Deep down, they really want a king or queen

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

Ross Douthat recently teased liberals that they really like Game of Thrones because, deep down, they really want a king or queen. He considers this response a strong misreading of what Martin’s story and the show are offering:

To say that Game of Thrones is attractive to liberals because of secret monarchical longings, you have to ignore…everything GoT is doing. GoT does not make being a Stark bannerman or a Daenerys retainer look fun! Those people get flayed and beheaded! GoT presents a vision of monarchy that is exaggeratedly dystopian even compared to most of the historical reality of monarchy. I think that dystopian exaggeration is in fact key to the show’s appeal to liberals in many ways. It lets you fantasize about the negation of your principles while simultaneously confirming their rightness. GoT presents a vision of a world in which illiberal instincts can be freely indulged, in which the id is constrained only by physical power. All the violent, nasty stuff liberal society (thankfully) won’t let us do, but that’s still seething in our lizard brains, gets acted out. And not just acted out — violence and brutality are the organizing principles on which the world is based.

But this is where the dystopianism comes in, because the show chides you for harboring the very fantasies it helps you gratify. It wallows in their destructive consequences — makes that wallowing, in fact, simultaneous with the fulfillment of the fantasies. Will to power leads to suffering and chaos, which lead to more opportunities for the will to power to be acted upon, etc. This is a vastly more complex and interesting emotional appeal than “people secretly want kings.” The liberal order is always being implicitly upheld by the accommodation of our base desire for its opposite. To me, this is the most interesting ongoing thing about GoT, a franchise I’m otherwise completely tired of. Everyone wants to move to Hogwarts; only a lunatic would actually want to LIVE in Westeros. In an escapist genre, that’s interesting. It’s not subliminal royalism; it’s dark escapism, an escape that ultimately tends toward reconciliation with the existing order.

And what do liberals secretly love more than an excuse to reconcile with the existing order? Westeros makes Prime Day look utopian!

It is “a very good description of what a lot of prestige television has done,” Douthat agrees, but Game of Thrones is different:

These shows [The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad] invite liberal viewers into various illiberal or pre-liberal or just, I suppose, red-state worlds, which are more violent and sexist and id-driven than polite prestige-TV-viewing liberal society, and which offer viewers the kind of escapism that Phillips describes … in which there is a temporary attraction to being a mobster or hanging out with glamorous chain-smoking ’50s admen or leaving your put-upon suburban life behind and becoming Heisenberg the drug lord. But then ultimately because these worlds are clearly wicked, dystopic or just reactionary white-male-bastions you can return in relief to the end of history, making Phillips’ “reconciliation with the existing order” after sojourning for a while in a more inegalitarian or will-to-power world.

[...]

“Game of Thrones,” however, is somewhat different. Yes, it makes the current situation in Westeros look hellish, by effectively condensing all of the horrors of a century of medieval history into a few short years of civil war. And yes, it’s much darker and bloodier and has a much higher, “wait, I thought he was a hero” body count than a lot of fantasy fiction, which lets people describe it as somehow Sopranos-esque.

But fundamentally “The Sopranos” was a story without any heroes, a tragedy in which the only moral compass (uncertain as Dr. Melfi’s arrow sometimes was) was supplied by an outsider to its main characters’ world. Whereas “Game of Thrones” is still working within the framework of its essentially romantic genre — critiquing it and complicating it, yes, but also giving us a set of heroes and heroines to root for whose destinies are set by bloodlines and prophecies, and who are likely in the end to save their world from darkness and chaos no less than Aragorn or Shea Ohmsford or Rand al’Thor.

Put another way: On “The Sopranos,” there is no right way to be a mafioso. But on “Game of Thrones” there is a right way to be a lord or king and knight, and there are characters who model the virtues of each office, who prove that chivalry and wise lordship need not be a myth. Sometimes they do so in unexpected ways — the lady knight who has more chivalry than the men who jeer at her, the dwarf who rules more justly than the family members who look down on him. But this sort of reversal is typical of the genre, which always has its hobbits and stable boys and shieldmaidens ready to surprise the proud and prejudiced. And it coexists throughout the story with an emphasis on the importance of legitimacy and noblesse oblige and dynastic continuity, which is often strikingly uncynical given the dark-and-gritty atmosphere.

Consider that the central family, the Starks, are wise rulers whose sway over the North has endured for an implausible number of generations — “there has always been a Stark in Winterfell,” etc. — and whose people seems to genuinely love them. Their patriarch is too noble for his own good but only because he leaves his native fiefdom for the corruption of the southern court, and his naivete is still presented as preferable to the cynicism of his Lannister antagonists, who win temporary victories but are on their way to destroying their dynasty through their amorality and singleminded self-interestedness.

Comments

  1. Wan Wei Lin says:

    “These shows [The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad] invite liberal viewers into various illiberal or pre-liberal or just, I suppose, red-state worlds, which are more violent and sexist and id-driven than polite prestige-TV-viewing liberal society…”

    As I recall, the violence we’ve seen in the streets has been all liberals or leftist since last November. Higher rates of gun violence exist in liberal Democrat-run cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, etc.

    The author is resolving his cognitive dissonance by projecting onto ‘red’ states.

  2. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    Liberals want to believe they’re born upper-caste, leaders and saviors of humanity, naturally too noble for their own good. That’s their central myth. That’s why they love Harry Potter too, I suppose.

  3. Kirk says:

    See my arguments earlier in the week about the essential left-wing nature of many superhero tales in the comics. I remain convinced that when you look at these things as being the creations of their ids, well… The whole thing is fairly clear.

    And, contrast if you will the nature of G.R.R. Martin’s work, compared to J.R.R. Tolkien (think that there’s something unusual there, with his choice of pen name, perhaps?). When I get done reading Martin, I want to take a long shower to get the filth off. I read Tolkien, and I’m uplifted. Huge difference in what the two authors evoke in your spirit.

    Martin is a creature of the left, and you can feel the filth in his mind as an almost palpable force, when you read his works. It’s not for nothing that his nickname in some circles is George Rape-Rape Martin.

  4. Graham says:

    Fetishization of power, violence and lust and then stylized recoil from them are core Progressive tropes. They are boundary-testing children at heart.

  5. Name says:

    “author is resolving his cognitive dissonance by projecting onto ‘red’ states.”

    Nope. Homicides are higher on average in red states.

  6. Name says:

    This looks like regurgitation of the old “heavy metal makes satanists” theory.

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