It gives me no pleasure to contradict my friend Alyssa Rosenberg, but she's way off the mark in her assessment of Jon Snow. But she's off in a way that reflects well on her character, reflects badly on mine, and highlights why structuralists love 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'
Alyssa considers Jon a "nation builder," who "does more to reconceptualize what Westeros should be than any of the five kings he’s stayed neutral from." She means, of course, Jon allowing the Wildlings into the Realm and even into the Night's Watch. That's, to her, an "astonishing act of political and moral vision." And this, I submit, is why the liberalism of sentiment is doomed to fail.
First, Alyssa ignores the expediency of what Jon did. The central strategic fact of the Night's Watch is its decline. Bereft of men, it can barely hold three posts along the wall. Sworn Brothers just fragged the Old Bear. And it would probably have fallen to Mance Rayder had Stannis not ridden to the rescue. There's a reading in which Jon's acts display "political and moral vision." But there's a far more compelling reading -- bolstered, textually, by his point-of-view explanations to himself -- in which Jon's acts display expediency. 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. It's for a King to redefine the realm, not a Lord Commander. You can't run a military if its top officer looks at his/her central task and decides, naahhh, we're gonna do it this way now.
Perhaps even more problematic is the incompetence Jon displays in his redefinition of the Night's Watch. He imposes radical change on his Sworn Brothers -- many if not most of whom did not vote for him -- without ever preparing them for what he does. Alyssa is being rather generous when she says Jon "stays neutral" from five kings. He garrisons Stannis, Selyse and that freaky monotheist priestess on the Wall, and lets them stay there. No one who doesn't have the privilege, as we do, of reading Jon's mind would view that as an act of neutrality. He ends ADWD by essentially aiding Stannis in a campaign to take Winterfell. To the average Sworn Brother, an accidental commander is turning the Night's Watch into an instrument of his own agenda, forsaking its most sacred obligations and traditions, and acting like Lord Stark, not Lord Snow. You would stab the guy, too!
We get to know that Jon's doing what he does for the good of the Watch and the Realm. The Walkers are out there, and only Jon sees that they're the real threat, not the Wildlings. Drastic times, drastic measures -- even if, as Aemon warned, Jon is also conflicted about his duties to Winterfell.
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.
So for a painfully slow year, DADT repeal went through a process of soliciting servicemember views, a craven political theater in which the service chiefs (minus Adm. Roughead) voiced their reservations, a successful congressional vote and now final certification. The early consequence? The Marines, the service most resistant to abolishing DADT, are leading from the top in training leathernecks to accept a post-DADT era. You know nothing, Jon Snow.
*Headline is referencing this. If you don't know, now you know.