Commentary Magazine


Topic: Game of Thrones

The Left’s Obscene Virtue of Self-Censorship

The ideal that art should serve no higher purpose than its own existence has always been something of a utopian goal. Aspiring authoritarians have a nagging tendency to want to harness the power of artistic expression for their own peculiar aims. This is an anti-republican impulse the left once shunned, but it appears to be making a comeback.

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The ideal that art should serve no higher purpose than its own existence has always been something of a utopian goal. Aspiring authoritarians have a nagging tendency to want to harness the power of artistic expression for their own peculiar aims. This is an anti-republican impulse the left once shunned, but it appears to be making a comeback.

The Soviets were famously censorious, but the Kremlin also used art and expression to advance its political objectives. But if the methods they applied were unique, the goals of Soviet bureaucrats were not.

“Soviet efforts to instill new cultural norms for everyday life were part of long-standing aspirations throughout Europe to solve social problems and reshape society,” wrote David Lloyd Hoffmann in Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941. “Since the nineteenth century European political leaders, social reformers, and industrialists had sought to instill values of cleanliness, sobriety, and discipline in the working poor. Their efforts were motivated not only by instrumental hopes of molding a healthy and productive workforce but by aesthetic and altruistic ambitions to uplift the masses, to educate them, and to better their lives.”

Art, you see, is optimized when it is a vehicle for societal evolution. Those who would harness the power of expression for utilitarian ends do not perceive themselves autocrats but rather pragmatists. The starry-eyed creatives in their charge must be guided toward productive pursuits and the useful application of their talents. Of course, what begins as suggestion soon evolves into a directive. It is not long before the empowered well-meaning progressive compels society’s artist to use their gifts wisely or suffer the repercussions.

Those who were fortunate enough to outlive European communism recall that, of the many indignities they were forced to endure, forcible state-sponsored censorship was not nearly the most excruciating. It was the fact that this condition inevitably resulted in self-censorship that was the most painful consequence of authoritarianism. For fear of the Stasi’s ubiquitous eyes and ears, the average East German learned to not only cease expressing themselves in an uninhibited manner but to bury those thoughts that might cause them or their loved ones hardship. That is the most complete form of submission.

Stifling free expression for the good of the state is once more a Russian value. The imposition of laws designed to enforce selective codes of morality has again forced Russian artists to self-censor Or else. One particularly literary theater and film director recently described the condition of being forced to choose between self-censorship and running afoul of authorities as being trapped “between Scylla and Charybdis.”

This doesn’t happen overnight. The cultural degradation wrought by the best intentions of the reformers takes years to metastasize into censorship. The mechanisms through which the vulnerable are shielded from discomforting thought develop over the course of decades. The process often begins imperceptibly, but the trained eye can see it in its nascent stages. It is the application of that perspective that renders Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s ostensibly fatuous and self-serving condemnation of Game of Thrones so dangerous.

In service to the new demands associated with a culture of “social justice,” a concept distinct from objective justice, Missouri’s U.S. Senator castigated the HBO drama for daring to depict the unseemly aspects of life; namely, sexual assault. “Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones,” McCaskill wrote on her Twitter account. “[S]tupid. Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.”

This casual admonition would be easily dismissed if running afoul of the ever-evolving concepts of social justice did not have dire career consequences for the accused. Livelihoods have been lost for offending the sensibilities of the left’s culture warriors, even years after the supposed offense has occurred. It is in this climate that the senator offered her opinion on the artistic virtue of the depiction of a brutal assault, a not atypical occurrence for this popular gritty drama on a premium cable network.

“We’re developing a culture of easy virtue,” National Review’s David French averred in 2013, “where concern for the poor can substitute for helping the poor, where the right words can cover the wrong actions, and where thumbing out 140 outraged characters constitutes ‘social action,’ so long as you choose the right target for your hate.”

Somewhere down the line, the retributive activists in our midst shifted tactics. Today, talk is cheap. Enforced conformity of thought and the criminalization of dangerous concepts is the new righteousness. For a modest fee, aspiring educators can today take a course on how to teach controversial subjects without being fired. It’s a worthwhile investment. To carelessly challenge assumptions today is to invite a backlash from the mollycoddled “safe space” advocates who wield unparalleled and wholly unwarranted deference from administrators. It seems those budding tyrants have an ally in the U.S. Senate.

The wall is marred with handwriting. The canaries are all dead. It’s impossible to ignore the ubiquitous signs indicating that another period in American life characterized by enforced censorship imposed by the well meaning is dawning.

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Daenerys Targarean, Neoconservative

In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

Read More

In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

Martin was actually a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a stern critic of Bush who, as Beauchamp notes, saw his literary saga as an attempt to debunk the notion of military glory. In Thrones, really bad things happen to good people all the time and even a war launched for supposedly noble purposes leads to widespread suffering and chaos that mocks the goals of those that started the violence. Indeed, as anyone who has read all five of the books (with more promised by the writer as well as at least two more seasons after this one from HBO) knows, Daenerys’s war of slave liberation leads to conflicts that are as difficult to resolve as the more cynical fighting that goes on for less principled reasons in this fantasy world.

That means, as Beauchamp writes, by the end of the story, if indeed Martin ever comes up with one, the conclusion may leave the princess feeling a bit like Bush 43 at the end of his second term.

But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the character then perhaps Bush’s rehabilitation has migrated from the realm of conservative punditry and started to infiltrate the world of popular culture. Whatever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, President Bush and those who helped craft that “freedom agenda” that is so despised by his immediate successor stood up for the highest values of Western civilization. In seeking to draw a bright line between the forces of tyranny and terror and those of democracy, Bush held out hope for captive peoples. By casting his policy in moral terms in which the notion of freedom wasn’t limited to Anglophone democracies but to the entire planet, he articulated a vision that may well stand up better than the “lead from behind” incompetence of his successor. Perhaps history will ultimately decide that such idealism did more good than the harm that “freedom agenda” wars unleashed in both the real world and the fantasy kingdoms of Martin’s Westeros.

Much as Martin may not have intended it, Beauchamp may be right that Daenerys is something of a neoconservative. If so, her popularity may indicate that in the eyes of pop culture, George W. Bush wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

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Jonah Goldberg and Rob Long and I…

….talk for a long time on this Ricochet podcast about Tina Brown and Niall Ferguson and Todd Akin and focus groups and the professional composition of Congress, not to mention Game of Thrones, demographics, and all manner of other nonsense. Plus a preview of the next “Enter Laughing” in the September issue. Jonah and Rob are both COMMENTARY contributors whose work I have edited, but judging from how I go on here, I’m the one in need of editing—verbal editing. Even so, perhaps you will enjoy it. This is scheduled to be a monthly endeavor, and the podcast needs a name, so feel free to suggest one in the Comments. If you win, you will find yourself garlanded on the next podcast.

….talk for a long time on this Ricochet podcast about Tina Brown and Niall Ferguson and Todd Akin and focus groups and the professional composition of Congress, not to mention Game of Thrones, demographics, and all manner of other nonsense. Plus a preview of the next “Enter Laughing” in the September issue. Jonah and Rob are both COMMENTARY contributors whose work I have edited, but judging from how I go on here, I’m the one in need of editing—verbal editing. Even so, perhaps you will enjoy it. This is scheduled to be a monthly endeavor, and the podcast needs a name, so feel free to suggest one in the Comments. If you win, you will find yourself garlanded on the next podcast.

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