The Scourge of Westeros

Game of Thrones has returned for its fifth season, and tuning in for the new episodes has left me with some thoughts I’d like to share.

Let me start by asking: Who is the real villain of Game of Thrones? A lot of names may come to mind. Is it the egotistical, conscienceless King Joffrey? Or is it maybe his mother, Cersei Lannister, with all her schemes and manipulations? What about the Boltons: Roose, who betrayed and murdered Robb Stark, and Ramsay his sadistic son? Or perhaps is the villain offstage, in the person of King Aerys II, whose madness and cruelty sparked Robert’s Rebellion?

I would argue that the real villain of Game of Thrones is none of the above. The real villain is the kindly, frail Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch.

For those needing a reminder about Westeros lore, Maester Aemon is also known as Aemon Targaryen. Once, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, he was first in line for the Iron Throne, and could have taken power, but refused, and let the crown pass to his brother, who became King Aegon V. Aegon was the father of Aerys II, and it was when the crown was passed from Aegon to Aerys that the troubles of Westeros began in earnest.

So if Aemon had just taken the crown when he was younger, none of the troubles we see in the story would have happened. No Mad King Aerys, no rebellion, no Joffrey, no War of the Five Kings, no Lannister coup d’etat, no beheading of Ned Stark or Red Wedding or burning of Winterfell, no journey of conquest by Danerys through Essos, and a unified Westeros ready to back up the Night’s Watch if anything went bad at the wall. The Seven Kingdoms would, to the very day we join in on the story, have been ruled by the wise and kind Aemon, and everything would be alright.

Well sure, you may be tempted to say, but that doesn’t make Aemon a villain; it just makes Westeros the unlucky victim of a choice he made long ago that seemed like a good idea at the time. But this ignores a crucial concept that should have been a factor in his decision of so many years back: the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese idea that deals with many facets of leadership, but in modern times it has been adapted by reactionaries into a deceptively simple three-step process to be followed by those in, or seeking, positions of power:

I. Become worthy

II. Accept power

III. Rule

One of the difficulties presented by this concept is that it is easy for people to make a very basic mistake when contemplating it; that is, to believe that this is (in order) a list of one responsibility and two rights (or even privileges). It is not. This is a list of three responsibilities. It is not the privilege, or even the right, of the worthy to accept power and to rule; it is their responsibility. Often, it is their responsibility to do so even if they must be ruthless in going about it; even if they must break vows or shed blood along the way. Because if they don’t accept power, and if they don’t rule, then someone else will. That someone else may not be all so very worthy, and if they are not, everyone will suffer.

One of the interesting aspects of the moral universe of Game of Thrones is that, in true pagan fashion (and Game of Thrones is very pagan in moral outlook) too much of any one virtue is not seen as a good thing. Instead, a balance of virtues is seen as optimal. Perhaps most notably, Ned Stark was too honorable, and the entire realm suffered because he wasn’t more cunning and ruthless when dealing with dangerous enemies. Maester Aemon had a similar flaw springing from an excesses of virtue – too much selflessness and too much humility. Certainly, it a character flaw to have too much ambition. But for the worthy to have too little ambition only results in them effectively ceding power to the unworthy. And what good does this do for anyone (other than unworthies who are not hindered by a similar lack of ambition)?

No, it is the responsibility of the worthy to accept power and to rule, even if they don’t want to. And the proof of that is hardly restricted to fantasy kingdoms full of fire-breathing dragons. Our own world is, and long has been, filled with problems caused by the abdication of the responsibility to accept power and rule by those who are worthy, and whose leadership is needed.

Our kings gave over their effective power power to parliaments, and by doing so left us all at the mercy of King Mob. The Church, through Vatican II, gave up its authority to intervene in worldly politics, thus handing its power over moral leadership to the fanatical utopian cult of leftism. The “Greatest Generation” refused to adequately rule over their own children, ensuring their unworthiness, and then, as soon as those unworthy children demanded it, ceded power over the nation and its culture to them without any real resistance. The mainstream right, as embodied in the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain, suffers defeat after humiliating defeat even when they have the raw power to win because they refuse to fully accept and effectively wield the power that they have. Most importantly, their refusal to roll back even the tiniest bit of Cultural Marxism when they have the electoral majorities to do so is what makes the “ratchet effect” possible and ensures their own continued irrelevance. And why do they refuse to do so? Because they have granted the right to judge their actions to people who hate them, thus effectively handing every group of leftists that throws a hashtag hissy-fit when something doesn’t go its way the power to veto any and all of their policies.

Or consider the case of Germany in the 20th century. The Kaiser ceded power, first to General Ludendorff, who proved himself unworthy enough, and finally to the even greater unworthies of the Weimar Republic. One could say that he was forced to do the latter, and perhaps that’s true – but still, he did. Once in power, the Weimar Republic proved itself unwilling or unable to effectively rule. I carry no brief for Adolf Hitler (sorry, white nationalists), but even I will not claim that all of his complaints were entirely invalid. Hitler complained of the moral degeneracy of Weimar-era Berlin, and indeed the Weimar Republic was unable to effectively restrain that degeneracy. Hitler also complained of the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, including the disastrous and extortionate reparations to be paid by Germany to the Western powers, who demanded ever more in order to deal with their own economic problems in the face of the global Great Depression. Hitler claimed that Germany could, and should, have simply cut off these reparations and told the Western powers to go pound sand, and he was right – that’s precisely what they should have done. It was what Hitler eventually did. But what if the Weimar Republic had done it instead?

That is, of course, a moot question. They were unworthy, they only half-accepted power, and they refused to effectively rule. Because of this, the people of Germany, to borrow a phrase from The Dark Knight, turned to a man who they didn’t fully understand. He was unworthy, too, but he did fully accept power, and he did rule. Unfortunately, the results were worse, not better. It was the end of a downward spiral, in which each unworthy ended up ceding power to someone even more unworthy, until everything, predictably, came to horror and ruin.

Understanding these consequences, then, we can see why the refusal on the part of worthies to accept power and to rule not be regarded as noble or selfless, but as villainous or even treasonous. The only circumstance in which a refusal by the worthy to accept power should be seen as a credit to them is if they live under an immoral system and their refusal is motivated by a principled desire to not do anything that would perpetuate that system. Where this is not the case, any worthies who refuse to accept power and effectively rule when the time comes and the need arises must be actively shunned and shamed. The nation and its people consistently suffer when they refuse to do so – in Westeros, in Germany, everywhere – so why should that be looked on kindly? No, for the sake of all, worthies must – they must – accept power and rule. Where they demur or defer to others who are less worthy, they should be seen as, and treated as, villains.

And that is why, as gentle, wise, and kind as he may be, Maester Aemon must be seen for what he really is – the greatest villain in all the Seven Kingdoms.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this piece, it has occurred to me that there was another Targaryen who was equally guilty of causing the series of events that ended in so much calamity for the Seven Kingdoms, and for essentially the same reason: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Barristan Selmy once called Prince Rhaegar the “finest man I ever met”, and every account of him that wasn’t from one of his enemies (e.g. Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark) seems to agree with this assessment. He was brave, beautiful, kind, soulful, brilliant, scholarly, loyal, moral, and decent. And yet Prince Rhaegar twice – once through action, and once through inaction – managed set in motion the events that led to the war that resulted in his own death, the deaths of his wife and children, the end of his dynasty, and untold suffering among nobles and smallfolk alike in Westeros. The action (taking Lyanna Stark, willingly or not, away from her betrothed) was bad enough, but almost certainly would not have caused a war just by itself. The inaction was worse. Knowing that his father Aerys II had gone murderously insane, Rhaegar did nothing to stop him, long past the point where he should have taken some manner of action. Even Rhaegar himself understood this, too late, as evidenced by what he said to the young Jaime Lannister as he rode off to a battle from which he would never come back: “When the battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but… well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”

As with so many things let go too long by people who should have been more responsible, that never happened. Rhaegar was (his indiscretion with Lyanna Stark aside) worthy, and his refusal to take power from his unworthy father came at a great cost not only to himself, but to everyone and everything he loved.

Welcome To Westeros

So apparently some rodeo clown managed to make himself the object of this week’s Two Minutes Hate – complete with the normal punishment of having one’s livelihood destroyed and facing financial ruin that comes with it – for making fun of the President.

I’m old enough to remember the days when television stations went off the air for the night, and a lot of other things that used to be, but aren’t anymore. I remember when one learned in the Fifth Grade that we were a Constitutional Republic, not a feudalist monarchy – that the President was not a King or a god, but just another citizen. This meant that, as long as you didn’t physically threaten him (which you couldn’t do to anyone else, either), you could say anything you liked about him. Nobody talked about “disrespecting” the President as if it were a crime, and in fact people did so all the time. For example, I remember tuning in to Saturday Night Live one evening in the 1980s (it seems not to be posted on YouTube, sorry) and seeing Howard Hesseman publicly “moon” a portrait of Ronald Reagan on national network television. It was stupid and juvenile (liberals haven’t changed much in the past thirty years), and people who supported Reagan didn’t much like it, but everyone accepted it as what we sometimes had to put up with as a result of our freedom to criticize people in power however we liked. You know, the First Amendment, and the spirit of 1776, and “I might not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” and all that.

Because yes, we did understand more, and expect more, of what it meant to be free citizens of a Constitutional Republic. We did not live in some dismal medieval kingdom where the smallfolk had best be careful what they said about their Lords and Ladies if they knew what was good for them. We had our rights under the Constitution, yes – but we also lived in a nation imbued with the principle of respect for free speech.

But now things have changed.

Are people being dragged off to gulags for saying the wrong things about our leaders, as recently happened to some poor comedian in North Korea? No. And maybe it never will get that bad here. But things that were impossible to imagine happening in this country back when Hesseman mooned Reagan have come to pass, and the trendline is distinctly unencouraging. If nothing else, America has lost the spirit of respect for free speech – you can already be ruined for saying the wrong thing, if not yet imprisoned for it; and few anymore see why this is either a bad thing in and of itself or, more alarmingly, an omen of even worse things yet to come.

So welcome to Westeros, Information Age-style style; where cameras are everywhere, where your Lords and Ladies know everything that you say about them, and where we the smallfolk increasingly do have to be careful what that is if we know what’s good for us.

Everyone practice your bows and curtseys.

P.S. I’m very happy to know that the economy is roaring along so well, the Middle East is calmed down enough, crime is sufficiently under control, and our foreign and monetary policies are sorted out to the point that the people who wield power in this country can all stop to care about what a rodeo clown at an obscure Midwestern state fair is up to.

Tywin Lannister For Pope

As the era of Benedict the Hapless comes to an end and the time to elect a new Pope approaches, the Holy Church finds itself in some dire circumstances. Some of these are the result of the vast, impersonal Spenglerian forces that are currently sweeping over the descendant West, and others are of its own making. An article at the Washington Post sums up some of the problems pretty well. Yes, the WashPo is an establishment liberal newspaper that hates Catholicism (along with all things religious and traditional), but that doesn’t mean that everything they’ve got to say is wrong, and much of the article has the ring of truth to it. Specifically: that the Vatican is run by an out-of-touch gerontocracy that has no idea how bad a shape the church is in vis-à-vis the world, how far discipline has lapsed inside it, how strong and strident the forces that oppose it are, how those forces operate, or what might be done about all of this. They continue with a bizarre obsession with Italian politics at the expense of their global reach, they can’t come to grips with the mistakes they’ve made, and they are either unwilling, or, more likely, unable to restore order.

In short, the Vatican desperately needs new leadership – one that’s unafraid to clamp down on sex scandals, corruption, and serious ideological deviation equally. This bunch of leaders seems to be one dogged by weakness and unseriousness. It’s not just one thing, it’s everything – they just seem unwilling and unable to crack down on anybody over anything. When that’s the case, and people know it, things get out of hand. Which they have.

Thus, as much as I hate to make a somewhat banal comparison in all of this, the next Pope must be something of a Tywin Lannister. Those who have read the books know that Tywin’s father was so weak that his holdings went to chaos. Scandals and corruption broke out, order broke down, and nothing got done. Lord Tywin cleaned house and put things in order, though it took him twenty years in order to do it, and he came away hated and feared in his own lands as well as across Westeros.

We need a man like that in the Vatican. We need a man who knows that the church cannot make its enemies love it with appeasement nor even civility. We need a man willing to excommunicate those who believe that they can call themselves Catholic while standing against everything the Church stands for. The next Pope is going to have to be fearless, cagey, realistic, and a man with an iron backbone who is utterly unafraid of being reviled by the prevailing culture and power structure – both inside and outside the Church – and hated by many more. It will take a man willing to make powerful enemies, and to accept, at least temporarily, a smaller, better church.

So I say: Tywin Lannister for Pope – or, absent him, whoever we can find who’s most like him. The next Holy Father must be such a man, for it will take nothing less to put the Church back in order.