V's Vendetta Can't Ground Freedom
by Ari Armstrong, March 17, 2006
Spoiler alert: In the analysis that follows, I discuss significant elements of plot.
V for Vendetta, as its title suggests, fundamentally is a story of revenge. In a future England turned to fascism, a man is held in a concentration camp, where he suffers grotesque experimentation at the hands of government scientists. The man, whose previous identity is not revealed (and which even he seems to have forgotten), is held in room number five, or V. He destroys the facility, escapes, and devotes his life to hunting down his tormentors and overthrowing the regime.
The main characters are V -- and only the haunting voice of Hugo Weaving could give life to a character seen always in a mask -- and Evey, played by Natalie Portman, who is generally excellent. The supporting performances, filming, and directing are quite good.
The motto of several of the film's posters is "Freedom! Forever!" Obviously, destroying the machinery of a fascist regime is necessary for the establishment of freedom. But it is not sufficient, for anarchy also threatens true liberty -- meaning individual rights and a free market characterized by private property and voluntary exchange. And ultimately V's theme is one of anarchy, not individual rights.
The reason that Vendetta is interesting -- the main reason that I saw it -- is that, as with other dystopias, it portrays a nightmarish future world that is the logical conclusion of frightening trends in our own world. The point is to prevent such an outcome. Works like Vendetta also release a sense of catharsis and solidarity -- I'm right to be concerned about the way things are going, these issues really do matter, lots of other people feel just the way I do, and it's possible to change things.
"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people," V says. Ideally, of course, a government should protect individual rights and people should support it, without fear on either side. But the film -- the very fact that it was made -- suggests that today many people are afraid of their government. And between drug raids, IRS audits, gun entrapments, legions of regulators, secret searches, etc., who can blame them?
Vendetta is at its best in criticizing religious totalitarianism, censorship, and the persecution of homosexuals. The most touching segments of the movie involve the back-story of a gay couple. A television personality -- Evey's boss until she falls in with V -- keeps banned posters and books in a secret room, and finally he broadcasts an unauthorized program. His Monty-Pythonesque performance, aired in the context of a brutal regime, is painfully funny to watch. For these reasons, Vendetta is worth watching.
Unfortunately, V, while justified in many of his actions, is anything but a moral hero. In a particularly grotesque section of the movie, V subjects Evey to brutal treatment, for her own good, of course. V pretends to be a government agent who tries to get Evey to cooperate in the capture of V. Finally he "sentences" her to death, yet still she will not give in. Why would he do such a morally repugnant thing? It's to make her unafraid. But that hardly justifies his horrific actions. Besides, prolonged brutality just isn't a useful way to encourage the victim's spiritual transformation. Incredibly, Evey forgives V for his deception and mistreatment. As a member of the audience on whom this cruel trick was played, I am not as willing to forgive the writers.
Vendetta is based on a graphic novel from the '80s. The Wikipedia entry for the printed work summarizes, "V's destructive acts are morally ambiguous, and a central theme of the series is the rationalisation of atrocities in the name of a higher goal, whether it is stability or freedom. The character is a mixture of an actual advocate of anarchism and the traditional stereotype of the anarchist as a terrorist and advocate of anarchy in the sense of chaos." The film seeks to turn V into a good guy, but it can't succeed, given V's torture of Evey. Evey does suggest in the film that the government scientists tried to create a monster -- and they succeeded. Yet the film still tries to justify the unjustifiable.
So what is the mask all about? It's supposed to be the likeness of Guy Fawkes, who was anything but an unambiguously virtuous character. It seems that Fawkes tried to blow up King James I and all of Parliament for sectarian purposes. Fawkes was Catholic, while James (who commissioned a translation of the Bible now known as the King James Version) was Protestant.
The movie's web page reviews, "King James I... took over the throne of religiously intolerant England on March 24 1603, and it was soon felt he was not at all sympathetic to bettering the Catholic's status in England -- there were severe penal laws against the practice of the Catholic religion in England at the time. Disappointment with his new King is one of the possible reasons Guy Fawkes felt the need to take action against him. Sources disagree as to whether the plot was to actually destroy the Houses of Parliament and influence a Catholic uprising, or to kill King James (who had not kept his promise to stop the persecution of Catholics) and in the ensuing chaos place a more Catholic friendly royal on the throne."
That Protestants persecuted Catholics (and others) is not in question. But the story is rather incomplete without a mention of the Catholic Queen Mary I -- "Bloody Mary" -- who put nearly 300 dissenters to the torch. Fawkes was a partisan in a religious conflict. (He was tortured, drawn, and quartered for his troubles.) He is for that reason a peculiar model.
I suspect that Fawkes was chosen for reasons other than his historical actions. Wikipedia claims that his name is the origin of the term "guy." A rhyme about Fawkes is used for the movie; it begins, "Remember, remember, the fifth of November." (That's the day when Fawkes was arrested in 1605.) And Guy Fawkes Night involves fireworks as well as the burning of Fawkes in effigy. Funny that Vendetta did not include these additional lines of the rhyme about Fawkes: "By God's providence he was catch'd... Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King! Hip hip hoorah!" (Nor does the film include these anti-Catholic lines: "A penny loaf to feed the Pope... A faggot of sticks to burn him. Burn him in a tub of tar. Burn him like a blazing star. Burn his body from his head.")
In other words, Fawkes was chosen not for the significance of his acts, but for the popularity of his name. Similarly, the film totally misrepresents the meaning of the first four lines of the rhyme, but it plays in with the "V" theme (as does Beethoven's Fifth).
The Wachowski brothers (who also wrote the Matrix trilogy) intentionally changed parts of the story in order to criticize George W. Bush. Wikipedia notes that, in the graphic novel, following a "limited nuclear war," "[a]n extreme right-wing fascist single-party state has arisen, called Norsefire, that maintains control of the country through food shortages (arising during the nuclear winter), government-controlled media, secret police, a planned economy, and concentration camps for racial and sexual minorities."
There are some subtle differences in the Wachowski account. For example, the U.S. is shown as having degenerated and encouraged international tyranny through its war-mongering ways. But the film blurs the distinction between legitimate self-defense and "democracy building." It also blurs the distinction between intelligent critiques of "democracy building" and pacifism. The film thus foresees a possible religious-fascist state within England, even as it ignores today's very real threat of Islamic totalitarianism.
In the movie, nuclear war is replaced with biological weapons. And the English fascists attack English citizens with biological weapons, then blame outside terrorists, in order to increase the power of the state. This is wildly implausible. However, the Wachowski brothers cannot be unaware of the conspiracy theories that blame Bush for allowing or enabling the 9/11 attacks.
Finally, in the movie, the fascists of the government, who also own a pharmaceutical company, get rich by selling the cure to the biological agents that they themselves unleashed. Again, this is wildly implausible. It also invokes the modern leftist bias against medical corporations. It is true that, in a mixed economy, government takes partial control of many businesses, and that's bad. But the modern left's vitriol against pharmaceuticals is wholly unfounded, the product of Marxist ideology.
V for Vendetta, then, is fundamentally a reactionary film, even though it also attacks another variant of reactionism. This is not surprising, given that the anarchist ideas in which Vendetta is rooted are reactionary. The idea of anarchism is that all that's necessary to create freedom is to smash the state. This is parallel to (and it flows from) Marx's idea that all that's needed for socialism to thrive is to smash the capitalist structures. (Stalin put the lie to Marx's dogma.) Similarly, the modern left (see Michael Moore) is obsessed with conspiracy theories. War for oil. Corporate media. All that's necessary to "grow democracy" is to take down the special interests. Of course, the left seeks to increase the power of the state and expand the centrally "planned economy." The fact that this will inexorably lead to the expansion of the very special-interest power the left claims to abhor is conveniently ignored by the left.
Smashing the state does not achieve freedom. Nor does blowing up Parliament. The masses, left to their own devices, will not implement "freedom," unless the cultural preconditions for genuine freedom are present. The primary is ideology. The modern left remains mired in Marxist economic determinism. Ironically, V claims to express the power of ideas. Yet V, though eloquent at pointing out the problems with the current regime, expresses no positive ideas for how society should be organized. His idea is "freedom" in a vacuum. Not surprisingly, Vendetta blurs the line between terrorist and freedom fighter.
As much as anyone John Locke was the father of the American Revolution. America's founders lived and breathed the Lockean principles of limited government and individual rights (as based on property rights). The French Revolution was a somewhat messier affair. The father of the French Revolution was Rousseau. And Rousseau is also the spiritual father of V.
For V, there is no such thing as coincidence. This a recipe for conspiracy theories run wild. Of course there is such as thing as coincidence -- and the point of science and inductive logic is to distinguish between events that are coincidental and events that are causally connected. But who needs logic when we have the psychobabbling Wachowski brothers?
While the movie does not follow the graphic novel on this point, I thought the detail reveals the basic nature of Vendetta fairly nicely. Wikipedia notes that, in the original story, Finch, the detective tracking V, "travels to the abandoned site of Larkhill... where he takes LSD. His hallucinations lead him to an intuitive understanding of V..." Because who needs logic when we have LSD to help us see how coincidences are related?
For V, a lie can reveal the truth. Thus V lies to Evey as he tortures her. V thereby blurs the distinction between the creativity of fiction -- which is clearly marked as such -- and dishonesty as a means to pursue ends. (Lying to tyrants is a different issue.)
For V (at least in the movie), the masses must be motivated by symbols, such as the symbol of blowing up the Parliament building. Never mind motivating people by the right philosophy.
Yes, the rise of religious statism -- both at home and abroad -- poses a serious threat to our liberties and safety. But just as serious a threat are the anarchism and socialism of the left. Replacing the tyranny of religious fanatics with the tyranny of collectivism is hardly an improvement. Similarly, the Communists and the Nazis were (finally) mortal enemies, but they shared a similar world view and style of tyrannical governance. Ultimately, the "freedom" offered by V for Vendetta is not the freedom of individual rights as protected by Constitutional government and an Enlightenment culture (though the movie implicitly maintains significant remnants of these things). It is the "freedom" of whim, and therefore ultimately the "freedom" of mass hysteria and collective enslavement. To the extent that other figures in Vendetta are and act better than that, it is because they cling to a better tradition of ideas than what V offers.