I know, it’s only rock and roll
But I like it…
Lo, these many years ago — decades, actually, which is disconcerting — my then-girlfriend became Very Upset because her science major roommates scorned her major in English literature. They considered their majors — and therefore themselves — Practical , Useful, and Important. An English major was, in their estimation, frivolous and decorative, and by implication, she was, too. She was at a loss as to how to respond to their sallies.
“Just tell ’em, ‘I know it’s only rock and roll — but I like it,’” said I.
Seems the young lady in question was looking for something a little more validating than “it’s only rock and roll.” I was going for Keith Richards-style insouciance and I guess I landed at “flippant and patronizing.” Story of my life. Ah, well. It could never have worked between us, darling…
As a liberal arts major myself — History, to be precise — I was familiar enough with the condescension of science types and business guys. I just never gave a shit about it. I pursued History because I like it, like it, yes I do…
Obtaining the signed-and-sealed parchment in History was a brief moment, and not the most significant one, in a lifelong pursuit. And as it turns out, the study has proved to be useful indeed. Many of the practical tools of the trade transfer into the field in which I make my living — but that’s the least of it. History has given me a framework within which to grapple with the human condition writ large, which is actually quite helpful when you’re living through tumultuous and downright bat-shit crazy times.
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
— attributed to Mark Twain
Alongside the newspaper gig and creating The Frontier Partisan Podcast, I’ve been indulging both my Anglophilia and my eternal fascination with the way societies break down and fall into revolution and civil war. The cataclysmic tumult of 17th Century England, Scotland and Ireland resonates powerfully with our current environment of plague, corrosive political and ideological division, social unrest and conspiracy. There is a distinct throughline from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to the English Civil Wars of 1642–1651. Those events would echo down a century and more to heavily influence North America’s plunge into our own First Civil War, aka The American Revolution. And here we are in 2020, not so very different from men who perceived their society as profoundly diseased — and in need of the sharp remedy of violent action.
Each case is particular, of course, and seeking on-the-nose evidence of “history repeating itself” will lead us astray. But, man, does it ever rhyme.
Had it succeeded, the Gunpowder Plot would have been one of the most audacious and destructive terrorist acts in the history of Western Civilization. It might well have altered the course of European history.
Chafing under the oppression of an aggressively Protestant English state, a small cadre of Catholic fanatics plotted to blow up the House of Parliament in Westminster, London, during the opening of the session on November 5, 1605. They were aiming for a decapitation strike to take out King James I, his lords ministers and the members of Parliament — including some Catholic members. Collateral damage. They would, after all, go to Heaven.
Such an act would be the equivalent of crashing a jet into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress for the State of the Union address.
Guy Fawkes, a Catholic soldier-of-fortune and explosives expert, was discovered just as he was set to touch off 36 barrels of gunpowder placed in a cellar directly under the House of Parliament. Under torture in the Tower of London, he revealed the plot and his co-conspirators, including the plot’s mastermind, a Catholic nobleman of ancient and distinguished lineage named Robert Catesby. Catesby and several fellow conspirators would go down most Western, in a scorching firefight with loyal militia at a safehouse at an English country estate.
An ocean of ink has been spilled on the Gunpowder Plot; this documentary offers an accurate, succinct and entertaining depiction of the events.
When my Angolphile daughter returns from college for her Christmas break, we plan to fire up the BBC/HBO miniseries Gunpowder. The series was heavily criticized for its graphic brutality and gore — which is rather amusing, for it would be virtually impossible to exaggerate the cruelty and brutality of the era. Seems that one should not try to sanitize that…
The resonance — the rhyme, if you will — that we can pick up from these 400-year-old events comes down to the passions of men. The Catholic minority in England labored under genuine repression throughout the reign of Elizabeth I. While they weren’t being slaughtered wholesale, practicing priests were subject under the penal laws to arrest and a gruesome execution. Ordinary Catholics were second-class citizens, fined for refusing to toe the Anglican line and always in danger, especially if their religious activities turned political. Catesby and his fellow plotters took genuine grievances — and the belief that King James I had betrayed the promise of toleration — and used them to justify what would have been a terrorist atrocity. For them, their Protestant oppressors were a disease upon the nation, and, in Catesby’s words:
“The nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.”
After years of war with Spain, the Protestant majority was in a constant state of paranoia about Popish plots to overthrow the Protestant faith and monarchy of England. The more hardline Protestants made a point of keeping the pot of the Catholic menace well-stirred. In reality, the vast majority of Catholics were not in the least inclined to rise in revolt — as Catesby discovered to his great and fatal dismay — but the very real existence of the Gunpowder Plot justified and fueled Protestant paranoia.
The fear that England could fall to Catholic intrigue would sharply amplify conflict between King and Parliament and ultimately plunge England into a catastrophic civil war in 1642. The whiff of Popery, real or not, would ultimately cost James’ son Charles I his head, and late in the century another King James would be run out of the country to prevent the ascension of a Catholic heir. The monarchy would be handed to an ardent Dutch Protestant, William III of Orange.
From the first, there were Gunpowder Plot truthers — those who believe that England’s Protestant spymaster Robert Cecil either set up a false flag operation using Catesby and his cohorts as dupes, or at minimum allowed the plot to develop in order to inflame anti-Catholic sentiment and harden King James against the minority.
It is not difficult to tease out parallels and lessons to be learned from this dramatic episode.
When ideological differences carry heavy freight of personal, cultural and natural identity, divides become unbridgeable chasms. When fellow countrymen can be regarded as a “disease,” zealots can justify the sharpest of “remedies” to rid themselves of said disease. When radicals commit extreme acts, even their most moderate co-ideologists are tarred with the same brush. Any Catholic must, ipso facto, be an extremist.
And, always, political opportunists will take advantage of strife and division to advance and enrich themselves.
It is very difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of a 17th Century Englishman, Scotsman or Irishman, for whom doctrinal differences that seem to modern eyes either purely theological or simply trivial were matters of life and death. But substitute any range of modern ideologies, any range of small hills upon which we are willing to draw swords and die, and the nature of our passions and their consequences comes into sharp focus.
As a lover of history, as a historical storyteller, I’m biased toward a belief that such knowledge can benefit us, can help us steer a better path. Yet, one of the lessons of history is that no one takes the lessons of history, for, as Dueña Alfonsa tells John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:
“It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.”
Maybe so. Maybe it really is only rock & roll. But I like it.