Lines of thought

On outnumbering and being Outnumbered

Unearnt privilege is real.  Unearnt privilege is also invisible.

Because privilege is invisible, those of us who have it (hi, straight white male here) can often be unaware of it, even when we’re actively exercising it; and this can lead us to think it isn’t real.  This can lead us to insist it isn’t real, particularly when we’re being called out for having (unwittingly or otherwise) profited by it.

But it is real.  If you’re in America and society perceives you as male, or white, or straight, or rich, or Christian (to name just a few big ones), then society affords you a latitude, society caters to your preferences and to your comfort, in ways that it simply doesn’t do for people it perceives as not belonging to those privileged groups.  It makes life for you easier and makes sure you feel more important.  That isn’t to say it makes life easy or makes you feel important, simply easier and more important than would be the case if you belonged to one of the non-privileged groups.

Gear change. I really love this piece in Cosmopolitan calling out Fox News’s Outnumbered for their paternalistic attempt to tell Cosmo to stay in their place and cover issues women should be reading about (fashion and pleasing men in bed, obvs) while leaving politics with the men, where it belongs.  In its tone, in its substance, in its perception, the essay is perfect from start to end.

And it got me thinking about the title of the show.  Outnumbered.  I’m already predisposed to dislike that title, because I don’t appreciate a cable news show appropriating the name of the most hilarious parenting sitcom ever televised.

But if you’re someone who I’ve claimed, up above, that our society gives you unearnt privilege, just for being you, and you’re sitting there thinking that’s a load of bullshit, that what you have, you’ve earnt, and it’s patent liberal hypocrisy of me to use claims of equality in order to give women or racial minorities or LGBTs special treatment, then think about the title of Outnumbered.

This is Fox News’s attempt to get women watching them in the middle of the day, since, after all, the daytime TV market is predominantly female.  And yet it’s not called Outnumbering or In the Majority or anything to emphasise the women who comprise most of its panel.  Instead it’s called Outnumbered.  The producers of this show, in their quest to appeal to women viewers, still take it totally for granted that even in something so fundamental as the show’s title, their audience are by default going to share the perspective of the one male panelist rather than his female colleagues.

That’s not the most pernicious, or pervasive, or harmful manifestation of privilege I could think of, not by a long shot.  It’s not even the worst instance of it just in the criticisms of Outnumbered cited in the Cosmopolitan essay.  But it’s a tremendously clear one.

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Show them this

A friend on Facebook linked to Next Time Someone Says Women Aren’t Victims of Harassment, Show Them This, and I’m a big fan.

My first big takeaway is that my very presence as a man means that the women I know are less likely to get harassed while I’m around. Therefore, by definition, I only see them during their most harassment-free times, so it’s inevitable that the picture I have of a woman’s life involves her being subject to far less harassment than she in reality is.

It is therefore important that when a woman tells me she’s being harassed, I believe her. This falls under the basic principle that when a woman tells me something is sexist, I believe her; there are few things more prima-facie sexist than a man explaining to a woman how something isn’t actually an instance of sexism.

(See also: few things more prima-facie racist than a white person explaining to blacks or Hispanics or any other racial minority how something isn’t actually an instance of racism.)

My second big takeaway is that “Not all men” is a perfectly valid way to start off a sentence, as long as you’re not saying it to women, but instead to the men who are the problem. One of the special privileges I get as a male in Western society is that my voice is naturally treated with more authority than a woman’s. There are plenty of men who, when told that what they’re saying is sexist or creepy by a woman, would have no problem dismissing anything she says and concluding that their own behaviour is perfectly fine; but they’d have a much harder time doing that if it were a man who told them.  Sure, they’d most likely get defensive and angry, but being called out for their sexism by a man would stick with them far more than being called out by a woman.

It’s wrong that my voice gets that privilege, but unfortunately it’s true. I can’t change that, but what I can do is use my voice to try and build a world for my kids to live in where my daughter will be heard with just the same weight as my son.

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Black Orchid

What my last post boiled down to, essentially, was that I’m old enough now, with around three and a half decades behind me, to have become aware of some of the ways that values and norms of acceptability have shifted just during my lifetime, such that people (of whom I am one) see the world differently now, when I’m thirty-four, than many of the same of us did back when I was, say, fifteen.  That time, I was talking about sport, but I recently came upon the same phenomenon again in a different context during my family’s multi-year Doctor Who rewatch.

The Cranleighs. At least, those of them who survive the story.
BlackOrchidCranleighs

We’ve reached season nineteen in the rewatch, Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor, and recently we watched “Black Orchid”.  It was first transmitted on 1–2 March 1982, and there’s simply no way the same story in the same way could be told now, in 2014.

(Ten-year-old David Tennant was probably still excitedly watching his future father-in-law’s time as the Doctor when “Black Orchid” premiered, though twenty-three-year-old Peter Capaldi is more likely to have outgrown the programme by then. And, literally, no one had even conceived of Matt Smith yet.)

There are spoilers ahead for “Black Orchid”.

In the story, the TARDIS materialises in the 1920s at the home of Lord Cranleigh, who lives in a huge country manor somewhere in the Home Counties with his fiancée, Miss Ann Talbot, and his mother, the dowager Lady Cranleigh.  (I apologise for referring to a mother-and-son pair as Lady and Lord Cranleigh, because I know that’s confusing, but it’s how they’re continuously referred to throughout the story, except for when the local police commissioner once addresses Lady Cranleigh as “Madge”.)  Lord Cranleigh is the younger brother of George Cranleigh, a famed botanist who was killed by natives during an exploratory expedition in the Amazon rain forest; Ann was engaged to George before she agreed to marry Lord Cranleigh after the elder brother died.

Nyssa, Adric, Tegan and the Doctor
BlackOrchidTARDIS

The TARDIS team (at this time consisting of the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) have arrived on the day of an annual masquerade ball at the Cranleigh residence.  At Lord Cranleigh’s insistence, they agree to attend; Cranleigh and Ann provide them with costumes from the house supply.

What neither the TARDIS crew nor Ann know, though, is that George Cranleigh is not dead; during his expedition to the Amazon, the natives tortured him in a way that left him physically deformed and mentally unbalanced.  Once George was returned to England, Lord and Lady Cranleigh decided to keep his survival a secret, and have been holding him captive in a secret room deep within their manorhouse in order to save both him and themselves the embarrassment of being made a public spectacle.

While the masquerade ball is going on, however, George manages to escape from his captivity, killing one of the household staff in the process.  He then sneaks through the secret passages that riddle the house until he arrives in the Doctor’s bedroom, where he dons the harlequin costume the Doctor is to wear to the ball.

The Doctor does not see George, but he does find the secret passageway that George used to get to his room.  He follows it back to George’s room, where he finds the body of the murdered servant.  He summons Lady Cranleigh and shows her the body; she express shock and mystification at the murder, but fails to tell the Doctor about the existence of George.  She promises him that she will call the police immediately, and asks the Doctor not to tell the other guests about the murder so as not to upset them.  The Doctor is reluctant but agrees and returns to his room.

George Cranleigh, disguised as the Doctor disguised as a harlequin, makes his move on his long-lost fiancée
BlackOrchidGeorgeCranleigh

George, meanwhile, with his face covered by the harlequin mask, has infiltrated the masquerade, where he brutally attacks Ann Talbot and murders a second servant.  He then escapes back into the depths of the house, where, after he politely returns the harlequin costume to the Doctor’s room, he is secretly recaptured and returned to captivity by Lord and Lady Cranleigh.  The Doctor, meanwhile, has returned to his room, where he puts the harlequin costume on and arrives at the masquerade just in time for Ann to identify him as the man who attacked her.

This is followed by a fairly predictable twenty minutes in which Lady Cranleigh refuses to help the Doctor and covers up the fact that she knows it was her son George who is in fact the culprit, leading to the police arresting the Doctor for murder.  Matters come to a head when George escapes once more.  He sets fire to the house, then kidnaps Nyssa and retreats onto the roof with her as a hostage.  Lord Cranleigh redeems himself (apparently) when he and the Doctor follow George onto the roof of the burning manorhouse and persuade him to release Nyssa.  Lord Cranleigh, realising the error of his ways, steps forward to embrace his brother, but George instead hurls himself off the parapet and falls to his death.  I think we’re meant to take George’s suicide as demonstrating just how far his mind had gone, but it more feels to me like he was simply terrified of the man who has kept him tied to the bed in a darkened room for the past two years.

But it doesn’t matter why George has killed himself; he has, so now that’s cleared up, the TARDIS team and the Cranleighs can all be friends again, and there is much smiling as our heroes bid farewell and depart through the TARDIS doors.

Which, of course, points up the biggest problem with viewing “Black Orchid” nowadays—that this ending is considered happy.  The conflict has been resolved, and so everyone can move on with their lives.  This necessarily implies, then, that the conflict in “Black Orchid” is that George Cranleigh has survived his torture in a deformed and unbalanced state, and not—as I think any viewer in 2014 would expect—that his brother and mother are so monstrously inhumane that they have secretly kept him imprisoned in a tiny room with no natural light because admitting that he is still alive would embarrass them.

(You can make the argument that George Cranleigh might have been so proud a man that he would rather have the world think him dead than be exposed to public scrutiny in his present state; but his repeated and violent attempts at escape would seem to give the lie to that idea.)

It’s important when we look at “Black Orchid” to distinguish between ideas that the story thinks are A-OK by 1982 standards and ideas that the story presents as A-OK by 1920s standards.  We’re obviously not meant to think it’s all right for the Cranleighs to so callously imprison George, or for Lady Cranleigh to allow an innocent man to be arrested for murder rather than admit the truth, but the problem is that our reaction is meant to be one of disapproval rather than condemnation.  Once they stop engaging in their objectionable behaviour—ideally by seeing the light and setting George free, but, you know, I guess him throwing himself off a building and thus removing the dilemma works just as well—then there don’t need to be any consequences for what they’ve done, and it shouldn’t even occur to us that they’re morally responsible for their son/brother’s death.  So incongruous is the ending that I was certain that in my previous viewings of “Black Orchid”—on TV in the mid-90s and when the DVD first came out in 2008—that the Cranleigh brothers had fallen to their deaths together at the story’s climax.

There’s something really ghastly about that final farewell scene, with all the smiles and hugs goodbye.  Tegan, as the only human amongst the Doctor’s companions of the moment (and as a pretty outspokenly judgemental character), is the voice of the 1982 viewer, but the only emotions she displays here are excitement and gratitude when the Cranleighs let the TARDIS crew keep the costumes they wore to the masquerade.  (Read in a broad Australian accent: “D’ya really mean it?  We can keep them?”)

And then there’s the deep creepiness of Lord Cranleigh’s relationship with Ann Talbot—and when I say creepiness, that’s definitely something that we bring to it as 2014 viewers, because the script doesn’t expect the 1982 viewer to have any problem with it whatsoever.  Lord Cranleigh, a man in his mid-thirties, lumps his fiancée in with a group he refers to as “the children”, by which he means the teenagers who are too young to be served alcoholic beverages.  And yet not only is Ann, who we might therefore guess is twenty-one at the oldest (actress Sarah Sutton was twenty at the time the episodes were taped), old enough to be engaged and live with her fiancé, but she’s apparently old enough to have been engaged to an even older man, George Cranleigh, several years ago.

(I think we’re meant to conclude that Ann is the Cranleighs’ ward, which makes the idea of her living with them totally fine at the cost of making her engagement to successive Cranleigh brothers much, much skeevier on the men’s parts.)

And if we the viewers find it impossible to forgive the Cranleighs for what they have done, how much worse is it that Ann seems to forgive them in no time at all?  Sure, she has a tearful exclamation of, “How could you!” when first she finds out, and flees from the room, but her disgust with them seems to last approximately six or seven seconds.  The next time we see her in the sort of context that allows her to show us her state of mind, during the goodbye scene, she is snuggled comfortably in the arms of Lord Cranleigh, the man who knew that her fiancé was still alive but kept that knowledge from her, imprisoned her beloved and used that pretence as a cover to allow him to woo her himself.

That final scene isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story’s problems, but removing it would go a long way to rinsing out the bitter taste that “Black Orchid” leaves in the mouth.  In my last post I wrote from the perspective of being left behind as society changed around me; this time I’m glad that it is I who have changed with society and left behind the outlook that would have allowed us to think of this story as having a happy, or even an acceptable, ending.

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Red Dead Redemption and women

That’s an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the spinoff of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women web series, dealing with the phenomenon of the generic female sex worker NPCs who are so ubiquitous in the background of open-world video games.  It’s thirty minutes, which is a huge time commitment on the Internet, but if you like these sorts of games, it’s well worth it.

Let me start off by making it clear: I love open-world games. I love Grand Theft Auto.  I love Assassin’s Creed.  I love Red Dead Redemption.  I love Sleeping Dogs.  I’m one of the few GTA fans who was around for the original Grand Theft Auto game in the 90s, and I own every GTA game released for console from GTA3 onward.  I own every Assassin’s Creed game released for console.  I replay Red Dead Redemption in the same way that people regularly reread their favourite book.  In fact I’m in the middle of an RDR replay right now, which I started after I finished replaying GTA5 last week; I started GTA5 right after I’d finished replaying Sleeping Dogs.  The games in this video can be divided, fairly evenly, into games I own and love, and games I haven’t played.

(The exception is Just Cause II, which I own and have played but abandoned about halfway through because I just didn’t enjoy it.  It was too much of a shooter and not enough of an action-adventure game for me.)

And yet I can still acknowledge that every criticism Sarkeesian makes in the video—of the games I’ve played specifically and of the culture of M-rated open-world games in general—is valid and deplorable.

I came across the video in Kotaku’s short article linking to it, and then I skimmed through the first few dozen comments.  The level of discourse was a lot higher than I’ve seen in other online posts confronting misogyny in video games, and there were plenty of commenters who recognised the truth of what Sarkeesian is saying.  But of course, there were also plenty who tried to refute her argument, either by being the guy who thinks he’s “living proof that any supposed correlation between ‘long-term exposure to hypersexualized images’ and ‘higher tolerance of sexual harassment of women’ is complete bullshit” because he watches “loads of porn.  I mean, crazy amounts”, but doesn’t think of himself as a misogynist; or by dismissing Sarkeesian’s legitimacy as a critic of video games (apparently because she funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games through Kickstarter?  I couldn’t really follow the logic.); or by attempting to argue that the misogyny in these games is actually A-OK.

I’m going to assume that it’s pretty self evident what the problems are with the first two of those—the dude with too much porn and too little self-awareness, and the guys who would find a way to dismiss anyone who criticised the boobs in their video games—and instead address the last, the guys who acknowledge the misogyny on display here but who have arguments to legitimise it.  I’m mostly going to concentrate on Red Dead Redemption, for three reasons:

(1) It’s the game I’m seeing these commenters cite most often with their arguments;

(2) It’s one of my favourite games of all time; definitely my favourite console game;

(3) It actually is really progressive as far as these things go.  It has multiple strong female characters, one for every act of the game.  Apart from the single instance of the Dastardly trophy (discussed in the video), the player’s interactions with the prostituted women are always either polite or heroic, and the player is not allowed to avail himself of their services.  And again apart from the Dastardly trophy, every instance of violence against women in the game is depicted as making its perpetrator a horrible human being.  I ask myself with every narrative game I play, “Just how bad is the misogyny here?”, because I want to know if this is a game that I can discuss with or recommend to the women with whom I discuss games, and with Red Dead Redemption I come closer to saying, “Not that bad at all,” than I do with pretty much any other open-world game besides Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.  But it’s the very fact that Red Dead is actually one of the least offensively misogynistic games of its genre but is still such low-hanging fruit for a feminist critique that shows just how pervasive a problem this is.

(And yes, I do have to consciously ask myself about the misogyny, because I’m a straight male, and I’m aware that just being a straight male gives me the male privilege of ignoring that misogyny if I don’t make the effort to look for it.  Having male privilege doesn’t make us, as men, bad people; it just makes us men.  It’s only if we use that male privilege to pretend our blindness to misogyny means that the misogyny isn’t there that we make ourselves bad people.)

(Also, it should come at no surprise at this point when I warn that there will probably be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption ahead.)

The counterarguments seem to fall into two general categories: relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s just realism or historical accuracy; or relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s counterbalanced by the presence of three well-developed female characters.

The first argument is easy to refute: it’s just flat out not true.  Even if the situation were simply that Red Dead Redemption depicts women as passive and irrelevant while it’s the men who actively drive events (which of isn’t what’s being criticised, but the commenter would like to pretend that it is), it still wouldn’t be accurate.  You only assume it’s accurate precisely because you’ve been exposed to so much media that pretends it is.  Women have always been active in our public life; women have always been present in fields we think of as traditionally belonging to men.  Anyone who tells you that all the women characters being relegated to passive, supporting roles and kept away from the real action is legitimate storytelling because history isn’t qualified to tell you anything about history.

And besides, that’s not even how Red Dead Redemption presents its world.  It’s not that women don’t get much say in the course of events; it’s that most of the women who appear onscreen are sex workers. I mean, the game allows the character to roam across the American southwest and the Mexican northwest, and about half the women he sees are prostitutes.  Prostitutes who only ever appear in public wearing nothing more than their underwear.  Are you really going to argue that that’s valid in the name of accuracy?  The town of Armadillo is, in the game, the only urban settlement in the state of New Austin.  Its population apparently consists of one general storekeep, one gunsmith, one doctor, one telegrapher, one marshal and two deputies, a staff of three or four at the train station, that weird dude who runs the cinema, a dozen or so pedestrians, a dozen or so customers at the saloon (as well as the saloon keeper and the piano player), and two or three dozen prostituted women.  Does that really seem like an accurate portrayal of a frontier town’s economy to you?  Even accounting for the ranchers in the surrounding counties, there must be one prostituted woman for every two men west of Hennigan’s Stead.  This is no more “accurate” than is GTA5’s depiction of strippers as a demographic who really really want you to grope and fondle them in the champagne room, if only it wasn’t for that mean bouncer putting a stop to their fun, and who will happily take you home with them if you can manage to fondle them enough without the bouncer seeing.

As for the idea that the presence of a strong female character balances out the purely male-gaze prostituted women who are so visible in Red Dead Redemption and, indeed, in so many other open-world games.  Red Dead does indeed have three really solid female characters with a lot of depth to them, and that’s (sadly) a lot for a game like this.  In fact, let’s take a look at all the main characters in Red Dead Redemption to see just how overrepresented women are.  I’ll even highlight them so it’s easier to see their prevalence in the game world:

(I’m defining a “major character” here as someone who either (1) is John Marston, (2) gives Marston a main-storyline mission, (3) is one of the major villains Marston has to hunt down in the climactic missions of each act of the game, or (4) doesn’t give Marston a mission per se, but who is a frequent companion of a mission-giver and accompanies or leads Marston on multiple missions, like Nastas the Indian or Captain Espinoza.)

CHARACTERS IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION

John Marston, male

Characters in the New Austin act

Bill Williamson, male (Williamson also appears in one mission in the Mexico act.)

Bonnie McFarlane, female (Bonnie also appears in two missions in the final act.)

Marshal Johnson, male

Jonah, male

Eli, male

Nigel West-Dickens, male (West-Dickens also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Drew McFarlane, male (Drew also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Seth, male

Irish, male

Characters in the Mexico act

Landon Ricketts, male

Captain de Santa, male

Colonel Allende, male

Luisa, female

Captain Espinoza, male

Abraham Reyes, male

Javier Escuella, male

Characters in the final act

Edgar Ross, male (Agent Ross also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Agent Fordham, male (Agent Fordham also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Dutch van der Linde, male

Professor MacDougal, male

Nastas, male

Abigail Marston, female

Jack Marston, male

Uncle, male

I mean, yeah, right?  It’s ridiculous how overrepresented women are in Red Dead Redemption.  It’s clear as day in that list.  Twelve per cent of the characters in the game who speak, have personalities, interact with the player and move the game forward are women.  That’s a ridiculously high proportion for a game with pretensions to “historical accuracy”.

(Seriously who can immerse themselves in a huge, deep game world like Red Dead Redemption but where only three out of twenty-five actual active human beings are female, and somehow come away with the idea that they’ve been playing a “historically accurate” rendition of how Western society works?  I guess the same guy who can play a game in which you can lasso and hogtie a prostituted woman, then place her on the train tracks, and she continues to sassily flirt with you while you both wait for the train to come run her over, and still describe the game he’s been playing as “historically accurate”.)

Like I said, Red Dead Redemption does have more—and more fully developed—major female characters than its peers such as most of the Grand Theft Auto games and most of the Assassin’s Creed games and Sleeping Dogs.  But that just highlights how low the standard is; it doesn’t make Red Dead some sort of bastion of egalitarian storytelling for giving John Marston literally one woman per act to interact with.  Pointing to Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail as if they somehow insulate the game from being called out on the objectification of the sex worker NPCs does much more to confirm accusations of misogyny in video gaming than it does to refute it.

But let’s say that three strong female characters really was impressive.  Let’s say Red Dead Redemption really did have a historically accurate, representative gender balance in its main narrative and cast of characters.  That still doesn’t change that the bordellos in towns throughout the game are creepy, male-gazey bits of window dressing that encourage the players to treat these women as being there just for their own entertainment.  Quite simply, the presence of the one element doesn’t erase the presence of the other.

(This works just as well in the opposite direction.  A lot of the commenters seem to take Sarkeesian’s criticism of Red Dead Redemption’s sex worker NPCs as her somehow saying that the presence of Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail doesn’t count.  Sarkeesian doesn’t ignore the major female characters or pretend they don’t exist; they simply aren’t relevant to a discussion of Red Dead being yet another instance of games that use sexualised images of women as objectified window dressing for the presumed straight male player.)

I started out by saying that I love open-world games in general, and I love Red Dead Redemption in particular.  I’m reiterating that now.  It’s important always to remember that finding some elements of a piece of media problematic doesn’t mean that other elements of it can’t be very satisfying and rewarding; it’s also important to remember that it is okay to like even the problematic elements.  But that doesn’t mean the problematic elements aren’t problematic, and it doesn’t mean we can wave away or dismiss the very real issues they raise.

Read Dead Redemption would be just as compelling and immersive a game without its three towns full of women walking around wearing only corsets, bloomers and stockings.  The gameplay experience would be just as satisfying. And yet someone still seems to think they need to be there.  And not just in Red Dead, but over and over again, in GTA, in Assassin’s Creed, you name it.  Why?

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Overdetermination

There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.

Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.

The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it.  No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia.  The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit.  Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.

Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870.  After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict.  It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13.  In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.

I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent.  An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.

It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were.  But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).

The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes.  This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto.  Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one.  There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren).  And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency.  Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.

Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent.  I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.

So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent.  What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline?  What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?

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American independence and Quebecois dependence

So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?

Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America.  This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.

The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel.  The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war.  The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war.  During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica.  The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention.  (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)

Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.

And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things.  Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.

And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec.  I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border.  But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking.  I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on.  I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.

Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State.  That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other.  The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer.  The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.

(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State?  Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest.  I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)

But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content.  I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.

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Ports

When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting.  Characters and plot follow on later.

There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting.  Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds.  Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions.  Almost always, my settings are urban.

And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city.  Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world.  They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.

But it’s a specific type of port I love.  It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals.  Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities.  Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.

But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands.  Singapore.  Istanbul.  Alexandria.  Shanghai.  Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins.  Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European.  Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”.  New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.

(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)

So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.

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The Time Lord and his ladies

Spoilers for the seven series of New Who, concentrating on the plot and character arcs of the five primary companions

Saturday night I saw Star Trek: Skyfall, then came home and watched the Who finale, “The Name of the Doctor”.  So I spent a lot of that night watching loving homages to Classic Who and Original Series Trek that had clearly been made by people who care about those things as much as I do, and I loved every second of it.  A lot of effort obviously went into crafting things designed to bring joy to longtime, old-school fans, and I appreciate that.  Especially with Doctor Who–the technical achievement we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” was clearly a longtime coming in both conception and execution, long enough that it was already in a pretty advanced stage by the time that worst of Who episodes, “Let’s Get Hitler”, was produced back in 2011.

But there was something else that really struck me about “The Name of the Doctor”, something troubling.  I’ve been noticing bits and pieces of it at least as far back as “School Reunion” in 2006, and it’s always bothered me.

When Doctor Who repremiered in 2005, much was made of the new attitude the programme would now have toward the Doctor’s female companions.  They would be intelligent, active, independent and competent, not the ditzy, over-terrified sexist stereotypes that we were assured they had been throughout the programme’s first twenty-six seasons.  I long ago debunked the idea that ditzy, over-terrified companions were ever a common thing on Doctor Who, or that capable, confident companions were any sort of departure for the programme.  But this is more than that.  The more I look at it, the more it’s a central message of New Who that the Doctor’s female companions–women who we’re regularly told are special, unique, transcendent individuals in a way we never were in the classic programme–are of value only insofar as they submit themselves to the Doctor.

RosevsMarthaRose and Martha

Much got made during the RTD era of the effect the Doctor had on his companions, of how he made them flourish, capable of more than they would have been otherwise, whether we saw that as a good thing (“But she was better when she was with you!”) or bad (“He fashions his friends into weapons.”).  Three of RTD’s four series finales turn on the companion saving the universe (and the Doctor) by achieving some feat that shouldn’t be humanly possible.

First you’ve got Rose, cracking the TARDIS open and taking the time vortex into herself; then Martha, who spends a year wandering the post-apocalyptic Earth, spreading word of the Doctor.  Rose refuses to accept her separation from the Doctor and goes to any lengths, including physically impossible ones, to return to him, as she will later do once again with the dimension cannon.  Martha, on the other hand, walks away from the Doctor.  She sacrifices him, as she sacrifices her family, as she sacrifices at least a degree of her own humanity–when she returns to England at the beginning of “Last of the Time Lords”, she is a visibly harder, less merciful, less empathetic person.  Rose rips apart the fabric of space and time to satisfy her own desire to be with the Doctor, whereas Martha spends a whole year in a literal hell on Earth, surviving entirely on her own, telling everyone she meets the importance of having faith in the very man who failed to save her, her family or her world.

And yet of the two, who is routinely treated as the example of the perfect companion, the one who surpasses all others?  Whose sacrifice is considered greater?  Even the Master laughs at Martha’s trauma, derisively citing Rose as her better, because Rose stared into the time vortex in order to return to the Doctor.  The Master, who never even met Rose, thinks immediately of her when trying to come up with an example of companions superior to Martha, rather than thinking of, say, the companion whose brain had such a capacity for mathematics that the Master actually kidnapped him and wired him into his own TARDIS, then was able to harness that mental capacity into constructing solid illusions capable of invading the Doctor’s TARDIS.

After They Leave the Doctor

It is true that time with the Doctor seems to leave his companions more capable, more accomplished individuals.  New Who has shown us Sarah Jane, Martha and Donna all excelling in their independent lives–in Donna’s case, even after just a few hours and a single adventure with the Doctor.  Of course, Donna turns herself into a professional, perceptive investigator of suspicious situations not because the events of “The Runaway Bride” opened her eyes to the dangers Earth faces constantly and awakened in her a desire to be involved in foiling those dangers; no, she’s simply going to places she thinks she’s likely to find the Doctor so that she can hopefully run into him again.  And, in fact, her veneer of accomplished professionalism is just a charade; she’s actually empty and deeply unfulfilled so long as she can’t find the Doctor.

But that’s okay, right, because after she does finally reunite with the Doctor, she and we discover that she’s the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Donna, of course, believes that’s impossible–she believes she can only be important because she’s associated with someone of real importance, the Doctor.  But the Doctor assures her that no, the importance is hers and hers alone.  So what is that importance?  Why is Donna the Most Important Woman in the Universe?  Because she happens to be the one who’s there to give the Doctor a hand (literally) when he needs it.  If it had been Rose or Jack who were the last ones out of the TARDIS aboard the Dalek spaceship, we’d be talking about the DoctorRose or the DoctorJack.

Yes, Donna then saves the day during the final confrontation with Davros, but critically, it is only the Doctor part of Donna that does so.  It’s the new intelligence and perception that the addition of Time Lord genetics has given her; there is, again, no reason it had to be Donna involved here rather than anyone else.  And if we really want to get all feminist-critical-theory over this, there’s the very obvious subtext to the idea that what makes Donna special, what allows Donna to fulfill her potential, is that she serves as a receptacle for the Doctor’s genetic code.

At least Sarah Jane achieves for realsies what Donna was only playing at: she’s an actual investigator and defender of Earth.  Which is not to say she ever got over the Doctor; it’s important that former companions never get over him.  She waited for him, pined after him–clearly she felt a romantic love for him that she did a remarkably good job of hiding, since she showed nary a single sign of it during her actual time in the TARDIS.

Still, she’s overcome being abandoned by the Doctor and has made a life for herself as a truly exceptional person.  She’s never found the right man to settle down with, of course, but that’s a perfectly reasonable choice for a character like Sarah Jane–she’s simply not someone who’d necessarily need a romantic relationship at the centre of her life.  Which is all fine, until Sarah states outright that the reason she never found the right man is because no man could ever measure up to the Doctor.  Sarah Jane Smith was introduced to Doctor Who as the explicit representative of feminism, a driven, focused, professional woman; a woman who took it upon herself to lecture the Queen of Peladon on the women’s lib movement.  But when New Who gets a hold of her, we find out that the reason she never got married is not because she simply didn’t need a man to make her life complete; it is, rather, because being friends with the Doctor ruined her for all other men.

Come.  The fuck.  On.

Which leaves only Martha.  Martha is the only companion of the RTD era, and possibly of New Who as a whole (I’d consider Amy a borderline case), to make the conscious choice that she has outgrown the Doctor, that she is ready to face life after the TARDIS.  She leaves entirely under her own steam at the end of series three in a scene that’s a neat parallel to her walking away from the Doctor in the cliffhanger at the end of the prior episode and heading off alone to face whatever the Earth has to throw at her.  She forges her own path–and the Doctor absolutely despises her for it.

Martha chooses to make a difference in the world by joining an organisation that the Doctor himself devoted six seasons of his life to, an organisation built by his closest friend–and yet he regards Martha has having placed herself under suspicion by having joined the organisation.  And we as viewers aren’t directed to take issue with the Doctor’s reaction, to see him as some sort of emotional predator who demands adoration and complete submission from the women he takes with him on his journeys–no, it would seem we’re supposed to agree with him for being disappointed with and suspicious of Martha for joining UNIT.

The Women With the High Concept Nicknames

The Most Important Woman in the Universe.  The Girl Who Waited.  The Impossible Girl.

(Why is Clara infantilised as the Impossible Girl instead of the Impossible Woman?  Is it possibly for the same reason that the Doctor–the fucking Doctor–, when trying to distill the sheer, fascinating impossibility of her into a single sentence, actually devotes more words to how eyecatching her ass is than to the fact that he keeps meeting iterations of her scattered throughout his timeline and watching them die— “A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a bit too tight.”  I am going to puzzle out this impossible womangirl, puzzle out what the universe is trying to tell me through her very existence, and defeat whatever profound danger she represents.  And then, Jesus H. Christ I’m gonna hit that.)

Amy, the Girl Who Waited.  Her nickname is a regular reminder of her deeply creepy origin story.  The Doctor meets her when she’s a child, promises he’s about to admit her to a universe of wonder and adventure, and then vanishes for twelve years.  Returns, shows her that that universe of adventure is real, that he is real, and then vanishes for another two years, before ultimately returning to bring her aboard the TARDIS.  The Doctor is grooming her.  He grooms her to regard him as the most wonderful person possible, as her only gateway to an escape to the life she dreams of.  He grooms her to respond to his sporadic arrivals in her life by dropping any other priorities she has so she can place herself at his disposal.  And he grooms her not to expect anything from him in return–not even his presence, or the idea that he’s under any obligation to keep promises he makes for her.

And now we come to Clara, the Impossible Girl.  Whose impossibility, we discovered on Saturday, exists purely so that she can save the Doctor, over and over again, all throughout his life.  Even if we assume River’s line about “millions” of Claras being created is hyperbole, there must still be, at a minimum, thousands.  Thousands of Claras, through all of time and space, whom, it would seem, are all born, live only the first twenty or twenty-five years of their lives, and then have their encounter with the Doctor–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days; the whole purpose of their life.  And then, apparently, they die.

And Clara is fine with that.  She’s fine with the idea that on a thousand different worlds in a thousand different times, she has lived a thousand different lives, each of them to help the Doctor on one of his adventures.  More than that, she’s proud of it.  “I was born to save the Doctor, and the Doctor is safe now.  I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”

It’s not there in Classic Who.  In Classic Who, the Doctor is the leader, yes, and he inspires his companions’ trust.  But the companions (generally) leave of their own free will, either because they have outgrown their need for him or because they have found another calling that compels them more.  But in New Who, the message is clear: these exceptional women have tremendous potential, but they fulfill that potential only by pledging themselves totally to serving the Doctor.

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Why supporting marriage equality is the only way to defend marriage

I’ve always felt strongly that denial of marriage equality is an attack not just upon the rights of LGBTs but also upon marriage itself.  And I’ve always found it incredibly galling that the very people who cloak themselves so self-righteously in the mantle of marriage’s defenders, even as its martyrs, are exactly the ones who are attacking it–are the only ones who are attacking it.  How dare they tell me that they’re defending the marriage Lisa and I have built, when they are the ones who are cheapening it?  When they are the ones turning it from a celebration of loving and lifelong commitment into a symbol of the majority’s privilege over the minority?  From something beautiful into something ugly?

When two loving adults choose to make a formal declaration of the exclusive, lifelong nature of their commitment to each other; when they choose to seek state sanction for their relationship; that is what makes marriage stronger.  That is what makes all marriages stronger.  That is what preserves and strengthens and renews the institution of marriage for our children–all our children, theirs and mine and yours–and increases the chance that when the time comes, they too will be able to find a partner they can build their life with, because it fosters a society that values love and monogamy and consent and fidelity and stability and self-expression.

This is what privilege does, of course.  It coarsens us as human beings, makes all of us worse off.  It lessens our humanity.

Privilege is, at heart, a denial that the unprivileged are fully human–in the case of marriage equality, a denial that LGBTs possess the same right to marry the person they love that we amongst the straight majority take for granted.  Simply by accepting such privilege without speaking or acting against it, we would undermine our own humanity; but those who seek actively to maintain it, those who claim to be “defending” marriage, are doing themselves far more harm.  They have turned themselves, whether to a greater or lesser extent, into smaller, pettier, more jealous, more resentful, more outraged human beings than they could otherwise be, people who feel entitled to form an opinion on what rights others are allowed without it ever even occurring to them that they could be subjected to the same judgement themselves.  Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, whether they would phrase it this way or not, they have somehow come to believe that the quality of their own marriage is undermined in any way simply by another couple having the right to marry each other, if that couple happen to look the same naked.  They have come to believe that their own marriage matters less if it is part of a right everyone enjoys rather than a privilege they can content themselves is denied to others.

This is what privilege does.  It convinces us that we are doing the honest, fair, praiseworthy thing by denying others their rights, denying them their humanity.  It’s as if we have some idea that once the minority get that right too, there will be less of it left for us to enjoy, that we won’t be able to partake of it to the same extent as we did back when it was a privilege just for us.  But it’s exactly the opposite that is true.

I feel sorry for them.  I do.  But that doesn’t mean I ever lose sight for one second of the fact that they are hurting people–real, live people.  They are hurting LGBTs the most, that’s unquestionable, but by attacking marriage itself, they’re hurting the rest of us, too; they’re hurting me, and they’re even hurting themselves.

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Longing for the old plantation

Get involved in any sort of community or discussion forum for alternate history, and sooner or later, the American Civil War’s going to come up.  It has to; at least among Americans, it’s the second most popular topic in the genre.  And if you’re in the sort of discussion that approaches the topic rigorously and historically, sooner or later someone’s going to bring up that will face the Confederacy in any sort of Southern Victory timeline: slavery.

Slavery would cripple the Confederacy’s relations with Europe, and probably with the Union, too–which, considering that the Confederacy’s entire economy rested on trade with Europe and the Union, bodes ill for Confederate prosperity. Furthermore, the widespread practice of slavery deadens any drive for progress or innovation, as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed during his tour of the United States in the early 1830s: the spirit of optimism, of an improving world, that drove so much American prosperity vanished as soon as Tocqueville crossed the Ohio River, from the free North to the slave South.  The Confederacy would soon have found itself left behind by rising standards of living in the Union and Western Europe, reduced, economically, to an undeveloped, colonial backwater.

So if slavery is so quickly going to become such an albatross around the Confederacy’s neck, the obvious thing would be for them to get rid of it, right?  That’s what happened in the North, after all–for all the abolitionist moralising from Northerners about the evils of the practice in the South, the fact is that the Northern states successively abolished slavery because there was little to no economic incentive to keep it.  It’s much easier to condemn the moral evil of a system when you get no financial benefit from it.

This is the tack that Harry Turtledove’s recent ten-volume series about a Confederate victory takes.  The series opens with a second, brief war between Union and Confederacy, in the early 1880s. The South’s first move when war is declared is to ask for military aid from Britain and France.  (In this timeline, it was Anglo-French military intervention that won the war for the Confederacy in the first place.)  The two European powers happily agree to enter the war–on the condition that the South abolishes slavery.  And the South … agrees, quite readily.  It’s covered in one fairly quick scene very early on in the first novel in the series.

But, the obvious objection is going to be, the Confederacy can’t just give up slavery, because it’s too emotionally invested in it.  It just fought the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it, after all.  White Southerners invested a lot of their identity in the defence of slavery before and during the Civil War–insisting that it was a positive moral good both for whites and blacks; that even if it hadn’t been, it was still their right to own slaves, a right with which no national government–whether in Washington or Richmond–could interfere; that the emancipation of the South’s slave population would lead to the end of civilisation in America and the destruction of the white race.  So the Confederacy simply abandoning slavery within twenty years, a la Turtledove, rings just as hollow as any sort of timeline where the Confederacy grows and flourishes while still practising chattel slavery.

With all that as background, therefore, I was fascinated to find a discussion of Southern abolition in the final chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the American Civil War.  I think it’s fairly common knowledge that in 1865, when it was in its death throes, the Confederacy raised, armed and fielded several regiments of black slaves, who had received the promise of freedom if they’d fight for the South.  But this, of course, was in the last days of the war, when Southerners were facing the utter failure of their cause.  Desperation makes people do funny things, try alternatives they never would otherwise.  The idea of arming or emancipating slaves earlier, when the war was still in the balance, would never have been countenanced, right?

There were those who advocated recruiting slaves into Confederate armies from the war’s earliest days, but they were a fringe minority, an outgrowth of the tremendous cognitive dissonance that Southern whites maintained regarding the peculiar institution–insisting loudly and unceasingly that blacks wanted to be enslaved, that they enjoyed a satisfying and happy existence under white ownership, while simultaneously living in irrational, unthinking fear of what would happen were blacks to gain access to arms, literacy and other things that would allow them to rise up against their masters.  (Witness the hysteria that followed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.)

By the latter part of 1863, however, there were a lot more voices joining in with this talk.  Including editors of Southern newspapers.  These quotes are from editorials that originally appeared in the Jackson Mississippian but were reprinted in papers throughout Mississippi and Alabama: “We are forced by the necessity of our condition to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war. … It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us. … We can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do.  Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshalled to labor.”  The editor of the Mississippian conceded that this could lead to abolition, “a dire calamity to both the negro and the white race”, but insisted “that it is a question of necessity–a question of a choice of evils.”

Similar sentiments were being voiced by generals in the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate force in the Western Theatre.  In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne circulated a memo to division and corps commanders in which he said that slavery “has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”  He recommended the recruitment of slave soldiers and “guarantee[ing] freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy”–in other words, the abolition of slavery.  He received endorsements from twelve brigade and regimental commanders within his division.

To be sure, most of his colleagues disagreed with him.  One division commander called it a “monstrous proposition … revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander described it as “at war with my social, moral, and political principles”, while a brigade commander declared that “its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.”

But the most striking thing to me about these editorials and General Cleburne’s proposal isn’t some idea that it was widely embraced at the time, but simply that it was a substantive part of the conversation.  This is late 1863 and the first month of 1864, after all–long before the fall of the Confederacy had come into sight. To be sure, the tide had begun to turn against the South in summer 1863 with the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, but the writing was far from on the wall.

Indeed, it was a common view at this time that the South had only to hold out another year, and it would secure its independence.  As 1864 progressed, the war congealed into two great Union sieges of Southern metropoles: Grant at Petersburg (the gateway to Richmond) and Sherman at Atlanta.  And with the Confederate defenders having the best of it in both cases, many observers both Northern and Southern–including Abraham Lincoln–concluded that Lincoln was sure to lose reelection in November, and that his defeat by George McClellan would guarantee the opening of peace negotiations by the Union.  (Whether or not McClellan really would have capitulated is immaterial–the actors in question believed at the time that he would.)  It wasn’t until Atlanta fell to Sherman in September that Lincoln’s re-election seemed the more likely outcome.

And yet, with Southern victory apparently still obtainable without such measures, general emancipation was already being contemplated in the waning days of 1863.  Does that mean I now suddenly think the Confederacy would have been only too happy to chuck slavery as soon as it became more convenient in the 1880s or 90s?  Of course not.  But it does make me think that many Southerners would have been more willing to come around to the idea of some sort of emancipation more easily than serious practitioners of alternate history often assume.

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