#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.

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#18: What’s Left: Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Value of Dissent

There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.

Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.

One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.

Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.

Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.

Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:

“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”

Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?

“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”

Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:

“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)

Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.

Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.

The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.

Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.

The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.