I regularly teach a seminar on alternate history in which I screen Kevin Wilmott’s brilliantly satirical film, CSA, about the South winning the Civil War and continuing to run a slave-centered society up through the present-day.
Anyone who has seen the film knows that it is a hard-hitting, left-leaning critique of American history, especially on the subjects of race and slavery. Anyone who bothers to look up the fact that the director, Willmott, is an African American film professor at the University of Kansas, would be disabused of any suspicions that the film is an offensive, let alone right-wing apology for slavery.
And yet, none of this apparently stopped a group of students (and, egads, parents as well) from lodging complaints at the elite Dalton School in New York City, following a screening of the film in a history class. See the New York Times report detailing the grievance.
I have no problem with students complaining (I have plenty of students and regularly see them struggle to interpret multi-layered texts of all kinds, some of which can be unsettling and produce discomfort). I also understand parents wanting to defend their children from alleged threats. But for the teachers and administration to kowtow to the complaints and provide an apology is disheartening.
The basis of the apology was grounded in the thinnest of rationales:
“We believe in the highest levels of respect and sensitivity for the diverse nature of our student body and community…. Monday’s screening should not have taken place and we sincerely regret that the film was shown.”
In other words, sensitivity to students feelings is elevated above challenging them to think rationally about difficult issues.
Rather than defend a perfectly justified academic exercise, this surrender takes the idea that "the customer is king" way too far. (Is this a private school/”we’re paying all this tuition and so we expect perfection” issue, I wonder?)
I recently screened portions of the film at my daughter’s AP U. S. History course and found the students understood the film’s agenda without any problems.
Are their discomforting scenes in the film? Of course. But for us to understand history, we need to confront its ugly sides (and also be able to put ourselves in different narrative positions in order to grasp them).
I remember in college when student groups protested the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation because of its racism. Well yes, the film was racist, as are plenty of Nazi propaganda films that I show in my own German history courses. But their “offensiveness” is hardly a reason not to see them.
All of this confirms that alternate histories – because of their unconventional treatment of the past’s facticity – can easily and often be misinterpreted.
In Germany, novels portraying the Nazis winning World War II have often been misinterpreted by neo-Nazis as glorifying, rather than satirizing, the scenario. (This was true of Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland and also, apparently, of Norman Spinrad’s novel, The Iron Dream, whose premise of Hitler as a science fiction writer apparently went over big with the skinhead crowd back in the day).
To my mind, the ability of counterfactual history to elicit strong reactions underscores its value. Anyone who believes otherwise is entirely missing the point and falling victim to intellectual laziness, if not obtuseness.