Remember the V

V is the Roman number five, today is the Fifth of November, and it’s the fifth part of the series on meaning and another Scarlet Letter. I keep this loosely connected, to allow you to catch up.

guy-fawkesWhen future historians look back at our time now, they will most likely include something on Guy Fawkes and have some explaining to do. How come a Puritan Age “insurgent” became the face, literally, of a whole movement that seems to be quite influential today? And what could this have to do with this series on meaning and beliefs?

Henry VIII of England wasn’t happy with his then-wife Catherine of Aragorn. And that’s the reason why former Archbishop Rowan Atkinson Williams who debated Richard Dawkins nearly 500 years later is an Anglican and not a Catholic. History can be very silly sometimes. British history took a different turn because of a symbol, or an idea.

“Words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning” – V for Vendetta (film)

Henry wanted his marriage annulled since divorce was out of question. But the Pope didn’t respond to his request. That prompted Henry to jump – pardon the anachronism – on the Reformation bandwagon that was rolling at the time and get in charge of religion in England himself. These were the humble beginnings of what would be known as the Anglican Church. His marriage was eventually annulled in 1533 just as he wanted. Good for him. Not so much for the women that followed.

When the Anglican Church was in charge, the situation got worse for the Catholics. They had to hide or were Recusants. It prompted a group of Catholics to plan a “terroristic” act, what would enter history as the Gunpowder Plot.  The conspirators wanted to blow up the British Parliament together with the king’s family in order to promote another line of kingship that was more Pro-Catholic. More symbology. It was the year 1605, and Shakespeare was probably busy writing “King Lear”.

“The parallels between the actions of the plotters and modern-day terrorists are terrifying and the motivation is the same – that religion is the only important thing and that if the Government does not subscribe to the idea that your religion is absolute it must be removed.” – Dr. Starkey in “Gunpowder Plot was England’s 9/11, says historian”

Historians of the Max Planck Institute apparently have a project up and running that looks into a similar direction (german link).

“This project researches comparative-european the historically changing normative definitions of political crime; the preventive and punitive governmental precautions and the accompanying societal discourses while taking popular media in account

They don’t mean reading “V for Vendetta” comics with “popular media”, but how the portrayal of a crime as “acts of terrorism” has an impact on the society and its legal response. That’s what I got from the blurb. Put differently, when popular media, such as news, label some crime differently, what kind of effect does it have on people and laws?

And now let’s hear the Gunpowder Plot story and history with this nice and short video with a proper British accent:

A for Anarchy


Incidentally, another Scarlet Letter

Comic author Alan Moore wanted to write something really British with “V for Vendetta”. Orwell’s “1984” seemed to become real when CCTV cameras showed up everywhere on the streets of Britain. And when illustrator David Lloyd had the idea to disguise their main character as Guy Fawkes, Alan Moore gladly picked it up and put it all together.

In the resulting comic series the anti-heroic protagonist named “V” fights for freedom against a totalitarian regime. He thinks of himself as an idea – Anarchy – that fights another idea – Totalitarianism.

“Anarchy means ‘without leaders’, not ‘without order’.”
– V in “V for Vendetta”

However, the setup not only expresses Moore’s political views, but especially also his “magical” ones which don’t seem to be supernatural at all, and which I have already woven into the Scarlet Letter article series. For the comic they are perhaps epitomized with a quote from the African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was killed by a KKK member in 1963. He said:

 “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
– Medgar Evers

To which we can say now, ideas are burned, warned about, labelled, and contained but as long as people remember, or find some artefact that contains them in their symbology, they will always be alive, and ready to “possess” another human mind and enlist all the possessed faculties to realize itself.

The Invisible Standard Bearer

One central aspect of the symbology in the comic is that the person, with all its complex attributes and features becomes “invisible” and instead the idea itself takes the centre stage. A motif we are now familiar with and which is the same as with Hester from the Scarlet Letter novel or with the witches (or the “the Jews” etc, see Mark of the Witch).

Since the person is not important, it could just as well disappear so that the idea stands out even more. From Moore’s perspective it is could also be seen as a commentary on the typical Superhero and their costume, where they again become a symbol, while their individual features are concealed under a mask. However, it does illustrate some point. Does anyone needs the standard bearer, when the flag is the important thing. Someone just needs to move the flag around (“meme theory” you say?)

All the other themes we have encountered before congregate as well.  A couple of examples: Guy Fawkes and his insurgents wanted to blow up something as a symbolic act to destroy an idea. Guy Fawkes’ paper masks were consigned to flames for much the same purpose. And that was also the fate of the witches. The Gun Powder plotters were labelled traitors, and hung, drawn and quartered. Convicts were supposed to survive being hung, but nobody survived being drawn. Being quartered was entirely symbolic. The authorities wanted to stamp out what they stood for.

And the nursery rhyme “remember, remember the fifth of November” was used to contain ideas and to prevent others to “get possessed” by the idea, as well as eliciting reactions. That’s perhaps comparable to shunning and shaming. These are all also aspects of fear mongering.

We also get to see “owning” again. We saw it with the Scarlet Letter A that is now associated with Atheists, and we see it here, too, how the Guy Fawkes imagery completely changed its meaning (witches managed it too. They are today perhaps more associated with Hermione Granger).

But Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic alone did not make it onto the streets. Isn’t it somewhat fantastic that these comics – ideas – manifest themselves in the real world? Wow, that’s meta. This was done through “Anonymous”.

A for Anonymous

The imageboard 4chan allowed users to post without making an account, and would display them as “Anonymous”. In 2004, the administrators got rid of registered user names altogether and everyone was displayed as “Anonymous”. The board is notorious for its meme creation that are known all across the internet (memes would fit in fantastic, but have to wait for a future issue).

When the Church of Scientology wanted to remove leaked material with Tom Cruise, these “Anonymous” got together and started “Project Chanology” to go against this attempted censorship. The mission was to drive Scientology off the internet and hacker attacks followed.

Out of that movement sprung up real-life activism but the activist had a problem. How could they protect themselves against Scientology that was notorious for filming and bullying critics?

“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way. My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism – V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system. We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary” – David Lloyd (quote via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, merchandise masks of the movie version of “V for Vendetta” were available at the time and found their use. In some sense the movie touched on similar motifs, and the activists probably found it a fitting. The masks are also cheap but comfortable to wear and thus pretty good for a purely practical reason, too. Thunderf00t made a video on Chanology in 2008 on “Strategy for Anonymous vs Scientology” that might be interesting for those who like to learn more.

And that’s where we are today. Anonymous has branched out, and the Guy Fawkes mask became a cultural icon of our times.

Freeze Peach

From the early beginnings with marital difficulties of the English crown until today in the Atheist Community, from history to fiction, the motifs are recurring. We see the censors today, and the fear mongers. The story of the Guy Fawkes symbology is more of an exercize to see symbology, framing, or creating narratives all around us (sometimes to manipulate us) more consciously.

I leave you with the Law of Fives. And no further explanation.


6 thoughts on “Remember the V

  1. I know that you said no further explanation would be forthcoming, but I have to ask whether you are implying that “today in the Atheist Community” we have a group of brave heroes wearing (virtual) masks, fighting for freeze peach against a tyrannical centralized authority?

  2. edit: removed a lot of points to keep it more straight-forward for comments. I’ll write the other stuff into a proper article (sometime soon)

    I see what you did there. 😀 I’m not too keen on having labels such as “brave heroes” thrown around, which —apparently— have an important but cryptic meaning to various people. Justin Vacula, who created the hashtag and uses it for his podcast doesn’t appear to be masked. I know it became a sort of label for a perceived “side” with a lot of assumptions built into it.

    I am not stating any anonymous person who is annoyed by a blog moderation policy was somehow a masked insurgent against totalitarianism. That would vastly glorify and oversimplify the situation. However, certain blogs/networks do push their narratives rather aggressively and use speaker roles and their several blogs combined to that effect, while censoring everything else. They can do with their blogs what they want, of course. But it is fairly eccentric to believe they can lie about other people and have their commentariat expand on it, while censoring everything that could set it straight and get away with it without a reaction. Its quite daring to pull this off in a skeptics community used to deal with (and used to lampooning) Creationists and other ideologues/believers. What did they expect — of course there is mythbusting/4chanology against them going on. They are like a Creationists-Scientology hybrid. Often as silly as Comfort’s banana but with their doxxing and google bombing names more comparable to the church’s tactics.

    We came as far as that you can’t even wear t-shirts of the wrong team and take pictures from a conference under an “elevator” sign mounted to the wall, as you know first hand. This is deemed inacceptable due to “elevatorgate”. However, you can make a graphic video mocking the incident when you are on their team, which is kept out of sight as long as the image issue is on the table. This is standard engineering-the-narrative. Just hide one half away and prevent that anyone can put things into perspective or set things straight. This is just scratching the surface.

    Elevator-Image issue part 1
    Elevator-Image issue part 2
    Elevator Video (kept in moderation by Benson)

    This is by no means extraordinary, just the most recent example of a few days ago. I leave the authoritarian issue for another time. There is some larger context, around freedom of speech, too, as can be seen here: Steven Pinker tweeted a few times on censorship at Harvard and stated he is against it, whereas PZ Myers wants to ban certain views from campus. Curiously, Myers, Benson, Zvan, Thibeault and Carrier find defamatory statements acceptable. There are no attempts to correct obvious falsehoods on their blogs, but there is strong moderation on those who attempt at setting the record straight. If I keep looking, I find more paralells to Scientology, like hoarding embarassing stories about other people, collected at parties and releasing them in vague ways so that the imagery and free-wheeling commentariat can flesh it out and cook it up. They can make wearing a t-shirt with the false team name appear as a crime against humanity after all.

    Here are relatively recent views by Jason Thibeault, burning down strawmen as usual. And here is Matt Dillahunty. It could be that Dillahunty argues in context of YouTube where it may make some sense (since there is an overall community with certain views), Jason Thibeault and the “Freeze Peach” horde do not have that excuse. They perfectly know what they are doing and what the context is about.

  3. Thanks for that generous expansion, that comment is surely blogworthy on its own.

    Incidentally, did I ever tell you a friend of mine managed to hook up the two dudebros in that elevator photo with admission to a cocktail party where we got to hang out with Steven Pinker? True story. I don’t generally swoon for skepticelebs, but there you have it.

    Less incidentally, wasn’t it @GraniteBench who coined the term “brave hero” in reference to the anglophone atheist rifts?

  4. Watched the Dillahunty video on the drive in this morning (unsafe, no doubt) and I’m unclear on what he said wrong. Are you arguing that everyone is obligated to allow all comments in every medium?

  5. He didn’t say anything wrong (when I recall correctly), he and those who argue in that way are just not addressing the actual issues.

    Dillahunty may have an excuse, since he is on YouTube and it could be that on YouTube many users consider all of YouTube as a free range. Jason Thibeault et al, however, are dishonest. They pretend that their censorship was benevolent and would just remove inapproriate comments. In reality, we all see quite nasty comments as a regular feature on FreeThoughtBlogs and I have seen censored comments that are far calmer and reasoned. In fact, I have written my own which didn’t contain any insults, but concrete points typically backed by links. Such comments were censored not becaue they are inappropriate, but because they do not fit into their narrative.

    Which means, when Thibeault and Co. advance the “freeze peach”, they are dishonest and worse, where I don’t have a word. They are of the type that have no place in a skeptical community and should be laughed out of the room. It’s one thing to reasonably maintain a comment section, another to actively censor in order to advance a certain agenda (that is Creationist Level). Thibeault and Co, are one level beneath. They lie and pretend their censorship was necessary because their opponents were always hateful. It’s the overall FTB/SkepChick/A+ (“Social Justice League”) phantom narrative all over again. And it’s probably yet another level beneath that, since they generally allow a lot of hate. That way they pretend that their critics are “even more hateful” than their hateful commentariat.

    I only concede that Thibeault might be ignorant and that he might be different than other bloggers on FTB/SkepChick, because I have no actual examples of his behavior. But then he is a fool that backs this behaviour of others by misrepresenting the “freeze peach” issues.

  6. I’m blocked from commenting at B&W and PZ’s these days (presumably because I’m known as an evil and malicious Pitter) so I don’t bother going to either place unless someone points out something of particular interest to me. That said, I can verify the narrative construction at techinique at Zvan’s and Thibeault’s blogs, where I’ve been held in moderation for saying fairly innocuous things that run counter to the narrative, not unlike the example you give above of the YouTube elevator gag.

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