A Song Of Fire And Ice, And Failed Insitutions

Spencer Ackerman, in the world’s most generous takedown of my review of A Dance With Dragons (warning, copious spoilers to follow), argues that I’m wrong to see Jon Snow as a visionary for redefining the realms of men by letting the wildlings settle in the Gift, and trying to save the Night’s Watch by bringing them, men and women alike, into his brotherhood. I’m going to return the complement by saying I think Spencer may actually have a more optimistic vision of George R.R. Martin’s project than I do. He writes:

But there’s a lesson in the stabbing of Jon Snow. (No one really thinks he’s dead, right?) The Realm, like the world, is made of institutions. If you wish to change the realm, you have to engage in the painful, arduous task of building legitimacy through these recognized institutions so that your changes don’t inspire the backlash that undoes them all. One of the strengths of George R.R. Martin is that he’s brutally consistent here. The same hubris that runs through Cersei when she cynically reconstitutes a group of religious warriors runs through Jon and Dany when they admirably attempt to focus on the White Walkers or banish slavery from Meereen. As a wise woman once exclaimed in a different story, “It’s Baltimore, Cedric!”

My understanding of much of A Song of Fire and Ice is as an inquiry into how you tell when institutions are so rotten that they need a radical regutting or replacement, and how to carry out that process. I do agree with Spencer that Martin’s consistent in this regard. Cersei’s reinstatement of the Warrior’s Sons is an error and an act of hubris that eventually turns against her because she’s foisting reform on an institution that is self-governing effectively, and doesn’t need external alteration. Similarly, Dany’s quest against slavery may be moral, but she disrupts institutions that however brutal they were, worked effectively from a pragmatic perspective, and were the lynchpin of a continent’s economy. Dany is a practical and a moral failure. She totally misunderstands the institutions she’s attacking and fails to replace them with viable alternatives, guaranteeing upheaval because she’s wrecked trade in the region. And her failure to rebuild those brace struts of society means she’s failed to provide the basis of a state that can exist without slavery or any moral investment in a vision of that world.

I think that Jon, by contrast, is dealing with an organization that’s wholly shattered. The Night’s Watch doesn’t have enough people to serve its function, and its mechanisms to bring more into it no longer function to bring either the numbers or quality in that the organization needs. The internal discipline and obedience to the hierarchies of the Watch are totally broken after Jorah Mormont’s murder, which would be the equivalent of fragging a general in deployed in Afghanistan. That the Watch manages to hold an election might be a sign that it has some respect for its own rituals left, though Sam only manages to force a resolution through trickery — he tries to build legitimacy through recognized processes and institutions, and his efforts help break the organization he’s trying to preserve. If the Watch was meant to be a neutral force that stood between the wildlings and the Realm, prioritizing the interests of the Realm, that relationship has become polarized in the face of a greater threat. A gradualist, reformist approach to rebuilding the Watch to serve its original purpose would be suicidal. I think Spencer is right about the process President Obama took to accustom the American military to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but I’m curious if thinks the existence of that policy means the American military was as shattered, illegitimate, and underresourced as the Night’s Watch appears to be.


So far Martin hasn’t given us a definitive answer for how we know if an institution has failed, and what we do if it has. The implication is that you need dragons and dreams to scorch a realm clean. But we haven’t yet seen proof of that, and we have no certainty that this story has a happy ending.