Ethics Quiz: Alternate History Ethics

In 2017, “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced that HBO  would carry their new original series “Confederate,” an alternate history show taking place in  an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War, creating a new nation in which slavery remains legal and continues as a modern institution. (yes, presumably they knew this was unlikely, bordering on impossible. )Their release added, “The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

While I generally dislike alternate history fiction (unless it involves extravagant revenge on unequivocal villains, like in “Inglorious Basterds” or “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,)” the genre, done well, has the potential to be enlightening and provocative, like Amazon’s The Man in the High Tower,” a series based on Philip K. Dick’s novel about a world in which Germany and Japan defeated the U.S. in World War II.

Now, however,  we learn:

…. HBO president Casey Bloys officially confirms to TVLine that the…long-gestating, controversial slavery drama Confederate will not be moving forward.

The 2017 announcement was greeted by the same people who want to see all statues of slave-holders and Confederate soldiers melted down (and the Confederate flag regarded with the same revulsion as the Nazi swastika) as a dangerous white supremacy plot. Benioff and Weiss even felt they had to make it clear in interviews that they knew “slavery was wrong.” Here’s an example of the social media brickbats the announcement of the series spawned in 2017:

The cancellation of the project can plausibly be attributed to the pair’s recent deal to produce shows for Netflix, but many suspect, including me, that HBO was ultimately taking a safe route after the social media barrage disparaging “Confederate” as “racist.” Maybe HBO decided that the series wouldn’t be successful, although the production staff announced could hardly have been mores stellar. To me, this episode looks suspiciously like prior restraint of creative art, by the usual mob that prefers to tightly control what the public gets to see, hear, or think about.

Or is a show about this topic too dangerous to broadcast in 2020, and thus irresponsible?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is..

Would producing a show about a victorious Confederacy be unethical?

You can guess my take, I bet. No creative enterprise should be smothered in its cradle because someone, or many ones, find  the concept “offensive.”  Cultural bullying should be countered by deliberately making sure that whatever a mob wants to suppress sees the light of day.

You can read some representative arguments against “Confederate” here, here, here, and here.

I was not persuaded.

30 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Alternate History Ethics

      • Do you believe they’d have chosen one of the plausible outcomes?

        Most likely they would have the CSA enslave everyone in the North and waterboard them for fun or something along those lines.

      • I think it would run out of material fast. What possible scenarios and ethical situations could such a show explore with any novelty…anything happening post-bellum would probably look exactly like what the nation was experience ante-bellum.

        So, as “alternate history” goes… YAWN!

        • Unlike my brother and numerous here among the commentariat here, I’m not at all expert in Civil War matters. Doubtless, the South could have won the war as a result of any number of things going slightly another way. What I found preposterous about the show’s proposed concept was the possibility of slavery lasting in a victorious South. I think industrialization was going to end slavery regardless of the War. I’ve now lived, fully consciously, from the 1960s to the 2020s. It’s not a very long time. Think how short that time has been and how much has changed in that time. Now think of all the changes that happened between 1860 and 1920. Slavery could have survived through that? Preposterous.

  1. There have been a bunch of SF alternate-history novels and stories set in a world where the South won the US Civil War; “Bring the Jubilee” is a classic (about as old as me, which dates me), and Harry Turtledove has written several (f.ex., “Guns of the South”). There was even a Twilight Zone episode (from its black & white TV days) in which a “conjure man” offers a Confederate scouting party a surefire way to win the Civil War for the South; the only catch was that they’d have to invoke the Devil. It does seem odd that “The Man in the High Castle” can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video about an alternate 1960s North America ruled by a triumphant Axis from WW2, but a similar TV series set in a North America where the Confederacy won the US Civil War is “verboten.”

    • . . .but a similar TV series set in a North America where the Confederacy won the US Civil War is “verboten.”

      Only because they didn’t get enough of the pitch out with the title.

      “The Confederacy has triumphed. The North is repelled. The slave states celebrate and begin an internal terror campaign against rebellious Blacks and wavering Whites. But as the years and months progress, armed groups of Africans with their poor white allies begin a harrowing guerrilla war against their elite oppressors with help, and arms, from the North and some foreign nations. Soon the rebellion is in full flower and the South burns. . .”

      There are so many opportunities for character and conflict development. So many opportunities to ‘rectify’ history. Even foreign aid and intervention. Struggle, service, even romance.

      They really missed an opportunity.

  2. First, this genre is filled with conjecture and with it broad opportunities for biases.

    Generally, it is a very interesting, creativity filled, and thought provoking genre. It is what was recently recommending to Alizia hoping she might consider a world ruled by, Imperial Japan, Communists, Nazis, Mullahs, or others who have sought to be at the pinnacle of global power rather than the US.

  3. But the important question is did you like Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter?

    Reading the 3 articles (didn’t watch the video) it seems that the reasons for not wanting to do this are: we live in Trump’s America, it will make black people feel bad, and diversity.

    If there is an unethical reason, it certainly wasn’t listed. HBO has never cared about feelings before. I don’t know why they care now. My guess is that most people who watch their garbage are the kind of people they would offend with a show like this. Would that be unethical.

  4. First, the proposed series was not written by ‘two white men’ if we take that in the popular sense. Both Benioff and Weiss are Jews. And Jews often say “I’m not White, I am Jewish”. Meaning, Jews have suffered under the (Nazi) white man just as much as anyone else and therefore cannot quite be considered ‘white’.

  5. From the ‘Snooping Anthropologist’ site in one of the links:

    The latest example of liberal Hollywood spin will turn American history on its head by radically reimagining the southern states as victors of the Civil War (1861-1865), with slavery continuing to flourish into the present-day. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of HBO’s award-winning adventure series Game of Thrones (2011-), have just been given the green light to produce a controversial new series titled Confederate.

    ‘Victory’ would have to be defined here. Victory, for the seceded South, was to have been the right to forge ahead as confederate states: mini-nations in a confederacy. So, victory would not have meant defeating the North necessarily.

    I think the premise is really quite interesting, and in no sense disadvantageous for those who favor Black independence and empowerment. If the Confederates would have *won* they would have won only be being able to hold their own territories, since the South had no designs on the North. A *win* would have been, perhaps, a stalemate. The North would not have occupied the South as it did.

    But so many interesting possibilities open up. The North would still have aided and abetted the liberation of the slave-class. They might have provoked a regional or a general rebellion among the Black slave-class. This might have led to a whole sector becoming a ‘free Black territory’ with their own government. It could have and likely would have led to social conflict between the Black underclass and white society generally, and to an open civil war of some sort in the South. This might have produced a very different outcome for American slavery and its *traditions*. That is, the white South would have been forced to come to some bona fide political and social settlement with the empowered and militant Blacks.

    The North’s *victory* over the South amounted not to an advance for Blacks necessarily. It created conditions of social terror (KKK and white groups that were motivated to resist the meddling of the North as any self-respecting people would). A Southern victory would have quickly advanced into grave social problems for the South’s culture because all of these issues were latent in the mid-1800s.

    In such an alternative history the writers would not likely have recreated conditions of Black oppression, but would have pursued intriguing and strange alternative lined for history to have taken. Certainly, they would have created narratives where the Confederate South was assaulted by clandestine armies, where roving Black guerrilla armies would have roamed the countryside, and where a genuine Black nation of some sort might have been established.

  6. I guess a storyline in which the South wins and over time finds slavery uneconomical in that the owners had to pay everyone’s health care costs, provide 100% of nutritional assistance all while paying the slaves to get educated in the modern society in order to be productive would not sell.

  7. A show like this could have opened up a number of different dialogs and uncomfortable questions, since a historical alternate reality show would invariably get the watcher to ask “what really happened and why?”

    I also consider the recent spate of anti-Jewish hate crimes by blacks along with organizations like BDS. Would a show like this possibly escalate tensions? I don’t know if it would be easy for blacks see a show where blacks are depicted in chains, per a white but Jewish or vice versa, writer’s imagination.

    It would be nice to believe everyone is mature enough to handle viewing this art. It would be nice to believe the intentions of the writers are good or truly artistic. Now we’ll never know, for better or worse.

  8. It’s kind of an implausible idea for the Confederacy to win the Civil War. Considering Grant’s and Sherman’s determination to crush the South as well as the vast industrial power of the North, even if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg, the best the South could hope for would have been a stalemate which would have settled nothing. Still, I hate to see a project cancelled due to it’s subject matter and deranged over sensitivity.

    • The South could have won the way we won the Revolution: with a superior force just deciding, to hell with this, it’s not worth it.If it had adopted Longstreet’s approach, dug in for the long hall with trench warfare and made the North invade, I think the south would have prevailed.

      • The North did invade…3 months after the 1st shots in 1861. The invasion didn’t end until 1865. The rebel army could’ve retreated to the mountains. Little good it would have done them. The North could’ve quietly proceeded with Reconstruction in the lowlands while the Confederate Army withered away in highlands.

      • I did see someone’s simulation done once. The South could’ve won in early months of the war, it was essentially the most armed camp in the Western hemisphere in the first few months. Their army swelled with ranks of volunteers and arms while the North scrambled to mobilize. Had the South abandoned any philosophy that they would fight a defensive war and took their entire force of straight on the offensive, they may have been able to bring the North to the negotiation table very very rapidly.

        But of course, that would be a wildly implausible scenario almost entirely on philosophical grounds.

        • The war was so unpopular as the 1864 election approached that had a couple of Yankee victories gone the other way, Lincoln would have lost, and the North would have waved “Bye!” There was no way for the US to lose the Vietnam war either, unless the public turned hard against it. McPherson’s “Battle Cry Of Freedom” concludes by saying that the North’s victory looking inevitable from hindsight is an illusion. If England allied itself with the South, if Grant hadn’t arrived out of nowhere to solve Lincoln’s command problem; if Gettysburg had been a defeat (which might have happened dozens of ways)…any combination of these and many other contingencies could have made the South sovereign.

      • Maybe. Some recent historians agree with you. However, the parallel with the American Revolution is questionable. Remember how the French fleet bottled up the British at Yorktown. Also the British had a major logistics problem which the North didn’t have.

        • Just a note: my comparison is political, not tactical. In both cases an ugly war was being waged against people regarded as more countrymen than not, and the pubic had little stomach for it.

  9. In my days of RPG playing I found “alternate history” scenarios all over the place and even came up with a few myself. Scenarios where the Civil War or one of the World Wars or even the American Revolution went the other way are a dime a dozen. Everyone who played the games knew how history really played out and very few (no one I knew) thought it would be a good thing if any of these turning points in history went the other way. All the same what about:

    Nova Roma – Pasquale Paoli dies early, so Corsica never becomes part of France, allowing Napoleon to be born Genoese. Italy instead of France becomes his base, and before long he dethrones the Holy Roman Emperor and declares a new empire. Since his base is further south, he never marches on Moscow. Europe looks to Rome, not Paris, for its cues.

    Palestinia – Frederick Barbarossa DOESN’T perish on the way to the Holy Land and arrives with his army (which had already destroyed two Turkish armies) intact. Saladin falls on the field at Arsuf and Jerusalem is retaken. Conrad of Montferrat becomes king of a new Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, who move east after the Mongols overextend themselves and end up retreating. Spires, not minarets, rise above Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, although Baldwin VII wisely stops short of Persia and decides to leave Mecca and Medina alone.

    Espana Grande – Charles V convinces Philip II not to try to conquer England, but instead to secure his sea lines and keep American gold flowing. Spain is never displaced as the dominant naval power and America eventually is ruled by six viceroys rather than four, as what would have been the United States becomes Nueva Castilia, with its capital at Ciudad Cristo (roughly where Baltimore is) and what would have been Canada becomes Llanuras Doradas, with its capital at Ascension (where Montreal is).

    Edwardiana – The assassination at Sarajevo never happens, and Europe goes on undisturbed under Victoria’s grandsons and great-grandsons. Hitler stays an impoverished artist in Vienna, and Lenin’s life ends with the slam of a Czarist prison door. However, the Irish, the Poles, the Balkan peoples, the Arabs, the Armenians, and the non-white subjects of that great empire on which the sun never sets also have decades more to chafe and want their freedom. It may start in Dublin, it may start in Warsaw, it may start in Yerevan, but revolution is coming.

  10. While I don’t think a winning Confederacy is a good thing, alternate histories have long been the metaphorical tongs that let people discuss and talk about possibilities we don’t truly don’t want to talk about. “Man in the High Castle” deserves whatever success it found because that was a very risky production. This ‘Confederacy’ would have required the same vision and gumption, but I believe it could have been groundbreaking the way “Roots” was. Society is so busy whitewashing these issues (pun not wholly intended but pure serendipity) that there is NO safe way to talk about the issues today. We need that desperately.

    I’m not convinced these producers could do justice to the concept. Their adaptation and alternate ending of Martin’s GOT really put extra weight on incest and gratuitous blood rather than story issues. That would not bode well for the hot button topics related to slavery. A sensationalized alternate drama would crash and burn on every level, and I think that might be the reason for shying away. ‘Man in the High Castle’ respects the period and textured reality of a good alternate history. The producers/writers MUST respect the dignity of characters in that reality.

    It’s a good idea, a rich situation, that ironically would have plenty of slots for African American actors. I just don’t think any studio/cable/streamer has the courage to do it right. The thing with alternate histories is that it will not be all sunshine and rainbows, or all sturm and drang. There will be some things in the alternate that will be better than history, no history shift will be monolithic. Even the original Star Trek episode where they landed in a planet like 20th century Rome, didn’t have world wars/pax Romana. Not a great episode, but one important part was loyalty to friends and oaths and the kicker was a delayed start of Christianity. The way the media is now, the Confederacy would have to be a cartoony land of scum and villainy. Not as scary or thought-provoking as a more human least resistance and rationalizing.

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