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Ron Paul And The Real Meaning Of Guy Fawkes Day

By now you've heard the mind-bending political news of the day--multiply so for someone who, like me, is interested in early modern history and comic books and libertarianism.

Antiwar Republican presidential candidate and sometime Libertarian Ron Paul raised over four million dollars in one day yesterday, breaking the Republican one-day fundraising record and the online one-day primary fundraising record, thanks to a "moneybomb" (think googlebomb) organized by this independent website. The date selected for the concentrated donations was November 5--Guy Fawkes Day, the old English holiday commemorating freedom from papism and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes Day did have a certain kind of place in the English Whiggish self-interpretation, since freedom from Catholicism was always understood as partly constitutive of and partly symbolic of English liberty. The fact that it was Parliament Fawkes had tried to blow up only made the symbolism starker--the devotee of a slavish religion who wanted to enslave good Englishmen tried to destroy the symbol of English liberty. And that anti-Catholic Whiggish ideology is one of the great-great grandparents of certain kinds of anti-statism in the Anglo-American world, something that entered the intellectual DNA of the U.S. in particular in the 18th century.

But the Alan Moore comic book V for Vendetta inverted the ideology. V dresses in the traditional Guy Fawkes Day mask while conducting his anarchistic campaign against a fascistic British state. "Remember, remember, the fifth of November," the beginning of an old English nursery rhyme about remembering Fawkes' treachery and the survival of the British state, got transformed into the creepily memorable slogan of the quasi-heroic freedom fighter who ends up successfully blowing up Parliament.

I take it that, in the comic (originally published for a British audience), this was all meant to be apparent. It was deliberate irony. The inversion was part of the point: it's now the British state that has become the enemy of British liberty, and those who once rooted against Fawkes should now root for him.

But that was mostly lost on American audiences, I think--even the politically self-aware nerdy libertarians, anarchists, and socialists for whom V was a favorite work.

Some really weird confusion has resulted, with American anti-statist types celebrating Fawkes-as-commemorated-by-V using the words and imagery of the celebration of Fawkes' defeat. ABC writes:

The catchy slogan comes from a nursery rhyme about Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century crusader for Catholics rights caught in the basement of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder. He failed in his mission to blow the place up. ("Crusader for Catholic rights" may well have been accurate after a fashion--Catholicism was prohibited and persecuted in 1605 England--but is hardly the position of the nursery rhyme.--JTL)

...

Asked if it is appropriate to invoke a nursery rhyme about a man who tried to blow up parliament in the 17th-century as a fundraising tool, Lyman said, "Some people want to go that way. We're not going in any way violent."

... 

The date Nov. 5 corresponded with the movie "V for Vendetta" and the Guy Fawkes rhyme.

"If you look at the pop culture feel-good message of the movie," Lyman said, "the people in the end say we are the deciders. That's the best way to describe it. And this is a country of and by the people."

Emphasis added. That sound you hear is my brain exploding and dribbling out of my ear. Over at TNR's Stump we get this quote:

Mr. Benton clarified that Mr. Paul did not support blowing up government buildings. "He wants to demolish things like the Department of Education," Mr. Benton said, "but we can do that very peacefully, in a constructive manner."

Something very strange has happened when one's uses of Guy Fawkes Day require some clarification that one doesn't actually wish to blow up government buildings.

Just to finalize the weirdness: notice that V portrayed a fable of a fascistic British state in the 1980s. Anti-Thatcherism ran through the work, in big, boldfaced, highlighted, and underlined subtext. Ron Paul is an anti-statist of an entirely market-oriented variety, who has said of Thatcher that she "embraced American values such as freedom and limited government," and Thatcher is wildly popular among Ron Paul's conservative-libertarian fan base.

By now I've lost track of the number of symbolic inversions. The world is a complicated place. (Cross-posted.)

--Jacob T. Levy

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