Many pictures of protests in the past year feature people wearing the same stylized, smirking, bearded mask. But where did this image come from, and what does it stand for?
The mask was catapulted into public consciousness in the 2006 dystopian film “V for Vendetta”, based on a graphic novel series originally published in the 1980s, in which a shadowy freedom fighter uses terrorist tactics to fight against a corrupt and totalitarian society. This fighter, named V, wears the mask throughout the movie.
The mask is the face of Guy Fawkes, who was part of a failed plot to blow up the British House of Lords and kill King James I and his entourage in 1605. For many decades after his arrest and execution, he was held up as a villain to remember and burn in effigy. Then the pendulum seemed to swing the other way, and beginning in 1841 Fawkes began to be presented in a more flattering light as an action hero, “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”. When Alan Moore and David Lloyd created the V for Vendetta comic, they decided to “give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. [We should] celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament.”
We find it quite troubling that someone whose intention was to commit mass murder as a protest against religious intolerance should be held up as any kind of hero. A 2003 simulation of Fawkes’s plot showed that if he had succeeded in detonating the gunpowder his gang had placed under the Palace of Westminster, every person in that building at the time would have been killed. There’s nothing heroic about that.
Consequently, we find it all the more troubling that the Occupy movement (as well as the “Anonymous” movement) has adopted the Fawkes mask as a symbol of protest. We understand the desire to unify behind a given symbol. We also understand that some people may fear reprisals for their protest actions if their real faces are seen. But the mask symbolizes a very problematic idea: that the government of the land cannot be worked with, cannot be reasoned with, and that destroying it with violence (but clandestinely) would be an act of bravery and heroism.
There are many problems in our collective consciousness, and these are reflected in our government. The energies of wanting, hatred, greed, anger and revenge are present in every mind, and so they are present in our governments, our corporations, our organizations. Should a nation destroy its government and become anarchic, that would in no way remove those energies. In fact, it would amplify them by validating the notion that might makes right.
(Also, as a footnote, the Guy Fawkes masks are trademarked by Time-Warner; buying one enriches a large corporation – something the Occupy movement is supposed to be protesting.)
These are tricky times. Choose your heroes, and your rallying symbols, carefully.