Ta-Nehisi Coates (accidentally) makes the case for HBO’s Confederate

Few things unite liberals and leftists on social media these days like April Reign’s call for a boycott of David Benioff’s and D.B. Weiss’s proposed HBO miniseries. Their argument seems to be twofold. First, the plot itself, an alternative history that imagines a Confederate victory in the United States Civil War, is simply too dangerous to bring to HBO. Second, dramatization equals approval. That the American government is still dominated by white supremacist politicians like Donald Trump, Steve King, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions means that over the long term the south actually did win the Civil War. Any attempt to dramatize a southern victory as “alternative” history therefore, in effect, denies the real history of slavery and white supremacy.

Not surprisingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has come out in favor of the proposed boycott. Coates, who has an almost demigod status among white leftists, is a good prose stylist and articulates the case for the boycott fairly well. I especially liked his line about how “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.” Yet I find his argument unconvincing.

He mentions two films, the well-known silent film Birth of a Nation and the widely panned Gods and Generals. That Coates can only cite the most obvious cases makes his argument seem glib, and shallow. Nobody on the left will dare criticize Ta-Nehisi Coates, but for me, as good a writer as he is, he seems to be phoning it in. The history of the “Lost Cause” in American cinema is just far too interesting to stop at Gods and Generals. Someone calling for censorship based on his “expertise” in the history of film needs to make a real case, not just point out some obvious and widely reviled propaganda.

Hollywood provides us with much better examples of “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.” Take Michael Curtiz’s historical abomination Santa Fe Trail, a romantic drama made in 1940 starring Errol Flynn as the gallant knight J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan as the gallant knight George Armstrong Custer, and Raymond Massey as the villain, John Brown, depicted, essentially, as Adolf Hitler. Coates could have pointed out that Curtiz, far from being a conservative, was a Hungarian born, Jewish leftist who would later go on to direct Casablanca, and the openly pro-Stalinist Mission to Moscow. While today we might call Santa Fe Trail a fascist movie, Curtiz’s goal was the quite the opposite, to make a colorful Hollywood romance that flattered the south so they would support Franklin Roosevelt’s drive to bring the United States into the war against Hitler. That’s right, Hollywood used to make pro-Confederate “alt-histories” that had an anti-fascist agenda, a much more interesting, and troubling, reality than some awful Bush-era, neoconfederate war porn.

Where Coates’s argument falls flat on its face, however, is in his astonishing lack of familiarity with the real outcome of the Second World War.

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.

John B. Gordon was indeed an advocate of the “Lost Cause” and a white supremacist, and he did indeed go on to become a United States Senator and the 53rd Governor of Georgia. But Coates’ argument that there were no German John B. Gordons proves he either hasn’t studied the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, or simply that he’s so locked into a mainstream liberal view of history that he cannot bring himself to admit the extent to which the United States government rehabilitated high ranking Nazi war criminals as allies against the Soviet Union. Reinhard Gehlen, for example, who was the Chief of Intelligence for the German Army on the eastern front under Hitler — that means he knew all about the Holocaust — would go onto serve as the chief of West German intelligence from 1956 to 1968. That’s right, the Federal Republic of Germany, an American ally, had a former Nazi war criminal as head of its version of the CIA. For Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, the fact that it’s illegal to fly a Nazi flag in Germany lets him ignore the real history of America’s, and more specifically the CIA’s, collusion with former high-ranking Nazis.

A good “alternative history” of the United States and Nazi Germany, a better written, most historically specific version of The Man in the High Castle, might have cleared up some of his confusion. In fact, Coates’ mention of the execrable Gods and Generals made me think of its director Ronald F. Maxwell’s earlier film Gettysburg. Gettysburg, which is a pretty bad movie itself, has one very memorable scene. John Buford, an important commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry through most of 1863, and the real architect of the Union Victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, is inspired to seize the crossroads at that fateful little town in southern Pennsylvania by none other than his imagination of a Confederate victory. Alternative history does in fact have its uses.

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3 comments

  1. archercrosley · · Reply

    Here is a ticket to the clue train for liberals and leftists: There is no need to see the mini-series, Confederate; you’re living it right now. The Party of Slavery, otherwise known as the Democratic Party and their Republican Party moles – McCain, Collins, et. al. – won. You can see their handiwork in the inner cities today.

  2. I generally agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates (not on this, however), but I’ve never really found myself challenged in any way by what he has to say; I feel like I’m a choir member being preached to when I read his work. I guess initially when he became known, during the Bush administration, there had been such a suppression in the media of any kind of dedicated left voice, so he seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time.

    Re: should they make it or not make it, that’s just foolishness. If you have indications that it’s going to be neo-Nazi tripe, hell no. Otherwise, however, I think alternate history is an incredibly powerful tool of alternative fiction, and it seems unlikely to me that the men most famous for producing a show that shows in great detail the excesses and brutality of royalty will make a show about the Confederacy winning and it be something that can be coherently molded into an endorsement of slavery or even racial inequality.

    1. I generally agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates (not on this, however), but I’ve never really found myself challenged in any way by what he has to say; I feel like I’m a choir member being preached to when I read his work.

      Right. He just followed the social media left consensus on this issue without really exploring it.

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