As America wrestles with lingering issues of race, it's also anticipating a new HBO season of Game of Thrones. Surprisingly, the two are intertwined, as the television version of George R. R. Martin's latest book has something to say about the issues the United States must confront.
Though the series A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones has many characters and stories, none seems more fascinating than the one involving Daenerys Targaryen. A royal maiden sold into slavery to barbarians across the sea, she makes the most of her opportunity, winning over the chieftain of the clan. Most readers and viewers are dazzled by the dragons she helps bring about, which gives her power. But it's her slave revolt that really teaches us something.
In earlier books and in last season's show, Daenerys decides to free the cruelly-treated slaves. We cheer as she uses her mind more than her beauty to capture city after city in the wasteland. No image is better etched in our minds than her soldiers catapulting broken chains over the walls, motivating the more numerous slaves to oust their mean masters.
It's more like the recent Lincoln movie from 2012 and the dramatic vote on the 13th Amendment, or the climatic Pickett's Charge from the Gettysburg movie 20 years ago. If only the Civil War was as nobly fought, instead of bitter war crimes like the Massacre of Ft. Pillow, Andersonville and "Hellmira," and Sherman's bloody March to the Sea.
But when we move from the book A Storm of Swords, to A Feast of Crows and A Dance of Dragons, we see that it's a lot more like America's troubled Reconstruction. Slaves struggle with their new-found freedom. A "Butcher King" ironically rises in one of the freed cities. Freedmen exact their revenge on their former masters. The economy, once slave-based, is ruined by the transition. A shadowy terror organization, "The Sons of the Harpy" murders freedmen who support Daenerys.
Does it sound familiar? The United States had to deal with the Ku Klux Klan and carpetbaggers. There were scalawags and sharecroppers. There were Civil Rights marches and backlashes. Now we see issues of law enforcement and what level of force is acceptable, and who is authorized to wield it, in the case of Stand Your Ground and George Zimmerman.
The new queen finds herself bedeviled by every issue America had to confront with the freeing of the slaves. Her idealism is certainly admirable, but it has to contend as much with the power-based realism that opportunistic people choose to wield, something clearly present in the Game of Thrones world, as well as our own.
Over and over again, Daenerys Targaryen is counseled to leave and return home to reclaim her own kingdom. Slavery is just natural phenomenon. Her good intentions will not change that. It's not too different from those who used the Old Testament phrases from the Bible to justify slavery, or conservative politicians and celebrities who claim blacks were better off during slavery.
But slavery, racism, torture, and rule by law are not above abstract concepts of freedom, human rights, tolerance, and rule of law, no matter how often the realists tell us that abstract concepts can never be realized in reality. The earthly greed of short-term individual economic and political power will never go away either, but America should never abandon its principles to take that easy, seductive path. There is something higher than ourselves worth fighting for.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.