Can we stop fighting the Civil War?


The team behind Game of Thrones is now proposing a new show: an alternate reality series in which the South won the Civil War and perpetuated legal slavery into the present day. It might be a good show, if it can consistently show that slavery is an unforgivable evil and uses this alternate history to highlight real injustices. But do you trust them to make a socially conscious, critical analysis of contemporary America? I don’t. The people who made Game of Thrones have learned that sensational violence and sex sells. I predict many opportunities to show attractive naked black women on the auction block or serving white men while topless.

It also falls into the category of playing devil’s advocate, or “just asking questions”, playing rhetorical games with matters that affect people’s lives. That is inappropriate. To have two white guys propose this thought exercise is troubling.

But mostly, we have a dreadful track record on dealing with the Civil War’s legacy in movies. Go read that link; we’re subjected to the most awful romantic schlock about the Confederacy, which was apparently full of rugged, noble individuals who were fighting for their way of life and dealing with the aftermath of loss with dignified grace.

People still think Gone With the Wind was a great movie. I doubt that it was; I’ve tried to watch it multiple times at the urging of friends, and have never lasted more than 15 minutes before I’ve left the room.

Comments

  1. blf says

    If poopyhead has managed 15 minutes with the überevil protofacist rubbish that is Gone With The Wind, he has lasted approximately 15 times longer than me. I consider that movie to be quite possibly the worse of all time — even managing to beat The Birth of a Nation (1915 silent version) — and broadly the cinema equivalent of Mein Kampf. (There is some exaggeration here, but not much. All three mentioned things are truly awful.)

  2. says

    When I was around 10 or so, a local theater was showing Gone With the Wind, and I was hauled off to go see it. I thought it was long. Incredibly, drearily long. Scarlett O’Hara, nasty beast in a dress, hailed as the almighty Southern heroine. Ugh. The whole damn thing was one long stereotype.

  3. says

    My last attempt was when I lived in Indiana (a long time ago), with people who had decidedly Southern leanings. I lasted all of 15 minutes because these friends kept telling me it gets better.

    It doesn’t.

  4. says

    “Whoa. Sliders called. They want their premise for a forgettable episode back.”

    Sliders did an episode about that?”

    “I can’t remember. Can you?”

    “… Point.”

  5. says

    I watched GWTW and read the book when I was much younger, in high school in the early 60s. At that point I thought it was great. The last time I tried the movie was a decade or so ago I couldn’t get through the massive racism and that was only the beginning.

    As far as contra factual history BS, I have little doubt that it will be shown with the noble plantation class, releasing their “darkies” on their own shortly after the end of the Civil War. Ugh.

  6. Morgane Guillemot says

    I think the worst part is the sheer level of historical bullshit that would see slavery making it to the 20th century, let alone the 21st. At a certain point, it becomes less about exploring a system that would have collapsed within 20 years anyway, and more about really really really wanting to show black people being whipped.

  7. whheydt says

    The best alternate history story I know of is a short work by WInston Churchill “If Lee had Lost at Gettysburg”. It tries to construct our world from the perspective of one in which the South won. And, yes, *that* Winston Churchill.

  8. kellym says

    Seen on Twitter:
    The Game of Thrones guys could do a new show: an alternate reality series in which the South loses the Civil War and gets the fuck over it by now.

  9. lotharloo says

    6 Morgane Guillemot:
    What historical bullshit? First of all, slavery is still going on at some parts of the world and second of all, slavery survived for thousands of years and only is very very recent times it has been pushed to obscurity. What the hell have you been drinking?

  10. sezit says

    playing devil’s advocate, or “just asking questions”, playing rhetorical games with matters that affect people’s lives

    This is an approach that I always have difficulty dealing with. It’s very hard for me to articulate what the problem with it is, especially in real time.

    Anyone have a link to a good breakdown or method of responding to this approach?

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve both seen GWTW more than once, and also read the book.
    I’ll agree that both are dreadful. However, it’s worth noting that, if it wasn’t for the racism dripping off every page, the story would have been hailed as one of the great works of feminism.
    The story that Margaret Mitchell clearly wanted to tell was the story of a feminist odyssey — a woman who starts off enthusiastically filling the role that the men in her life encourage her to adopt, then being failed by those men, striking out on her own, discovering unexpected strengths, eventually creating her own identity as a businesswoman, and seeking a man who will accept her on her own terms. It’s about a woman rejecting society’s role for her and creating her own role instead.
    But Mitchell had an enormous blind spot — she never seems to have revisited her own assumptions that slavery was just hunky-dory. And that meant that her project was doomed in all sorts of ways.
    People are complicated.

  12. mcfrank0 says

    brucegee1962 — I heartily agree. I made the same point once and was immediately shot down (even with the caveat that, yes, the racism was horrible). Starting with the beginning of the story wherein Scarlett’s mother was the person who actually ran the plantation (her father was totally incompetent) and moving through each scandal that Scarlett raised simply because she refused to be a Southern belle, and eventually running her own businesses. She was no more amoral in her quest for wealth than anyone else. She just couldn’t be bothered to do Rhett’s trick of keeping up appearances at the right time.

  13. microraptor says

    lotharloo @11:

    What historical bullshit? First of all, slavery is still going on at some parts of the world and second of all, slavery survived for thousands of years and only is very very recent times it has been pushed to obscurity. What the hell have you been drinking?

    The slavery-plantation system of the South was by the middle of the 19th Century already obsolete in terms of production capability compared to other, more modern methods. Economists estimated based on competition from places like India and Egypt that without the Civil War, the South’s economy of cotton and tobacco picked by slaves on large plantations would have collapsed by the 1880s at the latest. There wasn’t a way that it could simultaneously industrialize and keep slaves like that; so slavery would have likely dropped down to much lower levels (not that it would have made things better for black people living there).

  14. brett says

    @6 Morgane Guillemot

    It’s going to feel really contrived. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for slavery and an independent Confederacy to make it to the 20th Century, but it’s really unlikely. I read a rumor that they’re going with the South somehow losing the “First” Civil War but not abolishing slavery and becoming independent in the “Second” Civil War, which . . . well, it assumes that the Confederacy loses really hard before the Emancipation Proclamation and gets brought back in with some appalling compromise (never mind that the Crittendon Compromise failed), but it’s not totally impossible to happen.

    But that Confederacy would have slaves and pro-unionist white folks carrying out constant insurrections and fleeing into Union territory over a large, difficult-to-control border with a hostile Union (something that happened in the real American Civil War), it’s going to have a hostile Union to the north and west, a hostile Mexico to the south that would be aligned with the Union after Benito Juarez’s forces overthrow Maximilian I, and both the US and Great Britain blunting it from spreading slavery elsewhere. This would not be a society built to last, especially with its heavy dependence on cash crops.

    The only good thing about such a scenario is imagining a hostile US reconquering said Confederacy and doing what it should have done in the real-life Reconstruction: break up the big estates and give all the slaves land and equipment “40 acres and a mule” style, hang all of the “fire eaters” and other pro-Confederate leaders, and burn more than a few of those fancy plantation mansions.

  15. says

    brucegee:

    The story that Margaret Mitchell clearly wanted to tell was the story of a feminist odyssey

    Oh, the fuck it is. Honestly, only men would come up with such bullshit. Scarlett was a nasty, ugly, unethical asshole, in every aspect. That’s certainly not how I’d define feminism, to say the least. She treated everyone in her life as objects, nothing more. Oh, a few of them she used as stepladders, but they were also treated badly. Scarlett was an icon of the Southern Belle, one of the most poisonous takes on femininity ever. For a belle, being a devious, scheming brat was high achievement. Being outwardly polite and darling, while being venomous and hateful on the inside, and in actions was a goal.

    Fuck you idiots who think she’s some kind of feminist hero. Nothing of the sort. FFS.

  16. says

    I’m guessing it will be like a lot of published and filmed AUs. It will contain all sorts of people and things that are identical to what appeared n real history, even though the Confederacy and slavery surviving past 1865 would cause all sorts of spinoff effects. For example I’ll be entirely unsurprised if JFK shows up.

    Speaking of AUs and slavery it’s surprising no one has done a TV or movie version of SM Stirling’s Draka timeline.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Domination

  17. doublereed says

    Alternate History fiction is almost universally dystopian. The idea that the show would romanticize the confederacy I find rather absurd on its face. That would obviously just be bad idea for a show. It’s not like The Man in the High Castle romanticizes Nazis or the Empire of the Rising Sun or something. It’s not as if The Handmaid’s Tale is presented as a positive setting. Obviously the idea is to have a dystopia, like all of alternate history fiction.

    I mean yea, if you don’t like Game of Thrones then you probably won’t like it anyway. But Game of Thrones is practically a dystopian fantasy environment in of itself. It seems like a natural fit for creators, imo.

  18. Zmidponk says

    Whether you like or dislike Game of Thrones, I don’t think you can disagree that it is pretty damn brutal in places, and doesn’t shy away from slopping the claret about. If this new show does the same thing in its depiction of slavery, it could be that this would not be a bad thing, as it may help combat the myth of slaves being more akin to ‘indentured servants’ who were actually pretty well treated that is put about by some.

  19. says

    Oh, are we talking the kind of feminism where you have to cheer on Ivanka Trump and vote for Marine LePen because they’re successful women?
    Sorry, not my kind of feminism. Dudes, just because a woman doesn’t follow social conventions it doesn’t mean it’s a feminist story.

  20. says

    Also, as people have mentioned on Twitter: it’s boring.
    What about an alternate history in which slavery never happened? Or where Africa was never colonised? In which the Americas were never discovered and conquered but met as equal partners?

  21. unclefrogy says

    well in HollyWood has romanticized, Mafioso, serial killers, dope dealers, bad cops, ruthless secret agents, Titled Gentry, war mongers, thieves and assorted greedy bastards. Made the quest for unlimited power a cool thing and glorified kingship. Why should we not expect them to try their hand at again romanticizing the south and slavery?
    as was said sex and violence sells
    the product is eyeballs.
    uncle frogy

  22. Vivec says

    I kinda figured it was gonna be a critical “What if this shitty thing in the past existed now, it would be really shitty” sort of alt-history thing, like CSA or Handmaid’s Tale.

  23. says

    If this new show does the same thing in its depiction of slavery, it could be that this would not be a bad thing, as it may help combat the myth of slaves being more akin to ‘indentured servants’ who were actually pretty well treated that is put about by some.

    Oh holy fuck, the makers of GoT depicted the rape of a woman over the dead body of her son and didn’t even understand that what they were showing was rape. They are among the last people on earth I’d trust with such a task. If they cannot understand that a dude sticking his dick into a white, rich, powerful woman who is screaming “no” and trying to fight him off is rape, how could they get it right when depicting a black slave being raped by her white master who doesn’t show any visible sign of protest?

  24. enkidu says

    Wrong PZ. They don’t want to see attractive naked black women auctioned. They want to see attractive naked white women auctioned – except they’ll be “black” because partus rules.

    I wouldn’t discount slavery persisting into the industrial era. Paying workers as little as possible has never been a recipe for financial ruin. The idea that slavery would wither away is, I think, another myth propagated by Southerners who want to feel hard done by. As someone above noted, there are still plenty of slaves in the world today. 20th century Germans showed slavery could be quite successfully revived in an industrial setting.

  25. ragdish says

    I think HBO is riding the alternate history gravy train. I’ve heard that the show “Man in the High Castle” is popular. In it the axis powers won WW2 and the US is ruled by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. I have not watched the show and I’m curious if racial and cultural sensitivities are respected? Is the message anti-fascist? Also, is it a good show?

    Confederate could be a good show if the message is anti-fascism/racism and anti-slavery. But I won’t hold my breath.

  26. KG says

    Economists estimated based on competition from places like India and Egypt that without the Civil War, the South’s economy of cotton and tobacco picked by slaves on large plantations would have collapsed by the 1880s at the latest. – microraptor@16

    Which economists? Where? Let’s have some actual references. The number of slaves in the USA had expanded enormously from the 1790s (when the cotton gin was invented) to the 1860s.

  27. Bill Buckner says

    I’ve heard that the show “Man in the High Castle” is popular.

    I like it. I think I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars. I’m just a physicist and not qualified as a critic, but here is my take: To first order it is as expected– the Japanese and the Germans are evil and the American resistance is heroic. But there are shades of gray and the characters are multi-dimensional. Even the main Japanese and German antagonists are occasionally “good” and conflicted, and some of the resistance are nasty fucks. Plus there is this nice twist of a possible war between Japan and Germany, and in all three factions there is no uniformity as to whether that would be a good or bad for their cause. The writing is better than average, and the opening credits with a poignant rendition of Edelweiss are worth watching.

  28. springa73 says

    I doubt that they will romanticize the culture of the old south and slavery like Gone With the Wind. Dystopian scenarios are much more the style today.

  29. blf says

    Paying workers as little as possible has never been a recipe for financial ruin.

    Assuming, of course, your workers — and those of the other slave-wage payers — never buy your / their products. That is, to paraphrase a fairly famous example, “Mr Ford, if you pay your workers nothing, they can’t buy your cars.”

  30. jack lecou says

    The number of slaves in the USA had expanded enormously from the 1790s (when the cotton gin was invented) to the 1860s.

    IIRC, I think the argument is that this very expansion is one of the things that made Southern-style slavery unsustainable, at least as things were going. The problem is you only need so many people for cotton and tobacco farming, especially with more and more automation encroaching. So that growth represented a large and growing surplus population of enslaved people.

    The slave-owning class could have put them to work in factories, of course. But apart from the problem of slaves not being a great consumer base, the owners were (probably rightly) terrified of allowing that population to concentrate in cities. That aversion to industrialization alone would have made it hard to move forward economically, and yet they still had to something with all the extra slaves.

    That’s why the South was so desperate to try to expand the institution to Western states — they needed new markets to keep the bubble going. Of course, (and contra ‘war of northern aggression’ BS) that drive for expansion was one of the causes for the war. But, even had it been on the table, expanding Southern-style slavery to a few more states probably would only have bought a few more decades.

    The bubble was also apparently propped up by weird financial schemes. Owners had taken to mortgaging their own slaves back to themselves (however that works), and then turning the mortgages into fucked up people-based derivative instruments which were traded overseas in Britain and Europe.

    So, some kind of crash was probably coming sooner or later, for the whole system. Or at least a major change or reform of some kind. I don’t know if I’d want to guess that it would have necessarily constituted an ‘end to slavery’ though. Or that it would have turned out very well for the enslaved people themselves.

  31. cartomancer says

    Sounds like a terrible premise for a TV show. I can just imagine the sort of ridiculous hackneyed characters and unrealistic plots they’d have. Maybe a soft-spoken Alabama racist with a name like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in charge of the Justice Department, overseeing a crackdown on popular protest movements among oppressed blacks? You know, that sort of thing.

  32. whheydt says

    Re: Gilliel @ #22…
    Not quite what you’re asking for but you might find the alternate world in Randall Garret’s _Lord D’Arcy_ stories, and in particular the one novel _Too Many Magicians_ interesting. In that world, the Americas were discovered (by the Angevin Empire) about 50 years later than in ours, the Aztecs had consolidated their empire and it was absorbed, intact. The western continents are New England and New France. The German States never coalesced and the WW2 equivalent was between the Angevin Empire and the Polish Hegemony. And–oh, yes–the Laws of Magic were discovered in about the 14th century and reduced to something very much like a science. The protagonist is Lord D’Arcy of Rouen, Special investigator for HRH, the Duke of Normandy and he travels with his assistant, Master Sean O’Lachlainn, a forensic sorcerer.

    One thing to be careful about, Garrett was *exceedingly* quick witted and dearly loved puns.

  33. doubtthat says

    As PZ pointed out, Free Speech is irrelevant to this situation.

    That being said, the argument that only government can limit free speech is a very bad one. Glibertarians and other sorts of vapid assholes are the ones who love to pretend that the only source of oppression is government.

    The Civil Rights Act eliminated most forms of governmental discrimination; it did not end discrimination in society. Most forms of bias against women in the workplace are illegal; that did not end bias against women in the workplace.

    As atheists we should be well aware of the way in which a majority of citizens can drastically limit the ability of people to freely express themselves. Just consider the ways in which the threat of violence against LGBT persons dramatically limits their free expression. Surely you don’t have to work hard to imagine parts of this country effectively banning certain ideas from being voiced because they’re blasphemous.

    Hell, consider the way in which the corporate media limits the voices expressed on major media outlets. Anyone alive during the run up to the Iraq War should remember that terrifying, sickening feeling of watching as all contradictory, skeptical ideas were systematically denied airing. The Bush Admin didn’t order that; it was done by organizations using their free speech rights to cheerlead for the war.

  34. imback says

    @ragdish #29, “Man in the High Castle” is not HBO but Amazon. I gave up on it partway into the second season as the loose ends never seemed to be addressed.

    @cartomancer #35, your rough sketch would be too cartoonish to suspend disbelief.

  35. microraptor says

    imback @39:

    I gave Up Man in the High Castle in the second season because I was already watching the news and didn’t need to see two shows about the US turning into a fascist nation.

  36. tbtabby says

    @doublereed

    Funny you should mention The Handmaid’s Tale being presented as something positive. The “good people” at Return of Kings have done just that. I give you Pax Masculina. I also invite you to vote for it to be featured on Rifftrax.

  37. KG says

    the owners were (probably rightly) terrified of allowing that population to concentrate in cities

    During WWII, the Nazi economy was able to make use of millions of slaves and semi-slaves in industry, working both for the state and for big business. Many lived in concentration camps*. See Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Admittedly this was only for a few years, but the system ended becuse of Germany’s military defeat, not because it didin’t “work” – at horrendous cost to the slaves, of course.

    So, some kind of crash was probably coming sooner or later, for the whole system. Or at least a major change or reform of some kind. I don’t know if I’d want to guess that it would have necessarily constituted an ‘end to slavery’ though. Or that it would have turned out very well for the enslaved people themselves. – Jack lecou@34

    In capitalism (and probably, in any kind of socio-economic system) some kind of crash is coming sooner or later! And serious over-supply of slaves would probably have led to mass deportations – dumping the surplus slaves in Africa – if not genocide.

    *As opposed to extermination camps, the sole purpose of which was mass murder.

  38. Zmidponk says

    Gileill:

    Oh holy fuck, the makers of GoT depicted the rape of a woman over the dead body of her son and didn’t even understand that what they were showing was rape. They are among the last people on earth I’d trust with such a task. If they cannot understand that a dude sticking his dick into a white, rich, powerful woman who is screaming “no” and trying to fight him off is rape, how could they get it right when depicting a black slave being raped by her white master who doesn’t show any visible sign of protest?

    I don’t know if this was intended by the makers, but my take on that is that it was rape, and it was another sign of how completely screwed up the relationship between the two of them was, especially as it seems that she later regarded it as, basically, not rape.

    If you go to the books, that scene actually plays out slightly differently – in there, she started out by objecting that the time and place was inappropriate, then basically decided that didn’t matter, and enthusiastically participated in the sex (helped by the fact that, in the books, he has just returned to King’s Landing, and has therefore been away from her for over a year). That being the case, it could be that the makers of the show tried to depict this, but didn’t really manage it, so it came across as simply straight-out rape.

  39. hemidactylus says

    One Civil War movie I thought was ok because the counter-rebellion story line was Free State of Jones. It dealt with runaway slaves and confederate deserters rebelling against the confederacy. Most of the bigoted deserters were not very fond of their runaway allies. Not sure how closely it followed actual events, but the movie was compelling. And it attempted to depict Reconstruction and its failure and tragic post war slide toward Jim Crow.

    At least Matt McConaughey partially made up for the crimes against humanity in the Lincoln commercials. There is some interspersed storyline of his character’s mixed race descendent getting in trouble for breaking anti miscegenation laws. That storyline might dovetail with the Loving movie which I have neglected to watch, but should eventually. It stars Preacher’s Ruth Negga.

  40. microraptor says

    KG @42:

    During WWII, the Nazi economy was able to make use of millions of slaves and semi-slaves in industry, working both for the state and for big business. Many lived in concentration camps*. See Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Admittedly this was only for a few years, but the system ended becuse of Germany’s military defeat, not because it didin’t “work” – at horrendous cost to the slaves, of course.

    The Nazis were using slave labor to produce military equipment for the war they were fighting. This often backfired on them because not only did may of their parts have to be machined by hand instead of produced via mechanized assembly line (which often meant that the parts from tanks and aircraft that were allegedly the same model ended up not being interchangeable), they had worse quality because the slaves, many of whom were POWs, had strong incentive to sabotage production whenever they could. They also required a lot more supervision and guarding than an American or Soviet factory did, adding additional expense to production costs.

  41. lotharloo says

    43. Zmidponk: No it was not intended as a rape scene. It was not written or acted out as a rape scene. That’s why actors mentioned that it was not rape scene (and obviously got a backslash, because people rather be outraged rather than nuanced). The final result came out as a rape scene because of the incompetent editing.

  42. DLC says

    Point about economics and nazis vs Allies. from strictly a manpower and resources standpoint, Russia could have wiped out the nazis and still had men and materiel left over. As could the USA. Britain couldn’t, although they could outproduce Vichy France. The same holds true for the Union in the slave-owner insurrection. The Union had most of the industry and much of the resources, and did historically blockade the Southern states, which precluded them from obtaining supplies from the European powers or from their own blockade-running war profiteers. The Union also had the larger population — some 18.5 million vs some 5.5 million free and 3.5 million slaves in the CSA. Put simply, there was no way the CSA were going to win, barring some ridiculous, improbable outcome such as Lincoln being a poltroon.

  43. multitool says

    As others have pointed out, the movie CSA did it first.

    And they did it enough.

  44. KG says

    microraptor@45,

    Nevertheless, the V2 rocket – the most technically advanced weapon the Nazis produced – was produced using forced labour. Incidentally, you never responded to my question @30 about which economists claimed slavery would soon have collapsed, and where. I don’t automatically believe anything attributed to unnamed economists – hypersceptical of me, I know.

  45. Callinectes says

    I’ve always found these alternative history stories to be excuciatingly lazy. they’re ostensibly about writing an alternative history with a particular point of departure, but in practice it’s always the one point of departure, and then all the subsequent historical events are either the same or absent. And since there was no major American drive for American abolition after slavery in America had already been abolished, then this alternative history must therefore contain no subsequent efforts at abolition, regardless of how historically, politically, or economically absurd that is.

  46. DanDare says

    Maybe they will go down the Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer route? Or Civil War Z?

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