Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Forthcoming Study on the Holocaust in Alternate History: Glyn Morgan's "Imagining the Unimaginable."

I'm happy to give a little advance publicity to Glyn Morgan on his forthcoming study (due out at the turn of the year), Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust.

I was happy to blurb the book and look forward to getting my hands on a copy once it appears.

Here's a synopsis of the volume:

Imagining the Unimaginable examines popular fiction's treatment of the Holocaust in the dystopian and alternate history genres of speculative fiction, analyzing the effectiveness of the genre's major works as a lens through which to view the most prominent historical trauma of the 20th century. It surveys a range of British and American authors, from science fiction pulp to Pulitzer Prize winners, building on scholarship across disciplines, including Holocaust studies, trauma studies, and science fiction studies.

The conventional discourse around the Holocaust is one of the unapproachable, unknowable, and the unimaginable. The Holocaust has been compared to an earthquake, another planet, another universe, a void. It has been said to be beyond language, or else have its own incomprehensible language, beyond art, and beyond thought.

The 'othering' of the event has spurred the phenomenon of non-realist Holocaust literature, engaging with speculative fiction and its history of the uncanny, the grotesque, and the inhuman. This book examines the most common forms of non-mimetic Holocaust fiction, the dystopia and the alternate history, while firmly positioning these forms within a broader pattern of non-realist engagements with the Holocaust.

Here's a LINK to the publisher's page.

The Fourth Reich on PBS

Apologies for the long absence!

I've taken a break from posting on the CHR as I've been immersed in my longterm book project on the history of counterfactual history.  (As you can see, I've failed to come up with a snappy title thus far, but hope to settle on one soon).  I'm happy to report that I've made it through the Enlightenment and am poised to finally tackle the period of the American and French Revolution. With the semester starting up in a few weeks, however, it may be a while before I'm able to move forward fully into the 19th century.  At this rate, it may be another 1-2 years before the whole manuscript is done.  

In the meantime, I wanted to post a few thoughts on some counterfactual topics I've been mulling over.  One involves Quentin Tarantino's new film, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, which I'll post about shortly.  

But the main one at the moment involves my newly published book, The Fourth Reich.  A few weeks back, I did a thirty minute interview with the kind folks (especially G. Wayne Miller and Jim Ludes, pictured with me above) at "Story in the Public Square," which is produced at Rhode Island PBS and broadcast nationally.

Here are some links, where you can hopefully catch the broadcast in your area:

Story in the Public Square

The Pell Center


Friday, March 15, 2019

It's Officially Out! "The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism since World War II"

I'm happy to announce that my new book, The Fourth Reich, is now officially published and available for purchase!

It has lots of counterfactual aspects, especially regarding the possibility that unrepentant Nazis could have come back to power at different moments in the early history of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Here is a LINK to a podcast, where I discuss the book with Cambridge University Press editor, Michael Watson.

I'm also posting links to reviews of the book in The Times of London, The New Statesman, and Standpoint.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

My New Washington Post Piece on the "New Golden Age of Alternate History"

I am posting a link HERE to my new Washington Post piece on the reasons why alternate history has assumed an increasing presence in contemporary culture. 

I call it a "new Golden Age" for the genre and offer several possible explanations for why we are currently experiencing it, the most relevant being that counterfactual speculation thrives in periods of crisis.  

I've mentioned in previous posts that I'm currently writing a massive study surveying the origins and evolution of counterfactual thought from Antiquity to Modernity.  Well, this piece draws a bit on my findings so far.  

For those of you who are interested, I am currently writing about the Early Modern Period and dealing with "what ifs" explored by writers during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Discovery.  They include Petrarch, Villani, Bruni, Salutati, Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Vasari, Luther, Cortest, and many more....

I'm not sure how long it will be before I actually complete this study, but I'm hoping that once it appears, it will help put to rest the longstanding canard that historians (at least good ones) don't employ counterfactuals.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Apples to Apples: Good and Bad Counterfactuals

How many bad apples are needed to spoil the bunch? 

When it comes to counterfactuals, perhaps not that many.  There is evidence that Gresham’s Law applies to the public perception of counterfactual history, in the sense that bad counterfactuals can drive out good ones – at least in the minds of outside observers who are eager to dismiss the entire genre based on its weakest examples.

A good example of a bad counterfactual appeared last week, when President Trump – building on an earlier howler about Andrew Jackson living well past his prime and preventing the Civil War – declared in his State of the Union address that:

If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.

The Washington Post went on to report that "his prepared remarks added that he thought "potentially millions of people" would have been killed if that war had broken out, but Trump didn't say those words as he spoke."

In fact, Trump may actually have brought us closer to nuclear war with North Korea, at least according to many observers.  (See, for example, the Vox essay, “How Trump Made the North Korea Crisis Worse,” LINK).

While people’s political views will shape whether or not they accept Trump’s counterfactual, there is no question that it is a comparatively crude, inordinately speculative, and blatantly self-serving example of “what if” thinking.

A bad apple in other words.

But let's not forget about the good ones.

In an essay in today’s Washington Post, Megan McArdle offers an instructive counterfactual insight that shows how we can learn from the past and apply the lessons to the present and future.

She writes:

Trump never commanded a majority of Republican primary voters. He commanded a plurality only because too many candidates were splitting the major Republican constituencies.

If the field had winnowed earlier, Trump would have lost. Instead, through arrogance, through narcissism and through disbelief, the party’s leaders dallied until Trump’s momentum was unstoppable, and a hapless outsider at the head of a minority faction had somehow taken over their party.

After the cease-fire, most of those Republican leaders would end up cravenly capitulating to Trump, to the lies, the incompetence, the vulgarity…Terrified of his voters but not quite able to bring themselves to endorse his behavior, Republicans have mostly settled on pretending it’s not happening. Thus, the GOP is both a victim of Trump’s gaslighting and its guiltiest accomplice.

Do Democrats face a similar threat from far left presidential hopefuls?  

McArdle’s answer comes from an unlikely source, former Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker. She argues that he was onto something in 2015 when he begged “his fellow no-hopers to “clear the field” so that “the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive…alternative to the current front-runner.”

This is a mathematical problem the Democrats would be well advised to solve.

Thanks for the warning, counterfactual history!