Monday, May 20, 2019
Game of Thrones and the Nazi Punching Problem
I suspect that people are really just mad that the ending didn't come out like they wanted. Case in point is how many people are furious about the treatment of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen. The end of the series revealed her as a dangerous, violent megalomaniac, and thousands complained that this was simply not justified by her character arc. "You don't get to do this!" someone wailed on Slate. "You didn't do the work!"
Every time I read this I think, you obviously don't know what dangerous, violent megalomania looks like.
It does not look – most of the time, anyway – like people storming around being bad for the sake of badness. It looks like people fooling themselves into believing that all of their actions are justified, all of their enemies are evil, and all of their victims deserve it.
Like, in other words, Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys kills thousands over the course of her rise to power. Most of them, it is true, are either bad people or soldiers in the pay of bad people. But really no person with a conscience should revel in killing, and you should be intensely suspicious of anybody who does. In one famous scene, Daenerys makes a deal with a slave master, trading one of her dragons for an army of slave soldiers. Then she has her new army kill the slaver's men and orders the dragon – which, despite being sold, is still loyal to her – to burn him alive. Cue cheering.
This brings me to what I call the Nazi Punching Problem. Millions of Americans cheered when some guy walked up to Richard Spencer on the street and punched him in the face, then laughed when establishment fuddy-duddies like me said, you know, there are reasons why we don't encourage punching our political opponents in the face. But there are. Civilization doesn't depend everybody being good all the time; that's impossible, Civilization depends on people following the rules. Because if we throw the rules out, it won't be the good people who win, it will be the powerful, the rich, and the ones with the biggest guns.
There are reasons why we don't encourage people who have made deals with wicked people to then double cross them and burn them alive.
This is of course a very broad problem with our popular culture and has been for thousands of years. We love stories in which the good guys throw out the rules and gun down the bad guys in cold blood, in which bold rebels smash the system so the world can be rebuilt in a more pure and beautiful way.
But George Martin, devotee of sado-masochism at a disturbing level, is a deep student of the darkness that lurks in all of our hearts. He constructed Daenerys as a modern revolutionary messiah: a survivor of horrible abuse, a hater of injustice, a liberator of slaves, a slayer of tyrants. He well understands how these things tug at our hears. But for the very reason they appeal to us so strongly, they are supremely dangerous.
Game of Thrones ends with a parable about violence and utopia like the ones written by so many liberals in 1945. If you believe that you are working for paradise, then surely it is worth burning a few cities to get there? Daenerys believes she is fated to lead the world to paradise. That makes her the most dangerous kind of person, but also in a certain way the most appealing. If we had faith, would we not follow her? If we do not believe in the future she promises, what do we believe in? If we do not believe that burning cities may somehow lead us to a better future, then why do cities keep burning?
Contrast her with the story's other transcendent star, singled out by fate for greatness: Jon Snow. Jon has been mocked for years by fans (including me) for his constant brooding, his reluctance to find joy in life, and his indecision at crucial moments. But really this is because he, unlike Daenerys, cannot escape the consequences of what he does. Born into an aristocratic family in the violent borderlands of a violent age, he cannot escape becoming a soldier. Indeed he has a natural gift for it and is soon celebrated as both a great warrior and a great leader of men. But he cannot forget all those he kills, and all his followers who die. Eventually he ends up in a sort of civil war and has to kill many of his former friends. This wounds him nearly to death. And this makes him, as the story shows, a questionable choice for leadership in violent times. He at least is convinced that he would be a terrible king. But if the Jon Snows of the world are too sad and indecisive for leadership, and the Daenerys Targaryens are too dangerous, where does that leave us?
Mired in the ordinary. Where life, outside stories, is lived.
It the problem were just a few street brawls with Nazis, then our fondness for bold rule breaking would hardly be a big deal. But the desire to "break the wheel," as Game of Thrones puts it, is close to universal and has led to far, far worse. It has been the battle cry of every modern revolutionary. It inspired George W. Bush and the people around him to invade Iraq, sure that if they overthrew Saddam something far better would rise from the rubble. At the dark end it inspired Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to genocide.
From the wreckage of World War II and the terror of the Cold War we should have learned this: killing and burning are not the way to a better future. Smashing our enemies, either with bombs or our fists, is not the way. If the modern dream is true, if our science and our machines and our devotion to freedom can truly make a better world for us, then it will come gradually and painfully, or it will not come at all. If a messiah arises who promises to smash the wicked and create a better world all at once, walk swiftly in the other direction.