Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, December 5, 2019

New Counterfactual Graphic Novel! RRWB: The West Berlin Soviet Republic

What?  Two posts in one day?

I couldn’t resist making some comments about a really interesting alternate history graphic novel that I’m looking forward to reading.

It is a German language book, called RRWB – Räterepublik Westberlin (RRWB – The West Berlin Soviet Republic).  It is written by Jörg Ulbert together with Thomas Jaedicke, and is illustrated by Jörg Mailliet. 

Set in 1968, a year after the murder of Benno Ohnesorg by police during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran, the book examines what would have happened if West Berlin had been taken over by leftists and turned into a Soviet Republic.  As the promotional blurb for the book makes clear, the republic is led by Rudi Dutschke, Horst Mahler, and Otto Schily and seeks to create a utopian, worker and student-led state. The petrified bourgeoisie flee from the city and hippies take over.  The story’s protagonist, a student named Ralf Schindralski participates in the dramatic events but becomes disillusioned as intrigue and betrayal make their inevitable appearance – complete with reeducation camps and other unpleasantries. 

I still to have order the book, but the illustrations are great and I look forward to seeing how plausible the overall plot is.  RRWB will surely fascinate anyone interested in the social upheavals and left-wing counterculture of the late 1960s.  I’ll be spending part of my winter break checking it out.

Here’s the LINK to the book’s promotional website.

Who's Afraid of a Counterfactual? Roger Cohen, Apparently, in His New Essay on Yitzhak Rabin

I know that I sound like a broken record (an idiomatic expression that may be alien to many these days), but I need to apologize once more for having been delinquent in my posts over the last several months.  In my defense, I’ve been busily finishing chapter 6 of my new study on counterfactual history (a chapter that deals with how “what ifs” were employed during the years of the American and French revolutions) and haven’t done much aside from that.

Today, though, I feel compelled to comment on Roger Cohen’s new piece in the New York Times, “The Incitement in Israel that Killed Yitzhak Rabin.”

It’s an interesting article that laments Rabin’s assassination and fantasizes about how it might have been avoided with a wide range of “if only” statements.

What I find irritating, however (and I should say that I really like Cohen’s work overall), is that he feels compelled at the outset of his essay to disavow the very mode of speculative argumentation that underpins its central arguments.

As he bluntly puts it:

“I’m not big on counterfactual historical musings. The hypothetical is tempting and tantalizing, but valueless.”

Cohen goes on to add that

“There is one exception to my impatience with historical hypotheticals. It haunts me. That is the assassination almost a quarter-century ago of Yitzhak Rabin…In this case I find it impossible not to think, “If only.”

Cohen goes on to describe how a new Israeli film on the assassination, “Incitement, directed by Yaron Zilberman, prompts him to reconsider a bunch of “what ifs,” noting:

I can’t help wondering. If only Rabin had lived. If only Israel had confronted the fanatical scourge in its midst before it was too late. If only Israel had understood earlier the poison of the occupation. If only enormous security lapses had not allowed Amir to lurk for a long time close to Rabin’s car and fire at point-blank range. If only Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, had not proved so inept, squandering an enormous lead to allow Netanyahu to win the 1996 election. If only the honor of the warrior had not given way to the dishonor of the indicted politician.

Given the counterfactual nature of this paragraph, it is jarring to see Cohen’s flatly asserting at the outset of his essay that counterfactuals are "valueless." Why does he -- and why do many others -- feel obliged to dismiss counterfactual thinking only to embrace it at the same time?

I have found in my research that countless major thinkers have expressed a similar kind of obligatory – but hypocritical – dismissiveness towards counterfactual history.  Plutarch criticized Herodotus for using “what ifs” in his Histories, only to employ them himself in his Morals.  Johann Gottfried Herder dismissed the point of wondering “what if” in his Philosophy of History only to employ dozens of counterfactuals elsewhere in the same text. 

I discuss these and many other examples in my book.  In the process, it becomes clear Cohen’s disclaimer is hardly new.  But it still rankles.

In an era when so many streaming shows are based on counterfactual plots (For All Mankind, The Man in the High Castle, Watchmen, etc.), I would have thought we were passed this point.

Apparently not, though, for journalists, historians, and other scholars, who seem comfortable confining counterfactuals to the closet except on those occasions when they wish to drag them out -- reluctantly and with embarrassment – for the sake of exploiting their rhetorical and analytical value.

Bringing an end to this embarrassment by establishing the ubiquity and legitimacy of counterfactual speculation is one of the things I hope my forthcoming book can accomplish.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Mis-Using the Terms, "Counterfactual History" and "Alternate History": “Cold Case Hammarskjold" and "The 1619 Project"

Despite the recent arrival of counterfactual history into the western cultural mainstream, confusion still surrounds the topic.

Recent media articles reveal that, while writers are increasingly using terms like “counterfactual history” and “alternate history,” they often fail to understand exactly what they are. 

Some writers use the terms positively:

In her review of the new documentary film, “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” Ann Hornaday, describes it as a cut-and-dried murder mystery that becomes a gnarly thicket of hegemonic ruthlessness, racism, shadowy cabals and a proudly unreliable narrator, this trippy junket to the dark side is ideally suited to our conspiracy-minded age. Believe it or not — but see it, if only to experience the most proficient exercise in alternate history this side of “Serial.”

Hornaday’s review is flawed in two ways.

First the documentary (which looks fascinating) does not alter the course of history.  It merely purports to uncover the shadowy forces behind the occurrence of real historical events unknown to the general public (and still to be exposed).  As a result, the film is better described as a “secret history.” 

Second, the comparison to the hit podcast (and newly released streaming series), Serial, is misguided, as it, too, does not alter the course of, but merely speculates about other possible real causes behind real historical events.

By contrast, other writers have invoked counterfactual history in pejorative fashion:

In response to the New York Times recent “1619 Project,” certain conservative critics complained that the account of American history was tantamount to “counterfactual”.  Here the term counterfactual functions as a synonym for “distorted,” “tendentious,” or “illegitimate.”

In a story published on the evangelical Christian news site, One News Now, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary noted that he “isn't buying the Times’ attempt at revisionist history,” declaring “’I certainly say yes, that the history of slavery still impacts the U.S. But the idea that we were founded in 1619 is counterfactual to history.’”

Craig Pirrong, who blogs as the “Streetwise Professor,” wrote in a response to the 1619 projecct that “the nation has struggled with the legacy of slavery, and race relations are strained at best. But it is for precisely that reason that inflammatory…counterfactual campaigns like the 1619 Project are wrong, divisive, and destructive.”

I’m less interested in explaining, and mostly interested in flagging, these misuses of the concepts of counterfactual and alternate history. They reveal that no matter how much progress the twin fields have made in garnering popular attention, they remain surrounded by misconceptions.

Perhaps the appearance of new alternate history dramas in the coming months (The Hunt, The Plot Against America, and the final season of The Man in the High Castle) will help solidify what “counterfactual” really means in a historical context.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Quentin Tarantino's Stillborn Alternate History: "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood"

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has received widespread attention in recent weeks, with many critics singling out the film as a work of alternate history.

To a degree, these characterizations are accurate.

The film portrays Charles Manson’s “family” members failing to kill actress Sharon Tate (and four of her friends) as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the summer of 1969.  Instead, the “family” members target Tate’s actor/stuntman neighbors (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), but promptly meet with a grisly end.  (Cue flamethrower).

Because history unfolds differently, the appellation “alternate history” is accurate. 

Yet, it would be more precise to describe the film as a “stillborn alternate history.”  That is to say, it promises to portray history taking a different course without actually doing so.  It offers a fascinating protasis (cause), but offers little by way of an apodosis (effect).

Tarantino did the same thing in his film, Inglourious Basterds, which depicted Hitler’s assassination in Paris leading to an earlier end to World War II.  Yet, the film did little to explore the possible ramifications of this alteration to history’s course.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with Tarantino flirting with – but failing to commit fully to – the genre of alternate history. 

But it does raise the interesting counterfactual question of what he might have done, had he been inclined to show the full consequences of how American life would have been different without the Tate/LaBianca murders.

Consulting a 2017 New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin on the Manson murders yields some interesting possibilities.

Toobin writes that “In media, in criminal law, and in popular culture, Manson created a template that, for better or worse, is still familiar today.”

He argues that it was not the Tate-LaBianca murders in and of themselves that changed America, but the media spectacle that it unleashed. 

Toobin writes that “although cameras were not allowed in courtrooms at that time, it helped create the demand for them. Manson had a dark charisma, and he enjoyed the attention. The trial was such a sensation that President Richard Nixon pronounced Manson guilty before the jury had gone out.”

The lead prosecutor in the case, Vincent Bugliosi’s subsequent book, Helter Skelter “helped create the true-crime genre, which remains a publishing institution.”

Toobin adds that

“The Manson “Family” both anticipated and inspired the growth of sinister cults in American life, especially in California. In the decade that followed the Manson murders, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst, in Berkeley, and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, in San Francisco, transfixed supporters, more than nine hundred of whom committed mass suicide in Guyana.”

“Before Manson, it was more or less a given that criminals chose to associate with one another in gangs or in crime families. But Manson told the world that people became criminals through the influence of others as well. Our fascination with Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing owes much to what the world saw in the Manson case.”

So if we subtract the Manson murders from American history, what are we left with?

In a nutshell, a more innocent, less crime-obsessed country.

This, of course, begs the question of whether some subsequent killing would have filled the place of the Manson murders had the latter never happened. Whether Son of Sam, or any of the figures portrayed in the Netflix show, Mindhunter, it is possible that other killers would have become the new “Manson” of American life.  (For that matter, Manson himself might have gone ahead and order another killing at some point afterwards in the wake of the failure to murder Tate).

Had any of these things come to pass, the absence of the Tate-LaBianca murders would ultimately have functioned as a reversionary counterfactual, in the sense that America’s ‘descent into a crime obsessed country would have happened deterministically one way or the other.

Not a very comforting thought.