Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watching "The Man in the High Castle" in the Era of Trump

Here are my thoughts about the second season of The Man in the High Castle, published in today's issue of The Forward.  

For the link, click HERE

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Counterfactual Jewish State Near Niagara Falls? A Review of Nava Semel's "Isra Isle"

I'm posting a LINK to my review of Nava Semel's new novel, Isra Isle, in today's issue of the Forward.

It's a thoughtful reflection on the dilemmas of Zionism and the possible alternatives that might have existed to a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Threats to the Credibility of Counterfactual History in the Trump Era: Conway and Spicer Give Ammo to the Opponents of "What Ifs."

I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but the field of counterfactual history may not fare well in public opinion in the years to come.  The rise of a “post-truth” and “post-fact” world will likely sour people on the concept of counterfactual history, which may be misleadingly stigmatized as associated with the legions of spin-doctors who play fast and loose with the truth.

Just today, as reported in a new piece on The Hill, for example, Kellyanne Conway provided the opponents of alternate history with new ammunition by raising the matter of “alternative facts” with MSNBC host Chuck Todd.

As the piece reported:

“A top adviser to President Donald Trump on Sunday said White House press secretary Sean Spicer provided “alternative facts” to reporters during his first briefing.”

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving, Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Host Chuck Todd fired back at Conway over her comments.”

“Look, alternative facts are not facts,” said Chuck Todd. "They're falsehoods."
Spicer on Saturday conducted his first press briefing with reporters, railing against the media for its coverage of the crowd size at Trump's inauguration ceremony.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said.”

For the record, Spicer also smuggled in a tendentious counterfactual into his news conference yesterday.  Just as his boss, President Trump, argued several weeks ago that he would have received a higher total in the popular vote count had he campaigned differently (and in different states) in the months leading up the election, Spicer argued (as quoted in a Vanity Fair piece), that:

“This is also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”

Vanity Fair went on to reveal that:

“After Spicer’s comments, the United States Secret Service told reporters that no magnetometers were used on the National Mall during the proceedings. “

Again, the point should be obvious: while Spicer and Trump have employed counterfactuals deceptively, that should not discredit them as an analytical or rhetorical mode of discourse.  It is their merging of self-serving “what ifs” together with fraudulent or questionable claims that is the problem.

In the final analysis, it is crucial to stress that counterfactual history (like its related literary subgenre, alternate history) is committed to the idea of historical truth.  It is a mode of historical inquiry that seeks to establish (to the extent that such a thing can be established) the truth of “what happened” by placing it in the context of what might have happened.  Genuine counterfactual history is only appreciated by people who actually know the facticity of the past – by people who understand the ways in which imagination can solidify and reinforce our understanding of what really happened.

Like any other intellectual endeavor, however, counterfactuals can be abused – especially by politicians – for partisan and tendentious purposes.  This is true of political figures on both the right and the left.   Unfortunately, the fondness of authoritarian populists, such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, for counterfactuals means that they fall under suspicion by liberal democrats, who may be tempted to dismiss them altogether – baby-in-bathwater style – as indelibly guilty by association. 

I will remain alert for any trends in this direction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tom Friedman's Counterfactual Trump Tweets

Tom Friedman uses a variation of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual in his latest New York Times column.  This type of “what if” typically exports the soul of a key historical figure into the soul of another in order to highlight ways that the former might have behaved differently.  To wit: William Gould speculated that if President Richard M. Nixon had responded to the disclosure of the Watergate burglary in 1973 in the same way that “[President John F.] Kennedy [responded] after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and taken the blame for himself, he would have continued to be president.”

Friedman doesn’t so much have Trump behaving like another historical figure as have him behave like someone unlike Donald Trump.  Friedman’s goal is to emphasize Trump’s divisive leadership style in the months since the election, by asking readers to imagine how much more unity he might have been able to engender if he had tweeted more benevolently.

Friedman provides a variety of examples and writes:

“What if, after Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes to decry Trump’s cruel impersonation of a handicapped reporter, Trump — instead of ridiculously calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” — had tweeted: “Meryl Streep, greatest actress ever, ever, ever. Stuff happens in campaigns, Meryl. Even I have regrets. But watch, I’ll make you proud of my presidency!!!!”

“What if, after John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights hero, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election, Trump hadn’t sneered that Lewis was “all talk, talk, talk” and “should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape.” What if Trump instead tweeted: “John Lewis, a great American, let’s walk together through your district and develop a plan to improve people’s lives there. Obama was all talk. I’m all action. Call me Friday after 1 p.m. 202-456-1414. I’ll show you how legit I am.”

“What if on New Year’s Trump — instead of tweeting “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies” who “lost so badly they just don’t know what to do” — had tweeted: “Happy New Year to every American — especially to Hillary Clinton and her supporters who fought a tough campaign — very tough. Let’s together make 2017 amazing (!!!!!!) for every American. Love!”

“What if, after a cast member of the musical “Hamilton” appealed to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us,” Trump — instead of denouncing the actor as being “very rude and insulting” and claiming he “couldn’t even memorize lines” — had instead tweeted: “To the cast of Hamilton: Appreciate your sincere concern for our country. When I am in the room where it happens, good stuff will happen. I will not throw away my shot to work on behalf of all of us!!!”

“What if Trump — instead of calling Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “head clown” — had tweeted: “Chuck, you are THE MAN!!! Top Democrat now that Obama’s gone!!! You love to deal. Send me your best health care experts and we’ll fix this thing together in 24 hours, so every American gets better, cheaper care. We’ll both be heroes (well, me just a little bit more). Call me!!!”

“That is the sound of magnanimity. It would have generated a flood of good will that would make solving every big problem easier. And it would have cost Trump nothing.”

Friedman’s counterfactuals are instructive and would certainly be convincing were they not utterly unrealistic.  They are akin to saying that “if Trump were not Trump, then he would have rallied Americans to tackle the country’s many challenges.”

But Trump IS Trump.

And so while showing how he could have garnered additional support by behaving differently in his recent tweets is instructive, it is futile to wish him to behave otherwise.

I suppose I should come up with another term to define this subset of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual.  But I’m having a tough time.  The “If I Weren’t Me” counterfactual doesn’t grab me, nor does “If He/She Were Someone Else” counterfactual.  What about a “Leopard Spot” counterfactual?  It suggests that no matter how hard a “leopard” tries to behave differently, it can’t change its “spots.”  The problem is that this phrase refers to the futility of the counterfactual, not its premise, which is that a historical figure could have/might have behaved in a fashion contrary to his or her nature.  I guess I could subsume the premise of changeability within the phrase “leopard spot.”  Hmmmmm….must think more about this one….

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"The Guardian" Promotes Alternate History (Thanks to Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle")

Amazon Prime’s hit series, The Man in the High Castle, continues to generate interest in counterfactual history. 

Today, I stumbled across a whole series of alternate history videos sponsored by Amazon on the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Listed under the title, “The Double Take,” the site contains videos and articles featuring alternate history authors, historians, and museum curators discussing counterfactual scenarios involving, Germany, Japan, and the U. S. during World War II.

The three main videos are:

1. “Alternate History Video: Could Hitler Have Fooled the World Forever?”  This video features Harry Turtledove discussing the history of Nazi propaganda and speculating about how effective it might have been had the Nazis won World War II.  He argues that the Nazi empire would have been short-lived and that its propaganda would not have been able to stifle the yearning of oppressed peoples for long.

2. “Alternate History Video: What If Hitler Took the World to War Sooner?”  This video features historian Gerhard Weinberg discussing Hitler’s mistakes in World War II.  He argues that if Hitler had unleashed the war earlier in 1938 at the time of the Sudeten crisis (as he originally wanted), Germany might have had an easier time defeating France and then would have had greater success attacking Britain by air (as the latter’s rebuilding of its Air Force was not yet complete, as it would be by 1940).  The result would have been a German victory in the Battle of Britain and then an outright naval invasion of the British Isles.  This, Weinberg says, would have prolonged the war considerably – so much so, that Germany probably would have been hit with the first atomic bomb (which the U. S. had developed to strike Germany originally in the first place).

3. “Alternate History Video: Can Cultures Truly Merge After War?”  This video features the Honolulu Museum of Art’s curator, Stephen Salel, examining how American and Japanese culture might have developed had Japan never gotten involved in World War II.  (The answer: both cultures would have remained more insular and the relationship between the two countries would have resembled the relationship between the U. S. and China today, in the sense that there’s little cultural influence from China upon the U. S.)

The three short videos are worth watching in and of themselves.

But they are mostly notable for their presence of the website of one of Britain’s most respected newspapers.

Amazon’s motives for promoting counterfactual history are clear: to generate higher ratings for The Man in the High Castle.  But I don’t see any down side in the cross promotion agenda.  If counterfactual history further gains popularity as a result of it, so much the better.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Best Counterfactual Claim of the Day: Paul Waldman on How Comey and Lynch Made Trump President

“Saying that things would have been different if one particular event hadn’t happened isn’t saying that nothing else mattered.” 

This sentence qualifies as the best counterfactual insight of the day.

It comes from Paul Waldman in a new article in The Washington Post, entitled “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch Made Donald Trump President of the United States.”

The article examines the role of both political actors in the 2016 election and comes to the conclusion that their behavior confirms the importance of individual agency in historical events.

Waldman writes:

“Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist.”

He explains:

“…Both Comey and Lynch were consumed with fear that they’d be criticized by the Republican outrage machine. Comey worried that if he didn’t immediately go public with the fact that the FBI was looking at these emails, then Republicans would say he was covering up an investigation in order to help Clinton. And Lynch worried that if she ordered Comey to adhere to department policy and not go public, then Republicans would say she was covering up an investigation in order to help Clinton.”

“So both of them failed to do their jobs, Comey with an act of commission and Lynch with an act of omission. You can sympathize with the pressure they were under and say that hindsight is always 20/20, but the fact is that they failed, and it was because they didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”

The adverse impact of their actions on Hillary Clinton’s campaign is well known.

So how important was the causal role of Comey and Lynch in the election’s overall result. 

Significantly, Waldman anticipates potential criticism of his argument by insisting:

“We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that blame or responsibility is zero-sum. People have been saying things like, “Russia/Comey didn’t force Hillary Clinton not to spend more money in Wisconsin!” which is true but irrelevant. Clinton certainly made mistakes during the campaign, as every candidate does. But in a race that was decided by 77,000 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, there are many factors that can be said to have swung the election. Saying that things would have been different if one particular event hadn’t happened isn’t saying that nothing else mattered.”

Waldman’s words of wisdom are not only relevant for the ongoing debate about why Clinton lost to Trump.  They also provide a response to critics who claim that counterfactual reasoning is overly monocausal and reductionistic  (ie. “Cleopatra’s Nose” counterfactuals).  Waldman’s observation allows us stress the role of contingency and still avoid the stigma of employing simplistic reasoning. 

It’s nice to have your counterfactual cake and also be able to eat it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Geographical Counterfactual: Did Michigan's and Florida’s Borders Help Trump Defeat Clinton?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an interesting article by Nate Cohn that nicely shows how counterfactual sheds light on the forces of historical causation.  The article seeks to determine which factors were crucial for explaining the gap between Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s diverging performances in the Electoral College and popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. 

After discussing several factors, Cohn ends up advancing a simple answer for Trump’s victory: “The Electoral College’s (largely) winner-take-all design gives a lot of weight to battleground states. Mr. Trump had an advantage in the traditional battlegrounds because most are whiter and less educated than the country as a whole.”

Notably, Cohn partly arrives at this conclusion through counterfactual reasoning, asserting that the role of battleground states was partly about the rule of chance – or what he calls “the quirks of history.”

In order to support this point, Cohn first dispenses with the claim that Trump's victory was the result of “small state bias.”

“The Electoral College isn’t just a check against regionalism. It also reflects our federal system by awarding an electoral vote for every senator and representative. The result is that small states get more sway, since senators aren’t awarded by population.”

“Wyoming, the least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population. Yet it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.”

“In general, the Electoral College’s small-state bias does hurt the Democrats. In fact, the small-state bias tipped the 2000 election. Al Gore would have won the presidency, 225 to 211, if electors were just awarded by representative, not by senators and representatives.”

“But the small-state bias was almost entirely irrelevant to Mr. Trump’s advantage. Mrs. Clinton won plenty of small states — she won seven of the 12 smallest. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, won plenty of big states — in fact, he won seven of the 10 largest.”

“As a consequence, the result would have been virtually identical if states had not received electoral votes for their senators. It would have even been the same if the electors had been apportioned exactly by a state’s population.”

Cohn then proceeds to the heart of his argument; Trump’s victory can be attributed to “the Electoral College’s most straightforward bias: The battleground states count the most.”

“Mrs. Clinton did well in noncompetitive states and “wasted” popular votes that didn’t earn her any more electoral votes, while Mr. Trump did just well enough in competitive states to pick up their electoral votes….”

“Mr. Trump won a lopsided electoral vote tally from those states by narrowly winning four of the five states decided by around one point or less: Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (Mrs. Clinton edged him out in New Hampshire). Outside of those five states, the electoral vote was basically tied, with Mr. Trump edging out Mrs. Clinton, 231 to 228 (and leading by the margin of small-state bias)….”

“….The “solid red” and “solid blue” states where Mr. Trump failed to make gains include a clear majority of the country’s Electoral College votes, population and actual votes. The regional anomaly was the Midwest, and it just so happens that in a winner-take-all system Mr. Trump’s strength in the Midwestern battleground states yielded a lot of Electoral College votes….

“But the demographics alone don’t quite do justice to Mr. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. In the end, he won the battleground states by just a one-point margin — but claimed three-fourths of their Electoral College votes.
He won four of the five closest states, winning 75 of 79 votes at stake….”

Then Cohn comes to the most counterfactual part of his essay when he stresses the issue of contingency.

Asserting that “Mr. Trump had some very good luck,” Cohn proceeds to show that Trump’s defeat of Clinton in the battleground states was hardly preordained and adds that

“There’s nothing about the distribution of Mrs. Clinton’s votes in the battlegrounds or nationally that meant she was destined to get as few electoral votes as she did.

Just take Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — three contiguous states spanning the Upper Great Lakes. Mrs. Clinton actually won the region by a narrow margin, but she won just 10 of the 36 votes at stake….”

“Ultimately, state lines are pretty arbitrary. Yes, when those lines were determined, there were reasoned considerations like population and access to rivers and resources. But statehood and state lines, often poorly surveyed in the first place, were hotly disputed in the 19th century. Many states were created in response to political considerations, especially the balance between free and slave states. In other times, it could have gone very differently.”

“Consider two of the bigger nonpolitical state boundary questions of the 19th century: the fate of the Florida Panhandle and the “Toledo War.”

“The Toledo War was a long dispute between Michigan and Ohio over a tiny strip of land along their border, which happens to include the city of Toledo. Ohio had the upper hand for one reason: It earned its statehood first, and therefore blocked Michigan’s petition — which included the strip. In the end, Congress proposed a deal: Michigan would relinquish its claim on the Toledo strip and, in exchange, would get the Upper Peninsula.”

“The Florida Panhandle and the Florida Peninsula were governed as separate regions — West and East Florida — under Spanish and British rule. They were effectively separated by hundreds of miles of treacherous swamp and forest”

“Ultimately, West and East Florida were combined into one state. This was mainly coincidental: Alabama earned statehood before the Florida territory was annexed. West Florida repeatedly tried to join Alabama, starting as soon as the state was annexed and lasting all the way past the Civil War. Many of these efforts — which included referendums, congressional petitions and direct negotiations between Florida and Alabama — nearly succeeded. But they ultimately did not.”

“If these minor border issues had gone differently, Mrs. Clinton would probably be president. The Florida Panhandle is heavily Republican: Without it, the rest of Florida votes Democratic. Both halves of the Toledo War worked out poorly for Mrs. Clinton. Not only would she have won Michigan with Toledo, but she would have also won Michigan without the Upper Peninsula: Only the full trade gives Mr. Trump a narrow win.”

“Interestingly, the same changes would have flipped the 2000 election, and perhaps the 1876 election, to the same result as the national popular vote (though I don’t have county-level results for Florida in that election). The pronounced regionalism at play in 1888 would have made it harder to change the outcome by tweaking state lines.”

“To be clear, you can also make plenty of changes that would benefit Republicans. You could reunify West Virginia and Virginia, to take an easy one.
The point is that the main bias of the Electoral College isn’t against big states or regionalism; it’s just toward the big battleground states. If they break overwhelmingly one way, that’s who wins. This is not exactly a high-minded Hamiltonian argument. There aren’t many justifications for letting a few close states decide a close national election. But that’s basically what the system does, and there’s nothing about those states that ensures they provide a representative outcome.”

These observations veer into the category of “Cleopatra’s Nose” counterfactuals, insofar as they imply that ostensibly minor factors can lead to major outcomes.  They are also excellent examples of a “geographical” counterfactual that emphasizes the causal power of physical space.  (I posted a comment a while back on the excellent book and TV series, How the States Got Their Shapes).  To be sure, Cohn would certainly deny claiming that Clinton’s defeat was the “fault” of where state borders were set in the 19th century.  However his “what ifs” are useful for helping to determine the relative weight of the many factors that explain the 2016 election’s outcome.   Counterfactuals, he shows, are critical for understanding causation.