Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another Antagonist Against Alternate History: On Roxane Gay's “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,”

The backlash against HBO’s upcoming alternate history series, Confederate, continues.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Purdue University professor Roxane Gay published a provocative opinion piece, entitled “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,” which takes the series to task for a variety of alleged flaws, but goes beyond them to critique the broader genre of alternate history in sweeping fashion.

Gay begins by acknowledging that other alternate histories on the South winning the Civil War and slavery persisting in the present-day United States, such as Ben Winters’ recent novel, Underground Airlines, may well explore an “interesting premise.” But she then wonders “at what cost?”  At this point in her op-ed, it’s not exactly clear why exploring any literary premise needs to have a cost, at least if literature is regarded as a vehicle of individual expression.

But her concerns soon become clear.

Gay explains that she is “exhausted by slavery narratives,” especially if they reduce the topic to “an intellectual exercise rather than plainly showing it as the grossly oppressive institution it was.”  I fully agree with this fear, IF – and it’s a big IF – the resulting narrative, in fact, falls victim to this peril.  It’s a point worth raising -- though at this point, I find it to be premature.

Where I part ways with Gay is when she expresses the suspicion that the series will go down the wrong narrative path because it is “the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous.”

I’ve only just started watching Game of Thrones and I can confirm that it has few people of color and lots of sexual violence.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to wonder whether Confederate might export these representational strategies to the topic of slavery (if it all, it probably would do so more with regard to the latter than the former).  But I’m not sure why the whiteness of the creators is of any relevance.  If the creators of Game of Thrones were not white, Gay would be just as justifiably concerned about the show’s values being exported to the era of the Civil War.  For this reason, the playing of the race card weakens her argument. 

This is especially true because Gay implies that the allohistorical premise of slavery persisting into the present is inherently suspicious – “slavery fan fiction” she calls it.  What she does not mention in her article that African Americans have tackled precisely the exact premise to be explored by Confederate.  The best example is Kevin Wilmott’s excellent film, C.S.A, which portrays a world where the South won the Civil War and preserved slavery.  Presumably Gay would not object to this particular work of alternate history – at least based on its creator’s identify. 

That there is a double standard here at work is clear.  Gay admits she knows she’s “supposed to say” that “no topic is off limits to someone simply because of who they are,” but she confesses that “it is not at all how I feel.” 

I respect the frankness of her admission.  But I fear she’s overreaching.

As a Holocaust studies scholar who has spent a great deal of time analyzing works of fiction that explore the Nazi genocide of the Jews, I can confirm that similar fears have been expressed in debates about Holocaust representation.  Jewish depictions of the Holocaust – whether by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Steven Spielberg – may sometimes be subjected to different standards of judgment than depictions by non-Jews.  And maybe they should.  Yet I am unaware of many people declaring that non-Jews have no business tackling the subject.  That is true for the simple reason that non-Jews (Germans, in particular, but all Europeans, as well as the inhabitants of other countries who belonged any of the wartime alliances) performed various roles in the Holocaust -- whether as perpetrators, collaborators, or bystanders. It is a mantra of Holocaust studies that the descendants of these people bear responsibility for wrestling with its legacy.

I would argue that the same should be the case for all Americans (certainly those who are white or, broader still, not of African descent).  Regardless of whether or not our ancestors were personally involved in slavery, as citizens of this country, we all bear responsibility for learning the complex lessons from this shameful historical experience.  

Of course, the attempt to claim custodianship of a particular historical legacy or tradition is part of an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation – one dramatically illustrated by the debate over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till by at the Whitney – and seems to inform Gay’s views about Confederate.  But to my mind, it is important to defend the principle that the topic of slavery is open to all Americans who wish to engage with it.  Being white should obviously not be a disqualifying factor for dealing with the topic of slavery. 

All that being said, I do sympathize with some of Gay’s fears.

I can relate to her exhaustion with the topic of slavery to some degree, inasmuch it resembles the phenomenon of “Holocaust fatigue” in present-day culture.  “What, ANOTHER film about the Holocaust?” is a common lament.  Some viewers resent being bombarded with moralistic works of cinema, while others fear the subject is being exploited as an easy – but increasingly hackneyed – method for Hollywood directors seeking to win an Oscar. 

I can relate to her fear that Confederate may engage in cheap exploitation of the horrors of slavery – her claim that she “shudder[s] to imagine the enslaved black body in…the creative hands [of the Game of Thrones team].   After all, works of Holocaust film and fiction have long been accused of engaging in lurid and kitschy forms of exploitation – whether Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film, The Night Porter, or, more recently, Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones. 

I can also understand Gay’s suspicion that “there are people…who will watch a show like Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.” This is also a common fear expressed about works dealing with the Third Reich – that they endorse, rather than just explore, a given counterfactual premise. Any alternate history portraying the Nazis winning World War II, for instance, might be suspected of celebrating the outcome rather than condemning it.  (This explains why some neo-Nazis bought up Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, Fatherland, thinking it was an endorsement of the premise, which of course it was not).   But the danger that one’s work will be misinterpreted comes with the territory of all creative work, and is hardly a reason for preemptive criticism.  Nietzsche, anyone?

Finally, I don’t agree with Gay’s claim that the best antidote to alternate histories that portray the survival of slavery is to promote works that show a “world where slavery never happened at all.” For one thing, those works already exist.  Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss’s 1994 alternate history novel, The Two Georges, portray the American Revolution failing and the British monarchy abolishing slavery in the 1830s.  Terry Bisson’s alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain (1988), portrays how John Brown’s successful raid on Harper’s Ferry leads to Black self-emancipation. 

Gay also wonders where the works are that portray a world where “white people are enslaved,” saying “we will still not know what could have been in a world where white people imagine their own oppression.” I am not aware of as many such texts, but Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), includes counterfactuals about Europeans and Africans trading places. 

In citing these examples, I don’t mean to reject Gay’s concerns out of hand. In our lamentable present-day political climate, Gay’s fears are understandable; political contexts always shape the reception of texts – even ones that have not yet been produced.  Yet, I maintain that the reality is not as one-side as she portrays it.

Ultimately, I agree with Gay’s point that a multiplicity of counterfactual narratives on the Civil War and slavery is desirable.  But I part ways with her on the question of who gets to produce them, what they focus on, and how their interpretations should be stage-managed.

Alternate history thrives by liberating rather than shackling the imagination.


Monday, July 24, 2017

"Bitch Better Have My Cotton": A Satirical "Trading Places" Counterfactual

Last Thursday night's Daily Show provided a great example of a satirically-minded "trading places" counterfactual -- one in which the relationship between two groups in real history is switched in alternate history -- with an ironically minded news "story" by Roy Wood Jr.  (Click HERE for the clip).

The story was prompted by HBO's announcement of its upcoming alternate history show, Confederate, which has received a lot of criticism for various perceived shortcomings.

Wood's story displays a conflicted view of counterfactual history.  On the one hand, he implores Hollywood producers to abandon "what if" concepts in future shows, citing the example of The Man in the High Castle, among other series.  But he avails himself of a time honored counterfactual known as a trading places counterfactual to make his point.

There are many examples of such role switching in counterfactual history, for example, the notion that the inhabitants of the New World might have "discovered" and subsequently colonized the Old World of Europe.  But Wood provides a new spin on such a switch by presenting his idea for an alternate television series: Bitch Better Have my Cotton.

In it, the blacks are the slave owners and the whites are the slaves.  (For kicks, the lead actor slated to the play a slave is Matt Damon; the 1970s Blaxploitation imagery further lends the premise a hilarious feel).

I'm not sure that this satirical counterfactual needs its own category, as the trading places element is dominant.  But in contrast to other examples of this type of counterfactual, the comic edge is far more pronounced.

Perhaps if further such examples appear in the future, a category called "satirical counterfactuals" would make sense.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game of Confederates? Thoughts on HBO's Upcoming Civil War Alternate History

I'm quoted in today's New York Times article by David Itzkoff on HBO's projected alternate history series, to be called Confederate, about a world in which the Confederacy defeated the Union in the Civil War.

Undoubtedly, the fact that the project is being pursued by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the creators of the megahit HBO show, Game of Thrones, explains much of the attention to the topic. So does the relevance of the Civil War in present day America, where ongoing racial prejudice against African Americans angers the left and the removal of confederate statues angers the right.

I would argue that the discontent expressed by certain critics about a Civil War alternate history merely underscores the genre's importance, especially insofar as it helps us revise, rethink, and wrestle with difficult historical legacies.

This is equally true of the recent Amazon Prime hit show, The Man in the High Castle -- but only because contemporary political trends have been headed in a right wing, if not neo-fascist, direction.

Counterfactually speaking, if we were living in more politically stable times, The Man in the High Castle would not have had the resonance it does.  It would not be controversial to interpret the show  -- as many have -- as a commentary on present day American "fascism."  Without the backdrop of today's political climate, the show's plot would be relatively cliché.  After all, for decades, it's easy to hate Nazis because of their unambiguous evil.

This is less true of the Civil War.

No matter how many people view the Confederacy as equally evil as the Third Reich due to the institution of slavery, many others continue to overlook it and instead seek inspiration in Southern "heritage."  That explains much of the discomfort about how HBO's Confederacy may portray the topic.

It's certainly understandable.

Still, to my mind, it's premature to judge the show before it begins shooting.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Really? Democratic President Donald Trump? Matt Latimer's "Transplant" and "Trading Places" Counterfactual

I’d like to thank regular CHR reader, Heiko Henning, in Germany for alerting me to the publication of Matt Latimer’s recent alternate history in Politico, “What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat?”

The essay is a great example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one that deposits a historical figure into a different physical setting from one in which he or she was originally situated. This usually takes the form of having an individual being born in a different country. Scholars have inquired how the famed modern architect, Le Corbusier, would have developed had he born in Germany instead of Switzerland. A well-known Saturday Night Live episode from 1978 asked how history would have been different if Superman had grown up in Nazi Germany instead of Kansas (and an upcoming FILM imagines Superman being raised in the Soviet Union.  Similar scenarios have been asked about Napoleon being born in America, Lenin being born in India, and Bill Gates being born in China.

In his article, Latimer (drawing on an idea first floated by Peter Beinart) imagines Trump running – and winning -- as a Democrat. 

Latimer writes:

“It’s a fascinating thought experiment: Could Trump have done to the Democrats in 2016 what he did to the Republicans? Why not? There, too, he would have challenged an overconfident, message-challenged establishment candidate (Hillary Clinton instead of Jeb Bush). He would have had an even smaller number of competitors to dispatch. One could easily see him doing as well as or better than Bernie Sanders—surprising Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, winning the New Hampshire primaries, and on and on. More to the point, many of Trump’s views—skepticism on trade, sympathetic to Planned Parenthood, opposition to the Iraq War, a focus on blue-collar workers in Rust Belt America—seemed to gel as well, if not better, with blue-state America than red. Think the Democrats wouldn’t tolerate misogynist rhetoric and boorish behavior from their leaders? Well, then you’ve forgotten about Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy and LBJ and Bill Clinton.”

Latimer acknowledges some potential “flaws” to the scenario, but concludes that it’s not entirely crazy to imagine him outflanking a coronation-minded Hillary Clinton on the left and blitzing a weak Democratic field like General Sherman marching through Georgia.”

No, not entirely crazy -- just 99% crazy. 

Latimer's essay is a fun read, and it can be credited with imaging an interesting time line of events between January and July of 2017, in which Trump appears at various functions and makes a variety of executive decisions – as a Democrat.

But the narrative’s plausibility is torpedoed by its nakedly obvious political agenda: to exonerate present-day GOP passivity in the face of Trump’s malfeasance by alleging that Democrats would have been just as indulgent of Trump in alternate history as the GOP has been in real history.  (In the essay, the Dems agree to Trump's withdrawal of the US from TPP, his signing a “Muslim Ban,” and construction of a wall between the US and Mexico). Latimer further seeks to boost this counterfactual sympathy for the GOP by imagining that it would have assumed the same protest stance as the Democrats – and received the same dismissive cold shoulder.

In short, Latimer places the Democrats and Republicans into a “trading places counterfactual,” in which the two sides simply exchange their current roles due to the altered circumstance of Trump’s party membership.

The fallacy of both counterfactuals – as used in this essay – is that it mechanistically assumes a total equivalence of behavior by the two political parties based on the simple fact of Trump’s political affiliation.  It is as if the structural reality of possessing power would have led the two parties to behave identically to one another -- without any consideration of political principles.  Pure political power -- possessing and retaining it -- is the only consideration.  No consideration of other factors appears relevant: most obviously, the ongoing GOP control of Congress (which, one assumes would have persisted even if Trump had won as a Democrat and would have limited Trump’s administrative behavior).

The essay has many flaws, but the most obvious is the premise that Trump could ever have run and won as a Democrat in the first place.  The birther fiasco -- not to mention all of Trump’s other disqualifying lies and character flaws -- would have have alienated key parts of the Democratic base (middle class women and minorities in particular) and ultimately been wholly disqualifying.

Readers can go through Latimer’s essay at their leisure and shoot as many fish as they can find in his counterfactual barrel.

But the tip-off for anyone seeking to find the essay’s core agenda is Latimer’s by-line as a former speech writer for the George W. Bush administration.  Given this background, the essay can easily be interpreted as a counterfactual bid at GOP self-exoneration.

Counterfactuals, as this blog has long sought to show, have tremendous rhetorical and political resonance.  They are embraced by all political wings of the spectrum.  It should be no surprise that a GOP establishment stalwart is seeking to whitewash the GOP’s current behavior by alleging that Democrats would have been no better.

But it won’t wash with most readers outside the GOP.