Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Only U.S. Election Post (or why I'm watching Game of Thrones instead of the debates)

The U.S. election is in full swing, and like the two previous elections I've been in the States for, and like so many car accidents, it's hard to look away. I will say this about U.S. politics: it's freaking entertaining. After the emergence of the "forty-seven percent" video, it's so easy to deconstruct the libertarian mindset being advanced by this country-club millionaire and all the country-club millionaires that he represents, that it hardly even seems worth trying.

The problem is that after all the hoopla of the conventions, after all the speculation and the debates and the polls, what's really going to happen? Not in November, but in 2013, and in the next four years. Mitt Romney has been next to silent on what he would do as president, even if he won both the House and Senate. Barack Obama is pretty unlikely to get a House majority or a significant margin in the Senate, and we've already seen the best he could do when he had both: a health care bill so watered down that it may as well have been  a Republican proposal (and was, but let's not even go there).

The bottom line is that if you're concerned about the environment, about massive wealth inequality, about the rising cost of health care, or about high unemployment, you don't have much to be optimistic about. Barack Obama has talked big about all these things, but has been largely stymied by a Congress that refuses to cooperate, even when dominated by his own party. Mitt Romney talks about high unemployment in order to paint Obama in a bad light, but has been silent about what he's going to do to fix it. The only vaguely specific proposals we've gotten are some gestures towards reducing the size of government, which is at best unrelated to unemployment, and at worst disastrously counterproductive.

The whole thing resembles George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO TV drama based on it (called Game of Thrones) to such an extent that it almost boggles the mind that Martin conceived the story during the 1990s when (I'm told) things were much different. Actually, I'm quite certain that Martin meant the series to be an allegory of politics today, he just didn't realize when he was writing it that things would get so much worse.

If you're one of the approximately five people who hasn't heard of these books or the TV show, I will summarize the plot as briefly as I can: several warring houses fight over the throne of a very large kingdom. The series challenges the conventions of modern fantasy because the houses and the individual characters are not really good or evil. It's somewhat up to the reader to decide whom to root for, and anyone can lose (and when you play the game of thrones, we're reminded, you win or you die). The fight over the throne takes up the bulk of the books and is vividly entertaining, but there is another story occuring simultaneously. At the border of the kingdom, an ancient enemy of mankind has been reawakened and seems to be threatening its very existence. The only people opposing the wights are a ragged collection of criminals and outcasts who form a brotherhood charged with protecting the realm, but are all but ignored by the king and his rivals.

It may also not be an accident that the existential threat to the kingdom is weather-related. In Martin's world, the seasons are out of balance in an eccentric and unpredictable way, so that summers and winters each last years. Every so often, there is an especially harsh, and this is when the wights are most dangerous. The series seems to be building towards a climax where winter will hit and the wights will descend on a kingdom utterly consumed by a war over the throne, and thus unprepared to meet them.

As a reader, you revel in the disconnect: the fight for the throne is engrossing, and you want you favorite potential ruler to win it all. At the same time, you recognize that the whole thing may be utterly pointless, and that the real heros are fighting a doomed and unappreciated war at the edge of the known world. Sound familiar?

And that is why I'm trying, oh Lord how I'm trying, to ignore this election. I can't vote anyway, so being informed makes no difference. Nevertheless, the coverage is easy to get caught up in, and it's surprisingly fun to root for your team. But it's important to keep in mind that both candidates are men of summer, and winter is coming.

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