Media

A #Confederacy of dunces

Stephen L. Miller

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, producers and writers of the HBO hit “Game of Thrones,” recently announced they would be taking on what has already become a controversial new HBO project: a series exploring what could have happened if the South had successfully seceded from the Union during the Civil War and slavery continued to exist in the Confederate states today.

When the pair announced the upcoming series – titled “Confederate” – neither they nor HBO foresaw or reacted well to the hysterical criticism it generated. Almost immediately, an online culture mob responded with the all-too-typical tripe and teeth-gnashing of venting and anger at any film, award show, or Netflix series that doesn’t meet their self-proclaimed enlightened and august standards for the advancement of social justice.

Mind you, no one knows beyond a brief show synopsis what point of view “Confederate” will take (possibly an alternate history timeline like the shows “Man in the High Castle” or “Fatherland”). No one knows who is starring, or if there are even scripts. There are no performers cast, no sets built, no costumes. The show only exists at this moment as an idea in the heads of Benioff and Weiss.

That didn’t stop the backlash online or in news outlets. The New York Times published an op-ed by author Roxane Gay headlined: “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” The great news for Gay is that her television is not stuck on HBO and she is free to change the channel any time she wishes. Pretty simple stuff.

Media outlets legitimatizing this special brand of bored fascism of course only encouraged and emboldened the gang of laptop rioters furious at the mere concept of “Confederate.” This all came to a head this past Sunday night.

The Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect free expression from being smothered by critics from all sides. We do not live in a country that shuts down ideas of artists based simply on what some people think might be distasteful or even harmful.

Reuters reported:  “The hashtag #NoConfederate was a top-trending Twitter topic worldwide on Sunday after April Reign, the woman behind the #OscarsSoWhite campaign two years ago, urged people to send a message to HBO objecting to the show. Critics of the concept have deemed it both offensive and inappropriate, especially coming from two white male creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of HBO's medieval fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones.’ "

Reuters quoted Reign as saying: "We believe the time to speak up is now, before the show has been written or cast. Before @hbo invests too much money into #Confederate." Reign went on to say: “While we are not currently calling for a boycott of 'Game of Thrones' or the cancellation of HBO subscriptions, we will not rest until 'Confederate' is scrapped."

HBO, for some inexplicable reason, released a statement Monday responding to the outrage  but as of yet it is not willing to budge on “Confederate” going into production. While Reign says she is outraged that two white men would produce such a show depicting slavery, she can’t tell you why.

By all accounts, HBO is a progressively minded premium cable and satellite network. It gives countless numbers of web interns clips of John Oliver every Monday morning to embed into their left-leaning sites. It boosted liberal feminist heroine Lena Dunham to stardom and into Hillary Clinton’s inner circle.

Now HBO has another budding hit on its hands with “Insecure,” a comedy-drama set in Los Angeles about the life of star and creator Issa Rae, similar to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which lampoons conservatives and Republicans as well. “Game of Thrones” featured George W. Bush’s head on a pike in its early seasons.

The most likely scenario is that “Confederate” is going to draw parallels between fictional modern-day slavery on screen to claims of police brutality and so-called liberation movements like Black Lives Matter today.

If anything, the show will likely side with Reign’s own point of view and her particular social causes on behalf of African-Americans. But again, this is just my speculation. No one knows what “Confederate” is going to be like.

And this is where Reign’s modern mode of thought and action runs right up against the ideas of free speech and artistic expression. She advances the same ideas of censorship that we saw at the University of Missouri and throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, as protestors blocked traffic and stormed microphones of people who otherwise would be their sympathetic allies.

By advocating censorship, Reign wants to prevent the discussion of any idea, or piece of art or expression she may find objectionable. But just about every idea and work of art offends someone.

The Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect free expression from being smothered by critics from all sides. We do not live in a  country that shuts down ideas of artists based simply on what some people think might be distasteful or even harmful.

Writer Geoff Throne put this more eloquently on Twitter than I can here, in a tweet storm during the #NoConfederate hashtag trend. “Freedom of Expression requires that the expression be MADE. Once it's out there, that same freedom to express allows us to decry, deride,” he tweeted. I encourage you to read the rest of his thoughts.

Furthermore, why does HBO feel the need to respond to online mobs at all? No answer the network gives the censorship advocates will placate their outrage. If anything, a response gives the protestors more to fuel and an extra day or week of rage.

From here this will most likely end in one of two ways.

First scenario: HBO, Benioff and Weiss will end up meeting in New York City with a group self-appointed “leaders” of the aggrieved Twitterati. HBO will Tweet out photos of the meeting to show it is sensitive, caring, politically correct and committed to altering “Confederate” to meet the criticism the project has received. Inevitably, this will compromise the integrity of the concept for the show and lower the program’s quality. It will no longer stand as a unique piece of cinematic or artistic expression to be judged on the original intent of those that created it.

Second scenario: This one is more likely to happen. HBO kills “Confederate” before it can be shown. This would compromise how HBO created an alternative to TV mediocrity with series that challenged tired old formulas, such as “The Sopranos and “Sex in the City.” Viewers turned to HBO in the first place because they could not see these sorts of innovative quality programs that push social boundaries on network television. HBO may satisfy a social justice mob in the short term. But long-term, its brand will be harmed. 

HBO’s only response to Reign and those promoting this kind of blatant censorship should be to tell them to go out and create their own art, film, or series to counter and respond to whatever “Confederate” turns out to be.

HBO’s dominance gave way to original series on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (which is already producing its own African-American alternate timeline series). More viewers will desert HBO if it gives in to the online outrage culture and becomes mundane and predictable.

HBO should understand that it holds all the cards here against an online outrage culture that is simply too bored with itself to care about real problems in the country. Put “Confederate” out there. The audience will decide if it succeeds or fails. Not the mob. 

Stephen L. Miller has written for Heat Street and National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at @redsteeze.