The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has cruelly descended into the Summer of our Disrepair: our security challenged by a madman in North Korea; our infrastructure by an angry storm in the Gulf of Mexico; our psyche by hate-steeped terrorists in Charlottesville.
Football fortunately has returned to distract us; but until play resumed this week, many have fled the screaming heads on cable news for the comforts of fantasy. It’s no wonder that the penultimate seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones captured record ratings: When we turn off the TV, we can rest easy that the Westeros world of mad kings and child tyrants and murderous palace intrigue is truly “fake news.”
Ironically, one voice from this Ã¼ber-fictional forum has emerged as a clarion call for today’s real-life politics. Sure, he would face some significant electoral challenges: The faux-bastard, resurrected-from-the-dead, dragon-mother-lovin’ pretty boy has a complicated leadership history and a controversial love life. But Aegon Targaryen, aka Jon Snow, just delivered the kind of inspirational oratory (akin to Reagan in 1964 and Obama in 2004) that deserves to capture the national imagination.
Let me set the scene without any too-substantive spoilers: It’s the season finale, and for the first time, most of the series’ remaining principals — stalwart heroes, murderous villains, colorful aides-de-camp — gather together for the Dragon Pit Summit, an effort to broker a temporary cold peace so that a more vicious common enemy can first be vanquished. An agreement is reached, with one caveat: King of the North Jon Snow is asked to remain neutral in any future dispute among two combatant queens. Snow shockingly refuses, revealing that he had just secretly pledged fealty to one of the female rivals to the Iron Throne.
The dÃ©tente collapses, and Snow’s allies pounce on his political naivetÃ©: The fate of un-undead humanity was undermined by an easily concealable truth, in a diplomatic climate where everyone expects mendacity. The show’s conscience and world-weary voice of reason, Tyrion Lannister, barks “Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then…just a bit?”
But Snow doubles down:
“I’m not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold. Talk about my father if you want. Tell me that’s the attitude that got him killed. But when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies. And lies won’t help us win this fight.”
Since the scene’s airing, HBO showrunners have revealed the ironic date of its filming: November 9, 2016, just a few hours after Donald J. Trump was declared President-Elect.
Rest easy fair reader: This irony will not inform yet another screed against the current White House occupant. Indeed, Snow’s moral example is not a direct rebuke of the blatant, easily-fact-checkable untruths that constantly ooze from the lips and tweets of our chief executive.
Rather, it is a bipartisan indictment of our entire system, a climate in which hyperbole, word parsing and out-of-context rhetorical manipulations are accepted norms of political engagement. Candidates and electeds are lauded for their dexterity in ignoring and parrying penetrating media queries; campaigns are praised for negative ads that devastate opponents with just enough of the truth to escape the grasp of a libel action.
Today’s successful politicians are all expected to lie every now and then…just a bit.
Jon Snow’s analysis of this reality is spot on. Exaggeration and evasion lead to small deceptions, which result only in better and better lies. In such a climate, truth becomes illusory, and the groundwork is laid for the body politic to cleave into tribes, each side only trusting its fellow partisans, and only the media and social media outlets that serve as echo chambers for the home team.
Words stop meaning anything. As a result, demagogues are empowered to stop even trying to ground their claims in rationality, logic, or facts, instead attacking the media and political enemies when their untruths are challenged.
We need a Jon Snow. Or at least a political leader capable of a Jon Snow Moment.
One of my greatest regrets in my mildly successful political career was failing to seize my own Jon Snow Moment. I was being interviewed by an editorial board during my gubernatorial run. I had been secretly a strong and passionate proponent of marriage equality since I first was made aware of the concept; but with my constituents overwhelmingly opposed, I had carefully concocted evasive answers on the subject to maintain both my moral integrity and my electoral viability. But when asked a yes or no question — had I voted for the state constitutional amendment to ban the practice? — I couldn’t dodge. My whimpering, dissembling “yes” answer, while politically correct, was no profile in moral courage.
I’m confident, however, that there are others braver than I was. But let’s not underestimate the challenge. Upending the political status quo is often as self-sacrificing a venture as Jon Snow’s recent forays north of the Wall. While Never Trumper Republicans lambaste their leaders for failing to decry the nudity of the emperor, they may underrate the risk of offending the base these officials need to win election, or at least withstand a primary challenge. When Democrats denounce their leaders for failing to reject the identity politics orthodoxies that have rendered us a minority party, they underestimate the difficulty of reassembling the Roosevelt or Clinton or Obama coalitions in today’s polarized culture.
I am cautiously optimistic, however, that our next President, of either party, will determine that the risk is worth it, that the best contrast to Trump’s inauthentic authenticity is speaking true truth to the powerful and the powerless.
American politics needs a Jon Snow. Or else a long, cold political winter is coming.