Game of Thrones: The Power of Weakness

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never watched the show, but plan on doing it, this has spoilers. If you’re more or less up-to-date, yet haven’t seen the last few episodes, it doesn’t give anything away].

On Game of Thrones, penile amputation has the perhaps unanticipated effect of making characters into better men. (Or is that actually the expected effect?)  Theon Greyjoy begins his career as a raider and murderer, specializing in pillage and the betrayal of close family friends; after prolonged torture and the severance of his male member, he lands, rather flat-footedly, on the Good Guys’ team. Redemption is possible on the continent of Westeros—but (to understate it) at a price. In the words of Yeats, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

Varys, professional whisperer in corridors, underwent the same thoroughly unpleasant ordeal as a child, making him into a eunuch, and hence, into another one of the Good Guys—though an infinitely more articulate one than Theon. Withdrawn from the field of sexual combat, he’s able to see situations with clarity and empathy; he’s grown rigorously detached, thanks to that initial, cruelly physical detachment.  Again, Tyrion Lannister has a brush with the fate-worse-than-death: he momentarily falls into the hands of slave traders who threaten to divide him from his better half, but decide to wait until they can find a “cock merchant.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to become a genuinely nice person on this show without having endured a physically or psychologically scarring trauma. The heroes are all maligned and beset outsiders—Tyrion is a dwarf, John Snow is of illegitimate birth, Daenerys is initially a powerless outcast forced into an unwanted marriage, Sansa and Arya undergo their own endless gauntlets of humiliation and pain… Even Jaime Lannister became relatively more sympathetic after he lost his hand.  Cersei, the most repugnant villain of all (well, next to Ramsay Bolton… God, this show has a huge cast…) has just undergone her own Walk of Shame, though I’m not sure it will have any serious long-term effect on her personality.

Conversely, Good Guys who haven’t been sufficiently traumatized or maimed fail to survive: Ned Stark is decapitated, and Catherine Stark and Robb Stark get murdered at the “Red Wedding.” Suffering creates depth, and the hoary adage, “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” is proved over and over again on Thrones. By contrast, the rich and powerful are surrounded by an aura of intimidating earthly glory—yet, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of walking appetites. Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Ramsay… all are (or, in Tywin’s case, were) evil in complicated ways, but remain fundamentally shallow. The only characters who can conceive of a situation in total, who have minds that engage with subjects more absorbing than predatory self-interest, are people like John Snow. Snow senses the crucial imperative of uniting with the Wildlings in order to defeat the White Walkers, because his woundedness and outsider status allow him to see the world with awakened eyes.

(As a side-note: when you type words like “Wildlings” and “White Walkers” in rapid succession, you realize how, despite it’s widespread popularity, Game of Thrones is still fundamentally an intense nerd-fest. Yet, it’s escaped the fate of catering exclusively to the Comic Con crowd. Credit, of course, copious nudity for the show’s—ahem—enlargement of its viewership. According to the New York Times, even President Obama watches it—though the same article described Thrones as a brutal recreation of “the wars of medieval Europe,” which it is not.)

Beyond the inducements of titillating brothel sequences, the show’s storytelling strength comes from this narrative of weakness as a paradoxical source of strength. The more terrible things befall Tyrion and Snow and Sansa, the greater the ultimate payoff will be when and if they finally succeed.  At this point, we watch the show expecting to see our hopes for the heroes get thwarted: the record of misfortunes lengthens and lengthens, making the feat of finally steering the survivors to a reasonably satisfying denouement all the more daunting and therefore exciting to anticipate. We quite naturally want to see the apparently weak, yet more resourceful people triumph, but we don’t want this to be easy. We want the resilience they’ve gained to matter, to help drive the story to some sort of happy-ish ending in which the Good Guys finally gain power.

Yet the course of the show strongly implies that power itself may be the problem. When Daenerys takes over Mereen (and, yes—these damned fantasy names do make one feel slightly ridiculous as one types one’s semi-earnest think-piece) she discovers that wielding power is full of dialectical contradictions: if you reign with too much justice and not enough mercy, you spark discontent, and if you reign with laxity, you fall prey to the designs of the craftily unjust.

That’s why The Lord of the Rings has the greatest ending of any fantasy novel. As W.H. Auden observed, the conclusion to the Rings trilogy beats out both the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost in its depiction of how ultimate Good ought to defeat ultimate Evil. In Revelation and Milton’s work, God crushes Satan through superior firepower—which is a little disconcerting, since it implies that the difference between Deity and Devil is not so much a moral difference, as it is a matter of having the biggest guns on your side. The Lord of the Rings gives us epic battle sequences as well, but they’re ultimately a sideshow to the main event: the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom. The Good Guys, Frodo and Sam, defeat Evil by refusing to meet it on its own terms—instead of using the ring to enhance their own power (transforming humble Hobbits into future Saurons, or, less magnificently, future Gollums), they renounce it, and destroy the very object that embodies power.

If the world worked differently, this is what we wish the Good Guys could always do—and it’s what some universally admired heroes (Gandhi, King, Mandela) actually, in a sense, did. They used apparent powerlessness as a paradoxical source of power: their voices were amplified by imprisonment and persecution, not stifled. But, unfortunately, these tactics don’t work in all circumstances: if Gandhi had tried to resist Hitler with non-violence, he would’ve been killed before he’d gained any followers.  The continent of Westeros seems like another place where violence can’t be renounced in order to purchase victory.  It’s a less High Romantic locale than Middle Earth, and the possibility of a fully harmonious conclusion is a bit uncertain.

Perhaps the Good Guys will manage to balance pragmatism and idealism, get their hands on some superior firepower (dragons) and learn how to use it in an effective way, winning single-payer healthcare and free-tuition at public universities for the masses of Westeros. But maybe, given all the mysterious stuff going down with Bran and the Children of the Forest (again, the mild sense of ridiculousness intrudes as I type…) the possibility of pulling the same sort of trick as Frodo and Sam will come to light. It’s possible that, in the words of Dylan, they’ll be able to miraculously, “win the war after losing every battle.”


“Support for a Pro-Redneck Presidency”

by Sam Buntz

First of all, discussing a presidential election two years ahead of time is pretty distasteful. But, it’s happening, so you might as well go with it… Personally, I’ve been wrestling with my own political orientation: I understand what my ideals are, but I have trouble fitting them into concrete political realities or determining where they fit into party narratives. But, to my troubled mind, there is one particular, potential candidate in the tentative 2016 field who stands out: former Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. I like Webb not only because he’s written more books than many of his colleagues have read, but because he understands the working class; and by “the working class” I don’t just mean black people or white people or Hispanic people—I mean the whole working class. This is really important.

Liberals and conservatives have both been playing on racial and gender divisions at the expense of the actual economic fault lines: it’s easier to motivate people by playing off fears related to personal markers of identity, than by appealing to the real issues. This is mainly because it’s difficult to deliver on economic promises—especially when you don’t intend on keeping them. For instance, for supposedly liberal candidates, it’s easier to motivate young people by getting them stirred up about contraception coverage than by promising to stop imprisoning them in student debt—preying on the young in order fund cheap meds for the affluent elderly. The Obama Administration and Republican House have both totally failed to reduce student debt in an even slightly impactful manner, demonstrating that they’re completely concerned with padding special interests in the present moment, and not with protecting the future of America. I’ve seen too many liberal friends and acquaintances mock rednecks and Appalachian hill-billies for being gun-toting right-wing loons, when, in reality—and I say this as someone who’s spent a good amount of my life hanging out with working class people from the Rust Belt, where I’m from—rednecks and hill-billies frequently understand these basic, populist economic ideas far better than the Cambridge and Berkeley crowd ever will or can. The mockers and  snark-meisters can sniff at “white trash” in disdain before returning to their Pinot Noir.

But a Vietnam War Vet from Missouri, like Webb, isn’t ashamed of where he comes from. He understands the “cultural journey” of people from places like Appalachia, Northeastern Pennsylvania (my birthplace), the Deep South, and urban Chicago and Detroit, in a way no other Democratic or Republican prospective presidential candidates really can. He gets that the working class, regardless of race, really wants one thing: work that matters (and pays fairly).

A decent amount of liberals—including, I think, President Obama—don’t really understand that meaningful work is the lever: you’ve got to press it. I recall Obama saying that it would be great if everyone in America could get a college education—indicating the bias of the San Franciscan-style mentality. We’re never going to have that sort of upper-middle-class pipe dream, nor should we. Liberals who imagine that we can ditch our manufacturing base, and completely abandon professions like coal mining (without damaging the working class in a starkly regressive way), while gradually transitioning the American economy into being focused on information technology and services, are kidding themselves. Fuel and force are still at the basis of everything—the power that moves. People like Hilary Clinton and Obama just don’t get this. Neither do fantasist op-ed writers and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman. But Webb clearly does (his well-received official response to Bush’s State of the Union in 2007 proves it.)

One other thing: I’m fairly sick of candidates who feel entitled to be President. I think that’s pretty obviously the way George W. felt, and it seems to be the way Hillary Clinton feels: It’s her turn… It’s time… Isn’t it? But it’s not up to a bunch of PACs to tell us that—and wouldn’t it be nice to throw a wrench in the whole complacent business? We have yet to see if Webb will actually run, of course, but I, for one, would welcome it as a refreshing change of pace: also it would help prove that America is a democracy and not a pseudo-hereditary province, meant to be passed on or inherited.  The dude just gets it.

Of Blue Dogs and Orange Bookers

by Sam Buntz

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”   -John Stuart Mill

“Politics in America are too partisan”—people keep muttering this sentence.  It happens to be true, and has been true for a long time, but not in the sense in which the accusation is usually levied.  Let’s not forget that, a little less than two hundred years ago, a Vice President of the United States (Aaron Burr) murdered a former Treasurer of the United States in a duel (Alexander Hamilton).  Albeit, that was due to a personal insult, but still—you can’t find, between political rivals, many tactics more partisan than murder.  When people say that politics have become “too partisan” they are usually in the process of making a very partisan point.  They tend to be saying something like, “The Republican Party is infested with Tea Party gun nuts” or “The Democrats are, at this point, complete Bolsheviks.”

In reality, I think the big problem isn’t so much the intensity and ferocity of party politics, but the increasing dogmatism and the proliferation of un-imaginative viewpoints found on both sides of the isle.  The parties have hardened their ideologies into somewhat brittle shells. There are still some independent-minded politicians out there—including very influential ones—but they’re in the definite minority.  Consider the decline in the membership of the Blue Dog Democrats, representing the more fiscally restrained members of the party: their numbers declined from 54 in 2008 to 27 in 2010 to just 14 members after the 2012 elections.  The Republican equivalent, The Mainstreet Partnership, has about 50 members in the House and Senate—which is, albeit, a bit more.  But I don’t believe it’s a particularly daring coalition.  After all, John McCain—who perhaps used to belong in such a coalition—is a leading member, and his strident interventionism (recall his pledge to stay in Iraq for “100 years” if necessary) doesn’t strike me as particularly valuable or moderate.  If anything, it seems that the past decade has demonstrated that we need to seek “‘Peace through strength’, not ‘War through strength,’” as Rand Paul reminded the Republicans a little while ago (paraphrasing Reagan.)

The civil and economic libertarianism of a Senator like Paul seems to me to be a more interesting counter-force in politics.  The popularly repeated smear that he’s an “isolationist” doesn’t have much basis in fact—and those who insist on repeating it should read his address to the Heritage Foundation, “Containment and Radical Islam.”  Despite the superficial partisanship of many congressmen, the actual ideology of both parties seems to have, at least in terms of foreign policy and civil liberties, clotted into a widespread affirmation of state-control and aggression overseas.  McCain and Lindsey Graham represent the large right-wing hawk contingent, in favor of any war at any time, and eager to abuse the faith of those who feel obliged to serve America in her foreign conflicts (like the loyal, honest warrior class of the South).  Although his rhetoric is softer, Obama doesn’t differ too radically from the “Kill ’Em All” people, and only Senator Paul and his allies seem to have a foreign policy that differs in any way from that of the President and his Neo-Con semi-allies.  Nowhere are the principles of Classical Liberalism evident, except in the libertarian positions adopted by some.  Senator Paul convincingly points out that the Executive Branch has virtually hi-jacked the war-making power from congress, consulting the U.N. and NATO before joining in the attack on Libya, but never bothering to ask for the approval of the representatives of the American people.

Hopefully, this stasis—superficially partisan, but overall, in agreement on ceding a great deal of control to the state, and on resolving conflicts through a pre-emptive, aggression-first approach—can be broken.  It might be informative to look at groups like the Liberal Democrats in England, who tend to take more fiscally conservative positions than the Labor Party and more socially liberal views than the Tories.  This is outlined in The Orange Book, a set of essays by the party’s leaders from 2004, detailing their platform, distancing themselves from the left-wing economic policies of previous Lib Dems, while re- dedicating themselves to social and civil liberties.  It may be true that American politics needs an Orange Book of its own…