Why Laura Roslin is a Tyrant, and Why That’s a Good Thing
(aka a meta I’ve been sitting on for a long time now but it’s timely again because we’re talking about this again)
In ancient Greece, tyrants were influential opportunists that came to power by securing the support of different factions of a deme, or people, in a democracy, thus usupring the democracy and replacing it with an autocratic regime. The word “tyrannos”, possibly pre-Greek carried no ethical censure; it simply referred to anyone, good or bad, who obtained executive power in a polis by unconventional means. Support for the tyrants came from the growing middle class and from the peasants who had no land or were in debt to the wealthy landowners.
It is true that they had no legal right to rule, but the people preferred them over kings or the aristocracy. The Greek tyrants stayed in power by using mercenary soldiers from outside of their respective city-state. To mock tyranny, Thales wrote that the strangest thing to see is “an aged tyrant” meaning that tyrants do not have the public support to survive for long. The political theorist Livy (and later Machiavelli, in the 1400s) wrote that tyranny was often looked upon as an intermediate stage between narrow oligarchy and more democratic forms of polity. I’ve already written a lot about the various stages the colonial government goes through, and that can be read here.
Laura Roslin is a tyrant. To say otherwise is to be pedantic, in my opinion.
Her actions are those of a tyrant. Her power, before securing the demos through the prophecy, is very limited, to the point where she’s battling with the Quorum more than we see Adar doing in the flashbacks. Roslin knows in Season One that her power is tenuous. It’s why she relies so heavily on Adama, and it’s why when Adama decides he doesn’t want her to be in power anymore, he succeeds.
Laura Roslin is an unelected official from beginning to end. She’s 43rd in the line of succession. In the United States, if the Hill was blown up during the State of the Union with everyone but the Secretary of Agriculture inside, a special election would be triggered by a Constitutional crisis triggered by the 20th or 25th amendments. Roslin holds onto power by emergency means. She then loses an election, tries to steal it, and becomes president a year later by factions wanting her in power. Roslin never secures long-term political power. Her position is weak and she knows it. She leans heavily on Adama, she leans heavily on the suspension of human rights like the freedom of assembly and the freedom of the press. She tortures Baltar and tortures cylons. She commits what are considered to be war crimes. Her power does not derive from the people, it derives from herself, and her oppression and utilization of others.
Dirty Hands is the epitome of her power, and it rests on Adama’s security (in opposition to her vulnerability) as the head of the military. Adama is her muscle. He enacts violence in Dirty Hands, he is the one who makes Zarek resign, he is the one who checks her power against Baltar, after torturing him on her orders.
Roslin is a tyrant, and her power waxes and wanes. As all tyrants’ power does. Their life spans are short – sic semper tyrannus. It’s ironic, in a way, that you can’t tell if her tyranny began with her diagnoses or if her diagnoses spurred her tyranny. But her power is real, and Roslin wields it in a way that oppresses people for the sake of finding Earth, and for the sake of consolidating her own power as well. The mutiny had immense support for a reason – Zarek and Gaeta’s complaints were not illegitimate. Her tyrannical means increased after New Caprica because she felt helpless, and exposed. She feels too comfortable in season four, which is why the mutiny is somewhat successful. By season four the Quorum is entirely marginalized, Roslin is actively trying to suppress civil rights, and is no longer engaged with the demos. Of course people rebelled against her.
But that’s the great thing about Laura Roslin. She’s a schoolteacher, someone we (and Bill Adama) immediately code as harmless, but good. But she’s not. She ceased to be the little schoolteacher the minute she got that diagnosis, as we saw in Epiphanies. The attacks just completed the transformation. We know – unlike Gaeta, and Zarek, and the mutineers – that her motives are good. We know from the narrative she really is the prophet.
That’s the great thing. BSG hands us the decision ourselves to decide if Laura’s tyranny was worth it. It doesn’t shy away from making us make that question, while still making her a completely sympathetic character. Laura Roslin is a tyrant. She can be cruel, and oppressive, and cold. She can also be generous, and compassionate; loving and maternal. She’s not a cartoon villain. And yes, the modern usage of the word tyrant applies to character in a way it never did to the ancient use of the word. But BSG deals in ancient narratives, so that’s how we need to treat Laura Roslin. Just like how we call Kara a messiah, and head!Six and head!Baltar angels, and the all of BSG the story of the flood and the fall.
Laura Roslin is a tyrant, and it’s a really good thing and we should be excited to talk about it.