Remember, remember the 5th of November

By Lorenzo

The evening of the 5th of November just gone, I did what I have done for the last several years. I participated in the Wizard Charlie’s Guy Fawkes Night celebration. The bonfire was in a portable bbq and the guy that was burnt was small enough to fit therein. But there were sparklers and things that went bang. There was also holding hands in a circle and moving counter-clockwise, then clockwise, then counter-clockwise, chanting each time:

Remember, remember,
the 5th of November
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason,
why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Followed by a rousing chorus of “God Save the Queen!”

Up until the repeal of the Observance of 5th November Act in 1859, observance of an annual day of thanksgiving, leading to what is colloquially known as Guy Fawkes Night, was compulsory in England and Wales.

In societies before the invention of gas and electric lighting, bonfire nights were inherently special, since one had heat and light for serious evening socialising. Bonfire nights were originally bone-fire nights, the night when the bones were burnt, and the ashes from the bone-fire made particularly good fertiliser. (Modern blood-and-bone works on the same principle.)  So bone-fire celebrations were much older than Guy Fawkes Night.


The new (to the Kingdom of England) Stuart dynasty–however legal and peaceful its accession–obviously had good reason to seek to be the focus of patriotic celebration. Moreover, the Spanish Armada, and various plots against the life and throne of the late Queen Elizabeth, were still very much part of  living memory. Since these had been Catholic plots, the question of whether local Catholics were loyal or not was a live one–especially after Pope Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis in 1570.

So the Protestant establishment also had good reason to encourage rituals of popular support. The burning of guys of hated figures, providing cathartic rituals of bonding-through-shared-contempt, was very much in this spirit. Orwell’s notion of the Two Minute Hate and Hate Week was not dredged out of nothing; though what made the public ritual of Guy Fawkes Night particularly effective was precisely the lack of central coordination. Of course, it also made it an opportunity to focus on, and express, shared hatreds. Ritual of togetherness can easily become rituals of rejection and othering.

Over time, Guy Fawkes Night lost its specifically anti-Catholic element; especially as the political salience of religion lessened. More recent increases in the political salience of religion are much less about differences between Christian denominations.

Religion and torture redux

The rise in the political salience of Islam has, however, returned us to some of the conditions that applied in the C16th and C17th. Churchill says somewhere that further back you look, the further forward you can see. It is no accident that torture–long believed to be thoroughly and permanently abandoned as an explicit instrument of public policy (read the relevant House of Lords decision on the issue; the subtext of which is very clearly “this matter was resolved in the C17th, why are folk even darkening our doorstep with such a matter?”)–has become once against a live issue.

Torture was used in the C16th and C17th in England to deal with the urgent question of whether local Catholics were loyal or not. The issue of whether local Muslims are law-abiding or jihadi supporters is also very much a live issue, with technological horrors replacing the fears of local rebellion and foreign invasion. (Said foreign invasion being specifically Catholic invasion; invasion by approved Protestant claimant to the English throne with hubby’s Dutch army in tow proved to be perfectly acceptable.)

Dealing with the issue of people happy to mass murder for their conception of God’s will (which, after all, what Guy Fawkes was trying to do: the contemporary equivalent would have been attempting to crash the September 11 planes into the Capitol building during the State of the Union address) is complicated by internal Western conflicts about how to think about our own societies, immigrants and foreign cultures.

This is particularly obvious if one compares, for example, typical “progressive” attitudes to conservative Christians within the West to “progressive” reactions to jihadi violence. Conservative Christians are expected to “get with the program” of social change and treated with withering contempt when they resist. There is no attempt to “understand” where they are coming from.

The common “progressive” reaction to jihadi violence (which, after all, actually involves recurring acts of mass murder) is to seek to “understand” why they are doing what they are doing and identify ways in which it is really the West’s fault (particularly, the US’s fault). The contrast is especially stark, as both conservative Christian resistance to social change (notably to queer emancipation) and jihadi violence ultimately have the same source–in the Battle for God; in senses of entitlement coming from belief that one is following the Will of the One God. Except, of course, the jihadis are much worse; they are engaging in recurring acts of mass murder to fulfill their sense of monotheist entitlement. If this double standard is not a case of expecting “white folk” to get with the moral program but “brown folk” not to be held up to such an exacting standard, it is hard to see what else it is.

That “progressive” politics often involves a fair bit of status-seeking, of moral vanity, is hardly news, however. Such status-seeking including feeling morally superior to their own societies (and especially to those who are patriotic about said societies).

It does, however, somewhat get in the way of seeing things clearly. In particular, it leads to a curious form of “Eurocentrism“, where “brown folk” are seen as causally subordinate to Westerners. That, for example, what the jihadis do is all about what Westerners have done. The West needs to get over itself with regard to jihadi violence, which is well within patterns of Islamic history that go back to the beginnings of Islam.

Reclaiming a night

So, celebrating Guy Fawkes Night is a rejection of vigilante homicide in the name of God. There is also virtue in reclaiming the celebration from any lingering taint of bigotry; in being inclusive rather than exclusive about its significance. The issue of whether Catholics can be patriotic has long since been answered in the affirmative. Even with contemporary struggles, by far the most common victims of jihadi violence are other Muslims. Giving the jihadis any sort of “free pass” is not respecting Muslims; it is treating them as moral children and Muslim victims as if they only count if one can blame the West.

Celebrating Guy Fawkes Night also acknowledges that Australia has a British past; a past of institutions and history, not genetic sequences, and that is something worth celebrating. To find other cultures quaint but your own passé is not cosmopolitan sophistication, it is the ultimate in provincial pretension.


  1. Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Guy Faulkes was a goon who led a mob of dissident catholics who ended on the pyre as in their funeral, The rotten boarding school I suffered at for five festering years, celebrated this burning orgy annually with an enormous fire 25 ft high, on top we burned the likeness of one of our less loved school masters. WNTS Nth Elmham in Norfolk. P/L.

  2. Mt ISa Miner
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I reckon these are well worth thinking about , good writing, even if no-one else wants to talk about it. I do but I got nothing. Sorry. I’m coming because it is important- more so for you lot in amongst it in Sydney and obvious o/s.

    But the big Q is for all of us now that the % are here and economics are getting shitty.

    Well. Lorenzo’s opened the bidding…

  3. Perth Miner
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Another great post Lorenzo. Do not know where the usual crowd of commenter’s have gone, but your past five have been crackers. Keep up the good though provoking work.

  4. derrida derider
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    That “progressive” politics often involves a fair bit of status-seeking, of moral vanity, is hardly news

    As distinct, of course, from the altruistism, self-denigration and moral uncertainty so typical of your tribal conservative. /sarcasm

    Look, the purpose of understanding jihadis is not to forgive them but to try and prevent future jihadis. And just as with their 16th and 17th century European counterparts, their actions are explicable by their environment. In turn, both Western and Eastern greed and stupidity are part of that environment, and it’s legitmate to point out examples of such greed and stupidity.

    There’s altogether too much morality and too little consequentialism here.

  5. Posted November 15, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    the purpose of understanding jihadis is not to forgive them but to try and prevent future jihadis

    DD How does kidding to them and not holding them to task for actions you wouldn’t countenance amongst our own prevent future Jihaidis?

    As a whole the west is becoming a very very soft target. Potential adversaries are not!

  6. kvd
    Posted November 16, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    dd is right, and not the first to be questioned for trying to get in the mind of ‘the other’. I seem to remember that Helen Demidenko was similarly tainted by such inquiry. And what’s with the ‘quotes’ around progressive? Usually indicates disbelief in actuality; surely we are all past that: divergence of opinion exists.

    Anyway, I’m all in favour of any rhyming date which gets either (or both) ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ grown adults to dance around with sparklers instead of kalashnikovs. “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” is another example.

  7. Posted November 19, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I have recently moved house, so have no home internet for a few days.

    Thank you for the kind comments.

    [email protected] I have done enough posts criticising conservative mindsets, I really don’t think I have to tick that box if I was to criticise progressive mindsets (and vice versa).

    the purpose of understanding jihadis is not to forgive them but to try and prevent future jihadis.

    Two points. First of all, understanding is typically precisely not what is engaged in. Typically, there is precious little examination of Islamic history, the dynamics of Islamic thought, etc. Rather, there is zeroing in on those aspects of Western (particularly American) policy which they already dislike.

    And the contrast with the attitude to, say, conservative Christians opposing equal rights for queer folk is quite stark.

    Secondly, the point I was trying to make was to attempt to deflate Western arrogance, the belief that “we” create jihadis. Islam is a civilisation in its own rights, with its own dynamics. These need to be taken seriously. After all, US policy towards Latin America has not exactly been a barrel of joy, but Hispanics don’t (for example) fly planes into building to kill thousands of civilians.

    The issue of home-grown jihadis is more pertinent to the “how can we stop them being generated” question, but, again, understanding is precisely what is not being sought. The US clearly does much better than Europe at not generating home-grown jihadis. But looking at the whys seriously is typically sacrificed to the presumption that of course Europe does things better (i.e. more “progressively”) than the US.

    [email protected] I put “understand” and “progressive” in quotes, because i don’t think understanding is actually what is being sought and that they are not actually being notably progressive.

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