In defence of Sansa Stark

One of Game of Thrones least popular characters is also one of its most interesting

[Spoilers incoming]

Den of Geek recently ran an article on “Sticking up for the unpopular kids in geek TV’s playground.” Now I don’t think this was a wholly successful effort – it will take an awful lot to convince me Riley isn’t the dullest character in the Buffyverse – but the only reason I wasn’t won over by Juliette Harrisson’s defence of Sansa Stark was that I already agreed with her:

There are two main reasons Sansa Stark is not the most popular character on Game Of Thrones. One is that she plays a traditional female role, and unlike many of the show’s other female characters, she neither uses sexuality to further her own goals, nor does she reject femininity entirely and take on a masculine role. Sansa’s earnest attempt to survive as a relatively innocent young girl who just wants to get married and have babies is not of interest to everyone. But before we all cry sexism, it’s important to mention the other reason many fans hate her; the first thing she does in the series is betray fan-favourite Arya for the sake of universally loathed monster Joffrey, condemning an innocent boy and her own direwolf to death in the process. So why should we give her the time of day?

Well, she’s learned a lot since then – now she imitates her husband and responds to irritating lordlings with a slap. And Sansa has hidden depths. She may not want to pick up a sword, but the look of murder in her eyes as she contemplates shoving Joffrey off the battlements is a thing to behold. Her rebirth in season four may indicate that she will start to use her sexuality more, but honestly, we rather hope not. A woman’s story is not only of interest if she fights or seduces or has dragons; we’re interested in seeing how Sansa negotiates the dangerous world of Game Of Thrones on her own terms.

The only thing that I’d add is my personal theory that we shouldn’t view Sansa as a character in isolation. Rather I think we need to see her as paired with Cersei. Sansa’s arc is I would argue essentially the story of how a naive girl like the Sansa we meet in series 1 becomes a cynical and ruthless woman like Cersei.
This is perhaps most visible during their exchanges during the Battle of Blackwater. Clearly there is a sadistic element in Cersei’s behaviour: she is trying to shock and upset Sansa with her explanations of a woman’s grizzly options during the fall of a city. But she does also seem to be trying to give her a twisted education in how someone denied the ability to be a soldier can nonetheless fight for her survival.
And in the most recent series we see plenty of signs of this evolving Sansa: a young woman who will now collaborate with and cover up for a murderer to protect herself. This dynamic is not as obvious as say Arya’s transformation into an avenging angel but it’s all the more interesting for it.
P.S. Since I wrote this, I’ve now seen this interview with Sophie Turner, the actor who plays Sansa, in which she says that in the most recent series her character has emerged as “a really great manipulator” and picks out observing Cersei as one of the main influences on her transformation.

The Falklands War we forgot

There were more fatalities when Britain and Germany fought over the islands in 1914 than when Britain and Argentina did seventy years later.

Battle painting by William Lionel Wyllie

Despite the impression one might get from the violence in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine; war is on the decline. You are less likely to be a fatality of conflict now than in any other time in history.

This is a trend that’s especially pronounced for Western countries. In the most extreme cases we waged wars in Kosovo and Libya where the handful of fatalities suffered by our forces were the result of accidents rather than enemy actions.

To illustrate this point consider what happened on 8th December 1914. A squadron of German ships sailed into the waters of the Falklands Isles. They were intending to attack the British base at Port Stanley. However, it was an unusually clear day and the British forces could see them coming. The result was a one sided slaughter: the British lost ten men and no ships, whilst pretty much the entire German squadron was sunk with the loss of close to 2,000 men.

This was an event that was not without significance: it forced changes in Germany’s naval strategy and was the only battle of the World War to be fought in South America. However, it soon paled in comparison with the carnage of the Western and Eastern fronts. 2,000 fatalities in a single day was unremarkable in WWI: the British lost 20,000 men on the first day of the Somme. So despite our continuing fascination with the Great War; the Battle of the Falklands has largely been forgotten.

Yet while the 2,000 casualties in the South Atlantic  might have been a drop in the ocean of blood spilled in the first half of the twentieth century, it would still significantly outweigh the 255 Britons and 649 Argentinians killed the next time the Falklands would be fought over.

For all that events in places like Syria, Ukraine and Palestine might make the drive for peace seem futile, as a civilisation we’ve actually made good progress. When whole wars produce fewer casualties than afterthought battles that’s a sign of how far humanity has come.


Choosing the empty tomb (guest post)

 Round 5 of Matter of Fact’s running debate on the reasons for believing (or not believing) in the Christian message

Having started this whole thing off with her guest post on why she is a Christian, Helen surveys what’s been said in response:

A few months ago, I wrote an essay outlining my reasons for holding a Christian faith. I passed this onto Mark, and he volunteered to publish it on his blog. In general, I’ve felt honoured by the response that it received, and one of the most gratifying elements to that is that it has sparked a debate which has played out over the course of several Sundays on this site.

It was, to begin with, my firm intention to stay out of that debate; I had, I felt, said my piece. Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at staying out of debates. Moreover, I feel that the criticisms of my argument raised by Ed in the most recent contribution to this discussion (“Beauty’s got nothing to do with it”) were entirely fair, and I wanted to respond to them.

I don’t intend to respond to the majority of Robin’s argument (“One reason I’m an atheist”) in any detailed way, mainly because I feel that Mark’s own contribution (“Freedom and Beauty in Christianity”) says everything that I would like to say.

There were additionally a couple of comments made on Facebook that I might as well clear up since I’m breaking my resolution to stay silent.

There are, I think, four outstanding points that I would like to answer:

  • I mistook wanting something to be true for it actually being true. From the Facebook comments: “She seems to agree with Keats that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Unfortunately, the truth is often very ugly and falsehoods are often very beautiful. She also seems to think that the truth of a statement is a function of her ability to accept it.
  • I’m motivated by a desire to see people saved from Hell. From Robin’s post: “Believe in Christianity and you will be saved. This is what Helen says in her guest post on this blog.
  • That I selectively report the most positive aspects of the Christian message and, specifically, fail to address the problem of evil. From Ed’s post: “…the less beautiful aspects of the Christian story; those aspects which make it very clear that though there is great beauty in the universe, the universe itself is not therefore beautiful. Specifically, I’m going to try and highlight the one glaring omission from Helen’s account of the Christian narrative: that humanity rebelled in sinful pride against God, and in hiding themselves from God so damned themselves to live in a world within which He (for the most part) cannot be seen except through unpredictable, undefinable, and often undesired grace.
  • I’d also like to challenge Ed’s final point which is, as he puts it: “there aren’t any actual reasons to so believe other than God himself

So, in order of how easy I think these points are to address:

  • I don’t think this is a fair characterisation of my argument. What I attempted to explain was that, in the absence of a strong intellectual inclination one way or the other (and I listed some of the points which incline me towards atheism, and some of the points which incline me towards Christianity), I have chosen on another basis. My essay shouldn’t be read as an attempt to prove the existence of God, or the truth of Christianity – it was an attempt to explain my decision to live as a Christian, even in the constant presence of doubt. It wouldn’t be a gamble if I felt sure it was true.
  • While it is undoubtedly true that some Christians attempt constant evangelism because they want to rescue people from eternal damnation, I’m not one of them. I’m not quite a universalist; I don’t believe that salvation is automatic. However, I don’t believe that God withdraws the offer of salvation upon death (or ever), and I believe that means that everyone will eventually come to accept this offer. While it’s possible to support this position Biblically (Jesus preached to the dead; 1 Peter 3:19), I won’t pretend that that’s the reason that I argue for it. I do so because it’s the only position which is justifiable by my reading of broader Christian philosophy. In particular, it’s required by my belief in freedom of will and an omniscient God of love. Freedom of will, in that God doesn’t force us into relationship with him – we need to accept the offer of grace through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus willingly – so I don’t believe it’s possible to be saved without accepting that offer (and it’s clear that some people die without having done so). And I don’t believe that it’s consistent with an omniscient God of love that he would create anyone in the perfect foreknowledge that they would be eternally damned.
  • Let’s get certain things straight first of all. Suffering exists, and it is not distributed according to human morality. While it is possible for good things to come from great evil, it is even more possible for nothing good at all to arise from such situations; consider, for example, a cycle of abuse perpetuated by one who was brutalised in childhood. As Ed says “The world as it is does not run according to a divine plan, but is governed by human caprice and natural accident.

It is not possible to live on Earth without being aware of these facts. Even more, it is not possible to espouse Christianity without being aware of these facts. According to Christianity, much suffering is the result of human sin (that is, misuse of the freedom that we have been granted by God), and the result of this sin is to separate us from God, who is wholly good. Since God is life, separation from God through sin is death. In order to overcome this death, God took human form in the incarnation and was killed.

This claim is central to Christianity, and impossible to ignore; we re-enact the breaking of Jesus’ body and the spilling of his blood every time we take communion. At the heart of Christianity is the tortuous murder of an innocent person.

Ed claims that this is not beautiful. It is true that the reality of sin and suffering is ugliness and horror. But what follows the crucifixion is a victorious resurrection, by which the Son of God triumphs over death.

I don’t think that the horror of sin and death overwhelms the beauty of a narrative which states, not that sin is punished or forgotten, but rather that it may be forgiven, redeemed and atoned. I don’t think it overwhelms the beauty of a God who knows the reality of human suffering. Even in the darkest of evil times, God truly stands beside us – because he too has been betrayed, humiliated and has died an agonising death. Death separates us from all that we have loved; but it is temporary, and the victory of Jesus promises a redeemed world, free from evil. I don’t think that this is a pretty story – I think it is a beautiful one, because by it the ugly is not swept aside or ignored, but acknowledged and overcome. This is what I think is unique to Christianity.

What can’t be so neatly addressed is natural evil. Sometimes suffering occurs, not by any misuse of human freedom, but by the random chance of the natural world. Sometimes, an earthquake causes a tsunami which washed thousands of people out to sea. Sometimes, a volcano erupts and buries a town. Sometimes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts or disease will ravage communities. Why?

There is no adequate explanation in the Christian tradition. A promise of a better world does not negate the immense reality of suffering today.

  • Ed’s final conclusion is that there is no reason to believe in God; you either do, or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s nothing that you can do – you just don’t. He claims that the traditional arguments for the existence of God fail, and that all that one is left with is divine revelation: “It’s more a question of whether or not, when push comes to shove, you believe in a God who can only be believed in on the basis of His own revelation. Do you trust in that revelation, when it doesn’t have and couldn’t have any reason beyond itself to support it?

I dislike this, because by this measure, I’m excluded from Christianity. I don’t have an instinctive sense of belief. Ed says that the only way to answer “yes” to this question is to say “I pray that I do” – and indeed, I do – but, as yet, I still don’t have an instinctive sense of belief. I don’t think that means that I’m not a Christian.

Moreover, I can’t condone believing that something is universally true solely because you have a personal sense that it’s right – because if God exists, he exists for everyone, and it’s horribly unjust that some people receive this revelation that he exists, and others are excluded from it.

More importantly, I think that this violates free will (in Ed’s essay, he speaks of “undesired grace”) which, as I’ve already  described, is crucial to other aspects of my Christian thought – if you don’t get to choose whether or not you have faith (and Ed is very clear that he believes that salvation is only through faith, not work – “The cruelty we manifest throughout our lives is not an unhappy accident which we can purge ourselves of through our works (especially our faith, when we turn that faith into a work)”), then you don’t get any control over whether or not you enter into relationship with God. In which case we’re back to a capricious, unjust God who creates sinners for no reason – since, in this world, free to sin does not equate to free to enter a meaningful relationship with God – and gives them no chance of redemption – since this is only possible through faith, which is only accessible to a select few (or maybe an elect few). This isn’t my God, and I don’t think this is the God of Christianity.

And, furthermore, as I’ve already described, I do think that there are reasons to believe in God (“My wager with the universe”).

Hopefully, that concludes my contributions to this debate! I’m aware, however, of some unexplored dimensions of this discussion. One question that has yet to be resolved is the status of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God – Ed, why do you think they are all self-defeating?

How planning turns cities into luxury goods

“Since 1990, the San Francisco Bay Area has grown more slowly than the nation as a whole. Strict housing regulations make it difficult to expand the housing stock. So rather than creating a tide that lifts all boats, Silicon Valley’s millions have pushed housing prices up and non-wealthy San Franciscans out.” Matthew Yglesias

Planning was meant to be a progressive project which ensured that land was harnessed for the best use of the community but instead it’s excluding all but the the richest from successful cities.

For better or worse, much of what the Clement Attlee’s great reforming Labour government did has not endured. The NHS does of course but the ‘commanding heights of industry’, the utilities and much else beside are back in private ownership.

Of what is left one of the most significant components is the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. It is this Act that required private landowners to get planning permission for developments on their own property. It also allowed local authorities to create ‘Green Belts’ that limited the spread of cities outwards.

This had the progressive intention of constraining the power of landowners. Despite this it is turning into a social disaster.

Research by Economists Ed Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko has shown that by tougher ‘zoning laws’ (what the Americans call planning laws) inhibit the building of extra homes and that creates a scarcity which pushes the price of homes up.

To see the damage this does Matthew Yglesias invites us to:

compare San Francisco today to Detroit a century ago. San Francisco is in the midst of a boom driven by information technology, just as Detroit was in the midst of an automobile-driven boom in the early 20th Century. Yet these booms have had dramatically different effects on the cities where they occurred.

In 1900, a few years before Henry Ford founded his auto company, the Detroit metropolitan area had around half a million people. By 1920, the population had almost tripled to 1.4 million, and it grew to 2.5 million people by 1940. Thanks to the booming auto industry, Detroit grew a lot faster than the nation as a whole. Those extra 2 million people weren’t just workers on Henry Ford’s assembly lines — they included barbers, schoolteachers, doctors, janitors, waitresses, and others providing services to the growing population of middle-class auto workers.

Since 1990, the San Francisco Bay Area has been experiencing a similar economic boom. Google, Facebook, and hundreds of other new technology companies are creating thousands of new jobs. Increasingly affluent engineers want haircuts, restaurant meals, remodeled kitchens, medical care, schools for their children, and so forth, just as auto workers did a century ago. Ordinarily, you’d expect workers across the income distribution would flock to the Bay Area to provide these kinds of services. The population of the Bay Area should be swelling.

But that mostly hasn’t happened. Since 1990, the San Francisco Bay Area has grown more slowly than the nation as a whole. Strict housing regulations make it difficult to expand the housing stock. So rather than creating a tide that lifts all boats, Silicon Valley’s millions have pushed housing prices up and non-wealthy San Franciscans out. Over the last two decades, a lot of them have left the area for fast-growing places like Phoenix and Las Vegas. The job opportunities there aren’t as good, but you can afford to buy a house on a middle-class salary.

Creating a situation where the only people who can afford to live near well paying jobs are those who already have them is a terrible break on social and boost for inequality. Nor is it just an American problem as concerns about ‘Shordification‘ and ‘supergentrification‘ show. The price per square foot for housing in San Francisco is actually lower than in most London Boroughs.

When a typical resident of Barnet has to pay 12 and a half years salary to buy a house we really need to start wondering if we are putting too high a price on protecting views, rare bat colonies and the like and not enough on actually giving people places to live.

What happened when Rhode Island accidentally legalised prostitution?

The World Health Organisation has called for sex work to be decriminalisedVox presents some interesting evidence for why this might be a good idea. It comes from a rather embarrassing slip up by Rhode Island’s politicians:

The state’s legislature amended a law in 1980, believing that the law inadvertently outlawed some forms of consensual sex between adults. That amendment created a legal loophole — one that sat unnoticed until 2003, when a District Court judge interpreted it to mean that paying for consensual sex was not a criminal offense in Rhode Island, not if it took place privately indoors. It took the state until 2009 to close the loophole. The state’s little legal accident was a bit embarrassing. But it did have a silver lining: it could serve as a “natural experiment,” allowing researchers to estimate causal effects of decriminalizing sex work. In a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah look at the six years when residents knew prostitution in Rhode Island wasn’t a crime. And they show evidence that Rhode Island’s decriminalization caused a steep decline in both forcible rape offenses and the incidence of gonorrhea.

In the interests of fairness I should say that this post goes on to add some caveats, the most important of which is that we don’t know why decriminilisation resulted in a reduction in rape and gonorrhea. That said it is still a pretty striking. None of this of course means we have to like prostitution – I certainly don’t – but it does suggest that (like with drugs) criminalising it will not get rid of it but may well make it more dangerous.

5 reasons I loved the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Last week I blogged that I was “pant wettingly” excited about this film. It didn’t disappoint! In 2011, the classic sci-fi series was rebooted with the Rise of the Planet of Apes. It was the story of a scientist who while trying to cure Alzheimer’s creates a race of superintelligent apes and unleashes a virus that decimates humanity. Dawn is set a decade after the Rise. While human civilization has all but collapsed, the apes have built their own society in the hills around San Francisco. When this new community comes into contact with plague survivors it becomes apparent that on both sides there are those looking to start a war. As this all plays out it also becomes obvious to the audience that they are watching the smartest and most engaging blockbuster since the Dark Knight. Here are some of the reasons it is so great: 1. The Apes When Andy Serkis first donned face dots and spandex to play Gollum, he had to be on a sound studio rather than with the others actors. Now a little over a decade later it’s possible to shoot armies of startlingly realistic apes on location. The filmmakers use this ability to put vast numbers of apes on screen to show us a fully functioning society: we go on hunt with them, see them building and even see ape classrooms. It is one of the most convincing sci-fi worlds I have seen in a long time. 2. The opening montage It’s a really clever way to start the film and recap the events of the Rise. Through some clever editing we get the chilling sound of actual politicians and newsreaders responding to the virus sweeping the world. 3. Andy Serkis/Caesar I raved about Serkis last week and I am going to do it. You absolutely believe he has the charisma to be a revolutionary leader and father of a new civilisation. 4. Toby Kebbell/Koba As a contrast to the nobility of Caesar, we have Koba: a chimp traumatised by having been experimented on by humans and therefore unable to imagine living in peace with them. It’s a performance that is simultaneously affecting and unsettling. It’s going to make anyone who – like me – supports animal testing feel queasy: I know I can explain why it’s right but I’m just not sure I could ever explain that to an animal that had been experimented on! 5. Action The Dawn is a sci-fi drama not an action film. That notwithstanding the action scenes are excellent. From the opening scene of the apes hunting to Kobar and Caesar’s brutal final duel they are all stunning. 6. War and Peace As I write this Israeli troops and Hamas fighters are clashing in Gaza and killing dozens of civilians in the process. Apes and humans are a pretty good metaphor for that or any number of conflicts. We see how easily suspicion spreads, how what seem like sensible precautions to one side can seem menacing to another and how easily a handful of people bent on conflict can drag their societies down that path. Verdict: 9/10 –This is a magnificent movie with a classic hero, a memorable villain, awe inspiring set pieces and smart things to say. In short, believe the hype!