(2/3) Sansa, Jon, & The End of Liberal Innocence
Really this post can be distilled into two quotes:
“I don’t know what you think. I’ve given up trying to guess”
Ned Stark, chained in the Red Keep’s dungeons, to Lord Varys
“Sometimes when I’m trying to understand a person’s motives I play a little game. I assume the worst. What’s the worst reason you have for turning me against my sister?” Sansa to Baelish
So it was that the Starks went from the most honest losers in Westeros to winning the game.
Neglecting such scenes, there’s a tendency to project karma onto the finale. The beginning shows good Starks brutally murdered Lannisters and Freys. The end shows four Starks alive, on the thrones, and every other house wiped out. Before and after, good versus bad.
Yet this impulse overlooks some fundamental changes in the North and — in particular — Sansa. In the beginning, Sansa is dismissed as a high school tween. By the end, she’s quiet, reflective, and plotting. She feeds Bolton to the dogs, outmaneuvers Baelish, and tips power away from Danerys. It is this character, not Rob Stark, that ends up winning Northern Independence.
By her rise to power, GOT inverts a fundamental liberal paradox. We see Ned and Rob’s classically liberal concepts utterly fail. In its place, we see that liberalism is not the state’s fulfilled potential or alignment to supranatural rights. Rather, its possibility exists only in proportion to dominance in an otherwise amoral power struggle. Liberalism, in other words, can only exist in the shadow of the hegemon.
The Liberal creation story
The astounding paradox is that liberal states have always — without exception — had the largest, most brutal militaries.
Simultaneous to Locke lecturing on the civil state’s ‘mutual foundation’, Britain was looting India, Africa, and North America. Simultaneous to Jefferson postulating on natural rights, the US was committing genocide across the continent. Simultaneous to Alexandra Kollontai musing over ‘winged eros’, the Red Army was sacking Berlin. The states that proclaimed themselves as the freest have always been the world’s greatest plunderers.
It feels obvious to add modern America to this category, but the stats are still pretty incredible. We spend more on our military than the next 15 nations combined. We spend more money on war than we did at the peak of World War II. We have 40 generals stationed in Europe alone. This general reality is so normalized the true enormity of our project is probably impossible to appreciate.
Liberalism’s diagnosis of all this is alternately prideful and tragic. They’ll marvel at liberty’s productivity and how capitalism and diversity create abundance. Tragically, though, they’ll admit abundance is corrupting. It means statesmen can harvest the wealth for their own vanity projects. It’s existential: free-range chickens will lay more eggs, but the farmer takes it for themselves.
It’s coherent, and yet I am reminded of other stories which felt just as serious. It’s been said fatness increases McDonald’s consumption, shadow size increases height, ties double your income, and body temperature increases illness.
I meant to suggest: what if our story is grossly, tragically backwards?
In the South
The North is prosperous at the start of GOT. Torrhen Stark bent the knee to Aegon Targaryen centuries earlier. As such, the North enjoyed an esteemed semi-autonomous position. This continued after Robert Baratheon’s rebellion given his close relationship to Ned. Nobody could remember a serious conflict.
The Starks, meanwhile, are loved because of their honor. They develop in ethos we’ll call Starkism, for short. Says Jon:
“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 in this fight.”
The more truth is diluted by lies, the less seriously people take the word. The less people believe in the word, seemingly, the less that can get done.
This basic premise is the foundation of almost all liberalism. It’s the civil state of John Locke. One end of its spectrum is selfishness, deceit, and barbarism. The other is a kind of synonymity between truth, usefulness, and virtue. It’s the unshakeable faith that culture is a win-win contract between the rulers and the governed.
But then the Starks go south. Things go wrong almost immediately. Arya cuts Joffrey during the caravan to the south. Cersei kills Sansa’s direwolf. Sansa will find Joffrey is becoming distant and sociopathic. Ned scrambles around the court imploring Baelish, Varys, and Cersei to care about budgets and Joffrey’s incestual lineage. This all leads up to his beheading.
Things get worse for Sansa when she’s left in King’s Landing. Her father and the northern entourage have their heads mounted on spikes. Joffrey makes her look at it. She’s caught in a peasant riot. Men tear her dress and almost gang rape her until the Hound, very satisfyingly, slaughters them. She’s married off to Tyrion. Baelish rescues and then marries her to Ramsay Bolton, who rapes and beats her.
Starkism is totally humiliated. It’s fine enough in times of peace among Northern knights. In the court, however, Ned is obliterated. Varys, Cersei, and Baelish can see his actions coming from a mile away. Even while he is beheaded, Sansa and Arya take the fall for how wrong his ideas are over the next five seasons.
“Look at me. Stannis is a killer, the Lannisters are killers, your father was a killer, your brother was a killer, your sons will be killers someday…the world is built by killers so you better get used to looking at them.” Clegane to Sansa
Whether liberal society is a cause or an effect is a historical fact.
In Britain, we find the Leviathan precedes the Enlightenment. A century before Locke, the Royal Navy was built on a loan. In turn, pirates like Francis Drake plundered the Spanish New World, India, and China. This funded the imperial expansion and paved the way for a global British market to take root. ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the EU, the UN — these are all children of the original Leviathan forebearer.
In the Soviet Union, the Red Army preceded the proper Soviet. Almost every modern historian appraises them as WW2’s most effective military. They had superior technology, the numbers, and the morale to run against machine gun fire. The success allowed Stalin to essentially annex everything east of Berlin. Meanwhile in Moscow, Soviets lived in polyamorous, multiracial, multifamily apartments. All of this began from ‘an unproductive communist state’.
In America, the answer to this question is contemporarily evident. The military was and is still built from debt. In turn, we used it at the Bretton Woods conference to make the dollar the world’s reserve currency. While I can hear the Keynesians leaping from their seats, this has allowed us to essentially control global inflation, prices, and thus the entire financial incentive structure on the Federal Reserve’s whim.
Meanwhile, we trade economic obedience for military protection. We can gradually adopt a Ukraine or Saudi Arabia under our cloak while excluding adjacent Russia and Iran from the global market. We benefit immensely by borrowing trillions from China and, late on our payments, can imply “what will you do about it?”.
Success at this economic game simultaneously allows for the cultural one. Locke can stroll London reflecting on natural rights without encountering atrocities in South Africa. Noam Chomsky can critique imperialism while advocating anarcho-communism.
By dominating internally, on the borders, and then abroad — citizens forget about the amoral power struggle.
Not a Progression, Not a ‘Right’ — A Luxury
“You have to be smarter than father. You need to be smarter than Rob. I love them, I miss them but they made stupid mistakes and they both lost their heads for it.” Sansa to Jon
Liberalism can only exist in the shadow of a hegemon. The further people are from war, the more at ease they are to float off into abstracted understandings of rights.
This argument is intended as a more honest diagnosis of American identity. Our ability to be concerned with concepts like ‘microaggression’ is a luxury. That’s not intended pejoratively, but to admit its contingency on us continually dominating other interests like China or Russia. Not in spite, but because of the Pentagon are we able to forget about it.
Sansa ultimately realizes Ned and Rob were effects, not causes of their time. Similar to a Denmark or a Germany, the Old Starks enjoyed good relationships with the Targaryens and the Baratheons. As the hegemon’s esteemed friend, it was their luxury to act holier-than-thou to politics.
Outside of a Lannister regime, Sansa must become a new type of Stark. In a microcosm of this post, her and Baelish save Jon and his army at the Battle of the Bastards. She then feeds Ramsay to the hounds and outmaneuvers Baelish with his own ‘little game’ exercise.
Eventually, this trickles into Jon. The show climaxes as Jon kills Dany by the most vulnerable, undignified, dishonest assassination.
The North wins even as it loses its innocence. Ned tried to ignore the game of thrones. Sansa realizes it can’t be escaped. Knowing this, she commits to defeating everyone else at it.
For a soul like Jon, it will be too much. “You have the North in you,” Tormund Giantsbane tells him in a serious moment, “The real North.” In the last scene, we see him processing his exile as a gift. He’ll be a barbarian but uncompromised in his character.