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V for Vendetta

Floris van den Berg watches The Open Society and its Enemies, the movie.

“Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human.”

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies.

Is the liberal democratic welfare state the end of history, as was famously claimed by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History? Are war and suppression of civil rights something of the past, or at least something far away abroad? Will our children and their children continue to live their lives in peace, freedom and comfort?

Having been born in the Netherlands in 1973, for me war is something either from the past or something far away. But having studied some history, including Jonathan Glover’s depressing Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999), and reading the daily news, I am not so optimistic anymore. In the post-WW2 West, especially since the end of the Cold War in 1989, we have reached a relative utopia, enjoying comfort, welfare and the freedom of the individual. But how long will it last?

Even disregarding looming environmental disasters and the current credit crunch, I’m afraid that it won’t last forever. Peace and widespread individual freedom, health and welfare are exceptional in history. Of course, I do hope I’m wrong, so we must do our utmost to uphold the open, free society in good and (more difficult) in bad times – such as when we are under attack from, or at least threatened by, terrorism.

In 1944 Karl Popper published his two volume book The Open Society and Its Enemies. An open society is one which facilitates individual freedom of expression and action. Although it was written during World War II, Popper did not mention Nazism and fascism directly. Instead he investigated the ideas which lead to totalitarianism, which means a closed society, where freedom of expression is suppressed. The enemies Popper discusses in his books are not Hitler and Mussolini (and one can make a much longer list of 20th century dictators with totalitarian ambitions), but three philosophers: Plato, Hegel and Marx. According to Popper these philosophers paved the way for totalitarianism by opposing democracy and individual freedom.

Popper points out the dangerous, dehumanising thinking which lies behind oppressive governments. According to Popper, a closed society “resembles a herd or a tribe in being a semi-organic unit whose members are held together by semi-biological ties – kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress… And although such a society may be based on slavery, the presence of slaves need not create a fundamentally different problem from that of domesticated animals.”

Totalitarianism on Film

Studying history and hypothetical worst-case scenarios can strengthen the case for the open society. If viewed with philosophical spectacles, a film like V for Vendetta (2005) can also stimulate reflection on the preciousness of an open society and individual freedom. And it is much better to watch a movie than to have to experience a totalitarian, closed society for real.

Based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, V for Vendetta is set in Britain in 2020, when liberal democracy has given way to a fascist totalitarian society led by ‘Chancellor’ Adam Sutler of the ‘Norsefire’ regime. Due to apparent acts of bioterrorism, which have caused tens of thousands of casualties, the Norsefire party has gained power by election, by blaming religious extremists for the terror. Like Hitler when he seized power, a strong man has restored order by authoritarian means, and the people have traded their freedom for security – rather as described in Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). Individual liberty is severely curtailed, and cameras and secret police are watching citizens. Censorship, curfews and paternalism have changed an open society into a closed one, resembling the world of George Orwell’s 1984 just as all totalitarian societies resemble each other. Technology and the media are used to control the actions and thoughts of the citizens, to make the public into a obedient, thoughtless crowd who don’t even see that there’s anything wrong in the way they live. Big Brother is still watching – and not only watching, Big Brother uses violence as well, in many ways.

The bioterrorist attacks in the movie turn out to have been perpetrated by people from Norsefire itself, who deliberately created a lethal virus, using humans for their experiments, then became rich and powerful by selling the antidote. This plot twist echoes the many conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks, blaming the CIA or Mossad, and claiming that the motive was to justify limiting individual freedom and extending state power. In some ways Bush may indeed resemble Chancellor Sutler, in limiting individual freedoms and promoting and abusing nationalism. Of course, while Adam Sutler is in effect a dictator, Bush was bound by a democratic parliament and the Bill of Rights, but his administration did use torture and ‘extra legal’ imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. The resemblance is a matter of degree: in the movie there is hardly any individual freedom, whereas the present-day US and UK governments limit individual freedom somewhat, but it’s still there. The philosopher A.C. Grayling warns in his pamphlet In Freedom’s Name: The Case Against Identity Cards against limiting liberties in response to the fear of terrorism: “Our government seeks to protect us from crime, terror and illegal immigration by restricting our liberties, and creating expensive new inconveniences. That is a very bad exchange, and an unnecessary and short-sighted admission of defeat.”

The medical experimentation on humans in the film reminds me of the experiments by Mengele, and similar cruel Japanese experiments in Manchuria in the 1930s and 40s. When the horror laboratory in the film mysteriously explodes, experimental subject ‘V’ (that’s the number on his cell door) escapes. V (Hugo Weaving) is one of the few people who are resistant to the lethal virus, and he has enhanced physical and mental powers. This is where the science fiction begins. V has become superhuman, and he takes up the role of a superhero. Due to the fire he is severely burnt, and he masks his face.

Society under the Norsefire regime is typical of totalitarian states: the secret police is the executive arm of Big Brother, and the media is under state control and is used for propaganda purposes. The Norsefire regime has a socially conservative agenda: the church enjoys the patronage of the state, like the Vatican under Mussolini. Homosexuality is forbidden and actively suppressed. Freedom of art and expression are taboo as in any closed, oppressive society. In his underground hiding-place, V has a Library of Forbidden Books and a Museum of Forbidden Art.

There actually is a Virtual Museum of Offensive Art on the internet (verlichtingshumanisten.web-log.nl/museum_kwetsende_kunst). This exhibits art works which have been censored, or which have been called to be censored, or which some people find offensive. In a closed society, such works would be forbidden. It is therefore a worrying portent that due to public calls for censorship, our museums have begun to censor themselves. It is crucial that in an open society there is freedom of expression, even when offensive to some.

Freedom of expression also entails the freedom to criticize and satirize political leaders. In the film Deitrich (played by Stephen Fry) uses his popular talk show to satirize Chancellor Sutler. As a consequence he is seized from his home and ‘disappears’ – the fate of many peaceful opponents of dictators, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. The question I kept asking was why do they do it, knowing what the likely result of their actions will be?

Resistance and Vendetta

What is permissible when opposing oppression? When is assassination or terrorism justified? The film explores many such questions without fully answering them. The mask chosen by V is the face of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic rebel who on November 5th 1605 tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London to end the reign of James I, who suppressed the Catholics. Fawkes was publicly executed. Guy Fawkes Night is still marked by fireworks and bonfires in the UK and some other Commonwealth countries.

V takes up where Guy Fawkes failed. He is a lonely, single-minded resistance fighter who wants to take revenge on those who tortured him and the other experiment victims. In his personal vendetta he kills all his torturers. Secondly, he wants to overthrow the fascist regime to restore freedom. So he plans to blow up the Houses of Parlia ment on the night of November 5th, hoping to spark an uprising.

It is understandable that V wants vengeance for what has been done to him. He’s taking justice into his own hands in a very unjust society. There are many other instances where victims of torture take revenge. In The Return of the Dancing Master (2000), Swedish detective writer Henning Mankell tells the story of a victim of Nazi cruelty who takes revenge decades after the war. These kinds of revenge, though judicially wrong, are morally understandable. Who would think it unjust if Mengele was killed by one of his victims? Or if someone had murdered Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin or Himmler? But it would be wrong for someone to kill Blair or Bush. Not only are Blair and Bush not moral monsters of the same calibre, more importantly, they have been democratically chosen (although this is somewhat ambiguous in the case of Bush!). In a democracy the state has the monopoly on violence, but only in order to protect people, not to suppress them. The murder of Pim Fortuyn, who ran for President in the Netherlands, was very wrong. However, the murderer, Folkert van der Graaf, thinks of himself as a freedom fighter who did the necessary thing to prevent a dictatorship.

V finds an ally in Evey (Natalie Portman), but finally goes off limits in what he does to her, or so it seems. Evey, a young woman whose parents were killed by the regime, saves V during one of his ‘terrorist’ actions, just as he saved her when she was being molested by the secret police on the street after curfew. Yet Evey still doubts whether it’s a good idea to oppose the oppressive regime. She does not want to be in or to cause trouble. She is afraid. Without her knowing that it’s him, V submits her to cruel treatment, including torture. Evey thinks this is done to her by the state. When she refuses to reveal the whereabouts of V even when threatened with execution, she is finally released, and finds herself in V’s lair. Regardless of her anger, V has succeeded in making Evey fearless. In the end – when V has died in combat – it is Evey who finishes V’s project, by pulling the lever which leads to the blowing up of the Houses of Parliament. Because V has killed the top party members, there’s no one to give orders to the army who are on standby to suppress the subsequent uprising. And this is where the regime falls, and the film ends.

Open Questions

One can wonder: if society is safe and there is welfare, why worry about a lack of freedom? The real question is: what is utopia? What is the best possible society? Can it be a secure, well-ordered yet non-democratic society, or is it necessarily an open society? In times of social unrest and uncertainty there are people who call for a strong leader and who are also prepared to accept limitations on their freedom. Such people might prefer Sutler’s Norsefire regime to an open, democratic society. Is there an objective criterion one could use to make a moral evaluation of forms of government? Yes, there is. Following the philosopher John Rawls, imagine yourself in the worst position in the society you want to evaluate. Is it an equitable position? If so, the society is at least morally viable. But in a totalitarian society everyone who opposes the state or who does or is something those in power disapprove of can be a victim of the state’s terror and torture. Thus, in a totalitarian society there are many victims: many individuals are unjustly limited in the scope of how they can live their lives.

On the other hand, in an open society there are no such victims – ideally. Well, people who oppose liberal values, such as some extreme neoconservatives and religious fanatics, might consider themselves victims. However, logically, individual liberty must have limits, for as Locke told us, the freedom of any individual is limited by the freedom of every other individual. Yet in a liberal society, the ethical maxim is ‘anything goes, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody’ – while in a totalitarian society, the ethical maxim is ‘nothing is allowed except what’s in line with the ideology of those in power’. So, an open society in which individual liberty is the core value, is morally superior to societies which suppress the individual.

But someone might respond – if a fully open society cannot cope with acts of terrorism, wouldn’t it then be better to barter (some) freedom for security?

Well, no! The problem here is, if an open society closes itself by limiting individual freedom, it gives in to what the acts of terrorism are about – a protest against the open, liberal society! So authoritarian counter-measures against terrorism make terrorism win. It would be much better not to give in to the terrorists by not limiting individual liberty. There will be some higher risk of terrorist attacks, and police and the intelligence services should do their utmost to prevent this – but this higher risk is the price of freedom. In a liberal society it is harder to fight terrorism and crime than in a totalitarian society because of limitations on the methods which can legally be used. For example, if security forces know a terrorist is hiding in a house with civilians, a totalitarian government could blow up the house with impunity, killing both the terrorist and the innocent civilians. In an liberal society this is impossible, and justly so. Consider this analogy: thousands of people die in traffic accidents, and many more are injured every year. So wouldn’t it be best to forbid automobiles? Of course not. A liberal government should take action to limit traffic accidents; but it cannot stamp out these accidents by stamping out automobile use. Accidents are, so to speak, the price of our freedom to roam freely. So, just as private transportation should not be forbidden (only regulated by safety measures), so too privacy and freedom of expression should not be limited (only regulating against incitement to hate and harm). Another analogy: a person who wants to limit individual liberty to make society safer is like a surgeon who cuts off a leg to get rid of athlete’s foot.

© Floris Van Den Berg 2009

Floris van den Berg is co-executive director of the humanist think tank Center for Inquiry Low Countries. florisvandenberg@dds.nl

V for Vendetta (Warner Bros, 2005) Directed by James McTeigue; produced by Joel Silver & the Wachowski Brothers. Starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving.

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