Saturday, August 12, 2017

Lost Cause: Why HBO's "Confederate" is a Really Lousy Idea

  by Nomad


Controversy over "Confederate"

Recently HBO announced its plan to produce an alternative history called Confederate, which poses the question "What if the South had won the Civil War? What would America look like today?"

"What if..." has always been a source of great fiction but this decision sparked off a round of protests online. This was, many people felt, a really bad idea.
Co-creator David Benioff felt compelled to respond to the objections. He said that while he had "great respect" for critics, he also said that HBO also hoped that the public would "reserve judgment until there is something to see.”

Indeed, there isn't even a script yet. Benioff's comment might seem reasonable, at first glance. Yet. national correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, isn't buying it and explains why this bit of historical fiction is an idea whose time has not come.

In an op-ed piece entitled, The Lost Cause Rides Again, Coates points out that when HBO asks us to withhold premature judgment, isn't it being more than a little disingenuous?
... HBO does not actually want the public to reserve judgment so much as it wants the public to make a positive judgment. A major entertainment company does not announce a big new show in hopes of garnering dispassionate nods of acknowledgment. HBO executives themselves judged Confederate before they’d seen it—they had to, as no television script actually exists.
By making this announcement, Coates says, somebody at HBO decided that the idea- sight unseen- was worthy of investing millions and lots of time. It is impossible for the producers to claim that the script is so well-written or so timely that it is a story that needs to be told. They made their decision based only on the barest of outlines. So it is more than a little hypocritical for HBO to implore the public not to judge so early.
That's exactly what they themselves have done.

Still more cynically, the executives sought out a subject that would spark a mild and controllable negative reaction in the hopes of drawing an even larger audience. "Everybody's talking about it, so it must be worth watching."

Yet this is a subject in which, Coates notes, the problem of conception can not be fixed in execution. Meaning, the subject - which ever way it is presented- will be extremely problematic. Nobody needs a script in hand to understand that.

Hollywood's KKK Recruitment Film

In some ways, HBO's plan is just carrying on an old tradition. Hollywood has, for over a century, provided more than enough "well-executed, slickly produced epics" which presented a warped retelling of history and the myth of heroic South. In fact, film history cannot be reviewed without the inclusion.

The first of these adventures in myth-building was, of course, D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic "Birth of a Nation" which painted the defeated South as an occupied land and the KKK as the last heroic defenders of the South. 
DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is infamous now on many levels, rarely screened publicly, and has been consistently subject to picketing and boycotts since the moment it emerged. Structurally, it is a racist tract, pure and simple.
Griffith made the film as a work of propaganda, to reassure white Americans of their racial primacy, make reconstruction out to be a social catastrophe, and stoke up hatred against black folk more than 50 years after the end of the American Civil War.
It's not a historical coincidence that the US saw a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan around this time. 
Although the KKK had reemerged in the South in 1915, it wasn’t until after the end of World War I that the organization experienced a national resurgence. Membership in the KKK skyrocketed from a few thousand to over 100,000 in a mere ten months.
Local chapters of the KKK sprang up all over the country, and by the 1920s, it had become a truly national organization, with a formidable presence not just in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and all across the northern United States.
At its peak in the 1920s,, Klan membership exceeded 4 million people nationwide, with its densest per capita membership, not in the Deep South, but in Indiana. As America's most infamous and oldest hate group, the KKK targeted black Americans as its primary target, it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and, until recently, Catholics.

And Hollywood was the organization's unofficial recruiter.

The Much-Loved Racist Artifact

A generation later, Hollywood continued its tradition of feeding the false narrative with the film "Gone with the Wind" which successfully portrayed the rebellious slave-holding South as a victim.  

The film's portrait of slaves (whose enslavement was, after all, the casus belli for the war) presented as cartoonish figures in the background. The "good slaves" were the ones who stuck by the unrepentant plantation owner's petulant daughter. 

In the reality outside of Hollywood's myth-making and distortions, the free slaves- which Coates notes, comprised 40 percent of the Confederacy’s population, the South’s indispensable laboring class. Somehow, the sufferings of the white South became the central focus of the story.  

American film critic Lou Lumenick labeled the 1939 film “insidiously” racist for its portrayal of African-Americans, arguing that it “unabashedly romanticizes” slavery. When The Museum of Modern Art decided to screen the film, Lumenick said:
“Maybe that’s where this much-loved but undeniably racist artifact really belongs.”
HBO seems intent on stirring the pot one more time. Confederacy won't just be a fictional story about the South winning the Civil War at all, Coates contends. This is a story about the white minority of the South emerging victorious, made for a segment of the population that is still clutching at the false realities of both the past and the present.

And therein lies the reason why this production is going to be troublesome and likely to bring HBO as a lot of deserved negative publicity. 
Coates explains:
Hollywood has likely done more than any other American institution to obstruct a truthful apprehension of the Civil War, and thus modern America’s very origins. So one need not wait to observe that any foray by HBO into the Civil War must be met with a spirit of pointed inquiry and a withholding of all benefit of the doubt.
But isn't this all just a bit of harmless imagining? Aren't overly sensitive liberal snowflakes just agonizing about nothing? What's the problem? People can surely tell the difference between history and fiction, right? Right?

That kind of confidence in the wisdom of the public is on extremely shaky ground in the days of Trump's alternative facts in favor of the fallacious or distorted narrative some people might wish to believe.

The Unpunished and the Unrepentant

Coates writes that the facts of US history need to be stressed, not the fictions of screenwriters.
For while the Confederacy, as a political entity, was certainly defeated, and chattel slavery outlawed, the racist hierarchy which Lee and Davis sought to erect, lives on. It had to. The terms of the white South’s defeat were gentle. Having inaugurated a war which killed more Americans than all other American wars combined, the Confederacy’s leaders were back in the country’s political leadership within a decade. Within two, they had effectively retaken control of the South.
Here, Coates makes a very good point. It requires a short history lesson to fully appreciate.

After the 1865 murder of President Lincoln by a Southern sympathizer, actor John Wilkes Booth, the United States faced a very peculiar and undesirable situation. It had to do with the order of succession. 

With the end of the war in sight, Republican Lincoln had selected a member of the opposition party- a Democrat- as his running mate, Andrew Johnson, under the National Union Party. The new president Johnson, from Tennessee (a state that had allied itself with the rebellion), was perceived as being soft on the South.

In the post-Civil war era, the country was divided over policy, whether to punish the South for its disloyalty or, to initiate as quickly as possible a period of national healing.

The Republicans- who were then every bit as liberal and progressive as today's Democrats- were dead set against any move to grant amnesty to the South for its crime. Justice must, the Radical Republicans demanded, be served, even if that meant removing the Southern sympathizing president from office by impeachment. The rebellion had been, they argued, an act of armed treason, an attempt to overthrow the Republic by force, and should be punished accordingly.  

The president and his supporters felt very differently. The treatment of the leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, is a prime example of the policy Johnson advocated.

Despite his role in the rebellion which very nearly destroyed the nation, Davis spent only two years as a military prisoner at Fort Monroe near Norfolk, Virginia. Later, Davis was transferred to spacious quarters in the officers' hall and was allowed visitors and exercise. 
In May 1866, his wife, Varina Howell Davis, took up permanent residence at Fort Monroe. He was transferred to civilian custody on May 13, 1867, and then released on $100,000 bail.

In other parts of the country, the mood called for a little less mercy and a great deal more punishment. As one contemporary source writes:
All agree that he was guilty of treason, and if justice is done him, he has simply to go through the form of a trial by a judge and an impartial jury, be convicted, and hung as an example to all future time.
With the matter of Davis' treasons unresolved and a trial looming, on Christmas Day 1868, President Johnson released an amnesty proclamation issuing a pardon to all persons who had participated in the rebellion. That amnesty applied to all persons who had "directly or indirectly taken part in the rebellion, with the restoration of all rights of property except as to slaves." 

Discussion of reparations for former slaves in the form of financial compensation was never seriously discussed at the time. (In 2016, Coates published an article titled "The Case for Reparations", which discussed the continued effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws and made renewed demands for reparations.)

For the promise of national reconciliation, some argued, justice was sacrificed. The defeated South was allowed to hang onto its quaint and seemingly harmless myths that South was the victim of Northern aggression and that it would someday rise again.

As the Roman philosopher once observed that men freely believe that which they desire regardless of history and facts. And such people are often attracted to certain ideas until they are shown to be universally despised.

Here's a Jefferson Davis quote that demonstrates this pretty well, I think.

Think how that Davis' quote about resurgence must sound to any African-American citizen. To their ears, it is a little more than a threat but it is also a call for constant vigilance.

The wounds of the Civil war have never properly healed and continue to provide excellent political opportunities for a certain type of politician, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and now for Donald Trump.

Why This Alternative History is Different 

Defenders of HBO's decision point out this proposed production is not at all unique. One recent example, "Man in the High Castle" belonged also in the genre of "alternative history." In that instance, the tale revolves around a world in which the Axis powers of World War II had won and the US was defeated and partitioned.
(Fatherland, by English writer and journalist Robert Harris, was another example.)

However, as Coates observed, there are some important differences between the two alternative histories to consider. Only neo-nazis could seriously argue that the cause of the Nazis was a glorious and noble cause. For the rest of humanity, the evil that possessed the German nation is abundantly clear. And there is a reason for this clarity.

As "botched and imperfect" as they were, the Nuremberg trials after WWII, achieved what the victorious Union forces had not in the post -Civil war era, These proceedings served to establish a sense of justice for all those who suffered. The guilty were punished. The rule of law was re-established.  

Moreover, the Nuremberg trials had a profound long-term effect in bringing Germans back to democracy and humanity.
It was not just a matter of the victorious demanding revenge. The Germany people deserved justice too. The German nation had been left in ruins because of Nazi adventurism and the response it generated from the civilized world.
Following the trials, a nation, indeed a continent and the world, could move on.

In 1946, some hard lessons were learned but was the same true in 1865? Coates contrasts the two historical events.
Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.
America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. And one abettor in this strange exercise was Hollywood.
And it would seem that HBO plans to do it one more time. 

No Need for "What If" Tales

Coates' article points out HBO's lack of sensitivity as well. The creators might consider the Civil war dead history- cut and dried. But for African-Americans- the war will always be a personal story. It will always be a part of their heritage and so, deserves more respect.
African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that this “history is still with us... It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks.”
Furthermore, he notes, "at this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot."
The show’s very operating premise, the fact that it roots itself in a long white tradition of imagining away emancipation, leaves one wondering how “lost” the Lost Cause really was.
For too long, the surviving supporters of the Confederacy have been allowed to live in a white supremacy fantasyland. They have been allowed to proudly display their Confederate flags and bumper stickers celebrating a blood-soaked treason without any significant objection. With misplaced pride, they have been able to mainstream their false doctrines into the national discussion. 
All that has precluded any sense of accountability. 

Given the present climate of intolerance and racial instability, HBO's decision is bound to stir up this problem and do nothing whatsoever to pacify an already potentially explosive situation. It is distinctly possible that it will stoke the passions of an already resentful white America. 

Coates concludes his essay with:
We have been living with the lie for so long. And we cannot fix the lie by asking “What if the white South won?” and waiting for an answer, because the lie is not in the answer, but in the question itself.