A Companion Piece to The Wheel of Ka Episode 3
Written by Derek Jones
In 2019 American politics, two political parties are engaged in a drop-down fight for supremacy. With control over the White House and Senate, team Republican has the upper hand, while team Democrat holds the House. Both sides are engaged in a game-ified political dog fight to limit the power and popularity of the other; with the main event, the 2020 presidential election, casting a shadow over all. Regardless of whether they are seeking a Congressional seat or residence in the White House, Democrats are competing with each other in a cacophony of voices all trying to answer one fundamental question: “How can the Democrats regain power?” Indeed, a liberal can’t log into twitter without seeing dozens of think pieces, impressions, and quick takes on which candidate(s) will have the greatest odds at unseating the Republican hold on Washington (in the interest of transparency and disclosure, I am a member of the Democratic Party).
I can’t help but wonder what the first three books of the Dark Tower can teach us about our own politics. In particular, I seek to understand what Roland and the remaining few pockets of civilization in Mid-World mean when they state, “the world has moved on.” The phrase holds an ominous weight, as my intuition guides me to seeing the cross roads of the 2020 election, and as those who compete for the highest offices in American Government, as being able to shape the world in profound ways. Will they use the power to help the world move on? Is this a good thing or is this destructive? In particular, I’ll draw on some loose historical examples to understand better what is meant when a world has moved on. I do hope to gain some personal clarity around what Democrats should or could do—but I must admit to you all now: I do not have the answers. Just as Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower is murky, marked with uncertainty and doubt, so is this blog.
Starting with Mid-World, Stephen King gives us several signs that there was once a vibrant civilization before the time of Roland in the “Great Old Ones”. The “Great Old Ones” have left behind the artifacts of a once technologically advanced civilization, with music, culture, and politics which echo 20th-21st century America. Out of the ashes of the “Great Old Ones” comes the world of Gilead, the nation Roland grew up in, learned to shoot, to fight, and to defend his nation in a civil war against the rebel John Farson, aka, “The Good Man”. A war which Roland and his fellow Gunslingers loose, ending the nation of Gilead and leaving behind the empty deserts and the isolated towns of the first three books. From the prospective of Roland and the “Great Old Ones”, to say the world has moved on feels like a euphemism for the world has, in part, been destroyed. The phrase connotes a personal connection to this destruction. The world has moved on from Roland and he is not a part of, nor truly connected to, what the world has become. In other words, the world has moved on and left Roland behind. In this respect, the world moved on is an ending of sorts.
Does King mean to imply the world has completely ended? Mostly no. Although the Dark Tower is part post-apocalyptic, the apocalypse happened in the time of the “Great Old Ones” and Gilead rose from the ashes. Gilead was what the “Great Old Ones” world became after they moved on. And to Roland’s pain and dishonor, he was unable to keep Gilead from tearing itself apart, piece by piece till humanity is near extinct .
I’d like to take a quick look at two historical eras which highlight the destructive nature of a world moved on. Before I do this, I’d like to draw special attention to the philosophical context my academic and leisurely studies of history have produced. As I have grappled with the primary and secondary sources from various periods and eras, I have concluded that human history is long, complex, and even the greatest professional historians (which I am not) have disagreements interpreting evidence and facts. However, one general historical lesson about human civilization can be gained from studying everything from Mesopotamia to World World II: human civilization always stands on the precipice of its downfall.
Specifically, in the mid 5th century CE, the Roman Empire was split in two parts, the West (which is modern day western Europe) and the East (which held large territories from modern day Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa). Due to a long list of reasons scholars are still debating today, the western half of the Empire struggled to police its borders, and various tribes of Germanic military leaders carved up the western Roman Empire for themselves. As Rome fell in the West, so did the language, cultural, education and technological achievement of Rome, plunging the west into a dark age.
In 18th century France, the French people lived under a system of government called absolute monarchy. The King ruled without checks or balances and the French people were growing increasingly enraged at their monarch due to the lack of food, opportunity, and liberty. This boiled over when a group of angry Parisians stormed the Bastille and formed a revolutionary congress. King Louis the XVI attempted to work with the new congress while secretly plotting to have the Austrian Empire invade the country, kill the congress, and restore his supreme authority. When the King’s treachery was discovered, the French revolution decisively put Louis on the chopping block, ending the King’s life while shifting the absolute monarchical politics of Europe forever.
In both the late Western Roman Empire and the French Revolution, the world was about to face destructive change, change that alters the fundamental character of the world to come after, for better or worse. In the podcast, Steve speaks elegantly that the “Great Old Ones” are a metaphor for contemporary America; a society at the height of technological, economic, and artistic achievement on the precipice of its downfall. A downfall which would lead to Gilead; a dark age, where paper is more valuable then metal and few pockets of civilization stand. The institutions of the “Great Old Ones” that created units of knowledge and experience to be passed from one generation to the next, are gone and with it all the markers of advance civilization—such as the roads, trade, commerce, government, the list goes on and on—have disappeared from Roland’s world.
I have no way of knowing if America is at a similar cross road to the western Roman Empire, the French monarchy of the 18th century, or the “Great Old Ones” of Mid-World. But in its own way, the 2020 election feels as important as any event I’ve read in a history book. However, it is instructive to return to a question Steve and I ask ourselves in the podcast: “What does the Tower mean?” For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to say the Dark Tower is power and from this metaphor we can read the 2020 election as the quest for the Dark Tower. The Republicans are fighting to win, leaving many Democratic voters to urge the candidates to roll up their sleeves and start fighting fire with fire. In other words, what is the virtue in taking a moral high road if taking this road leaves one outside the boundaries of the Tower? If the Republicans will take stolen digital material and use it on the campaign trail, shouldn’t the Democrats likewise follow suit? If the Republicans will coordinate their messaging with a major news organization to spread disinformation, should the Democrats slander their opponents with similar ferocity divorced from evidence based reasoning?
I wonder what Roland would do. Roland is a consequentialist, meaning he judges the moral “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action based off of the consequences of said action (see the first Wheel of Ka Blog for more). In keeping with understanding the Tower as a metaphor for power, what will Roland do when he gets to the Tower? At the point of Book III, we readers do not have this answer, but it is highly suggested his aim is to use the Tower to reverse the world which has moved on— to make the world unmoved on. As a consequentialist, anything he does to this end is justifiable, even killing a child he loves and thinks of as a son. After all, when he gets to the Tower, he will use the power of the Tower to fix the world. From this lens, it would makes sense for Democrats to act as political Gunslingers, ready to decisively do what needs to be done to wrestle the White House away from the Republicans. Why should the Democrats be the one party of honesty and integrity when the other is in a zero sum win-at-all-costs political fight for supremacy? In short, many on the left are urging Democrats to fight like Roland.
I have no idea if the 2020 Democratic candidates should or should not surrender the moral high ground on their path to political power, but I have serious reservations. Democrats must ask themselves, what are they fighting for? Are they fighting to return to a world before the rise of Donald Trump?
If I could leap into the pages of the Dark Tower and tell Roland something, history buff to warrior, I’d say “once the world has moved on it never moves back.” The forces of destructive change that ends one civilization giving way to another, cannot be undone. No matter the power— once a world has moved on— it cannot move back. If Roland reaches the Tower and if he can heal the damage done to his world, then he will have done demonstrable good for many. But the world of Gunslingers has fallen and it will not return. For example, many tried to reclaim the title of Western Roman Emperor after the Empire’s collapse in the 5th century CE, including a new Franco/Germanic power called The Holy Roman Empire. However, the new Empire was Roman in name alone. And in the French Revolution, a young upstart Corsican military leader weaponized the rhetoric of the revolution and crowned himself the first Emperor of France. The general was Napoleon, who would spread the principles of the French Revolution at the point of a musket all over Europe. While there is a historical line from the fall of Rome, to the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire, to the French revolution culminating in the rise and fall of Napoleon, at no point could any individual with power return the world to where it was before it moved on.
Should the Democrats fight like Roland, with no holds barred and no quarter shown? I don’t know. I am not sure I know what the Democrats are fighting for yet, and I fear Americans are collectively deaf to the new America we are living in. After all, many of the great and terrible leaders in history are morally similarly to Roland, using power to achieve ends at any cost. However, it is important to note, even Roland wonders what acquiring the Dark Tower at the cost of his soul would mean:
I have no idea who will be the president in January 2021, but I am certain that person will have to pay hell to get there. I am equally unsure if America is at the precipice of its downfall, just as the “Great Old Ones” or Gilead were. But I do know I yearn for a leader who sees the world as it is, has a vision on how to improve it with a plan on how to execute, and who refuses to own hell to see their vision come to fruition. I want to see a leader who knows and articulates that once and if America moves on, it will never return.
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