How King Tommen Won Like A Boss

Many viewers of Game of Thrones have of late been rather upset by the recent actions of Tommen of House Baratheon, first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. As a result of deal that he has recently made wth the High Sparrow, chief priest of the Faith of the Seven, they think him weak and foolish; they believe that he has become a puppet of sinister forces, and that the Realm will suffer for it. But that, of course, is because they’re a bunch of plebeians who don’t understand how power works. If they did, they’d see that what Tommen did was a masterstroke on the part of the young king, and the best piece of statecraft that has issued forth from the Iron Throne since Aegon V occupied it. While I understand that my readership is comprised of only the finest thinkers and aristocrats of the soul, with not a single plebeian among them, it still seems worthwhile to elaborate on how exactly King Tommen worked his way out of a bad spot with a huge victory in his hands, and perhaps thereby to make a point or two about how power really operates.

What plebs get wrong about being king – or, indeed, being a leader of any kind – is that they think it’s all about barking orders at people; orders that they have to obey or else. But where exercised wisely and competently, leadership almost never relies upon this approach. Instead, good leadership rests primarily on teambuilding, inspiring others by example, negotiation, mediation, and dealmaking. The last of these deserves special emphasis. Dealmaking has gotten a bad name on the right in recent years, and not without some good reasons. First, because “conservative” leaders don’t know how to make deals. They know how to surrender in exchange for empty promises that they know will never be fulfilled, or just as likely, in exchange for nothing at all, but that’s not the same thing as shrewd and wise dealmaking. Second, and most importantly, because they are used to dealing with the left, which is a movement of fanatical utopians who believe that the inherent rightness of their cause writes them an unlimited license to lie, to cheat, to defraud (and to torture, to murder, or to commit genocide as well). This means that leftists do not negotiate in good faith; every deal that they agree to will be broken the moment that they believe they have the power to do so with impunity. Obviously, making deals with such people is a fool’s errand. But this should not blind us to the fact that in normal times and under normal circumstances, dealmaking is a critical part of leadership.

Plebs, because they lack any of the important qualities of leadership, don’t understand that a leader who gets what he wants – who has to get what he wants – by shouting orders has already demonstrated that he is unworthy; that he is unable to get things done in a way that is more harmonious, more stable, and more sustainable. To plebs, the difference between an enlightened leader and a tyrannical despot is merely a matter of how much they personally agree with the orders being shouted and how much they dislike those who are compelled to obey. But let us ask some important questions: Did Joffrey not shout enough orders? Did Aerys II? What happened to them in the end? And to their kingdom as a result of their rule?

Well, it’s no secret at all that the Seven Kingdoms have been ruinously mismanaged by the nobles who have run it ever since the Tragedy at Summerhall. There was the War of the Ninepenny Kings, Aerys II’s disastrous reign, Robert’s Rebellion and Robert’s subsequent semi-benign neglect of his kingdom’s increasingly shaky circumstances, the War of the Five Kings, the effective collapse of the Night’s Watch as a combat-capable fighting force in the face of an impending whitewalker invasion, Danerys Targaryen’s acquisition of a kingdom of her own in Essos (and of an army and three dragons to boot), the introduction of a troublingly fanatical strain of the religion of the Lord of Light into Westeros, the ruin or outright extinction of multiple ancient noble houses, treason, riots, famine, connivance, corruption, sedition, scandal, machination, mutiny, and murder. And through all of it, as the nobles fought their wars and played their power games, it was the smallfolk who suffered most of all.

And so, finding himself in an unenviable situation involving the High Sparrow, King Tommen decided that instead of charging in with swords drawn, he would make a deal. The particulars of that deal are as follows:

• King Tommen got his queen back, with no Walk of Atonement required. This importance of this as a face-saving measure cannot be overstated. It was a major – and necessary – concession on the part of the High Sparrow, and the most important diplomatic victory scored by Tommen in this entire situation. Furthermore, by binding the Throne to the Faith, the degradation of one becomes the degradation of the other; it makes the High Sparrow unlikely to try to further degrade the power of the Throne, because he has now hitched his own fortunes to it. If nothing else, renewed hostilities between the Throne and the Faith would mean an admission of diplomatic failure – which would be a severe blow to the reputation of all involved. And, of course, would also be a disaster for the Realm; they really are the twin pillars on which the Seven Kingdoms stand, and having them act together is critically important.

• King Tommen gets to be a uniter instead of a divider; he has turned enemies into allies. This is important because his kingdom is in shambles and under severe threat from multiple directions, so he needs all the allies he can get. Winter is coming. Danerys Targaryen is coming. The whitewalkers are coming. Melisandre and the man-burning fanatics who follow R’hllor are coming. Jon Snow is coming, and nobody knows whether he will stop once he’s taken Winterfell. Speaking of which, The North, for the moment, is being run by a psychotic madman. The Vale of Arryn is being run by a mentally unstable child in the thrall of a scheming liar who has ambitions that run all the way to the Iron Throne. The Reach may end up with no legitimate heir to the Lord of Highgarden. The Iron Islands are in open rebellion (again). Dorne is in the hands of a cabal of assassins. And with Tywin Lannister dead, Tyrion in exile, Kevan and Cersei at court in Kings Landing, and Jaime on campaign at Riverrun, does anyone even know who’s running the Westerlands? The Seven Kingdoms need more dealmaking and alliance-building, because there’s enough war and chaos on its way, at the hands of enough enemies, as it is.

• King Tommen managed all of this without any bloodshed – he came off looking like a peacemaker, because he actually was one. Not only did he defuse a conflict that was about to make the streets of the city run red with blood (for the third time in recent memory), but he did it with serious theatrical flair in front of an enormous crowd of common folk. He and his queen walked away from the Great Sept of Baelor looking virtuous, humble, and reasonable. The crowd cheered with genuine love and admiration, and it isn’t difficult to see why. After years of suffering and hardship caused by the greed, pride, and power-lust of kings and nobles (including Tommen’s putative “father”, Robert Baratheon, who tore the Seven Kingdoms apart due to what was ultimately a dispute over a woman), the smallfolk finally see a king who is willing to swallow a little pride for the good of the Realm – for the good of the people – and they love him for it.

• King Tommen ended up having to throw some subordinates under the bus to achieve this, but in the end, subordinates should be willing to take one for the team, especially when it comes to the stability of an entire kingdom. Lady Olenna complained that the High Sparrow beat them, but really, it was Tommen who did that. Publicly upstaging them all makes him look mature and independent, which is especially important considering that the previous generation of leaders of the Seven Kingdoms are the ones who caused all this trouble in the first place. Besides which, tallying up the damage done to all involved shows that most of it is minimal, manageable, or richly deserved on the part of those receiving it. Jaime and Cersei end up looking terrible, but deserve to. Working out a deal to get Ser Loras sprung and back to The Reach is a priority, but Lord Mace is healthy and an heir isn’t needed right away, so that can wait a while. Speaking of Lord Mace, he comes out looking okay enough; a bit foolish, but only out of fatherly love, so his reputation will recover. Lady Olenna goes back to Highgarden, which is honestly for the best for everyone – overbearing mother figures are unlikely to be very helpful in the times to come. In the end, it’s all a more than acceptable price to pay, from Tommen’s perspective.

• King Tommen banned trial by combat, which put his mother in a bad spot, but was a sensible and humane step that should have been taken ages ago.

And so King Tommen has done well, and finds himself in an excellent position. Other than figuring out some way to get Ser Loras back to Highgarden, only a few small things remain in order to secure the victory he has won:

Speaking of the last two points above, Cersei must be shipped off back to Casterly Rock right away. She shares Joffrey’s worst tendencies (though not in quite as much excess), in that she is impulsive, ruthless, and stupid. As long as she remains in Kings Landing, she remains a danger to herself, to her son, to the city, and to the Realm, not to mention to the Faith, to the Throne, and to the precious but still precarious deal between them. The king can take a cue from his how his wife handled things with her grandmother. Sometimes it really is better to ask forgiveness than permission, so to King Tommen, I’d advise this: send Cersei back to the Rock under guard, then apologize to the High Sparrow for letting her “escape”. Tell him you’ll be happy to let a panel of septons back in Lannisport put her on trial (being locals, they’ll almost certainly let her go, but it will be hard for the High Sparrow to find reason to object, and besides, by this point it will be a fait accompli). If he pushes the issue, remind him what he said about the Mother’s mercy and throw yourself at his feet for forgiveness. But whatever it takes, just get rid of her, and fast, before she causes real trouble.

Next, the king must shore up his position. Don’t violate the truce, but find ways to be ready in case the High Sparrow either goes back on his word or, in the mold of Darth Vader in Cloud City, decides to unilaterally alter the deal. Whatever precautions you decide to take, do it quietly, slowly, and with layers of plausible deniability built up around it. Be patient, and remember that this is a strictly defensive measure – the deal that was made is a good one that benefits the Realm, and should be maintained

Lastly, write a letter to Danerys Targaryen inquiring about the possibility of settling the dispute over the Iron Throne by the other time-tested way of ending disputes over succession – by a marriage between royal children. Remind her that it was the marriage of the first Danerys (the daughter of Aegon IV) to Maron Martell that finally succeeded at uniting the Seven Kingdoms by bringing Dorne into the fold, after nearly two centuries years of war had failed to do so. A marriage of Tommen and Danerys’s children will return a Targaryen to the Iron Throne, with face saved all around. And it will provide King Tommen with another alliance – one that brings a Dothraki horde, an army of Unsullied, and three dragons to his side precisely at the point at which they would be extremely helpful.

Another deal, yes – because shrewd and wise dealmaking is at the heart of good kingship (or leadership of any kind). Perhaps diplomacy is not so exciting for audiences to watch (as their reaction to The Phantom Menace shows), but as the old saw teaches us, for the smallfolk of any kingdom, living in interesting times is a terrible curse. And for a king who is shrewd and wise – as King Tommen has lately shown himself to be – it is a fine way to come away from conflict looking like a boss.

UPDATE: Yes, I know what happened in the final episode of the season. Scroll back up and you’ll see that I made a point of saying that sealing victory required getting Cersei out of town as quickly as possible. Tommen didn’t follow this advice, and all of his hard-won gains came to grief because of it.

Also, I’ve made a YouTube video that includes my reactions to the season six finale of Game of Thrones, along with thoughts on the series in general and how it connects to the history and philosophy of our own world. I believe that any fan of the series will find it worth listening to.

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.