#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

This is very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in his own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Daenerys a Meereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills the Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good lucking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who is quite incapacitated at the moment, as he is sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die, and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their destiny.

Daenerys has always been violent, but not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. The wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be.

#43: “Worst Persons” in the World: Hate is the New Normal

I still remember Keith Olbermann’s sometimes ironic, sometimes dead-serious takedowns of politicians and people in the public eye. His show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBNC (2003-11) started, supposedly, as a parody of the style of Bill O’Reilly’s show “The O’Reilly Factor” (1996-2017), then on Fox News. While Olbermann never achieved the brilliance which Stephen Colbert displayed in his all-out O’Reilly parody on the “Colbert Report” (2005-14, sorely missed!), he perfectly captured the tone not just of his time, but even more so of the time we’re graced (or cursed?) to live in.

Olbermann’s key segment was called “The Worst Person in the World”, in which he provided a regular, and predictable, personality assassination on live television. If you had never heard of “argumentum ad hominem”, an argument directed at the person rather than the issue (“argumentum ad rem”), here it was, celebrated with gusto. It captured the time perfectly. The administration of George W. Bush, as it had to survive its rocky start after a contested election victory, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a frequent and convenient target. Olbermann, the perfect showman, seized the moment and provided regular attacks against the people who committed politics he did not agree with. This was something not seen before in such a drastic and caustic style, putting even O’Reilly (whose show I really did not care for) to shame. As an all-out celebration of vicious partisan commentary, the show was a success – but what may have then been a welcome outlier to some, seems to have become the norm now, not just in journalism but in everyday life. As a previous sports commentator, Olbermann seemed to have forgotten the saying that you may hate the game, but not the player.

(To not throw Olbermann under the bus completely: he also had moments of true profundity, and changed the discourse with his powerful defense of gay marriage by just stating, in its baffling and utterly revealing simplicity, that it is just about love, and the freedom to love who you want. He also calmed down the part of the nation that listened to him with endearing readings from James Thurber’s fables.)

But back to the point about argumentative style.

Everybody you don’t like is now the worst person in the world, everything you don’t like is the worst thing in the world, liking may exist, but disliking something or not caring for or about something is out. It’s either like it or hate it. Hate is the new normal, and declaring who you like or hate is expected in everyday discourse. At the same time, the idea of “liking something” has been turned into a consumerist and corporatist tool that has completely destroyed its original meaning. Can I really “like” a certain brand just as a “like” the comment somebody made?

This culture of constantly declaring your positionality is disturbing, as it removes all sense of productive ambiguity and expects everyone to blast out their opinion into the world every chance they get. Even more disturbingly, you are now supposed to have an opinion about everything, and are tied to this opinion forever. Maybe you liked brand A in the past, now you like brand B till something better comes along or you become nostalgic. Maybe you agreed with position X back then, now favor Y, and in the future tend to return to X or choose Z.

What happened to the idea of changing your mind? If information or societal circumstances change, should we not be allowed to adjust our positions? Is not an opinion something that should be a momentary snapshot of serious judgements made depending on the specific moment in history? Do we not change over time? Are our tastes and preferences supposed to be constant? I cringe every time when people are supposed to only like the style of music that was popular when they were growing up. How limiting. I guess I have been growing up then for several millennia, appreciating music since ancient Egyptian styles. I don’t believe in limiting our horizons.

The attack on other opinions is, of course, always waged in the name of democracy, on all sides. This is nothing new,. of course:

“For, to state the truth in few words, whatever parties, during that period, disturbed the republic under plausible pretexts, some, as if to defend the rights of the people, others, to make the authority of the senate as great as possible, all, though affecting concern for the public good, contended every one for his own interest. In such contests there was neither moderation nor limit; each party made a merciless use of its successes.” (Sallust, Conspiracy of Catilina, ch. 38)

Ironically, this pretense of democracy promotion directly feeds into consumerism and marketability. Only if you voice clear opinions and preferences can market analysts and pollsters make sense out of you. Thus we surrender our capacity for a truly democratic exchange of ideas – which necessitates our opinions to change from time to time – in order to succumb to commercial market pressures and to make a mockery of an honest marketplace of ideas.

Olbermann and O’Reilly eventually ended their respective engagements, whether voluntarily or not. O’Reilly fell due to personal failures, supposedly. For the eventual end of Olbermann’s show, I credit Ben Affleck’s brilliant Saturday Night Live skit, in which he took down a hapless landlord for discriminating against his cat, “Miss Precious Perfect.” Affleck revealed Olbermann’s pomposity, defanged, or rather, declawed it. Humor is always more seditious than righteous indignation, and Jon Stewart’s sobering critical voice sorely missed.

The legacy of this ad hominem style, sadly, seems to continue with – quite literally – a vengeance.

Aren’t we tired of it yet?

#22: There Are No “Alternative” News Sources

The dissatisfaction with “established” news sources is real. There has been a worrying trend in media towards heavy editorializing, partisan bias, and selective reporting. All this is happening in newspapers and television news, also online.

But the answer to that problem is not to gravitate to “alternative” news sources which would see all these problems compounded at a much higher degree.

The answer to problematic media is to diversify your media intake, but also to make sure not to select even less reliable news sources. Either something is news or it is not. There is no “alternative” news, just as there are not “alternative” facts. There can be different interpretations of the same news and facts, just as much as media can have selection bias.

Ideally, selection bias can be overcome by indeed looking at news from different angles, and by maintaining all-out skepticism. Selection bias is nothing new, and has been a regrettable feature of newspapers for ever. You know that if you gravitate to a more liberal agenda, then the New York Times and the Washington Post are for you; and if you are on the more conservative side, it’s the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Same with television, and with internet news.

Most problematic, however, are state media run by dictatorships. Russia Today, Ruptly, Sputnik, Al Jazeera, the Global Times, etc., may sometimes indeed carry legitimate stories, but they will not criticize the regimes in their own countries, and try to spread biased Soviet-style disinformation about the West. Regrettably, some of these sources of “news” are becoming more popular amongst Western youth who prefer critical reporting about their own countries – which is ok, but you will need to keep this in perspective. Soviet-style sedition campaigns work by eroding trust in Western democracy and making dictatorships sound more appealing in contrast.

There is not the “one news source” that explains everything. This is when we enter the realm of conspiracy theories and “alternative” news. The internet may make illegitimate content seem legitimate very easily, but again, diversification is the key here. Despite all the problems with established media, there is no alternative to solid and competitive journalism, everything else is just someone’s private opinion.

#21: Media: Don’t Tell People What To Think

Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.

Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.

Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.

The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:

  1. Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
  2. Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
  3. Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
  4. Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
  5. Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.

News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.

This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!

You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.

The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.

The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.

We have a long way to go still, it seems.