Imagining Confederate – What could go wrong?

HBO’s announcement of a new project in planning, spearheaded by David Benihoff and D. B. Weiss of Game of Thrones fame, was met with a bit of controversy. The show is set in an alternative history of the post-civil-war United States, in which the confederate side won the conflict. An appealing idea for some, a worrying prospect for others. While alternative history tales can sometimes be helpful in exploring the mistakes of the past, the timing and subject matter of the show in conjunction with the past works of the showrunners caused some well-reasoned concerns. The show will drop in a social context in which people are defending monuments glorifying confederate figures tooth and nail with the support of major political figures and institutions; a society where campaigns against widespread police brutality are considered „anti-white racism“; a society in which white supremacists are making White House policy decisions, but calling the government racist is frowned upon. A show that aims to show “all sides” of this subject of race-based slavery seems doomed to hit all the wrong notes in a society, whose discourse is obsessed with the appearance of centrism, even if it is the center between racism and anti-racism. Furthermore Benihoff and Weiss have caused outrage before with their handling of racism and sexual violence in their current show. Most notably the adaptation of a plot, that originally showed the difficulties of liberation from the outside, that was transformed into a straight-forward white-saviour narrative, as well as an explicit rape scene, that the writers later stated to not have considered rape when writing it, raise worries in this respect.

Considering the concept, setting and previous work of the writers here are some predictions for the show, mainly centered around character-archetypes, that I expect to see in the show and the stories they might be used for. Of course this isn’t meant as a condemnation of the show before it’s aired, but rather an expression of some of the worries people have about this project. I would love to be proven wrong with much of the following.

The bad guys

Confederate will – obviously – be a show about slavery. So the question as to who the antagonists are going to be seems moot. There is absolutely no doubt, that the show will make a strong effort to portray slavery as evil, but herein lies the first possible pitfall. Creating hateable villains is something Weiss and Benihoff excelled at in Game of Thrones, mainly through gratuitous portrayal of violence, but also manipulative and abusive behaviour. It is to be expected that a lot of the same strings will be pulled on in order to create one or more strongly disliked villains early on, lest it be said that Confederate is pro-slavery. That way, however, many people fear, that the show might lean heavily on excessive and/or exploitative representations of quasi-historical violence to create an archetypical image of the slaver as a cartoonish objective evil. This portrayal, while initially seeming fair, considering the very real cruelties of the system of slavery bears the fundamental problem of mythologizing historic evils as something so very distant from our own lived reality that it permits viewers a comfortable distance between past and contemporary wrongs. This, at worst, can lead to a sort of opposite of learning from history: Instead of critically examining the past, we are reassured in the righteousness of the present structures, because of their stark difference to the caricature of historic ones.

That is not to say, that the show should go the opposite route, making slavers sympathetic characters, that viewers might identify with. Unfortunately, in its aim to portray all kinds of perspectives within this alt-historic scenario, the show runs the risk of doing both: I would wager, that a show, which features racism front and center like that, won’t get around featuring at least one redemption arc. It is very likely, that there will be at least one white, affluent character, possibly from the younger generation of a slaver family, that will, over the course of the story see the errors of their ways. That would be an effective way to not only facilitate character development and conflict, but also take a step towards the superficially inoffensive conclusion, that slavery is bad, a relic of a past generation an irredeemable elite of an bygone era, that has been left in the dustbin of history. But is this really a desirable outcome for an ambitious project like Confederate? The debate on chattle slavery is over and has been for quite a while. By now people from the entirety of the political spectrum (with the unfortunate exception of a right-wing fringe) will come together in condemning the historic institution of slavery. They may vary in the fierceness of their condemnation and the depth of their historical analysis, but everyone and their dog are united in their desire to be seen as opponents of the historic slavery in the Americas. The key-term here, however, is “historic”. It is a fact, that is only very grudgingly accepted by the US political establishment as well as parts of the population, that slavery in the US was only abolished for anyone, not convicted of a crime, as per the 13th amendment of the constitution. Combined with the cruel realities of US-American law-enforcement and judicial system a very direct connection between the injustices of the past and the present can be drawn. The systems of oppression in the 21st century aren’t the same as the ones of the 19th century, but they share a lot in common. Any artistic work that deals with the former in such a counterfactual way should be expected to acknowledge the latter in some form or another. If Confederate ends up priding itself with being openly against historic slavery, and historic slavery only, it should be considered an artistic failure.

The locomotives and treadmills of history

This harsh judgment of an, as of yet, unwritten show aside, a pseudo-historical look at freedom fighters, who stand in the way of evil to defend liberty would still have some good aspects: It might encourage viewers, who are more into entertainment than history, to take a look at the historic inspirations of their favourite characters. But what inspirations will those be? There are many ways, this could play out, but, without doubt, one way or another slavery will end with the show (prior cancellation precluded). Historically, as is widely known, slavery only ended in the USA after a bloody, four-year-long civil war. Sure, the war might have revolved around more than slavery –mainly opposed power interests of northern and southern elites– but slavery was the key of southern economic power and also elemental in a system of social subjugation along race lines and thus catalyst and core-cause of the war. In Confederate the war didn’t end slavery, but rather cemented it. So what else could end it? Here are some guesses:

1) Popular unrest: This is the most likely scenario. The characters will through a mix of different tactics, mostly carefully justified violence or peaceful actions. White and black characters will collaborate on different levels to build a movement that will eventually force the system to change by doing a cheesy V for Vendetta (2005) style march on parliament or something along those lines. A grand symbolic gesture, that shows, that people have grown beyond slavery.

2) (Ugh) Capitalism: This is unlikely to be the cause for the end of slavery in the upcoming show, but should be mentioned nonetheless. Some theories claim, that slavery as an economic base was doomed to end sooner or later, due to being incompatible with the development of capitalism. This has, among other things of course been identified as one of the reasons for the end of slavery in Brazil, some 23 years after the abolition in the US. The reasoning behind this theory is, that a grand base of wage-labourers is required for capitalist development to create a consumer-base that propels the economy ever onward. This of course ignores the fact, that even in todays developed capitalist economies not only slavery exists, but that capitalism created new forms of slavery that incorporate the consumption of goods. But even if true a lack of economic development might not lead to such a profound societal change, especially as the institution of slavery was deeply entrenched in the dominant culture of the southern US and the causes for economic problems can be easily misinterpreted or misrepresented. Adding to this it has been historically documented, that the Confederate States aimed at expanding their slave-based economy to parts of the Caribbean and Central America, which could have boosted the economy enough to delay the economic cause for abolition by decades.

This cause for abolition isn’t unlikely to appear in the show due to it’s historical implausibility, but rather because it doesn’t really lend itself well to a satisfying conclusion to a story. Even though it will not be the main-cause of abolition in Confederate one should keep an eye out for traces of this theory making it into the show, maybe in the form of a progressive-minded industrialist, who represents the new economic order. The fantastical thought of capitalism being a force for good certainly seems deeply entrenched in some liberal circles in the USA.

3) Civil War: Yes, another one. I would deem this the second most likely outcome after a variation of point one. The show could end with a “the North will rise again” scenario, in which the elites of the defeated states, together with the suppressed masses start a rebellion, that grows into a fully fledged second civil war that eventually ends in a way comparable to the historic event. Story-wise this could kinda work in a full-circle way and also try to signify, that the historic outcome of the civil war and accompanying abolition were inevitable.

4) Slave Revolution: This version, that I would deem the only sensible and satisfactory one, is distinct from point one in that it would be on the one hand focused on the oppressed, i.e. the afro-descendant slaves and on the other involve violence in ways that many portrayals of sympathetic uprisings shy away from. The focus on black people in this context wouldn’t necessarily mean, that no white characters would be involved, they would, but rather that the movement towards the abolition of slavery would be black-led and run independently of the approval of the general white population. Think Nat Turner or John Brown. The reason I don’t think this scenario is likely to play out in the show is because of the type of violence it would involve. Popular entertainment, for the most part is very particular in the way it depicts violence perpetrated by characters the viewer is supposed to identify with. It is easy for a viewer to be alienated by explicit violence in a medium, that isn’t properly justified, because it is often seen only in its immediate context. Violence is perfectly accepted as long as it is seen as either defensive (which means the character is attacked directly), cathartic revenge (the target of the violent act was seen committing acts of cruelty before) or targeted against a non-human evil. As this is a pseudo-historical setting the third alternative doesn’t apply. The second and first one will certainly be used copiously, but revolutionary violence is hard to work into this framework. It is easy to justify violence against the cruel whip-bearing overseer, the villainous landowner or the greedy slave-trader. In the course of their characterization they will be seen committing reprehensible acts and revenge will seem just. But what about all the minor parts in the machine? The countless people who shared in and upheld the cruel system. Regular people who, with their daily lives made the cruelty of slavery into something regular as well. True revolutions as opposed to idealized, idealistic, vaguely defined uprisings are rarely seen in media, and even more rarely portrayed in a positive light, because to justify revolutionary violence to the viewer they have to be made to understand the violence of the system, that is toppled. But explaining the justification of large-scale violent acts by examining structural processes as opposed to individual injustices is a form of rigour, that I don’t expect of this upcoming program (or most popular entertainment media, really), though it is what I would wish for. And if ever there was a system, the inherent cruelty of which should be easy to understand, it is race-based slavery.

The historical role of violence is often little understood and in a reciprocal process rarely properly conveyed in popular media. This is, of course understandable, because violence is inherently abhorrent and not a conscious part of the lived reality of most people in the global north. We much prefer the story about how Mahatma Gandhi liberated India by non-violent means, than analyzing the role Bhagat Singh’s and other armed rebellions played in the withdrawal of the British. We like to hear how Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for civil rights, while forgetting how armed black groups forced an unwilling establishment to take action. This perception and reception, in a way, changes history as it is publicly understood. By no means should we, as a society, glorify violence, but it is of critical importance to keep remembering the resistance against the Nazis, the liberal revolutions, that ended feudal monarchy and also the slave-revolts, that while often ending tragically, brought many people freedom and also were critical in destabilizing and eventually toppling the system of slavery in the Americas.

But in entertainment medias tendency to aim for a “feel-good” ending there is a substantial risk, that in a misguided attempt towards centrist reconciliation, exactly this kind of emancipatory thought will be twisted and used as a cudgel. It is a relatively common trope in popular fiction, that aims to not be too “black and white”, to position the protagonists between the evil they are fighting on the one side and people from their side, who know now bounds and in turn commit “evil” acts themselves, on the other. This is used on the one hand to ground the protagonists morally. They are shown to be just, because they will, of course, eventually be victorious without using the radical measures of the fanatics. It also helps identification, as, in a pseudo-political story, the vast majority of the audience will be able to relate the bad guys and fanatics to different political groups or positions on either side of them on the political spectrum. This is massively facilitated by the cult of moderation, that has permeated politics in many countries, particularly the USA and parts of Europe, for decades and has been pushed even harder in response to the growing left-wing movements of the recent years. Moderation and compromise are always seen as the way to go, as the truth never lies all the way on one side, so goes the creed of the centrists. This line of thinking, however, shows it’s truly dangerous and reprehensible side when applied to extreme situations. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn was labeled as extreme for declaring he would never consider using nuclear weapons, even in defensive situations. When armed neo-nazis marched on a synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a lot of talk about the violence of the antifascists, who confronted them, in some cases physically. So what about slavery? Will a piece of mainstream media dare to decidedly take a side in this obvious case, or will they throw Turner and Brown under the bus in favour of constructed moral superiority, in complete denial of historic realities? Unfortunately it happened before and it might happen again with Confederate.

Lastly a quick thought might be spared for the scenario in which the show doesn’t end with the abolition of slavery. Instead it could go for a more dystopian approach, with slavery proliferating way into modern times. This is unlikely from a story-telling perspective, but would be interesting in that it might open an opportunity to show how different (or similar) an openly white-supremacist state in North America be from USA we know.

Heroes, saviours and fanatics

Whatever way the story will play out in the show, the question remains ehich characters will carry the story. Again, at this point one can only take a stab in the semi-dark, but the central question in regards to the heroes of the show will be without doubt: How do they struggle against an unjust system? It is a safe prediction to say, there will be no one way to fight against slavery. With the expressed intention of portraying a variety of figures from different backgrounds, it should be expected that besides resisting slaves there will be a variety of characters on the abolitionists’ side. Maybe freedmen and women, who struggle to keep their precarious position in society, while also helping their enslaved compatriots? Maybe political figures, who seek to achieve change through official channels or by promoting a changing attitude within the white population? Maybe clergymen, who can’t reconcile the cruelty of the system with their beliefs? There will surely be plentiful allusions to the underground railroad and likely a character based on Harriet Tubman.

One justified worry, especially in respect to Benihoff and Weiss’ past work, is who will actually take lead in the story, especially when it comes to liberation. Released in a society, that just barely started accepting black lead characters, fears are that Confederate might lean heavily on white people liberating slaves, a narrative that is particularly popular among the US right-wing, with black characters playing the second fiddle. This would, obviously, be the cardinal sin in a show about the horrors of a white ethno-state. It seems unlikely that the creators of the show have that little sense and end up creating a patronizing piece of white liberal wish-fulfillment, but the precedent set by Game of Thrones’ slavery plot gives one pause. Over the course of the plot a (very) white feudal ruler, Danaerys, uses dragons, a super-weapon only she can control, first liberate a slave army, who follow her and help liberate the slaves in the entire region. While the plot tries to expound the problems of some aspects of the tremendous societal shift and the difficulties of overcoming entrenched social structures, several scenes and the overall tenor tend towards only Danaerys and occasional members of her inner circle having any real agency or vision. The plot serves more as characterization for the queen than commentary on historic or social topics. This may be attributed to merely being a part of a monumentally big story, which will not be the case with Confederate, but it might also indicate a certain tone-deafness in regards to race. If that is the case there is still hope, that their co-writers, producers or consultants will help out. It should be mentioned, that two of the show’s producers are African-American and are probably conscious about the depiction of race in the show, though it is unclear how much they will eventually be involved.

Overall Confederate seems like a risky proposition, given the current political and social climate in the USA. Many pitfalls await the showrunners, who should probably rely heavily on writers and directors of colour. But even if the show avoids overt insensibility in regards to race, it will one way or another present a certain view of history and might help shape how its viewers understand the past. This is a big responsibility for something as relevant to the USA of today as slavery. At best Confederate could be a way to use popular culture to point out social ills and illuminate historic processes. At worst it could be fuel on the fire of race-relations in the USA, a way for white liberals to feel confident in their anti-racism, without ever questioning structures or themselves. Let’s hope for the former, but prepare for the latter.

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