fifth of November, much attention will be paid to the Guy Fawkes mask, popularized in the U.S., like the “Remember, Remember” rhyme, by the 2006 film V for Vendetta, in which a vigilante wearing the mask battles to overthrow a fascist dictatorship in Britain in a dystopian future.

The vigilante is the protagonist, murderous toward his enemies but compassionate toward his friends, with enough humanity to allow the British Parliament building time to empty before he blows it up.        

Since the film, the Fawkes mask has become a symbol of anti-government resistance, used by the hacker group Anonymous, which publicizes State secrets, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which opposes how corporations and the wealthy control the State, and popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Asia.

Of course, there exists a serious disconnect between the modern use of this symbol and the historical person on whom it is based, as I will explain. The dichotomy reminds me, actually, of the appropriation of the Confederate flag and the embarrassingly anhistorical justification of its use.

It’s an interesting comparison because on the one hand we have a symbol that might be associated with the most radical of leftists, and on the other a symbol usually associated with the far right.

After a young white racist tried to spark a “race war” by massacring nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, fierce debate over the Confederate flag (which the shooter displayed in his personal life) shook the U.S. It led to the removal of many Confederate flags from government buildings in the traditional South.  

The debate over the flag was fierce. True, flying the Confederate flag doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, but it is a racist symbol regardless. These things are in no way mutually exclusive.

Many whites who fly it likely do carry conscious anti-black prejudice (nearly all whites have subconscious biases), but surely not all, in the same way many whites who use “nigger” are racist, but not necessarily all of them (Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, by Randall Kennedy, explores this).

So we have non-racists who fly the flag, actual racists who fly the flag, and progressives who despise the flag.

Regarding the first of these, American whites (and even blacks) who display the Confederate flag say liberals who hate the flag (and actual racists who love it) are misrepresenting it, that it really represents “heritage, not hate.”

This is somewhat vague. By heritage, I suppose this means all Southern culture, tradition, and history besides slavery, insurrection, Jim Crow laws, white terrorism, lynching, etc. In reality, it’s only these non-racists who fly the flag that misrepresent it (appropriate it), in a “positive” way: ignoring its white supremacist origins. They are sugarcoating, whitewashing it.

It is well-known that the symbol originated as a battle flag for traitorous states that sought to preserve black slavery, and was popularized by a white terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, after the war. According to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s

…foundations are laid…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…   

The creator of the flag (which originally had the stars and bars in the corner, the rest white) was quoted in the Daily Morning News on April 23, 1863 as saying:

As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

It’s nonsense to claim progressives or actual bigots misrepresent its true meaning. It has evolved to mean something else, something benign, for some whites, which absolves them of blatant racism but also threatens to breed historical amnesia.

The Guy Fawkes mask is a similar story.

Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist who, along with co-conspirators, tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Unlike the hero of V for Vendetta, he did not seek to destroy an empty building. He and his companions wanted to assassinate King James I, a Protestant, no matter how many innocent people died beside him. The plot was uncovered in time and Fawkes was executed.

It was an act of religious and political terrorism, as Fawkes opposed decades of persecution of Catholics by the British royal family, a small act in an era of unspeakable religious violence, both within European nations and between them.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others broke from the Roman Catholic Church to create a more “pure” Christianity. Northern Europe became dominated by Protestant states (like Britain), Southern Europe by Catholic states. Central Europe (primarily Germany) plunged into violence that lasted more than a century. Torture was widely used. It all then culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated Europe and killed some 8 million people.

Perhaps one will justify Fawkes’ actions as being acceptable because of State oppression of Catholics (predictably, a justification more likely if the one making it is Catholic). Yet I wonder if one would say the same of a Sunni terrorist attempting to assassinate an oppressive Shiite ruler in a Middle East nation, an attempt that would massacre innocent bystanders. Would one not be quick to call that terrorism?

The Fawkes mask is a symbol of the violence bred by religion–both State violence against a minority religious group, and group violence against the State out of revenge. It symbolizes violence as the answer to religious conflict.

I support the actions of the groups mentioned above that today wear the Fawkes mask. Yet like the Confederate flag, their symbol should be buried. Why would decent human beings hold a flag created to represent the superiority of the white race, or wear a mask of a religious terrorist willing to kill innocent people to get to one enemy?

Put bluntly, it’s because they do not study history.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

If you won’t give me one,

I’ll take two,

The better for me,

And the worse for you.

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,

A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,

A pint of beer to wash it down,

And a jolly good fire to burn him.

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!

Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

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