It´s safe to assume that nobody at HBO really thought the announcement of Confederate, the network´s next high-level production set in a victorious South after the American Civil War, would have been met with no controversy. Despite the bubble media executives tend to live in, there are few people around the world who fail to recognize the social crisis the global superpower is going through. The place where these events are being scrutinized with the greatest worry outside of North America is Europe: living at the delta of the western pop-culture river, anything which happens upstream has an impact on which we have no control. Not unlike the political meltdown following Donald Trump´s election to the country´s higher office, the old continent is watching the events of Charlottesville unfold with horror and uncertainty regarding the direction the US is going. Crucially, what we´re witnessing are the global repercussions of an issue that may be purely American it its genesis but which finds disheartening parallels in the rise of new nationalist movements around our neighborhood too. What is so unusual for a foreign observer is that despite the convergences between European and US breeds of homegrown supremacists, the battle for Europe´s soul is playing out in a much more seminal moment. On this side of the Atlantic, a sense of community is emerging on what an increasingly interconnected, united continent will be. On a cultural level, the backlash against the EU has more to do with the liberal order it represents than the idea of a single European identity per se. The fight is more or less happening on virgin territory, where national legacies coagulate into more or less homogeneous sides.
On this playing field the US is somewhat of an ancient country. Transitions in its identity have happened numerous time: there was a time when Americans were British colonists, later morphing into white east-coast dwelling industrialists and evangelists on a pre-defined quest towards the west. The current upheaval too represents a deep change in the cultural and social asset of yesterday: the integration of non-white people which have been excluded from the mainstream for centuries is a traumatic experience. It is even more difficult for a country which can´t simply make a clear cut from its past because it is not trying to define an inherently new identity, but simply to update for a new social reality.
To touch upon these topics in a TV series was of course bound to stir some mighty reaction. Beyond the cultural criticism one may formulate on assigning such a delicate task to a market-driven corporation, much has been said on how scriptwriters Weiss and Benioff are unfit to portray a nightmare still experienced by many blacks if not by the hands of a victorious Confederacy, then by its not-so-underground partisans. It has been said that the dismissiveness of how the criticism of the portrayal of rape in its previous work, Game of Thrones, has shown a duo incapable of truly appreciating the damages a modern public can truly do, how they didn´t understand that in the age of the “death of the author”, good intentions aren´t enough to stop audiences to misinterpret and distort plots beyond the original intention. It has been said that the series risks becoming yet another romanticized version of plantation-owners discussing the moral hazards of slavery while drinking tea and treating their slaves like human beings, because if we´re refined monsters than everything is ok, amiright? In few words, that it risks softening up institutionalized butchery at the expense of those still suffering its consequences.
My personal history has brought me fully living the cultural contexts of Germany and Italy, two antithetical nations sharing a pestilential fascist past. The same way they have completely different notions on politics, economics and cooking, they also handled their past in very different ways. While it is true that the Reich committed crimes which went above and beyond in systematizing genocide and hate, the Italian Kingdom has too undertaken acts which too many would like to forget, be it gassing Ethiopians or slaying Libyans and Greeks. Despite this, there has been no real attempt to come to terms with what Italy has done, outside the oppression of internal political opponents. Italians hid their crimes away in inaccessible archives – literally – and decided to forget everything that happened. Contrary to this, Germany has been able to fully repent its fascist past not only trough laws but more importantly thanks to the direct interest of sons and nephews of veterans, which has cemented the fight against national socialism into the categorical imperative the federal republic is found upon.
Crucially, what Germany did was to destroy any cult of heroism linked to the Third Reich and to avoid the separation between the system and the people fighting for it. They were able to transform Nazis in evil incarnated – not as a figure of speech, but truly transforming them back to women and men made of flesh and bones. This also meant deeply humanizing the crimes they committed, pulling them away from the abstract pedestal unutterable evil evokes and giving returning monsters their names, personalities, all in order to bring antifascism to the everyday realm and even more importantly to understand that evil isn´t is banal as in unsurprising, but as motivated by low and ordinary instincts.
If we agree that to understand motivations isn´t to endorse actions but to prepare responses, then stories are the most powerful weapon we have to face extremist narratives.
The ancient role of stories has always, strictly speaking, that of non-genetic transmission of information from a generation to another. Built from the ultimate cooperative tool, language, stories have never stopped being cautionary tales on how to avoid snakebites and which berries to gather. To feel empathy for a protagonist is virtually the only part of a narrative language that no public will ever need to be taught. Of course, characters can be written badly or detestably, they can be repulsive or simply boring, but everybody will always want to see how their story will progress – if nothing to just have it be over. This is because stories are nothing but virtual simulations of human interactions and interpersonal scenarios everyone may one day end up in. It´s also a way to understand what may be going on in the head of fellow human beings – which is why enjoyable plots are the ones free of any black-and-white narrative and involving morally ambivalent characters: they unveil a logic which may not belong to us personally but still propels a character into taking strikingly different decisions. We may mask a tale on how people react under the pressure of power games as a fantasy epic with knights and dragons, but at the end of the day it will always contain a core of truth on relationships, ambitions, fear. To put it melodramatically, in times of alternative facts empathy is the only secure weapon. To put it earnestly, the only fact that can´t be convincingly made up or invented is the way people behave. And no story can succesfully exist without at least one realistic character taking tough decisions: it´s no coincidence that any plot can be boiled down either to “A stranger comes to town” or “A hero goes on a quest”.
And what does it mean to stir empathy in modern times? As put by Walter Benjamin it means to bring the public close to the observed event, to destroy the aura that separated the protagonist and the onlooker, to bring the common person closer to the recounted facts. And isn´t this exactly what the American left is attempting to do by destroying confederate statues around the country? Aren´t they trying to shatter the myths and heroes – the aura – of a cause manufactured by Hollywood and revisionist historians? It´s certainly what Siegfried Lenz and thousand others did in post-war German literature, as well as the French in the context of the Vichy regime. They shed a merciless light on blazing uniforms of idealists only to reveal rotten, miserable thugs. This hasn´t worked that greatly in the US, were the depiction of literal murders hasn´t swayed the opinion of many, just of some. And if ordinary brutality doesn´t have a significant impact, then maybe the depiction of the unthinkable, of unmistakable systematic violence, set in a stage where a two-centuries detachment isn´t possible, then maybe that will be more effective. At the very least, it won´t be possible to detach its tragedy from the main characters or to find alternative explanations the same bizarre way ironic works like Get Out have been subjected to, not unlike real-life hate crimes.