Bastards, Immigrants, and Misanthropes
By Bryan Caplan
In the Game of Thrones series, people use the term “bastard” literally. If your parents weren’t married when you were born, you’re a bastard. While bastards are common in Westeros, everyone looks down on them for the crime of existing. In one scene, Catelyn Stark meets a charming mountain guide, but her delight suddenly turns to disgust:
She sounded so cocky that Catelyn had to smile. “Do you have a name, child?”
“Mya Stone, if it please you, my lady,” the girl said.
It did not please her; it was an effort for Catelyn to keep the smile on her face. Stone was a bastard’s name in the Vale, as Snow was in the north, and Flowers in Highgarden; in each of the Seven Kingdoms, custom had fashioned a surname for children born with no names of their own. Catelyn had nothing against this girl, but suddenly she could not help but think of Ned’s bastard on the Wall, and the thought made her angry and guilty, both at once. She struggled to find words for a reply. (A Game of Thrones)
Why exactly do the people of Westeros so despise bastards? Stereotypes say they’re not to be trusted:
They still think me a turncloak. That was a bitter draft to drink, but Jon could not blame them. He was a bastard, after all. Everyone knew that bastards were wanton and treacherous by nature, having been born in lust and deceit. (A Storm of Swords)
As you read the stories, though, two things become clear: First, moral standards are so low that bastards couldn’t be much worse on average than non-bastards. Second, bastards endure more scorn for merely being bastards than non-bastards endure for blatantly heinous behavior.
What then is the real reason why the people of Game of Thrones loathe bastards? Given the cultural chasm between our world and theirs, the answer is obvious: Misanthropy. The people of Westeros loathe bastards for existing. Complaints about their “treachery” are little more than rationalizations for blanket negativity toward people who were born the wrong way.
Yet why would people want to impugn the very existence of bastards? Given the cultural chasm, the answer is again fairly obvious. Bastards serve crucial psychological and social functions. Psychologically, every non-bastard can automatically feel superior to every bastard. Socially, every non-bastard can automatically expect the people around them to affirm their sense of superiority. If you call a particular person a bastard, there’s a slight chance he’ll push back; but I can’t recall a single sentence where someone stood up for bastards in general.*
In our society, we’re more likely to feel slightly sorry for bastards than scorn them. Political correctness has strangely failed to banish the word “bastard”; Google Ngram actually shows that the word has enjoyed a major comeback in recent decades. But almost no one denounces people because their parents weren’t married on the day they were born.
Before we pat ourselves on the back, though, we should reflect. We may be largely free of contempt for bastards. But does our society have a substitute target for misanthropy? I say we do. Illegal immigrants – actual and potential – serve the same psychological needs and fill the same social role in the modern United States as bastards do in Westeros.
Consider how the typical American reacts when he discovers that someone is an “illegal immigrant.” He’s a lot like Catelyn Stark when she discovered that Mya Stone was a bastard. What suddenly matters is not the content of the person’s character, but how the person came to be. The fact that the person is helpful, even charming, does not redeem him.
In both cases, again, there is a long list of specific complaints. But our double standard is as plains as theirs. The clearest proof: Americans would rather exile a peaceful, hard-working foreigner than a native-born violent criminal. Indeed, most would strongly favor the former and strongly oppose the latter.
George R.R. Martin still has two Game of Thrones books left to write. Before the end, perhaps a character will finally proclaim the truth: The bastards of Westeros are far more sinned against than sinning. Most bastards are neither “wanton” nor “treacherous,” but everyone who scorns bastards is morally blind at best. If the first five books are any guide, though, this isn’t going to happen. Martin’s fantasy world is like the real world: Human beings habitually make half-baked misanthropic complaints – and almost never take a good hard look in the mirror.
* I’m currently 300 pages into book five, so any counter-examples in the final 700 pages impugn my forecasting, not my memory.