Yes, We Need Jon Snow
Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones…
Spencer Ackerman writes:
With the White Walkers and the Wights afoot, the Night’s Watch needs soldiers. Jon gives it soldiers — even young boys and girls. What Jon does, he does for the Watch, not the Realm.
Nor does Jon display any interest in building a nation. The Wildlings don’t get integrated into the North. They get a ghetto in the Gift, in which they’re dependent on the Night’s Watch. Jon strolls his Brothers into the Gift to hand out what provisions he can spare — and while he does so, he makes a pitch for the Wildlings to join their old enemies in the Watch. This is not “act[ing] towards a comprehensive vision of a new world.” Look at it from the Wildlings’ perspective: serve, or you don’t eat. I suppose this is a kind of nation building: the kind that, in practice, fails. Alyssa needs to add a sense of hubris to her sense of tragedy.
Alyssa finds Jon’s redefinitions of the Realm admirable. Others might call Jon a usurper. He’s not a king. He’s a controversial, compromise choice for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The Night’s Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros. And what did Jon just do? More importantly, by what right did he do it?
We learn from Jon’s time with Mance that the Wildlings are hardly monsters. They’re just as admirable, dishonorable and human as anyone in Westeros. Once that’s clear, it engenders an obvious sense of abitrariness and injustice in anyone considering the role of the Watch. But for better or for worse, that’s the role of the Watch. For a Lord Commander to arbitrarily decide to rewrite that role smacks of dereliction of duty.
I agree with Spencer that Jon is being utilitarian in his desire to bring the Wildlings south of the Wall. There are two reasons for this, however. It is not simply to garrison the Wall, but to avoid all those dead Wildlings turning into undead zombie warriors. This also explains the haste of Jon’s actions. He’s desperate – truly desperate – to get as many Wildlings south of the Wall as possible before they are killed by the White Walkers. He doesn’t handle the diplomacy of it very well, but he has very little choice in the matter.
Which brings me to my second quibble. Spencer writes “The Night’s Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros.” Is this true? In the same sense, is Alyssa correct when she argues that Jon is a nation-builder, “redefining “the realms of men” to include the Wildlings, integrating them into Westeros’s society with intermarriages, land, rebuilt castles, and alliances.”?
I suspect that in fact the Wall was never built to keep out the Wildlings, that the Night’s Watch was not founded to protect the “realms of men” from other men, or even to protect just Westeros. No, Jon’s realization is that the Wall was built to protect all men. This has nothing to do with nation building and everything to do with the reason for the Wall’s existence in the first place, as well as for the true vision of the Night’s Watch. They are there to wait, for thousands of years if need be, for the return of the Others. Politics and nation-building be damned, theirs is a mission to protect mankind from extinction. Jon wakes up to this while his sworn brothers continue to sleep. He does not bring the Wildlings over to serve the Watch, but to save mankind.
Spencer goes on to compare Jon’s inelegant diplomacy with the finessed diplomatic maneuverings of the Obama administration over DADT:
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!”
Put it this way. I predict that history will consider one of the Obama administration’s wisest acts to be the way in which it abolished Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. For someone who really wanted to see that bigoted and unjust policy go away, it was occasionally agonizing to watch Obama decline to stretch his executive authority to the maximum and impose a really big change on the military during wartime. He would have been entirely within his legal rights to do so. But Obama, Bob Gates and Adm. Mullen recognized that unless they created a sense of buy-in amongst service personnel, a backlash was a real possibility. Its victims would be gay servicemembers, not outsiders — precisely the people that abolishing DADT is supposed to protect.
Jon Snow, on the other hand, failed to gain institutional support and go through the arduous, painfully slow task of changing the institution before moving ahead with his ambitions.
Then again, winter was coming. Contra Spencer, I don’t think Jon had time. Obama had all the time in the world to forge ahead with repealing DADT. He didn’t have an army of undead at his doorstep, growing larger with every wintry night. No White Walkers either. Jon Snow saw the ugly truth of the matter, and he had to act and act fast. Could he, with a little more political wisdom, have prevented his fate? He could have kept more friends around him. He could have heeded Melisandre’s warning. He could have done all sorts of things differently – but the thing he could not have done was change the Night’s Watch. For thousands of years the Night’s Watch believed it was sworn to protect the seven kingdoms from the Wildlings. You don’t just wake up an institution like that to the reality that no, the seven kingdoms are not the realms of men, and you’re guarding against the wrong enemy entirely. He should have watched his back, kept his friends around him, kept his damn wolf nearby. But he did the right thing by bringing the Wildlings across, even without institutional support.
And of course there must be a Jon Snow. I stand by the notion that he is the story of Ice and Fire, the offspring of Rhaegar and Lyanna. His failures as a leader here will serve to strengthen him later on when winter does indeed finally come to the Wall.