Imagine a dystopian England under the rule of a brutal fascistic regime. Political opposition is outlawed. Free speech is non-existent. Government spies go undercover in pubs and restaurants searching for prohibited expressions. Security cameras tape everything you do and even occasionally yell at you. The state controlled media promotes a specific political agenda and knowingly lies about facts that jeopardize its worldview. Violent thugs, funded by the state, openly attack political opponents while the regular police do nothing or arrest the victims. Those who do not believe in the official ideology of the state are either banned from decent jobs or hounded out of their profession.
Such is the world of V for Vendetta, a nightmarish fantasy designed to show how even terrorism may be justified to fight tyranny and secure freedom. The film dares to ask if violence is ever a legitimate tactic if the government crosses a certain line. It is a favorite of libertarians, including many YWC members, and tomorrow, tens of thousands will “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November” and ponder whether they’d be willing to act if the government ever crosses that fateful Rubicon.
The problem, of course, is that this is also the United Kingdom in the world we live in right now. You don’t have free speech in England. Cameras are everywhere, and like the telescreens in 1984, they can yell at you. Police monitor what you say and do in pubs and restaurants. Saying the wrong thing can cost you your money, your job, or your freedom. The political order is safeguarded by violent thugs, supported by every major party from both the Left and the phony Right.
So, everyone watching V for Vendetta this 5th of November and posting slogans on facebook – would we be justified in blowing up Parliament?
I hasten to add – I advocate no such thing. The point is -- neither does anyone else, even as a hypothetical. If there was a “Norsefire” government though, we would have no shortage of V Volunteers because we’ve all been carefully trained to believe that tyranny is exclusively a product of the Right.
V for Vendetta is almost a perfect reversal of the actual situation in England today. In the film, an ultra nationalistic and Christian theocratic government uses state terrorism to coerce the masses behind a repressive right wing agenda. The Church of England rules the moral landscape. Muslims, homosexuals, and immigrants are all imprisoned or deported. Guy Fawkes is a long forgotten hero who struck a blow against tyranny.
In the actually existing England of today, the English flag is considered a racist symbol. The officials of the state are told the Red Cross is offensive because it reminds those oppressed Muslims about the Crusades. Six year olds are investigated for racism. The leader of the Church of England is busy advocating for Muslim Sharia law. The state maintains that Islamic terrorism must be labeled “anti-Islam activity” so Muslims do not have their feelings hurt. It is not criminal to be a homosexual – it is criminal to criticize them, even in the mildest of terms. Perhaps most revealing, political leaders have actually admitted that mass immigration offered no benefits for England but was a tactic to make electing conservatives and libertarians impossible in the future by flooding the country with Third Worlders dependent on the welfare state. In essence, by their own words, the English government is a conspiracy against their own people.
It should be noted that Guy Fawkes, of course, thought that the English government of his time was actually too tolerant and wanted to restore Catholic autocracy, which would have strangled any Enlightenment rhetoric about rights and freedoms in their cradle. (Even Cracked is with me on this one.) If you are a traditionalist Catholic Guy Fawkes might be a good hero, but for postmodern hipsters, Fawkes isn’t actually the best.
I’ll grant that the film has some good quotes, notably, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” And so they should, especially the current English government, from the current English people. The problem is that film systematically shows us that the only way we can know repression is when it comes packaged up in 1930’s fascist regalia promoting a right wing cultural agenda. Touching scenes about reverently handling the Koran and respecting minorities ignore that these supposedly oppressed groups are dictating terms to the taxpaying English masses. The English people are expected to sit down, shut up, and pay for the regime that dispossess them. The actually existing tyranny is not just ignored, but apologized for because the tyranny is explained in cultural terms. For that reason, for the vast majority of people watching the movie today, it will simply not occur to them to connect the dots between the arguments against the imaginary white Christian theocracy and the actually existing anti-English, anti-Christian regime. In fact, V for Vendetta just makes things worse.
Of course, this was the point of V for Vendetta all along. Alan Moore wrote the original graphic novel as a protest against the rise of the free market champion Margaret Thatcher. “Norsefire” in the graphic novel was clearly modeled on the National Front, a small nationalist party that focused on street activism and marches. Somehow, liberals feared this tiny group would magically rise to power if they gathered so much as 10 people at a rally. The evil Chancellor Sutler and his ruthless regime was simply a stand in for Thatcher, capitalism, and England itself.
It’s not an attack against the “state.” There is nothing in the film, its message, its symbolism, or how it has been interpreted by most activists to pose any threat to the kind of repression that is occurring right now. At this very second, the English nation is being ground out by the state, but the movie does nothing to communicate that message. Instead, it’s simply a thinly veiled sneer against patriotism, a celebration of trendy multiculturalism, and a safe, harmless, cute little way of expressing pretend dissent against the people who rule the West. It actually reinforces the real, existing, insidious tyranny that exists right now in the Mother Country because it tells us that liberty’s enemies are always comically easy to spot, complete with uniforms and scary Germanic words.
Why then is this movie so popular as a symbol? It tells us what we want to hear and hides from us that none are so hopelessly enslaved that think that they are free – or think they are fighting for what they call “freedom,” a word long bereft of meaning. It lets people continue to believe the illusion that freedom will be restored without having to take on uncomfortable, politically incorrect issues. A graphic representation of the destruction of Parliament is far less gutsy than some random College Republican trying an affirmative action bake sale. It’s so, so easy to oppose “the state” as long as it remains abstract. It is far more difficult to criticize a specific state, or specific things that a state is doing because then you have to confront the actual people who benefit from those policies.
It is all very well to say that the government should not have the right to redistribute income to the poor, or that racial preferences are bad on libertarian grounds because we are all individuals, or that identity politics are flawed because we are all individuals. However, your opponents will quite reasonably respond that the nature of the class system and economic privilege mean that redistribution might actually be necessary to ensure everyone starts from an equal footing. They might say that “white privilege” means that informal networks and cultural biases that perpetuate racial inequality mean that we need state directed affirmative action. They might say as part of a privileged class, you can believe in individualism, but their identity is important to them and that they need to collectively mobilize in order to defend their own interests.
At some point, you are going to have to explain or defend inequality if you actually want to defend freedom. Once you’ve done that, state or no state, it’s right vs. left and you’re on the side same as us supposedly far right types who rock Martel’s hammer.
Of course, the meaning of art is in the eye of the beholder. I was fated to be on the Right because I always seem to learn the opposite lesson that’s intended from the prolefeed the culture industry slops out for us. I do not begrudge my libertarian comrades both within YWC and without for co-opting symbols for their own ends. I hope they’ll allow me the same.
The group I want to defend is that which is really being oppressed, right now, in the real world. I stand with the great English people who still have some sense of pride, identity, and patriotism in their Isle of Kings. So for my Fifth of November toast -- if I may borrow the handle of the Voice of London -- I say “Good guys win, bad guys lose, and, as always – England Prevails.”