Sunday, November 05, 2006

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

[Slightly updated from an earlier version of this post.]

"Remember, remember the fifth of November
the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot"

When this English child’s rhyme was uttered by the lead character, known only as V, early in the film V for Vendetta, I sat upright, alert, because I suddenly knew what this movie was going to be about. 9/11. Metaphorically at least. How did I get that from a reference to the Gunpowder plot? Read on, MacDuff...

Most Americans don’t know the story behind the Gunpowder plot. It is surprisingly relevant to our time. It was a huge event, one that continues to echo to our present, as this film ably demonstrates. And like all important events that change the course of history, there is a measure of controversy as to what we really happened. Who were the plotters and who were the victims?

According to the official account prepared for the King (i.e., the Warren Report of its time), on the fifth of November in 1605, a team of conspirators planned to blow up the House of Parliament in London on opening day of the new session, killing King James in the process. The plot was foiled by the November 4th arrest of Guy Fawkes (pronounced “Fox”), a hapless conspirator found in a cellar under the House of Lords while guarding thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Under torture, Fawkes gave up the names of his co-conspirators.

The episode became known as “The Gunpowder Plot” and is marked every year with fireworks and bonfires in which, on occasion, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy. For a few hundred years, the government required that its citizens celebrate the exposure of the plot and the protection of its government. The law requiring celebrations was repealed in 1859, but ad hoc celebrations continue to this day every November 5, although some revelers will tell you they are celebrating the planning of the plot rather than the foiling of it.

So why was the plot hatched? Therein lies the rub. To understand the plot, and the controversy, we need to examine a brief part of English history.

The Gunpowder plot was born, ultimately, from the hubris of King Henry VIII, or the rigidness of the Pope – take your pick. This is a complicated chain of events, but bear with me. As Stephen Rea’s character voiced in V for Vendetta during a particularly brilliant sequence, “everything is connected.”

In his search for a male heir, Henry VIII married and divorced six women. When the Catholic Church would not grant him his much needed divorce(s), he split with the Roman Catholic Church and set up the new Church of England with himself as head. One of his wives, Anne Boleyn, bore him the daughter Elizabeth. When Anne, like his other wives, fell from the King’s favor, he had her beheaded and stripped of her title. By that action, he bastardized his own daughter, and she was declared illegitimate. After Henry VIII died, Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary took the throne. Mary was a Catholic who wanted to reverse what Henry had done. When she died, Elizabeth, herself a dedicated Protestant, took the throne. Technically, the position should have gone to her cousin, the granddaughter of her father’s sister, a different Mary, called commonly “Mary, Queen of Scots” since she was from the age of six days old the Queen of Scotland by birth. Mary should have been Queen of England too, through the rules of succession. Elizabeth, however, had a will from Henry VIII, the authenticity of which was questionable, in which she was named the preferred heir to the throne. More importantly, Elizabeth was in town and Mary was in Scotland. Thus Elizabeth became the Queen of England.

Mary was accused of murdering her husband, and married the man accused of being her co-conspirator a couple of weeks later. This infuriated the Scots, who locked Mary up. She managed to escape, and sought the protection of Elizabeth. But Elizabeth saw in Mary a threat to her rule, and locked her up for 19 years. During this period, Elizabeth’s advisors repeatedly suggested Elizabeth kill Mary, but Elizabeth was satisfied with keeping her from the throne, and feared perhaps a Catholic rebellion if she killed the woman they believed was their true leader.

So Elizabeth’s chief of security devised a way to get rid of Mary. He set Mary up in a purported assassination plot. Through manipulations and machinations, Mary was ultimately presented a letter from Anthony Babington, in which the assassination of Elizabeth was suggested. Mary did not condone the plot, but that didn’t matter. It was argued that she had foreknowledge of the plot and had done nothing to stop it. She was eventually tried and convicted by the English court, and beheaded. Ironically, her son, James, would ascend the throne when Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen,” died heirless.

King James was raised Protestant, but had sympathies for the Catholics, like his mother. (Curiously, the man who gave us the King James bible may have been bisexual!) He adopted a liberal policy towards religion. But he was surrounded by the same forces that had worked with Elizabeth. They wanted to get rid of the Catholics, and there is quite a bit of speculation that one close advisor in particular was involved in setting up the Gunpowder Plot, and then exposing it. James feared a violent end, and when he heard of the plot, he was, naturally, terrified, and supported actions that would have been unthinkable before the discovery of the plot. Was that, perhaps, the point?

The official story of the Gunpowder plot has Guy Fawkes interacting with a set of Catholics who wished to overthrow a government increasingly hostile to their religion. Ostensibly, they wanted to set events in motion that would restore Catholicism to what they felt was its rightful place in England. But some, including Webster Tarpley and Barrie Zwicker, fellow speakers from the 9/11 tour I participated in last summer, believe that the plot was a false flag operation set up by the Protestants to discredit the Catholics as a justification to going to war with Spain, which was, in any case, the result.

Zwicker, in an article for Canada’s Globe and Mail on November 5, 2005, quotes from Adam Nicolson's book God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible:

The fallout from the plot is uncontestable. “The English became fixated on homeland security,” Mr. Nicolson writes. “An inclusive, irenic idea of mutual benefit (between Spain and England, which had recently signed a peace treaty and between which trade was growing) was replaced by a defensive/aggressive complex in which all Catholics, of all shades, never mind their degree of enthusiasm for the planned attack, were, at least for a time, identified as the enemy. . . . The state had invaded and taken over the English conscience.” War with Spain ensues. England's course is set for a century of wars against the Spanish and Portuguese empires, out of which the British Empire emerges. In 1917, the British add Iraq to their empire after the defeat of the Ottomans. Neo-colonial turmoil in Iraq continues to this day. The official story of “gunpowder treason” set much in motion.
The parallels from that event to 9/11 resound. Whether or not 9/11 was a domestically inspired plot, the result was that the Bush Administration seized that event and made it the cornerstone for launching the very “Pax Americana” President Kennedy and his brother Bobby refused to pursue. Bush starting running the playbook written by PNAC – the Project for a New American Century. The result: a horror story of unprovoked aggression in Iraq in the guise of stopping WMD. When no WMD were found, Bush invoked that old fallback position: we went into Iraq to spread Democracy, a move which has produced to date not democracy, but civil war.

At home, people handed over their freedoms for a measure of protection, a gift which has already been criminally, impeachably, abused. As Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA, and former Senator Gary Hart co-wrote:

When President Nixon covertly subverted checks and balances 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, Congress passed laws making clear that presidents were not to engage in unconstitutional behavior in the interest of "national security." Then, Congress was reacting to violation of Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without judicial warrants establishing "probable cause," attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, and surveillance of American citizens.

Now, the Iraq war is being used to justify similar abuses. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing constitutional means to carry out surveillance, and the Intelligence Identification Protection Act, protecting the identity of undercover intelligence agents, have both been violated by an administration seeking to restore "the legitimate authority of the presidency," as Cheney puts it.

The presidency possesses no power not granted to it under the Constitution. The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.

So take the events of the recent past, fast forward a few years into the future, and you’re smack in the middle of “V for Vendetta.”

If you haven’t seen the film yet, get thee to a rental store. Do not pass Go, and DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

The movie presents a parable for our times, a post-9/11 world in which freedoms have been traded for security with disastrous results. The “former United States” is a mess. The UK has become a fascist regime enforced through the near-total surveillance of its citizens. One man, a literate, intelligent, but vengeful man, who goes by the name of “V” for reasons revealed as the film progresses, has a vendetta, indeed, but it's much more than a personal one. Knowing that he has the power to change things, possibly for the better, he decides to take matters into his own hands. V cloaks his identify behind a Guy Fawkes mask, and becomes a terrorist.

Or is terrorist the right word? He isn’t trying to terrorize the citizens of London. He’s trying to rouse them from their fear-induced slumber. He tells them that if they are unhappy with the way things are going, if they are looking for people to blame, they need to start by looking in the mirror, as they were the ones who stood by complacently as their world disintegrated. He invites them to join him at Parliament a year from that date, the next November 5, so that they can witness the act Guy Fawkes never got to finish. Why? Because there's something wrong with the country, and everybody knows it.

Natalie Portman portrays the character Evey (“E V”, V articulates with relish, noting that there are no coincidences). Throughout the film, after every new revelation about V, Evey asked my own questions. Was V a good guy or a horrible guy? Should one support his choices or not? Would I choose his path, given similar circumstances? At what point is the law the problem, when the law is used to justify heinous deeds? At what point is one justified in breaking it?

As someone who believes in the power of nonviolent, legal, collective action, the film was both disturbing and intriguing in its implications. The act of blowing up Parliament in the film had nothing to do with violence, and everything to do with symbolism. As Evey noted, the people needed hope more than they needed the building. And the blowing up of Parliament was a show of strength. As V had said early in the film, "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people." Blowing up Parliament was a way for the people to reclaim their power. And feeling that power, they might yet right the wrongs that had been done in their name.

I loved the story and movie on so many levels. The writing was brilliant, even Shakespearean at times. (Indeed, the Bard was nearly a character in the film, so often was he quoted.) The images were sleek and dark and sterile, like the world in which the story takes place. V’s underground home was strange yet inviting, and warmed considerably by the slow jazz emanating from his jukebox. And everything had a meaning, including the signature roses V left with each of his vendetta victims.

The acting was compelling. You wouldn’t believe a man in an immobile mask could make you feel so many emotions. Through his voice, his body, and somehow through that masked face, I felt every joy and anger and pain that V did. I will be forever in awe of Hugo Weaving’s impeccable, faceless performance, as well as Natalie Portman's moving portrayal of a woman who came to discover ultimate freedom by choosing integrity over fear. And the love story between them was incredibly compelling. I was falling in love with V too, even as I deplored some of his actions.

It’s remarkable to see any interesting movie made in the age of cookie cutter remakes of shows that weren’t that good the first time around. But what really sparked my interest was the way this film melded the real past into an all too scary near future. I was surprised at the fairly overt parallels to the 9/11 controversy, especially given that the graphic novel on which the film is based was written in the 1980s, well before the attacks. In the film, the big “terrorist attacks” that resulted in the newly fascist society came in the form of a virus unleashed in the UK which wiped out hundreds of thousands of people. At one point, one of the government investigators searching for V, portrayed by the always interesting Stephen Rea, starts to open his mind. He asks his fellow investigator a question to which he requires no answer. In his world, the act of asking the question was itself a very bold step: “If our government was behind the attacks, would you really want to know?”

My personal conclusion, after years of such discussions, is that a lot of people don’t want to know such truths. They don’t mind believing them. Belief does not require action. But true knowledge does. And most people don’t want that burden. And yet, by not taking action, we are still responsible, and for things we wouldn’t support, if asked. V is right, in that regard. To find the villains, we need only look to our own inaction.

Perhaps my favorite sequence was the one in which Rea suddenly starts seeing all the puzzle pieces fall into place, how "Everything is connected." In a brilliant series of intercuts, he glimpses the past, present, and future--the throughline of history. As V says, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." That's a well known principle of physics. But it goes for government and personal actions too. Everything we do--and don't do--has a consequence. And we have to be aware of those so we can choose more wisely. Interestingly, the future Rea envisions in that moment does not entirely come to pass, but might have, had he been successful in his effort to capture V. Ironically, his failure to stop the "terrorist" ends up saving an untold numbers of lives.

The most thrilling part of the film, for me, came at the end, as masses of people come out to stand in support of V’s actions. There’s something about people taking massive, collective action that inspires me to no end. We have the power to do amazing things, together. No force on earth can resist the masses when we act righteously in unison. As V said, in a quote I’m badly mangling, you can kill people. But you can’t kill ideas. And ideas carry tremendous force.

END SPOILERS

But ideas need advocates, and outlets. Ideas need to be shaped into words that people can read, hear, and understand. And that is the reason bad governments turn repressive. Controlling the media, controlling the publishing houses, controlling the distribution of films and books is the goal of every illicit government. It is the only way they can stay in power. The degree to which those efforts succeed or fail depends on the integrity of the people working in those systems. Good governments do not need to resort to control. Only bad ones do. But bad ones are aided by people who refuse to see the implications of the small steps they allow to be taken. And one day, we find ourselves past the tipping point, with no way out but armed rebellion.

Our nation, at its founding, was, I believe, one of the greatest ideas of all time. Just imagine. At a time when most people were still answering to a monarch, the people rose up, threw away their wealth--in the form of tea--into the harbor, declared they would no longer tolerate taxation without representation, and fought their way to freedom. They created, by means of the Constitution, laws designed to guarantee a place where people could be free from tyranny and prejudice. That the initial drafting allowed for slavery and kept women from voting is more a reflection of the time than a lack of vision of the founding fathers. For its time, it was revolutionary, and the language of the Declaration of Independence still moves me. In that moment, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams created a new form of government, one answerable to the rule of law, and not the whims of man.

Or so our founding fathers envisioned. Today, we have a president hell-bent on extending the power of the president far beyond the checks and balances so carefully provided for by the Constitution. The president is attacking the very idea of who we are as a nation. As this article by Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA, and former Senator Gary Hart states:

When President Nixon covertly subverted checks and balances 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, Congress passed laws making clear that presidents were not to engage in unconstitutional behavior in the interest of "national security." Then Congress was reacting to violation of Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without judicial warrants establishing "probable cause," attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and surveillance of American citizens.

Now the Iraq war is being used to justify similar abuses. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing constitutional means to carry out surveillance, and the Intelligence Identification Protection Act, protecting the identity of undercover intelligence agents, have both been violated by an administration seeking to restore "the legitimate authority of the presidency," as Cheney puts it.

The presidency possesses no power not granted to it under the Constitution. The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.

So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to sit silently and watch as our country becomes distorted into something we no longer wish to support? Do we resort to violence? Or do we simply, as a people, stand up and march? The immigrants recently gave us a demonstration of what real power looks like. 500,000 people marching in unison in downtown Los Angeles is no small thing. When will America experience its first general strike to protest the destruction of our Constitution? We still have the power, should we decide to use it.

As some reviewers have noted, with a sentiment I want to echo, we should all take heart in the fact that a major studio (Warner Brothers) backed and released this film. If we were truly living in V’s world, such would not have been possible.

The movie is a warning, not a reflection. But we would do well to examine the road we are on.

And then do something about it.

Remember, remember the fifth of November.

1 Comments:

Blogger cewall said...

Lisa, the two events (Gunpowder plot and 9/11) are similar in many ways; it's clear. Whether Fawkes was a patsy, a Papist "agent", or a terrorist is a distinction lost to history. What remains, as you point out, is the historical outgrowth of the events. Both galvanized the populous through fear and reinforced the power of tyrants.

To examine the zeitgeist of England in 1605, read _Macbeth_. It is a play written specifically for the King at this time, showing the imagined horrors of a post-assassination state. The misery, fear, and brutality of that play, I feel, capture accurately the sense of the people at that and at this moment in history.

8:02 AM  

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