Martial Negligence in Game of Thrones and Beyond

I’ve previously argued that George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is implicitly a great pacifist work.   While rewatching season 2 with my younger son, I re-discovered a scene worthy of a pacifist ovation.  While Talisa, the crucial pacifist character, appears only in the show, the following exchange sheds great light on the role of martial negligence in Martin’s fictional universe.  For context, Robb Stark is the King in the North, Talisa is a battlefield medic, and they’re surrounded by the bodies of maimed and dead soldiers.

Talisa: That boy lost his foot on your orders.

Robb: They killed my father.

Talisa: That boy did?

Robb: The family he fights for.

Talisa: Do you think he’s friends with King Joffrey? He’s a fisherman’s son that grew up near Lannisport. He probably never held a spear before they shoved one in his hands a few months ago.

Robb: I have no hatred for the lad.

Talisa: That should help his foot grow back.

Robb: You’d have us surrender, end all this bloodshed. I understand. The country would be at peace and life would be just under the righteous hand of good King Joffrey.

Talisa: You’re going to kill Joffrey?

Robb: If the gods give me strength.

Talisa: And then what?

Robb: I don’t know. We’ll go back to Winterfell. I have no desire to sit on the Iron Throne.

Talisa: So who will?

Robb: I don’t know.

Talisa: You’re fighting to overthrow a king, and yet you have no plan for what comes after?

Robb: First we have to win the war.

Notice: Rather than argue that war can never be justified, Talisa shows that Robb is unleashing the horrors of war casually.  He has no master plan to bring great good from great evil.  Instead, he has a master plan to do great evil, motivated by vague wishes to do great good.  Proverbially, however, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Is this scene an unfair caricature of the practice of moralized warfare?  Hardly.  U.S. leaders of both parties barely thought about what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.  Roosevelt’s view of Stalin was mind-bogglingly naive.  Wilson, a former Princeton professor, wrote his sophomoric 14 Points, then dumped most of them in a failed effort to build a sophomoric “League of Nations.”  This is what a morally serious case for just war sounds like, but don’t expect to hear anything like it for as long as you live.

Why do even well-intentioned leaders so carefully plan for war, and so negligently plan for peace?  Simple: Despite their self-righteousness, they’re drunk with power.  Well-intentioned?  Don’t make me laugh.  Yes, with great power comes great responsibility… which politicians routinely fail to exercise in reality and Westeros alike.

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The Wheat and Tares Grow Up Together: Morality and Judging Historical Eras

Is the 21st century a time of great moral progress? Or is it a time of decadence? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. In my view, the answer is “both.”

On one hand, humans are progressing. The internet and software are breaking down barriers between people and people groups. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other great prejudices (at least in their traditional forms) are losing their entrenched hold on the human mind. Individual humans can be freer, more creative, and more generous than ever before.

On the other hand, humans are regressing. We’re putting more and more faith in centralized governments (contrary to the lessons of the 20th century) and giving up more freedom and responsibility. We’re abandoning our commitments to friends, family, and ideas of honor and the sacred. We’re allowing ourselves to be addicted by digital stimulants from porn and video games to news feeds and notifications.

We like to be able to put simple moral judgments on historical eras, and every era presents difficulties for the person who wants to put simple labels of “good” or “bad”, “progressive” or “regressive” on any time in human history.

Jesus once told a parable which amateur cultural and historical judges (like me) should consider:

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30

Now Jesus wasn’t talking about historical eras, but the metaphor of the wheat and the tares (the King James version of weeds) is a good one.

In any and every time, no matter how much we idealize or condemn, there is always wheat, and there are always weeds. The 16th century had exploration and cultural renaissance, but it also had religious warfare and barbaric tortures. The 19th century had abolitionism and industrialism, but it also had colonialism and imperialism. The 1st century had Stoicism and Christianity, but it also had mad emperors and slavery.

For all of these eras and all times (including our own), it does us good to remember the command to “[Let] them (wheat and weeds) grow up until harvest.” I read this as a metaphor for the wisdom of reserving blanket judgment.

We may one day be able to say that the centuries in our rearview were “good” or “bad.” But the harvest of consequence has not yet happened for the 21st century, and it’s hard to say that the harvests of the 19th and 20th are fully ripe, either. It is too soon to judge. Let time do that. In the meantime, resist the urge either to burn the fields or to swallow the weeds.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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If You Hate it, You’re Not the Audience

A lot of people who work in venture capital hate the show Shark Tank.

They feel it portrays an unrealistic image of investing; one that will spread and cause viewers to misunderstand the business and then go on to make terrible choices because of it.

There’s definitely a bit of the Theoretical Man argument going on here, but it’s more than that. The investors who hate the show aren’t the show’s audience. They misunderstand the show’s purpose (besides to entertain).

They compare the show against what they would put in a TV show about investing, which is all the stuff they think is important. But they’re so deep in the business, they don’t realize how many steps a total noob must take to even understand what they consider basics.

I love Shark Tank. I used to watch it with my kids. It exposed them to tons of new concepts. The idea of building a business with someone else’s money was novel. The realization that you’ve got to have a story that’s compelling enough to convince the holders of that money to join. The concept of a “pitch”. The understanding that a good pitch and a good company aren’t always the same thing. The realization that investors can be wrong and can be jerks. And founders can be nice or idiots. The knowledge that investors might collaborate or compete with each other on deals while remaining friends.

It doesn’t even matter if the stories are real or realistic. Uninitiated viewers take away the basic insights. These are so basic that VCs forgot everyone doesn’t know them. But if someone doesn’t know it yet, there’s no way they’ll understand a Medium article about power laws and term sheets.

When you hate something popular, it’s prudent to pause and consider there’s probably something in it that is doing something for those who love it. You don’t have to love it, but it’s probably not supposed to serve your ends anyway. If you can discover the reason it brings value to others, you might navigate the world more effectively and enjoy it more.

(Still trying to understand this when it comes to Old Town Road. I’m not ready to give up yet…there must be something valuable in this song to those who like it).

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Facebook Isn’t a “Monopoly” — Let’s Not Make it Into One

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, adding his voice to calls to “break up” the social media giant,  calls it a “powerful monopoly, eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition.” In recent years, we’ve seen similar claims, and heard demands for similar remedies, aimed at Google, Amazon, and other large companies.

Are these claims true? Are the large “dot-coms” monopolies in any real sense? The short answer is no. Using the “m-word” is a way of avoiding the necessity of making a sound argument for a desired policy outcome.

Whether that avoidance strategy is due to laziness, or to not having a sound argument to make, or some other reason, falls outside the scope of a short op-ed column. But the first step in forcing better arguments is quashing bad ones, so let’s look at what “monopoly” actually means.

According to Oxford Living Dictionaries “monopoly,” as the term is used by the Facebook-breaker-uppers, is “[a] company or group having exclusive control over a commodity or service.”

What commodity or service is Facebook a “monopoly” in?

Certainly not social media. You’ve probably heard of Twitter. You may have also heard of Diaspora, Minds, MeWe, Mastodon, Gab, and a number of other companies, sites, and apps offering the ability to post updates to friends and followers and discuss those updates.

Advertising? Not even close. Does the name Google ring any bells? How about Microsoft? There are plenty of smaller web advertising networks you probably haven’t heard of as well.

Then there’s messaging and chat. Yes, Facebook owns Messenger and WhatsApp. But it doesn’t own Discord or Slack or Signal or Skype or Telegram or any of hundreds of other messaging/chat apps.

Facebook has lots of users. Facebook makes lots of money. But Facebook isn’t a “monopoly” in any of the services it offers. It has loads of competitors, many of them doing quite well, and its users and customers have the option of using those competitors instead of, or in addition to, Facebook any time they like.

More importantly, Facebook has no ability to prevent new competitors from entering the markets it serves. And therein lies a political paradox.

While so far resisting the “breakup” talk, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have recently become increasingly receptive to government regulation.

Why? Because Facebook is big enough and rich enough to cheerfully comply with whatever regulations its detractors can come up with, and to hire armies of lobbyists to “capture” and shape that regulation. It can probably even survive and profit from a supposed “breaking up.”

Your brother-in-law’s basement social media or advertising or messaging start-up, on the other hand, probably isn’t well-financed enough to navigate a substantial federal regulatory regime or to successfully fight for its life if the regulators come down on its head even once.

Facebook isn’t a monopoly.

Facebook isn’t close to becoming a monopoly.

But if the people incorrectly calling it a monopoly get their way, they’ll have taken the first giant step toward making it into one.

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“Politics Awaits”

Consider this scene from Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic, Inglourious BasterdsGerman movie star (and war hero) Fredrick Zoller is trying to persuade Joseph Goebbels to switch the venue for his new movie’s premiere.  Zoller’s real motive is to impress his would-be girlfriend, Shosanna, who owns a small theater.

GOEBBELS: How many seats in your auditorium?

SHOSANNA: Three hundred and fifty.

GOEBBELS: That’s almost four hundred less than The Ritz.

FREDRICK:  But dear Goebbels, that’s not such a terrible thing. You said yourself you didn’t want to indulge every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor. With less seats it makes the event more exclusive. You’re not trying to fill the house, they’re fighting for seats. Besides, to hell with the French. This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration. This night is for you, me, the German military, the high command, their family and friends. The only people who should be allowed in the room, are people who will be moved by the exploits on screen.

GOEBBELS:  I see your public speaking has improved. It appears I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster. When the war’s over, politics awaits.

[Table chuckles.]

While this is all fiction, it’s profound fiction.  Ponder Goebbels’ last phrase: “Politics awaits.”

Fredrick shows zero understanding of policy.  Indeed, it’s hardly clear that he even understands the optimal way to plan a movie premiere.  So what has Fredrick displayed?  A talent for demagoguery.  He scorns foreigners – “every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor” and “to hell with the French.”  He panders to nationalist identity: “This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration.”  And Fredrick scorns and panders eloquently enough to bemuse the Minister of Propaganda himself.

When you watch Inglourious Basterds, Goebbels’ reaction to Fredrick’s appeal seems obvious, even banal.  Why?  Because Goebbels is speaking like a generic politician, not a Nazi.  And when he does so, we all nod, because deep down we know the ugly truth that demagoguery rules the world.  We’re just afraid to say it.

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Words Poorly Used #142 — Loyalist

A few days ago, I sent out a Facebook Friend Request to a person who had over 750 friends in common with me.  This person politely replied that we could not be friends since he was a “Trump Loyalist,” so he feared I would be offended by his posts.  Such offense would have been a certainty, but I was offended already by the language of the phrase, “Trump Loyalist.”  But let us be clear, the utmost problem is not Trumpism — it’s loyalism of any sort.

We can, however, momentarily address the lesser of two evils:  Trumpism is a temporary derangement.  I have suffered a few myself, first LBJ-ism, then a nearly neck-breaking pivot to Nixonism, then a Zombie-like knee-jerk to Carterism (more on this shocking passage at a later date).  Remember, that which can end, will end.

But can loyalism, an affliction upon humanity, end?  Merriam-Webster lists the following synonyms for “loyal:”

constant, dedicated, devoted, devout, down-the-line, faithful, fast, good, pious, staunch (also stanch), steadfast, steady, true, true-blue

These are also synonyms for unchanging, unstimulated, unfree, and unthinking.  I am a Jefferson aficianado, for example, but I am not a Jefferson loyalist.  In fact, our country (back when it had a minuscule government) was founded on the principle of anti-loyalism — the Declaration of Independence WAS a declaration of apartness from (premeditated disloyalty toward) the old order.  Loyalism, in a general sense, is constant dedication to the status quo (but I repeat myself.)

I am mostly gratified by insults toward POTUS, the current edition especially.  But I am the sworn opponent of loyalty.

— Kilgore Forelle

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