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The Lost Cause Rides Again

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HBO’s prospective series Confederate will offer an alternative history of post-Civil War America. It will ask the question, according to co-creator David Benioff,  “What would the world have looked like … if the South had won?” A swirl of virtual protests and op-eds have greeted this proposed premise. In response, HBO has expressed “great respect” for its critics but also said it hopes that they will “reserve judgment until there is something to see.”

This request sounds sensible at first pass. Should one not “reserve judgment” of a thing until after it has been seen? But 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 acknowledgement. HBO executives themselves judged Confederate before they’d seen it—they had to, as no television script actually exists. HBO hoped to communicate that approval to its audience through the announcement. And had that communication been successful, had Confederate been greeted with rapturous anticipation, it is hard to imagine the network asking its audience to tamp down and wait.

HBO’s motives aside, the plea to wait supposes that a problem of conception can be fixed in execution. We do not need to wait to observe that this supposition is, at best, dicey. For over a century, Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true “alternative histories,” built on “alternative facts,” assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was. From last century’s The Birth of a Nation to this century’s Gods and Generals, 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.

Skepticism must be the order of the day. So that when Benioff asks “what would the world have looked like … if the South had won,” we should not hesitate to ask what Benioff means by “the South.” He obviously does not mean the minority of  white Southern unionists, who did win. And he does not mean those four million enslaved blacks, whom the Civil War ultimately emancipated, yet whose victory was tainted. Comprising 40 percent of the Confederacy’s population, this was the South’s indispensable laboring class, its chief resource, its chief source of wealth, and the sole reason why a Confederacy existed in the first place. But they are not the subject of Benioff’s inquiry, because he is not so much asking about “the South” winning, so much as he is asking about “the white South” winning.

The distinction matters. 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.

Knowing this, we do not have to wait to point out that comparisons between Confederate and The Man in the High Castle are fatuous. Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. 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. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. 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—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate’s interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us.

And one need not wait to ask if Benioff and D.B. Weiss are, at any rate, the candidates to help lead us out of that morass or deepen it. A body of work exists in the form of their hit show Game of Thrones. We do not have to wait to note the persistent criticism of that show is its depiction of rape. Rape—generational rape, mass rape—is central to the story of enslavement. For 250 years the bodies of enslaved black women were regarded as property, to be put to whatever use—carnal and otherwise—that their enslavers saw fit. Why HBO believes that this duo, given their past work, is the best team to revisit that experience is a question one should not wait to ask.

And all this must be added to a basic artistic critique—Confederate is a shockingly unoriginal idea, especially for the allegedly avant garde HBO. “What if the white South had won?” may well be the most trod-upon terrain in the field of American alternative history. There are novels about it, comic books about it, games about it, and a mockumentary about it. It’s been barely a year since Ben Winters published Underground Airlines.

Storytellers have the right to answer any question they choose. But we do not need to wait to examine all the questions that are not being chosen: What if John Brown had succeeded? What if the Haitian Revolution had spread to the rest of the Americas? What if black soldiers had been enlisted at the onset of the Civil War? What if Native Americans had halted the advance of whites at the Mississippi? And we need not wait to note that more interesting than asking what the world would be like if the white South had won is asking why so many white people are enthralled with a world where the dreams of Harriet Tubman were destroyed by the ambitions of Robert E. Lee.

The problem of Confederate can’t be redeemed by production values, crisp writing, or even complicated characters. That is not because its conceivers are personally racist, or seek to create a show that endorses slavery. Far from it, I suspect. Indeed, the creators have said that their hope is to use science fiction to “show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could.” And that really is the problem. African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that “history is still with us.” It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks. And Confederate is not immune. 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.

It’s good that the show-runners have brought on two noted and talented black writers—Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman. But one wonders: If black writers, in general, were to have HBO’s resources and support to create an alternative world, would they choose the world dreamed up by the progenitors of the Ku Klux Klan? Or would they address themselves to other less trod areas of Civil War history in the desire to say something new, in the desire to not, yet again, produce a richly imagined and visually beguiling lie?

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.

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dougsmith
11 days ago
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popular
11 days ago
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jprodgers
11 days ago
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national treasure. Also that Andrew Johnson = Trump link is pure gold.
Somerville, MA
mareino
12 days ago
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Coates brings up a point that I have never seen quite so well articulated before. The South did win the Civil War. When the War began, 40% of the South was enslaved. When the war ended 0% of the South was enslaved. That's a win by any decent ethical standards.
Washington, District of Columbia

The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’

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Robert Shiller:

The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’: “The American Dream is back.” President Trump made that claim in a speech in January.
They are ringing words, but what do they mean? Language is important, but it can be slippery. Consider that the phrase, the American Dream, has changed radically through the years.
Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, have suggested it involves owning a beautiful home and a roaring business, but it wasn’t always so. Instead, in the 1930s, it meant freedom, mutual respect and equality of opportunity. It had more to do with morality than material success.
This drift in meaning is significant...
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dougsmith
13 days ago
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Ted Cruz’s Giant Leap Into The Known

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We’ve seen this movie before.
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dougsmith
34 days ago
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John Oliver on Sinclair Broadcast Group

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Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest owner of local TV stations in the country. That’s alarming considering that they often inject political views into local news.   Sinclair Broadcast Group: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver    

The post John Oliver on Sinclair Broadcast Group appeared first on The Big Picture.

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dougsmith
40 days ago
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Should-Read: Josh Barro: GOP healthcare bill will poll badly no matter what: "No...

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Should-Read: Josh Barro: GOP healthcare bill will poll badly no matter what: "Now I have to call those providers' offices and get duplicate receipts and upload them and allow seven to 10 days for processing... http://www.businessinsider.com/gop-healthcare-bill-polls-bad-changes-2017-6

...Until I do that, I have been cut off from access to the money in the account—my own money—that got in the account only because Congress chose to offer a tax preference that I could get only by using such an account.

Who wants to deal with this crap?

Nobody wants to deal with this crap, that's who

Officially, the Republican healthcare vision involves even more of this—tracking your healthcare funds in a special account, paying at the point of delivery for care you receive, and shopping around for your surgery as if it's a dream vacation. For the past seven years, Republicans haven't been saying the problem with Obamacare was too little out-of-pocket spending. They've been saying the opposite... that Obamacare plans have deductibles... coinsurance payments are too high. That insurance under Obamacare isn't good insurance because people have to pay so much after they've already paid premiums. This was an effective political argument because this is, in fact, one of the things people hate about Obamacare....

The problem is, fixing that problem would have cost money. So Republicans lied. They said they would give people insurance with lower deductibles. But then they wrote a law that would result in eye-wateringly high deductibles—for example, a deductible of about $6,000 for somebody with a family income of $16,000. Of course that's unpopular. (News flash: Someone with an income of $16,000 doesn't have $6,000 to pay toward a deductible.) But it's what you have to do if you want the bill to cut a trillion dollars in government spending on healthcare without actually doing anything to make healthcare cheaper. But then, this bill was never about improving healthcare or making healthcare consumers happy. It was about repealing the tax increases that Obamacare imposed. Both the House and Senate bills would indeed do that. And as long as that's the core goal, there's no way to restructure the law to make people not hate it...

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dougsmith
44 days ago
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What bullets do to bodies

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Emergency room doctor Leana Wen writes in the NY Times about what bullets do to human bodies.

Early in my medical training, I learned that it is not the bullet that kills you, but the damage from the bullet. A handgun bullet enters the body in a straight line. Like a knife, it damages the organs and tissues directly in its path, and then it either exits the body or is stopped by bone, tissue or skin.

This is in contrast to bullets from an assault rifle. They are three times the speed of handgun bullets. Once they enter the body, they fragment and explode, pulverizing bones, tearing blood vessels and liquefying organs.

Earlier this year, Jason Fagone wrote a much longer piece on the same topic for HuffPost.

“As a country,” Goldberg said, “we lost our teachable moment.” She started talking about the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Goldberg said that if people had been shown the autopsy photos of the kids, the gun debate would have been transformed. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” Her voice rose. She said people have to confront the physical reality of gun violence without the polite filters. “The country won’t be ready for it, but that’s what needs to happen. That’s the only chance at all for this to ever be reversed.”

She dropped back into a softer register. “Nobody gives two shits about the black people in North Philadelphia if nobody gives two craps about the white kids in Sandy Hook. … I thought white little kids getting shot would make people care. Nope. They didn’t care. Anderson Cooper was up there. They set up shop. And then the public outrage fades.”

I think about this tweet all the time:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

Tags: guns   Jason Fagone   Leana Wen   medicine
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dougsmith
61 days ago
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61 days ago
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kbrint
63 days ago
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Sad but true.
jhamill
63 days ago
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That tweet gets me every time I see it. I am dumbfounded that American love for guns is greater than anything else.
California
mxm23
63 days ago
Guns are a powerful symbol for perceived freedom. And freedom is embedded in the national psyche of America. To take away guns represents a notch down in perceived freedom. It's not logical. It's not rational.
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