Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November: How Old Bumbling Terrorist-Scapegoats Become New Heroic Victim-Avengers
Legendary physicist Freeman Dyson is a font of wisdom on many topics, including human behavior. In an article about the Prisoner's Dilemma from 2012, he wrote:
". . . I have vivid memories of childhood in England. For a child in England, there are two special days in the year, Christmas and Guy Fawkes. Christmas is the festival of love and forgiveness. Guy Fawkes is the festival of hate and punishment. Guy Fawkes was the notorious traitor who tried to blow up the King and Parliament with gunpowder in 1605. He was gruesomely tortured before he was burnt. Children celebrate his demise with big bonfires and fireworks. They look forward to Guy Fawkes more than to Christmas. Christmas is boring but Guy Fawkes is fun. Humans are born with genes that reward us with intense pleasure when we punish traitors. Punishing traitors is the group’s way of enforcing cooperation. We evolved cooperation by evolving a congenital delight in punishing sinners. The Prisoner’s Dilemma did not have much to do with it."
In the past few years, Guy Fawkes, or at least his visage, has become a kind of modern folk hero and symbol of the anti-state activist group known as Anonymous, as well as many other protest movements world-wide:
"On 23 May 2009, protesters wearing the mask exploded a fake barrel of gunpowder outside Parliament while protesting over the issue of British MPs' expenses.
During the 2011 Wisconsin protests, and then during the subsequent Occupy Wall Street and the ongoing Occupy movement, the mask appeared internationally as a symbol of popular rebellion. In October 2011, campaigner Julian Assange attended the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest wearing such a mask, which he removed after a request by the police.
In January 2012, Guy Fawkes masks were used by protesters against Poland's signing of ACTA.
On 10 June 2012, in Mumbai, India, a group of 100 Anonymous members and college students gathered at Azad Maidan, dressed all in black and wearing Guy Fawkes masks, to protest against the Indian Government's censorship of the Internet.
The masks were used by anti-government protestors in Thailand in 2012, and by protestors in Turkey in 2013. They were also used in protests in Brazil and Egypt in 2013."
A number of sovereign states, including Canada, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have banned or limited the distribution of such masks.
The choice of this mask may seem a bit peculiar considering Guy Fawkes's actual place in history. In today's parlance, we would recognize him as a religious zealot and failed terrorist, very similar to Richard Reid, the infamous "shoe bomber", who tried but failed to blow up a plane by detonating explosives in his shoes.
For those who don't know the Guy Fawkes story, it reads like a Western Muslim gone off to join ISIS and then returning to his home country to cause mayhem. As a young man, he left England to fight with the Spanish Catholics in their 80-year war against the Netherlands and England -- this was the era of the ill-fated "Spanish Armada" of 1588.
Fawkes returned to England in the early 1600s and joined a group of Catholics headed by Robert Catesby, whose goal was to assassinate the Protestant King James and replace him with a Catholic. The mode of assassination they selected was to blow up the House of Lords when James went there for the opening ceremonies of Parliament, which were to occur on or about November 6, 1605.
The so-called "Gunpowder Plot" was discovered few days before the opening and Fawkes was caught red-handed with the gunpowder on November 5. Although defiant at first, after several days of torture on the rack and through other means, Fawkes confessed and implicated the others. He was tried and convicted with the others in January 1606, with plans for a gruesome execution in a fashion that resembled ancient human sacrifices and was ordinarily reserved for high treason against the monarchy:
"The Attorney General Sir Edward Coke told the court that each of the condemned would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. They were to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air"."
On 31 January 1606, Fawkes and three others – Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes – were dragged (i.e. drawn) from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, opposite the building they had attempted to destroy. His fellow plotters were then hanged and quartered. Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. He asked for forgiveness of the King and state, while keeping up his "crosses and idle ceremonies" (Catholic practices). Weakened by torture and aided by the hangman, Fawkes began to climb the ladder to the noose, but either through jumping to his death or climbing too high so the rope was incorrectly set, he managed to avoid the agony of the latter part of his execution by breaking his neck. His lifeless body was nevertheless quartered and, as was the custom, his body parts were then distributed to "the four corners of the kingdom", to be displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors."
The English have celebrated the Fifth of November ever since, with bonfires in which Guy and other figures are burnt in effigy and there are fireworks displays similar to those of the American Fourth of July, except they are celebrating the monarchy and not becoming independent from it.
In the 19th and early 20th Century, the character of Guy Fawkes was fictionalized and became somewhat of an "action hero" figure in the pulp fiction of that time.
More recently, the mask itself has been recast in the heroic light in the graphic novel "V for Vendetta", which was then popularized in film in 2005. The novel takes place in a post-nuclear dystopian England that has become a fascist state. The protagonist, Evey, is an orphan and a prostitute about to be raped and killed by the secret police when she is rescued by the original mask-wearer, "V", a anarchist revolutionary bent on killing the leadership. V himself is a bastard creation of a hideous state medical experiment that killed all of its victims except him.
After a number of exploits, V is eventually mortally wounded, but claims that he cannot be killed since he is only an idea and that "ideas are bulletproof." Evey subsequently dons the mask and continues the fight, which ultimately results in the destruction of the leadership and 10 Downing Street (the residence of the Prime Minister -- equivalent to the U.S. White House). This is accomplished with a train full of explosives that also contains V's body. Evey addresses a crowd, telling them they must "...choose what comes next. Lives of your own, or a return to chains."
Following the Financial Crisis of 2008, the mask seems to have "gone viral" and been used world-wide as a symbol of protest against government action generally, and censorship in particular. Watch the video below for a more complete timeline of the popularization of the mask.
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But how does this peculiar popularization of the visage of this 500-year old terrorist look through the Lenses of Wisdom?
It practically cries out for a look through the Mimetic Lens first. Depending on which version of the story is told, the Guy Fawkes narrative represents both the archaic-sacred narrative of the society maintained order through official ritualized violence and the counter-narrative of the innocent scapegoat victimized by the state.
This historical narrative is the archaic-sacred one. Guy Fawkes was brutally tortured and executed in the name of preserving societal order against a fundamentalist threat, and this is what the English celebrate every November 5. And although Freeman Dyson has never commented on mimetic theory, he confirms that this archaic-sacred model is essentially the natural order of human societies due to human genetic features. (The similar perspective might not be so surprising since Girard and Dyson were born exactly 10 days apart in 1923 and shared the same formative experience of World War II and exposure to totalitarianism):
"Humans are born with genes that reward us with intense pleasure when we punish traitors. Punishing traitors is the group’s way of enforcing cooperation. We evolved cooperation by evolving a congenital delight in punishing sinners."
In effect, he confirms Girard's conception of the use of official violence to establish and maintain societal order, even though he does not know that it's Girard's conception.
Yet the modern folk-myth of Guy Fawkes and the "idea that bullets can't kill" from V for Vendetta is the concept that the scapegoats of state violence are more innocent than not -- the anthropological formulation of Christianity. Like Atlas Shrugged and The Jungle (see discussion in this post) V for Vendetta follows a Christian narrative with V playing the role of Christ and Evey playing the role of St. Peter or St. Paul, as she is rescued and redeemed from a life as a lowly prostitute to become the leader of the movement bearing the symbol of the mask. V himself is an innocent scapegoat -- a product of horrific medical experiments by the state. Evey is another innocent scapegoat who is rescued by the idea in the personification of V. The analogy goes so far as to having the body of V be part of the instrument of destruction of the state, much as the body of Christ is venerated as an instrument of the Christian faith.
The spread of the use of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of those oppressed by states worldwide as a secular movement was in fact forecast and explained by Girard as discussed in this post:
"[T]he old pagan sacrificial order is disappearing thanks to Christianity! It is ironic: Christianity seems to be dying together with the religions it extinguishes, because, in sacrificial terms, it is perceived as one mythical religion among others. Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention. There is no atheism in the ancient world. The only exception I can think of is Epicureanism, but it is limited and its denial of the gods is not aggressive. Epicureanism does not deny God against anything or anyone: it doesn’t have that strong negative quality of modern atheism.
The disappearance of religion is a Christian phenomenon par excellence. Of course, and let me clarify that I am referring to the disappearance of religion in so far as we see religion aligned with a sacrificial order. This process is going to continue and it is spreading all around the globe. I was talking with a specialist of Sanskrit, and he agreed with me that this process is probably also present in Indian history. It is much slower, but it is accelerating. The withdrawal of all gods is the first transreligious phenomenon."
And so we can see this acceleration through the adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask in many different countries from the West to the Middle East to Asia as a symbol of opposition to state sponsored oppression, censorship and scapegoating of individuals. While some might prefer a cross, a crescent, a meditating man or a star, the stylized mask of a 500 year-old failed Catholic terrorist will have to do.
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From that sweeping view through the Mimetic Lens, we might come back down to the more pedestrian view through the Prospecting Lens. We can see that these heuristics are involved on one or both sides of the Guy Fawkes narrative.
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future.
Both versions of the Guy Fawkes story -- the terrorist triumphantly exposed and brutally dispatched by the state-protector of society, celebrated with bonfires and fireworks -- and the heroic victim-avenger against the state, celebrated in periodic protests worldwide -- are in fact stylized narratives. The real Guy Fawkes was a bit more complicated and was probably earnest in his beliefs but bumbling in his efforts and mistaken or misguided as to the likely outcomes of his and his co-conspirators' actions. Even if they had succeeded in blowing up the House of Lords and assassinating the king, it is highly unlikely that England would have reverted to Catholicism.
Lest we thing this is unique to Guy Fawkes, the same bumbling efforts and misguided notions are also likely to characterize the terrorists of today. The idea that blowing up people or buildings or other criminal activities is likely to bring anything more than retaliatory strikes is just as misguided in 2016 as it was in 1605. Except we substitute waterboarding for the rack these days.
THE HALO EFFECT. “This is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed”. The warm emotion we feel toward a person, place, or thing predisposes us to like everything about that person, place, or thing. Good first impressions tend to positively color later negative impressions and conversely, negative first impressions can negatively color later positive impressions.
The use of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of protest has a pronounced Halo Effect. The mask is now known world-wide as a symbol against tyranny, much like the coiled rattlesnake evokes that symbolism in the U.S. Every protestor wants to claim the mantle of the mask, even those in different countries that have no connection with Guy Fawkes, English or even English colonial traditions. The mask connotes solidarity in the relatively anonymous era of the internet.
The right to use the mask has even been fought over: "On April 17 2006 a pair of rival groups wearing Fawkes masks confronted each other outside the New York City offices of Warner Brothers and DC Comics. One group, led by freegan Adam Weismann, protested against a perceived misrepresentation of the Anarchist movement in the film V for Vendetta. The other group, led by libertarian Todd Seavey, counter-protested against the anarchists, wearing masks purportedly supplied by a Time Warner employee."
REPRESENTATIVENESS. Similar to profiling or stereotyping, “representativeness” is the intuitive leap to make judgments based on how similar something is to something we like without taking into consideration other factors: probability (likelihood), statistics (base rate), or sampling sizes. Potential for error: Evaluating a person, place, or thing on how much it resembles something else without taking into account other salient factors.
For better or for worse, the media has a tendency to portray all of the mask wearers as the same, even though the causes they represent can be very disparate. Sometimes the wearers are protesting government actions and sometimes other entities or organizations, such as Anonymous's protests of the Church of Scientology in 2008.
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. Things that don’t occur as expected take us by surprise. To fit those surprises into our world we tell ourselves new stories to make them fit.
Both the Guy Fawkes narratives are extremely coherent. Either Guy Fawkes is a terrorist to be forever burnt in effigy in celebration of state and society or he is a victim and hero-avenger as portrayed in V for Vendetta. There are no nuances or gray areas.
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Finally, looking through the Fractal Lens, there is not a lot to see, but there is a very peculiar and far-reaching insight as to the irrelevance of the symbol itself and the probabilistic nature of why it was chosen.
Recall that the Fractal Lens adopts a sand-pile or rice-pile model of historical events, where large structures are built up over time until they become unstable and subject to avalanches or collapses. The avalanches and collapses do not so much occur due to the falling of the last grain of rice or sand, but due to the fragile natures of the structures themselves and they have been built up and eroded over time.
Here the structures at issue are collective group of governments in the world, or more specifically their ability to control information flows through censorship and other controls, particularly controlling and dictating the use of the available media. The appearance and growth of the internet has blown across this once stable landscape like an eroding wind. Despite increased efforts, the trend has been toward less effective governmental controls, less influential media and more unified actions by anti-government and anarchic forces, who can now easily communicate with each other in unfiltered and unrestricted ways at little or no cost.
Thus, the look through the Fractal Lens suggests that it was only a matter of time that some unifying symbol of anti-state persons would appear and acquire a universal meaning an acceptance, as the Guy Fawkes mask has become. That this symbol happened to be the Guy Fawkes mask was more a matter of probablistic randomness, than of intention or determination. The graphic novel V for Vendetta came along at just the right moment in time for the mask to become the latest and most secular version of the heroic victim. But as detailed in this video, it also required the impetus of an obscure cartoon character that also just happened to don the mask.
But with a twist of fate, another symbol might have been chosen -- perhaps the jack-o-lantern mask from the "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" by XTC and here covered by Crash Test Dummies:
Like the V for Vendetta story, the Peter Pumpkinhead story also mimics the Christian narrative of the sacrificial scapegoat victim. Since it was written by Englishmen, the casting of Catholics as the fundamentalist overlords in the song also bears mimetic overtones and reverse parallels to the original Guy Fawkes. Who is the enemy and who is the victim? "Both" seem to be the correct answer.
The Fractal Lens always maintains the possibility of alternative universes or timelines. Perhaps that is why that probabilistic aspect of it may be particularly attractive to the portion of our human psyches that is governed by the imaginative reasoning part of our minds, or System 2, in contrast to the didactic and certain narratives demanded by System 1.
"Hurray for Peter Pumpkinhead! . . . an awful lot like you and a lot like me."
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.