When Will Amazon Stop Selling Guy Fawkes Masks?

Now that Amazon and iTunes (and a bunch of other places) have decided to stop selling merchandise featuring the Confederate battle flag, can we pressure them to stop selling merchandise with masks of Guy Fawkes, the radical Catholic who was caught guarding explosives meant to assassinate Protestant King James I and all of Parliament (the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605)?

The iconic Guy Fawkes mask that appears across popular culture today is most frequently associated with Anonymous, the digitally-savvy protest and “hacktivist” group. While much of Anonymous’s work is conducted through online hacking and server attacks, Anonymous often inspires individuals to take to old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar style street protests. In order to retain their anonymity and show their alignment with Anonymous, protesters don the seemingly ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask.

Of course, Anonymous doesn’t take all of the credit for this twenty-first-century interest in seventeenth-century insurrectionists. That honor goes to the comic book writer Alan Moore, who turned to Guy Fawkes as an inspiration for the title character V in his graphic novel V for Vendetta. In Moore’s tale, V is a vigilante anarchist determined to overthrow a post-apocalyptic fascist government that has overrun Britain (Moore has indicated the comic book was his response to Margaret Thatcher). In classic comic-book-superhero style, V takes on a disguise, choosing to dress in a Guy Fawkes costume. The choice is especially meaningful to Moore as a British author, since the English have a long history of dressing up like the Catholic revolutionary. It is the traditional attire of Guy Fawkes’ Day—the 5th of November. It is not a day to honor him.

When the film adaptation of V for Vendetta was released in 2005, memorabilia companies began mass producing V’s mask, and Anonymous protestors bought up the lot.

The Guy Fawkes mask and the Confederate battle flag both have something in common: they both represent violent rebellion. If they were really worried about triggering violence, then they wouldn’t be selling masks of mad-bombers. But neither violence nor rebellion are really why people want the Confederate battle flag removed (after all, the Marxist-based ideologies often favor violent revolution as the only means of establishing necessary social change). Rather, what is objectionable about the Confederate battle flag is its association with institutionalized slavery and therefore white supremacy—so it is interpreted as a form of hate speech, regardless of the intentions of those who would display it in contemporary society.

That being said, there is one very significant difference between the Confederate battle flag and the Guy Fawkes mask. The flag’s history stems from pride in military valor. It was the flag to rally those willing to die opposing what they saw as the tyranny of a centralized government. There would be something romantic in that if the South’s ideology didn’t also include the loathesome practice of possessing human chattel…and this is now what popular culture most immediately associates with the flag. Still, the Confederate battle flag started as a symbol adopted by those it was meant to represent (if originally as a way to distinguish themselves from Union soldiers so as not to come under friendly fire). Today, Southerners fly the flag because they see something of themselves in it. It wasn’t something they were branded with as a mark of shame.

Guy Fawkes, however, never wore a “Guy Fawkes mask.” The mask was not a part of a Catholic pride movement (indeed, English Catholics helped expose the conspiracy). Rather, the mask was part of an English tradition that burned Guy Fawkes in effigy every anniversary of the failed Gunpowder Plot. Masks were meant to lampoon Guy Fawkes, not to celebrate him. Put in modern terms, wearing the mask is like dressing up like Osama bin Laden or any other Islamic terrorist on Halloween. The Guy Fawkes mask was, historically, meant to jeer at radical Catholics, and therefore it was a form of anti-papist propaganda. Some versions of the famous “Fifth of November” rhyme contain verses such as the following:

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.

I have a hard time thinking of a clearer example of “hate speech” than that. And yet Amazon sells a wide assortment of Guy Fawkes masks, not to mention countless hoodies, keyfobs, stickers, and other items all bearing a terrorist’s face. I don’t think any of them are being bought by seventeenth-century history buffs or Jacobian-Era re-enactors.

Flying the Confederate battle flag was always meant to let others know what kind of person you are. But a Guy Fawkes mask was originally meant to let radical Catholics know what kind of diabolic person you thought they were. It is an attempt to define the other. In this way, one might compare it to performing in blackface. The performance of minstrel blackface is deeply offensive because it is usually an absurd caricature of another group, and it is a caricature that reinforces and perpetuates erroneous, hurtful, and socially irresponsible stereotypes.

Guy Fawkes masks were meant as a kind of blackface—what might be called “papist-face” if it weren’t such a ridiculous sounding term—and could be seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes of Catholics as anti-social radicals with a predilection for religiously motivated terrorism. Thus, the Guy Fawkes mask has a far more offensive and hateful history than the Confederate battle flag, and one should be able to make the same arguments to have it removed from progressive-minded online retailers.

Except that this battle flag debate isn’t really about history, and few people know anything about Guy Fawkes or what he stood for. It’s about what things mean to most people now.

If someone knows how hurtful the flag is to others, then it’s hard not to question his motives for waving it. It’s like trolling society. Although people used to put on the Guy Fawkes mask to make fun of the villainous Catholic, they now wear it as a secularized act of defiance—and most Catholics don’t seem to care one way or the other. There’s an irony here: a bigoted symbol has come to represent rebellion, while a symbol for rebellion that has come to represent bigotry. How many people are there today who think the Guy Fawkes mask is cool but think the Confederate battle flag is hateful?

People who wear the Guy Fawkes mask today are not identifying with violent Catholic radicals; it means something else to them. And the rest of society gives Anonymous a pass for wearing the mask—or, at least, we give them a pass until someone re-asserts the bigotry inherent in the disguise.

che_guevara_posterI’m not particularly fond of the Confederate battle flag, nor do I feel a strong need to defend it. I’m not even really suggesting we lobby Amazon to abandon Guy Fawkes merchandise (I’m actually a big fan of the original V for Vendetta comic book). I do, however, agree with others who have noted the hypocrisy of merchants refusing to sell the Confederate battle flags out from some moral high ground while still selling products that could be just as deeply offensive. Ultimately, it seems as though merchants aren’t interested in avoiding offense on principle—they are only interested in avoiding offense to particular groups on particular issues.

There is still the problem of why anyone would want to buy such a thing that hurts others, though. Language and imagery changes over time, and if our symbols no longer convey our intentions to others, they become less useful. The word “niggardly” always comes to mind in debates like this. It might have a meaningful etymology completely unrelated to the “n-word,” but the confusion that the word “niggardly” causes today renders it ineffective. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use it who wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck.

On the one hand, clarity of communication and civil discourse requires abandoning terms or images that will obscure one’s message, so it looks like it’s time for my rebel friends to stow away their battle flag (incidentally, none of my friends actually own a Confederate flag—at least, not that I know of). On the other hand, I despise attempts to limit freedom of speech, since it is so often a ruse by one’s rhetorical opponents to control the discourse and derail any attempt at a real debate of the substantive issues. Does anyone really think hiding this flag is going to stop another Charleston massacre?

But there is a further inconsistency, and it is one that is about to become even more problematic in the light of the recent SCOTUS ruling regarding gay marriage. How is the refusal to sell Confederate merchandise different from a baker refusing to silkscreen a wedding cake with an image of Burt and Earnie advocating gay marriage?

I certainly don’t think we should force businesses to sell Confederate battle flags any more than we should force bakeries to sell propaganda that opposes their beliefs—but I’m sure that many of those supporting the decision to pull these flags would also accuse bakers of unjust discrimination for refusing to offer services that go against their consciences.

Again, I think we’d be in a better world if no one felt a need to fly a Confederate battle flag or wear a Guy Fawkes mask or turn wedding cakes into political battlefields—but tolerance for such symbols serves as a kind of cultural buffer zone. We allow symbols we don’t agree with because it is a sign of a society’s commitment to free speech. If we allow those we disagree with to speak freely, than we can expect those who disagree with us to offer the same freedom. So it should make us cautious when our society silences even those extremist views that we completely reject. One reason we don’t silence extremists is because we know that “extreme” can be a relative term. Most of my friends on social media already describe the Church’s position on marriage as equivalent to “hate speech.” Today, they might have a legal defense for their accusations, which makes me wonder how long will it be before people claim Christ’s Cross as a symbol of oppression and bigotry that we should be embarrassed to use? Oh…

By

Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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