Thursday, August 03, 2006

V for Vendetta: a libertarian movie?

The question has been asked, is "V for Vendetta" a libertarian movie? (For other people's opinions, see the responses to the March 16-17 blog entries on the subject at

Yes, there are certainly libertarian themes in this filmic rendition of a graphic novel written in the 1980s. Any piece of fiction that features a one-man tirade against an oppressive government cannot be utterly devoid of libertarian thought.

But as surely as many libertarians will enjoy "Vendetta," others will reject major elements of the story, saying the main character is too strongly bent on destruction to be considered libertarian. The hero — the titular V — is a rebel who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and who believes he can spark a revolution in near-future England by blowing up Parliament, thus completing the task the original Fawkes failed to accomplish back in the 17th Century.

In the movie (I haven't read the book and cannot comment as to the movie's adherence to the original), England is under the control of a fascist government led by one Chancellor Sutler.

The chancellor took power in England after "America's war grew worse and worse, and eventually came to London," according to a journal found in a prison cell. The government cracked down on all who didn't adequately fit into its ideal society, persecuting homosexuals, immigrants, and Muslims — as well as anyone who simply protested against the growing power of the government.

Under the new government, telephone calls and electronic messages are monitored (sound familiar?), there are surveillance cameras everywhere (more familiarity?), and the police are allowed to persecute, kidnap and interrogate suspected dissidents without recourse to the courts.

It's impossible to watch this film and not come to the conclusion that the depicted government is a reflection of our own.

And that's where the problematic material arises: V has understandably become weary of seeing his country destroyed by its government and has decided to take action. He considers himself the "equal and opposite reaction" expected to any action in the natural world: The government acted violently toward himself and multitudes of others. And as part of the equation, he has no choice but to respond in kind.

"Violence can be used for good," he says.

Language like that is bound to perturb those who believe the libertarian prohibition against the initiation of force means that no libertarian should take up arms against his or her government. Of course, it would cause no such qualms for this nation's founders, who obviously believed that an armed response is appropriate when provoked.

In many ways V is like the Phantom of the Opera (he lives in a sumptuous subterranean lair, commits mayhem on his opponents, wears a mask and takes a beautiful young woman as unwilling protйgй) and as with that phantom, the audience is often uncertain whether to sympathize or to be appalled.

Chancellor Sutler and other governmental types refer to V and those like him as "terrorists," telling the people that the terrorists are an enemy that "seeks to divide us," so the citizens must remain unified under the government, determined to oppose the dissidents.

As the saying goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. The question is, which is V? After all, he plots to use a massive fertilizer bomb to destroy government buildings, drawing an uncomfortable comparison to Timothy McVeigh.

The depicted government has murdered tens of thousands and is systematically committing psychological murder on the rest of the English people. Does V, then, have a right to retaliate? The moviemakers leave us to assume he does, but there is tremendous moral ambiguity in their hero's treatment of both his enemies and his friends. In the interests of not spoiling the movie, that's all I'll say.

But if there's one thing libertarianism is not, it's morally ambiguous.

In the end, I would say "V for Vendetta" certainly has libertarian themes, primarily in its celebration of opposition to an oppressive government. And the film is certain to encourage any thoughtful viewer to contemplate how far we have traveled on the path to complete government control. But I wouldn't go further than that.

If you haven't already done so, watch this movie.

As V tells the young woman with whom he has a conflicted relationship, "I promise you it will be like nothing you've ever seen, and afterwards you'll return home safely."

- Published in the April 2006 issue of LP News -

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