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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
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As I See It

Activists remember Guy Fawkes with their stylish masks

October 31st, 2011 9:10 am by Robert Houk

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot ...
Traditional English
nursery rhyme

I hope to see a few local Halloween tricksters and merrymakers wearing Guy Fawkes masks this year. I saw a few folks wearing them on TV at an Occupy Wall Street protest the other day and it got me thinking of lighting a few firecrackers this year in observance of Guy Fawkes Day.
Unlike some Johnson Citians, who don’t need an excuse like Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve to set off fireworks illegally inside the city limits, I usually try to resist pyrotechnic urges. I know that’s not exactly in keeping with the rebellious spirit of Guy Fawkes, but anarchy is just not my thing.
And in retrospect, Fawkes and his co-conspirators weren’t very good at it either.
Most of the Halloween revelers will likely be wearing the sneering Fawkes mask first made popular in the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” and later in the 2006 movie of the same name. The BBC reported earlier this month that the masks were originally made by Warner Brothers studio to promote the movie.
In recent years, however, as many as 100,000 have sold annually to “fancy dress” enthusiasts, fans of the movie and to political activists. These stylized masks (with a sly mustache and pointy beard) are based on the likeness of the real Guy Fawkes, who was executed in 1606 for his role in the “Gunpowder Plot” to bring down the protestant government of King James. And I do literally mean “bring down” the government. Fawkes was captured in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder.
The BBC News Magazine reports the masks seen in “V for Vendetta” have become favorites of would-be anarchists, social activists and rebels of all stripes worldwide. Members of the hacker group Anonymous have been seen wearing them. So has Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange, who was asked by police to remove his V mask before speaking to an Occupy London Stock Exchange protest.
David Lloyd, the artist who originated the V masks for the graphic novel, believes they have become a cultural symbol for rebellion — much in the same way as Alberto Korda’s iconic photo of Argentine revolutionist Che Guevara has.
“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,” Lloyd told the BBC. “It seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”
The true story of Guy Fawkes is compelling enough (he was hanged, drawn and quartered for his crime), but “V for Vendetta” has only added to the doomed rebel’s mystique — even in the United States where Fawkes is largely unknown.
Marking Guy Fawkes Day (observed on Nov. 5 — the date in 1605 when he was caputured under Parliament with his gunpowder) was largely discontinued in this country after the American Revolution. George Washington also thought Guy Fawkes Day was insulting to Catholics.
The Brits have kept the tradition of Guy Fawkes Day going with bonfires, fireworks and by burning effigies of the unsuccessful plotter. Some Americans are undoubtedly puzzled by the idea of celebrating a failed coup. After all, we would never declare a holiday for a loser.
Actually, Guy Fawkes Day is more about the government wanting people to remember what happens to traitors. Poems and nursery rhymes have been passed down generation to generation warning that treason is never forgotten.
Just think: Had this country not won its war for independence, we might be reciting poems today reminding children of the great folly of men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who dared to challenge King George.
(I still think someone missed a great opportunity in 2000 to pen a cautionary rhyme about men and women in black robes who steal elections. You can’t fix that with a voter ID law.)
As it is, we remember Washington, Jefferson and Adams today as winners, champions of the people and builders of a great nation. And not a one of them has a cool mask for sale this Halloween.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at

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