Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes, V for Vendetta, and Anonymous


Tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Day, a British holiday which commemorates the foiling in 1605 of an anti-royalist conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords. Traditionally, it was celebrated with bonfires and burning effigies of the treasonous Fawkes. It’s ironic that the image of this historical villain has been transformed into a heroic symbol of anarchism and the liberty movement.

This is because in V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the anti-government protagonist wears a Fawkes mask to hide his identity. This work and its popular movie adaptation led the hacker group “Anonymous” to adopt the Fawkes mask as its symbol. In a case of life imitating art, they have staged protests with masked members, just like in the movie. This brings up the question of extralegal political action. When is it justified and in what fashion?

On one end of the spectrum, we have violence against people, including political assassination. While this may be justified in the case of a Hitler or Stalin, it is almost always counter-productive. As the Who put it, the “new boss” will be “same as the old boss.” Terroristic and retaliatory violence is similarly flawed. If an organization is willing to sacrifice innocents in order to gain power, how will it behave after the battle is won? If we expect them to change, we will surely be disappointed.

At the other end are peaceful protests, including the non-violent civil disobedience advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Such tactics are more likely to achieve lasting change, but they may require members of the movement to sacrifice their freedom or even their lives. Furthermore, nonviolence is less effective against authoritarian governments, which is why Iran’s “Green Movement” did not achieve its goals.

In the middle, we have destructive but non-violent action, such as sabotage, computer hacking, and release of secrets. This may be the only option when peaceful and legal channels are blocked. In the US, the release of state documents by Wikileaks has done tremendous good in revealing the machinations of the power elite. Cyber-attacks against institutions that kill innocents and violate our privacy, such as the CIA and NSA, would also be morally justified. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that hackers could win those battles. This is why the rebels have focused on easier targets such as corrupt politicians and thieving bankers.

I believe that extralegal action is sometimes necessary, even in a “free country” such as ours, because democratic systems are prone to capture and manipulation by the rich and powerful. Those who participate in such actions must be aware of the risk. Consider, for example, the steep price Chelsea Manning is paying for blowing the whistle on US atrocities in Iraq. Violent actions, such as Fawkes’ “Gunpowder Plot” are not just wrong, they are damaging to any positive goals one might have.

If you’re a “V for Vendetta” fan, you’ll love my books. Check them out on Amazon.

Image is from

All Hail the Gostak!

Sometimes a story has a moral that sticks with you. One of these was “The Gostak and the Doshes,” written by Miles Breuer and published in Amazing Stories in 1930. I read it in my childhood (no, I’m not that old, it was in a collection of classics) and I’ve never forgotten it. It involved a man who journeyed to an alternate universe in which the nonsense phrase, “The gostak distims the doshes,” was a political slogan. People had such strong opinions about it, both pro and con, that it caused a war. Here is yet another example in which fiction is used to illustrate a fundamental truth.

I think of the Gostak and its well-distimmed doshes (the phrase was actually coined in 1903 by educator Andrew Ingraham as an example of English grammatical structure) every time I read a news story about some irrational lunacy. The latest was when I heard that Paula Deen was fired from the Food Network over rumors that she’d used the infamous N-word many years ago in the South. Never mind that she’s not accused of harming anyone; apparently uttering an offensive word is not forgivable, even after multiple public apologies. Yet when a President tells lies, commits war crimes, and violates the Constitutional rights of the American people, his successor refuses to prosecute him, saying, “Let’s look forward, not back.” In my opinion, this attitude would be more appropriate in Paula Deen’s case.

I’m not just talking about this country’s obsession with political correctness. This has been going on for a long time. When a protester burns the American flag, the conservatives act as if the country itself has been attacked. If a redneck hoists the Confederate flag, the liberals treat him like he’s a member of the KKK with multiple lynchings to his credit.

One of the most idiotic examples of the phenomenon was the controversy that erupted a few years ago when Arizona voters rejected a state-sponsored Martin Luther King holiday. Immediately we were painted as Lester Maddox-type racists, and the NFL decided we couldn’t have the Superbowl. Never mind that there were had been two competing MLK holiday ballot propositions, which split the vote causing neither to win. Eventually the legislature enacted the holiday anyway, but the “racist” stain stuck with our state, despite the fact that the holiday didn’t do a single thing for our black citizens, unless of course they were public employees. It didn’t create jobs, it didn’t improve education, and it didn’t end racial profiling by the police.

The Gostak Effect, as I like to call it, isn’t confined to Americans. In Afghanistan, when there were rumors of the American occupiers desecrating copies of the Koran, the people rioted. An offense against this symbol of the faith was more egregious than actual violations of the Koran’s precepts (for example, the killing of innocent Afghans by the invaders.) China tolerates Taiwan’s de facto independence, but if Taipei ever made an official declaration, Beijing would be across the strait in an instant, the Taiwanese-American alliance be damned. In the Middle East, much of the Israeli-Palestine conflict centers around demands that the Palestinians accept Israel, not just as a legitimate state but as an explicitly Jewish state.

Why do people act this way? My guess is that it’s an inherent intellectual laziness we humans have. It’s a lot easier to react to a shibboleth than actually investigate a person’s character. Also, it’s a handy way for politicians and other “leaders” to instigate mobs to do their bidding – and then deny their malevolent intent when things get out of hand.

I guess there are two morals to this story: (1) people are highly irrational about their symbols, and (2) if somebody tells you that the gostak distims the doshes, you don’t dispute them; you just say, “When? And how many?”