Nietzsche, Trump, Football, and Game of Thrones
By Edwardo Pérez
“Bend the knee.” This seemed to be Daenerys Targaryen’s catchphrase in Game of Thrones’ seventh season and even though the season ended on August 27th, the phrase continues to resonate in many different ways. Certainly, much had been said about kneeling since Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the playing of the national anthem at a pre-season game last year and since President Trump criticized kneeling at a rally in Alabama on September 22nd of this year. Somehow, the NFL, the national anthem, the American flag, and the definitions of patriotism and respect have consumed our political discourse, dividing us into two camps: those who stand and those who kneel.
It’s an issue that’s now starting to affect our education system – given that Louisiana’s Bossier Parish Superintendent has encouraged thirty-four schools to make student athletes stand for the national anthem (or face punishment), while the Air Force Academy Superintendent told students to “get out” if they cannot respect each other’s differences.
So, how do we choose? What do we teach our children about this moment? How did Jon Snow choose in Game of Thrones? And, what lesson does the philosophy behind his choice reveal?
Let’s begin with a brief explanation of Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism. As Nietzsche explains in his Genealogy of Morals, “there is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our concept of this thing, our objectivity, be.”
In other words, we can only initially know what our perspective observes. To know more, to move from subjectivity to objectivity, we need to see beyond ourselves and see what others see. For Nietzsche, the goal is to “control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge.” Or, if we make Nietzsche’s observation prescriptive, we need to be able to do three things: (1) know that what we know is limited; (2) be willing to expand what we know; and (3) be willing to change our positions based on new information. To illustrate this further, let’s return to Game of Thrones and examine Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.
At the end of the sixth season, Jon Snow was named The King in the North by all the northern lords. He didn’t run for office or seek this post, he simply led the defeat of Ramsey Bolton in a “Battle of the Bastards” to recapture the northern capital of Winterfell. And, thanks to Lady Mormont’s ringing endorsement, all the northern lords decided to “bend the knee” for Jon Snow and House Stark.
It made sense. Jon proved himself a capable leader, willing to risk his own life for his people. In turn, the northerners didn’t just make him king, they trusted that he would continue to defend the north and look out for their interests. Their decision to bend the knee wasn’t just taken out of respect and admiration for Jon, it was taken because their perspectives were changed. Prior to the battle with Ramsey, Jon Snow was just a bastard son and several houses did not lend their support. After the battle, those houses realized Jon was more than just a bastard, he was a man worthy of being king. As Lord Glover says to Jon, when he admits that he regrets not supporting Jon, “A man can only admit when he was wrong, and ask forgiveness.” Magnanimously, Jon replies, “There’s nothing to forgive,” a gesture that endears him to the other northern houses, cementing his status as a worthy king.
So, when Daenerys Targaryen summons Jon Snow to meet with her early in the seventh season, Jon decides to go (against the wishes of everyone) and he makes this decision because, from his perspective, it offers him a chance to seek her help in defeating a common enemy: the zombie army known as the White Walkers. It’s an unpopular but strategic decision. Jon wants Daenerys to lend the north a dragon or two (and maybe a few thousand soldiers) to help fight the zombies. It’s important to note that Jon is one of few people who’ve seen the White Walkers – so, when he tells the northerners (and Daenerys when he first meets her) about the zombies, everyone is skeptical – they don’t have Jon’s perspective, they don’t know what he knows.
For the northerners, there’s also the fear that Jon will submit to Daenerys and “bend the knee” because in northern history, that’s happened before, that’s their perspective. Jon doesn’t, not at first. In fact, his steadfast devotion to his people compels him to stand before Daenerys rather than kneel. It’s highly symbolic. Standing, he’s her equal – monarch to monarch. Kneeling, he’s her subject and by extension, so are his people. So, he can’t kneel because kneeling is surrendering and he’s not about to betray the north (who just made him king) to a woman many in the north view as a foreign invader. As Jon says to Daenerys: “I mean no offence, your Grace, but I don’t know you. As far as I can tell your claim to the throne rests entirely upon your father’s name and my own father fought to overthrow the mad king.”
Indeed, Jon’s perspective – based on his knowledge of history and the Targaryen family – is justified. Daenerys’s father (the Mad King) was a brutal ruler and no one wants another Targaryen to sit on the throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms. Kneeling is bad enough, kneeling for a Targaryen is unthinkable.
It’s worth noting that Jon isn’t choosing to stand before Daenerys as her equal because he craves power or desires to ultimately sit on the Iron Throne and rule all seven kingdoms – that’s not Jon’s goal. His goal is simply to protect the north (and the seven kingdoms) and at the beginning of the seventh season that requires standing, not kneeling.
Initially, Daenerys is angered and even surprised that Jon won’t “bend the knee” (because from her perspective most men find her so attractive they’d do just about anything she commands). It’s a testament to Jon’s character – he’s clearly smitten with her but his honor wins out.
Jon and Daenerys are also both right in their perspectives – he can’t bend the knee to someone he doesn’t know and she can’t lend her dragons and soldiers to someone she doesn’t know. He won’t win her support if he doesn’t bend the knee and he won’t consider bending the knee unless she gives support (and if he bends the knee he’ll likely lose the support of his own people). It’s a dilemma because doing nothing doesn’t solve the zombie problem and doing the wrong something might create more problems. But then things change. Or, rather, perspectives change (like in Beauty and the Beast, when Belle and Beast begin to see each other differently – only Jon isn’t really a beast, he’s just a brooding heartthrob).
As the narrative plays out, Daenerys comes to see Jon’s position. In doing so, she becomes sympathetic to his perspective to the point that she eventually decides to help him fight the White Walker army whether he bends the knee or not (he wins her over with his selfless heroism on full display throughout the season – he practically takes on the entire White Walker army by himself as she watches, impressed by his valor). And that’s when Jon decides to bend the knee – because he realizes, after he got to know Daenerys and see things from her perspective, that she’s worth it (she wins him over with her selfless sacrifice – she rides her largest dragon to save Jon and loses one of her other dragons in the process). Jon even comes to believe that when his people see what he sees – that she’s a savior, not a conqueror – they’ll come around to her side.
What’s significant is that Jon and Daenerys follow Nietzsche’s instruction. For Jon, kneeling started out as a symbol of surrender and it became a symbol of devotion. For Daenerys, kneeling started out as a symbol of her authority and it became a symbol of unity. Both Jon and Daenerys change their perspectives when they gain knowledge, they become less subjective and more objective. They’re also willing to change. It’s a beautiful scene to see a typically proud Daenerys offer her support and to see a typically stubborn Jon offer to bend the knee. It’s a vulnerable and telling moment for both characters, one that perhaps gives us an example to follow. Let’s now see how all of this relates to Trump and the NFL.
Trump argues that kneeling during the playing of the national anthem is disrespectful and unpatriotic – to the country and especially to those who served in uniform. Trump is trying to appeal to the ethos associated with the military, which reveres the flag, the national anthem, and the sense of nationalism and patriotism rooted in American Exceptionalism and America First ideologies. This position is so strongly held, that anything opposed to it is judged and labeled as disgraceful and wrong (to the point that there should be consequences).
Trump’s side has a very clear definition of what it means to be patriotic and nationalistic: flag and country first, anything else is a desecration of American values and of the men and women (from military to first responders) who serve the country in defense of those values. Like Daenerys’s initial position, it’s about acknowledging and respecting authority (of course, Daenerys wants kneeling and Trump wants standing, but they want what they want for the same reasons). For Trump, it’s also about honor, especially to those who’ve served (and died for) the country – we owe it to them to stand, not kneel. Jon’s initial thinking was similar – he owed it to the northerners to stand, not kneel.
On the NFL side, players who kneel maintain two positions: first, that kneeling is a form of silent, peaceful protest done in observance of the inequality and racial injustice that has plagued our nation since its founding and continues to this day because the flag, as they see it, doesn’t represent everyone in our society; second, that choosing to kneel is a constitutional right guaranteed by the first amendment and therefore it is not only respectful of the nation, it honors (as much as standing does) those who served and fought to uphold our freedoms. This side is appealing to a different cultural ethos, a different definition of patriotism, a different conception of nationalism, and a different history associated with the nation. For this side, it’s not only appropriate to kneel, it’s practically a duty – it’s the very reason we exist as a nation in the first place, because we valued liberty so much that we were willing to revolt against our government and forge a new nation for the sake of being free (to believe, to think, to love, to worship, to live, to fill-in-the-blank).
Both sides believe they’re right to hold their respective positions – and, to be fair, both sides have compelling arguments that make sense from their perspectives. Perhaps, by the way, this is why Facebook lists seventy-one choices for gender or why late-night comic Chelsea Handler satirically listed seven types of racists in America on her Sept. 15 episode (white supremacist; white nationalist; neo-Nazi, neo-confederate; unintentional racist; black white supremacist; and white black supremacist). Our perspectives matter so much that we need to be able to differentiate ourselves with our own label or qualify existing labels with the right adjective. After all, we’re supposed to be a pluralistic society, right?
So, Trump is right because in his worldview football players are employees and team owners are bosses. In Trump’s experience, that means players can be reprimanded or fired as the bosses see fit – employees aren’t allowed to think or protest or revolt, they’re only job is to do what they’re told. Trump doesn’t recognize anything else, nor does he feel the need to recognize anything else. From Trump’s perspective, that’s not what bosses do.
From Colin Kaepernick’s worldview, kneeling (protesting) is an exercise of freedom. This is important because freedom isn’t guaranteed, it’s something that has to be continuously fought for (through a Civil War, through opposition to Jim Crow laws, through the passage of Civil Rights legislation, and through protesting Police shootings). From this point of view, saying Black Lives Matter isn’t saying no one else’s lives matter, it’s saying black lives have never mattered in this nation and it’s time they did.
Of course, there is a difference in the comparison between Daenerys and Jon and Trump and the NFL. Daenerys and Jon were willing to expand their perspectives and change their views. Trump isn’t willing to change, nor is he willing to learn. He doesn’t care to understand the perspective of those who kneel. He simply wants people to stop kneeling and start standing because that’s the only perspective he sees. His problem is that he thinks he’s right. As we said earlier, he is right, but only in the limited perspective of his view. If he were an ordinary citizen, perhaps that would be enough. But as Jon and Daenerys show us, being a ruler requires considering the perspectives of those you rule. That’s why Jon didn’t want to bend the knee but it’s also why he did. It’s why Daenerys wanted Jon to bend the knee and it’s also why she sacrificed a dragon to save him. Jon and Daenerys held and changed their positions based on what was best for those they rule.
Of course, as psychologist Carl Rogers observed, it’s not easy for us to change our beliefs because we tend to see change (and the positions of our opponents) as threatening our identity and integrity. To be fair, Jon initially posed a threat to Daenerys and Daenerys posed a threat to Jon. And, it seems as if Trump and the NFL see each other as threats. The trick, as Nietzsche notes, is to learn how to dispose of the binary us vs. them, good vs. evil thinking that clouds us – that’s what Jon and Daenerys had to do.
To the credit of the NFL, their protests (especially those on Monday Night Football by the Cowboys and Cardinals and on Thursday Night Football by the Packers and Bears) have tried to find a balance that respects the concerns of both sides – locking arms, kneeling, and observing things prior to and during the playing of the anthem. This at least shows, as Nietzsche observes, a willingness to incorporate the knowledge of as many sides as possible and then choose the best option in the given situation. They’re trying to see through the binary and embrace the plural.
Right now, things seem chaotic and we have no idea how all of this will ultimately play out. If the NFL’s response is any indication (or if the relationship between Jon and Daenerys reflects the sentiment of our contemporary culture, suggesting a desire for unity rather than division) then perhaps there’s hope that we’ll find our way out of the chaos.
Back in the third season of Game of Thrones, the character of Littlefinger explained to Lord Varys that “Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them.” For Littlefinger, chaos is a matter of perspective. You can see it as disorder or you can see it as opportunity. In Nietzsche’s perspective, we must have chaos in ourselves “to give birth to a dancing star.” Here, too, chaos is not confusion, it’s clarity – it’s the result of seeing multiple competing perspectives and choosing which one works. Trump can’t see it because he’s on top of Littlefinger’s ladder (and it’s scary looking down). For the rest of us, we either kneel until we’re all able to stand or we stand together, arms locked in unity for the sake of those who kneel. Perhaps that’s the wall Trump will unwittingly end up building. A human chain from sea to sea.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Game of Thrones, Seasons 1 – 7. HBO.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufman, Vintage, 1989.
Rogers, Carl. The Carl Rogers Reader. Ed. Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Land Henderson, Mariner Books, 1989.