Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale

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The End of All Happiness

Important Note to Readers: This article contains potentially ruinous SPOILERS about “Game of Thrones” Season 3, Episode 9, “The Rains of Castamere.” If you are waiting to see the episode somehow unsullied by the knowledge of what transpires, please turn away now. Otherwise: Abandon every hope, who enter here.

“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams

“Oh [there is], plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” –Franz Kafka

“as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.” –Ecclesiastes 9:12

On the first Sunday in June, the fans of HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones” witnessed the abomination of desolation generally referred to as the Red Wedding. For those who saw the massacre coming, the entire episode weighed as heavily and cruelly as any lingering hope with which the Old Gods may have mocked Cassandra in the last days of her ambitious warrior-king Agamemnon. For those who did not, well, there are various articles about their jilted and horrified reactions.

The first thing that people reach for, in the throes of sudden tragedy, is a reason for madness. Why do good things happen to bad people? Why are hope and good intentions so often thwarted? Why is the world so broken? What is the point or value of divine invocation if such godless cruelty prevails? Is this feeling in our hearts, as we watch the Great Cause of a Free North bleed out on the floors of degenerates, the actual murder of some kind of idea greater than the men who embodied it?

As it happens, George R.R. Martin—author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series on which HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is more or less faithfully based—answered the “why” of the Red Wedding himself. Like a gruesome reanimation of Cervantes’s deconstruction of chivalry, Martin purposefully sets out to mock and disabuse the idealism of his audience with the compelling guile of Lucy extinguishing the hope of Charlie Brown. And like Don Quixote before him, the original sin of Robb Stark—and his fans—is that he sincerely and cartoonishly believes the world to be other than it is. After all, the Red Wedding is, in fact, based on real atrocities committed by real people who, depending on your view, were never properly held accountable in life for their sins against God and man.

But Martin explains his motives well enough on his own in an exclusive interview with James Hibberd of Inside TV:

“People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.”

To that last bit, the Red Priestess Melisandre would add that shadow is a servant of light, and so the darkness, too, may gratify the Lord of Light, just as the trials and suffering of good men on Earth may be thought to gratify the God of Abraham. But this conversation is not, at its core, about theodicy. It is about life, in spite and because of the motives or amusements of whatever transcendent forces may exist.

Make no mistake, I hate that Robb Stark dies defeated and that wickedly self-serving characters like the Lannisters and Boltons are left in triumph to carve up a ruined world. But whether your faith is in the God of C.S. Lewis or Arya Stark, we know that we live in an unjust world where good ideas may die as easily as good men. No matter how glorious and placating the trappings of civilization, values, and good intentions may seem, we can never become so complacent as to believe that men like Ned or Robb Stark always, or even usually, win the day. Nor can we forget that some of our greatest heroes in the previous century fought just causes to virtuous ends by smearing innocent blood on their hands, the ghosts of which echo from Dresden to Nagasaki.

The ultimate promise of free, republican society is that we may build more perfect unions of secured liberty, fair laws, meritocratic prosperity, and enduring peace. To this end, it is wonderful to know that we in the civilized world maintain societies where, notwithstanding threats of terrorism, bloody events like the Red Wedding or Black Dinner are no longer imaginable (except, perhaps, wherever the lords of black markets still seek whom they may devour). But underneath it all, man is no different a creature now than a thousand years ago, and the cruel indifference of a vast universe remains the frontier into which we spin for as long as we are given.

So in the end, there will always be pain and pragmatism, atrocities and heartache, and the twin devils of cruelty and cunning will always pay their due to those industrious and fortunate enough to profit on the failings and misfortunes of others. It may not be a given any longer that our peculiar games of thrones will end in death, but there are other ways to destroy lives and break spirits in the 21st Century than to drive a sword through a heart and twist.

If there is nothing else to learn from the Red Wedding, remember this: no matter how hard you work, how noble your intentions, or how faithful your supporters, everything can still be taken from you in any instant for any reason. Though on a lighter note, we may take some solace in the corollary truth that the wicked are no more secure in their iniquity than the noble in their virtue. According to Rousseau, the intuitive knowledge of this reality once made the Ottoman Turks exceptionally gracious, whereas the ignorance of it left European gentry singularly incapable of imagining life beyond stations they learned too late were fleeting.

What it would mean for us as a society to earnestly believe any noble protagonists may readily be perspicacious Churchills or ill-fated Starks is a question too complex for me here to pretend I know an answer. Perhaps the seeds of this perspective are already present enough, as in the haunting lines with which the Hound attempted to reassure Arya Stark that she would soon reunite with her family:

“You’re almost there, and you’re afraid you won’t make it.  The closer you get the worse the fear gets.”

The fear is always worst when we cannot make an end of the reasons we wrap our hearts in cold hands to numb the pain of loss. So much for our happy endings.

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Right Quick: Valar Dohaeris

It seems I’ll be writing quite a bit about death at the start of this week, which is a curious way to welcome the month of June. Like most people, perhaps, I don’t care to dwell too long on the empty silence of eternity that yawns beyond the swan song of a heartbeat. But alas, Death awaits us all, and with all things, what matters is what we learn and do while we can.

Frank Lautenberg, a veteran of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and senior U.S. Senator from New Jersey, was the last veteran of the wars that rent worlds serving in the Upper Chamber. His passing has now ended forever the era when those who defended freedom in the Great Wars of the early 20th Century represented entire states of free men and women in Congress. As the world tumbles on, which it always will, we should take a moment to remember that we stand on the shoulders of men who built and defended across the world a civilization that we now take for granted.

The things these men must have seen and known…

If we are lucky, neither us nor our children will ever be called to dutifully face the martial belligerence of the extinction of liberty. While all of the men who did will soon be gone, we should always remember and honor the fact that such men lived. Thank God that such men lived, fought, and went on to serve their families and country in civilian life. The ultimate gift they will leave behind is a nation increasingly distant from the cost of constitutional virtues that are neither free nor universal, even if they ought to be.

It is easy to forget in good times the horrors that can surface in terrible times, but there is the enduring paradox of building the peaceful prosperity of a nation on the solemn sacrifices of a generation of mortals who knew they lived far too close to an abyss. Can we live peacefully in a free world where ever fewer of us know firsthand the costs of peace and freedom?

I did not agree with Sen. Lautenberg, may he rest in peace, on many or most political issues of the day, but I certainly share his love of country and zealous commitment to the American project. In short, I’m glad that such a man lived and served for people like me. I’m likewise glad that men and women today still serve and bring the raw edges of wisdom in a broken world to those of us who will never see suffering as they are called to.

Someday, as assuredly as Ozymandias reigns over sand and dust, my generation will have perished and with us the firsthand knowledge of life in the Second Millennium. Whether the values and wisdom we hold and accumulate will translate well to those who inherit our stations is a question our lives will serve to answer.

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Memento Mori

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” –General George S. Patton

“Someday, perhaps, it will be pleasing to remember these things.” –Virgil

How can anything be worth anything if it lasts forever?

Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris.

My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a fatherless man. He was born black and Irish in the Deep South in the eleventh hour of the 19th Century. He married Elizabeth, an immigrant from the Bahamas, and she bore them 17 children, among whom is my maternal grandfather. Although Arthur died half a dozen years before I was born, I have always been aware of his nearly seven score years of life through the tales his great family still heartily recalls well into the 21st Century. Two ghosts of those tales seem particularly relevant today.

My great-grandfather’s father, the Irishman, died in a now century-old war before his son could ever know him. Arthur did get to know his own sons, however, and one of them was a man named Earl, who went to fight in Vietnam. Not unlike the grandfather he never met, Earl left a young family behind to serve his proud country. And also akin with that late grandfather, Earl never again saw his homeland, or the wife and young daughters he left there.

Today, most of Earl and Arthur’s American family remains in Florida and Georgia, where they have lived for more decades than hardly anybody can remember. The Army brought my parents to the D.C. metro area years ago, and, occasionally, some of our kin will make the long trek up the South Atlantic coast for a visit. When the weather is glorious, or at least tolerable, my parents will take them to the National Mall to stroll through the grandeur of the Capital of the American Republic our forebears built. Although our itinerary may vary, a sense of rooted wonder always carries us to the dark marble wall that commemorates the fallen of Vietnam. We always remember to scratch Earl’s name onto pieces of paper that we bring for this familiar ritual. Granny hates being in photographs, but she always submits to a few still-frames of time on these occasions.

We usually smile.

Growing up in the military, I learned that Veterans Day was meant to celebrate peace and those who returned from service to America and her values of liberty, justice, and honor. This November, I will celebrate my father, mother, sister, and brother for their service.

As a point of distinction, Memorial Day commemorates sacrifice and loss: the ultimate cost of freedom. In reflecting on the passing of warriors like Arthur’s father and son, we remember that all men and women are born to die, and what matters is the how and why of our ineluctable departure. We remember that our free Republic was built upon the ashes of dreamers and is maintained upon the hallowed dust of sacrifices honored. We remember that our lives are never solely ours, and our deaths are no more the bookend of our stories than our loved ones will allow.

For as long as I can remember, funeral days have always nurtured times of celebration in my family. The former homes of those gone to glory become sites where the living gather to eat, drink, and merrily recall halcyon days past and grievances overcome. By celebrating life—and all that has been done so that we might freely enjoy it—we consummate the purpose for which our loved ones lived and died, whether in far-flung wars or quietly at home after untold suffering. It is for this very purpose—the enduring happiness of those whom we shall someday leave—that we now live and remember.

Happy Memorial Day!