There’s a well-worn saying on the right: Scratch a progressive, find a fascist. Usually, that’s a bit of hyperbole to point toward the tendency of progressives to embrace top-down, big government solutions to every problem. But in this case, it’s almost literally true, though the real progressive is embracing a fictional fascist from the show Game of Thrones. Vox’s Matt Yglesias published a piece yesterday at Vox arguing that Daenerys was right to burn people alive in the city of King’s Landing because she needed to convince the entire kingdom not to question the dictates of a powerful central government.
Daenerys has an objective — to induce the Lords of Westeros to bend the knee and acknowledge her supremacy — and her attack on King’s Landing in “The Bells” was well-calibrated to achieve that objective. She had previously offered Queen Cersei the opportunity surrender, and Cersei refused — packing the city with civilians and ringing it with air defenses that pose a lethal threat to Drogon, Daenerys’s one remaining dragon. A combination of skilled piloting and poor marksmanship allowed Daenerys to overcome the city’s air defenses, destroy the Golden Company, and induce the Lannisters to attempt to surrender.
If Daenerys had simply allowed King’s Landing to surrender without consequences only after she evaded its air defenses, then every other recalcitrant lord in the Seven Kingdoms would have incentive to resist her. After all, it only takes a lucky shot or two to bring down the dragon — and the Queen riding him — and if she manages to burn your scorpions, you can always just surrender…
Making an example of King’s Landing was a harsh decision. It was a cruel decision. And it’s certainly a decision whose morality one could question. But it wasn’t a “crazy” decision or the act of a Mad Queen — it was a rational calculation based on a clear-eyed assessment of the strategic situation…
The only real consistent through-line in all of this is that Westeros’s great houses oppose the creation of an effective central government.
I’m not sure there’s much point in arguing about a TV show with someone like Yglesias, not much more than there is in arguing about real life. But I do want to point out for posterity that everything he has said here is wrong and would be monstrous if applied in the real world.
For starters, the strategic argument is nonsense. When the other kingdoms hear that Daenerys almost single-handedly beat the best mercenaries money can buy, plus an entire fleet, plus all the fortifications of King’s Landing in a matter of an hour, it’s doubtful they would be signing up to resist her. They would quite logically conclude that if the biggest and best-funded forces were destroyed in no time, a pipsqueak resistance in some outlying area wouldn’t stand a chance.
However, burning tens of thousands of people alive, including women and children, is guaranteed to enrage the populace and cement the image of Daenerys as a foreign tyrant. She may be feared but she will also be hated from that point onward in a way she might not have been if she’d allowed the losers to surrender and executed Cersei (who everyone hated already).
As for whether or not Daenerys was crazy, I think Ygelsias doesn’t comprehend what the term means. Daenerys had previously made decisions, like crucifying slavers along the road, which seemed cruel but which certainly sent a clear political message to her enemies. The madness she exhibits isn’t of the “Nero fiddling while Rome burns” variety, it’s more of the “Mao promises a great leap forward” variety in which the death of a whole lot of people (tens of millions in China) becomes secondary to the visionary leader’s idea of a better future for all.
Of course, you could argue that we did drop the bomb on Japan to end World War II. But in that case, it was because the enemy refused to surrender. It was only after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that Japan surrendered. In the case of Daenerys, the bells were already ringing before she decided to light the place up. It was unnecessary to achieve victory. Also, it’s worth noting that in her final speech to the troops, the plan isn’t to rest after her ugly victory but to continue spreading her rule by conquest around the world. She’s embracing some sort of imperialism or colonialism which I thought was not well-regarded on the left these days. Maybe Yglesias missed that?
It’s never clear to me how much of Yglesias’ schtick is genuine and how much is calculated to create outrage which translates into a kind of bemused respect from his progressive peers. I won’t assume he’s sincere about any of this. In fact, this whole argument may be the left’s answer to the similar argument some have jokingly adopted on the right that, despite what happened to Alderaan, the Empire were the good guys in the Star Wars saga. But suffice it to say that the idea that napalming a city of a million people, most of them civilians, when they are trying to surrender on the grounds that it’ll teach others to respect the central government, that’s a pretty awful take.