Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, October 24, 2016

Counterfactuals and Architectural History

I continue to be amazed by the range of academic disciplines that have shown themselves open to exploring counterfactual thinking.

I’m particularly thrilled to see the Royal Academy of Arts in London sponsoring a mini-conference at the end of November entitled, “What If?...Counterfactual Architectural History.”

In the past few years, I’ve posted a variety of comments on this blog on the relationship between counterfactual thinking and the built environment.  But this is the first time I’ve seen a methodical effort to explore the fascinating connections between the two.

The description of the conference is as follows (click the LINK for the full description):

“A panel of architectural historians explores a range of ‘what if’ scenarios in the history of architecture, posing alternative narratives that lead us to re-think how existing accounts are written and perpetuated.”

“What if? It’s a question that historians have increasingly been asking. How might the course of history have unfolded if particular events had turned out differently, or alternative decisions had been made? The often-noted risk of such an approach is to go too far and enter the realms of fantasy. But when applied properly, counterfactual history can help us reassess whether apparently pivotal events or decisions actually were as important as existing historical accounts might have us believe.”

“Counterfactuals are most often applied to political or military history, where human agency has to be weighed against broader political, social, economic or technological forces. In this event, we apply counterfactuals to architectural history, where a similar balance has to be made.”

“Speakers will each focus on a particular ‘what if’ scenario and explore what other possibilities might have existed at this particular historical moment. The following discussion will look at the roles of narrative and causality in architectural history, and explore whether counterfactuals do in fact offer the potential of shedding new light on the architectural past.”

There is no reason why “what if” questions should not inform architectural history.  And in fact, I expect to find in my ongoing research into the history of counterfactual history that they have been present all along.

Imagine how the reputation of certain architects would have been shaped had some of their unrealized designs actually been built.  Louis I. Kahn is acknowledged as a 20th century master, but he is known just as much for what was never built as what was.

Imagine if the Hurva synagogue (see images above) had been completed in Jerusalem?  Kent Larson’s digital reconstructions provide a sense of missed opportunities that failed to be realized..

By the same token, there are countless architectural atrocities that we'd have been better off without (New Brutalism is in currently in vogue, but I never much liked it -- Boston City Hall anyone?  Maybe we'd have a more beautiful world without it....)

The list is certainly endless.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Official Release of "What Ifs of Jewish History"

I am happy to announce that I recently received the first copies of my new edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism.

Cambridge University Press has done a beautiful job with the volume, which includes 16 essays by well-known Jewish Studies scholars on an array of topics spanning, well, Abraham to Zionism.

The volume's official U. S. publication date is October 31.
It appeared in the UK last month.

I am pasting some links below to early reviews
and other web materials related to the volume:

Cambridge University Press site for What Ifs of Jewish History

"Jewish Scholars Explore 'What Ifs?'"

"Alternative Jewish Histories: Fun, Instructive" (San Diego Jewish World)

Review of What Ifs of Jewish History, in: Amazing Stories.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Valdai Discussion Group Examines: “What If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed?”

I’d like to thank Rui Santos, a follower of this blog, for alerting me to a fascinating discussion forum scheduled for later this month in Russia.  I was not familiar with the Valdai Discussion Club (founded in 2004 as an academic think tank discussion group), but the club has seized upon an important counterfactual for this year’s topic:  

“What if the USSR hadn’t collapsed?”  

The full text of the conference can be found HERE.

But I’ve excerpted the following paragraphs:

“The towering question related to these “bifurcations of history” is, “What if there were no Gorbachev?” This question breaks up into several components. First, “What if Andropov had lived longer?” During his slightly more than a year in power, he managed to tighten workplace discipline on a national scale, achieve some results in fighting corruption and take a hard line in foreign policy. It was in 1983, when Andropov was at the helm, that the reciprocal deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe reached its apex. It was then that Ronald Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire” and a Korean airliner was shot down. Add to this the cheap vodka Andropovka (symbolizing the union of the authorities and the people), and the “tightening of the screws” against the dissidents (although, as is evident from memoirs on both sides of the divide, this issue was not as simple as it might seem). But it is still unclear whether he would have wanted (and would have been able, even if he had wished) to launch full-scale economic modernization (we shall not call it “reform”), and thus become a Soviet Deng Xiaoping.”

“Finally, some published sources indicate that Andropov was favorably inclined toward Gorbachev and would have made him his successor – an unofficial “second secretary” of the CPSU Central Committee instead of Konstantin Chernenko – had he lived longer. But another conspiracy theory has it that in this case, Andropov would have soon discovered Gorbachev’s “rotten gut” and would have promoted someone else from the “young team” of politicians, who later held high posts in the Central Committee’s Politburo and Secretariat and in the Council of Ministers (Heydar Aliyev, Yegor Ligachev, Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Vitaly Vorotnikov and others).”

“The second question is more paradoxical: “What if Chernenko had lived longer?” It would seem that this mortally ill man, who could not breathe without an oxygen mask, made the years 1984 and 1985 the most shameful and ridiculed period in Soviet history. Chernenko had a reputation as a perfect political staffer, who managed the Central Committee’s internal life with great efficiency during Brezhnev’s last years. Chernenko would have been accepted as Brezhnev-2, along with his conservative, but efficient and stable, rule. Gorbachev, on the contrary, would have failed to acquire as much power in the Central Committee Secretariat as he had under the sick Chernenko. But even being ill, Chernenko was not evading reforms (it was under him that the large-scale secondary school reform was launched). He also refused to rehabilitate Brezhnev’s Interior Minister Nikolai Shchelokov, whom Andropov had dismissed for corruption. Tellingly, Shchelokov shot himself during Chernenko’s (not Andropov’s) tenure. Another telling fact is that it was Chernenko who readmitted Stalin’s closest ally, Vyacheslav Molotov, to the CPSU after his expulsion by Khrushchev. In any event, Chernenko’s aides vie, in their memoirs, with Andropov’s aides, both groups claiming that history would have taken a turn for the better had their chief lived longer.”

“Finally, the question emerges of what would have happened if Chernenko had been succeeded by someone other than Gorbachev. Open sources mention a number of alternative candidates, including Grigory Romanov, Viktor Grishin, Andrei Gromyko and Vladimir Shcherbitsky. I think each of them would have persisted with a conservative course as Brezhnev 2.0. But the Ukrainian leader, Shcherbitsky, merits an individual historical reconstruction, if only because some memoir writers claim that Brezhnev himself had named him his successor. This reconstruction would be particularly interesting against the backdrop of the current Ukrainian crisis. Eventually, however, the alternatives failed to materialize, while Andrei Gromyko, who had thrown his weight behind Gorbachev, subsequently told his family, “What a mistake I’ve made!”

“Another group of “historical bifurcations” concerns whether the USSR could have avoided a collapse under Gorbachev. This question logically invites another one: Could anyone have stopped Gorbachev? At this point it should be noted with regret that the “staff culture” in the CPSU Central Committee often turned “collective leadership” into fiction, with the prevailing maxim, “your superior is always right.” Therefore, it is impossible to answer in the affirmative the key question about acceleration being possible without perestroika, as it was in China, where Deng Xiaoping conducted economic reforms by politically conservative methods and was not afraid to crush a student rebellion on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Obviously, Gorbachev’s enthusiasm and the activities of his closest allies (Yakovlev, Shakhnazarov, and others), who prodded him into launching a political reform, made political perestroika inevitable. Gorbachev is often reproached for focusing on foreign policy at the expense of domestic affairs (unlike Deng Xiaoping, who avoided involvement in international affairs and concentrated on internal reforms). But there was hardly any alternative: Gorbachev’s pivot from foreign to home policy was highly unlikely in light of several factors, including his visit to London in 1984, when he was charmed by Margaret Thatcher and developed a taste for the effects of international PR, his infatuation with new foreign policy ideological constructs (eagerly supplied by his aides, many of whom were international experts) and finally the controversial figure of Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister.”

“There were also a number of external factors that eroded the stability of the Soviet system. One was Chernobyl, the 30th anniversary of which was marked not so long ago. The event encouraged the publication of numerous media articles and even a feature film, all implying that the USSR would have remained united and powerful were it not for Chernobyl. A separate topic is the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s and the decline in budget revenues occasioned by Gorbachev’s anti-drinking campaign (in contrast to Andropov). Yet another topic is Gorbachev’s wife’s influence on his political decision-making (all memoir writers mention Raisa Gorbachev in highly negative terms in this context).”

“Finally, the last question is about whether it was possible to save the Soviet Union as it reached a historical bifurcation in 1990-91. Could Shatalin and Yavlinsky’s 500 Days economic program have started working? What would have happened if the Committee for the State of Emergency had not attempted its coup? Would a new union with Nursultan Nazarbayev as prime minister have been viable? Was Gorbachev himself behind the attempted coup as some memoir writers claim? What would the USSR’s foreign and home policies have been, had the coup succeeded? Alas, history knows no “ifs” and we will never get direct answers to these questions. But an analysis of the entire set of sources suggests that some inescapable evil fate was leading Gorbachev and his country to perdition and this could not be stopped. In any event, it has become a textbook example illustrating the role of the individual in history.”

Depending on the answers that the participants provide to the important question of the USSR’s survival, the proceedings of the Valdai Discusison Club may foretell future developments in Russian politics.  We in the U. S. would do well to pay attention.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mainstreaming "What If" History: CNN's "Counterfactual Files"

In yet another example of how counterfactual history is gaining mainstream status, CNN.Politics has launched a new series of short web articles and videos, entitled “Counterfactual Files.”

There are currently six videos in the “Counterfactual Files.”

  • What we can learn from Counterfactual History
  • What if FDR had lived through his fourth term?
  • What if Lincoln had lived?
  • What if Alexander Hamilton had lived?
  • What if the Cuban Missile Crisis led to war?
  • What if Richard Nixon never resigned?

All the videos feature “expert historians” (in the main, journalists and established scholars) opining about how history might have been different.  They include Carl Bernstein, Harold Holzer, Beverly Gage, Thomas Fleming, and Timothy Naftali.

The videos’ brevity (they average around two minutes in length) prevents them from delving very deeply into substantive matters.  But then again, the series seems intended to introduce the genre of counterfactual history to a general audience.  Indeed, the series is sponsored by Amazon.Prime, which is clearly eager to increase viewership for its hit series, The Man in the High Castle, the second season of which begins in January.  This is made clear by the fact that each video is preceded by a short trailer for The Man in the High Castle). 

Even if Counterfactual Files proves to be merely a short-lived marketing ploy (we’ll see whether the number of videos goes beyond the present half-dozen), it is notable that a major news organization is lending such credibility to “what if” thinking.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"What If-TV": Counterfactual Television Shows Set to Premier

I am cross posting this new blog entry of mine from Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, dealing with the new wave of counterfactual television shows appearing this fall and winter.

Click HERE for the original link.

Have we entered a new golden age of counterfactual history? It is too early to say for sure, as the history of counterfactual history remains to be written. But if recent and upcoming television shows are any indication, the clear answer is yes.

Last year, Amazon Prime debuted its immensely popular ten-part web series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel about the United States losing World War II to the Germans and Japanese. Hulu also unveiled its adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 2011 novel 11/22/63, about a present-day American teacher (played by James Franco) going back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Even more notable is the upcoming fall and winter television lineup for 2016-17. In addition to the second season of The Man in the High Castle (which was renewed after receiving unprecedented fan support), four new American television shows with counterfactual premises are set to debut. They include: Making History (Fox) about two college professors returning to the eighteenth century to make sure the American Revolution occurs; Timeless (NBC), about present-day Americans returning to the year 1937 and investigating the crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey; Time After Time (ABC), about H.G. Welles and Jack the Ripper battling it out in present-day New York City; and Frequency (CW), about a young female detective making contact with her dead father who somehow continues to live in the year 1996. (There’s also a bonus: American viewers will soon be able to watch the upcoming five-part BBC television series,SS-GB—based on bestselling British writer Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller about the Nazis defeating and occupying Great Britain in World War II—now that The Weinstein Company has acquired the TV distribution rights).

What does this wave of “what if?” narratives reveal about the status of history in contemporary culture? What relevance, if any, does the wave have for historians?

To answer these questions, it is worth noting that scholars continue to debate the merits of counterfactual history. On the one hand, many historians remain skeptical about the virtues of “what if” thinking, a position recently reiterated by Richard J. Evans in his impassioned, if flawed, book, Altered Pasts (2014). On the other hand, Niall Ferguson, the editor of the pioneering volume Virtual History (1997), recently singled out the importance of counterfactual speculation in his Applied History Project manifesto, which was published in The Atlantic. Given the recent publication of other counterfactually-influenced works of history, such as Peter J. Bowler’s Darwin Deleted (2013), Jeffrey Gurock’s The Holocaust Averted (2015), Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand Lives! (2014), and my own edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (2016), it would seem as if historical “what ifs” are increasingly gaining respectability.

In order to explain this wave of speculation, it helps to know something about the structure and function of historical counterfactuals. As I point out in a new essay in The Journal of the Philosophy of History—whose current issue features a roundtable on counterfactuals—“what ifs” can be divided up into five different categories: causal, emotive, temporal, spatial, andmanneristic. Many different types of counterfactuals belong to these categories (I list a dozen and a half), but they all serve a similar set of functions: they help us understand the causality of historical events, arrive at moral judgments about their meaning, and assess how they evolve in collective memory.  Counterfactuals also serve a rhetorical function, insofar as they attempt to persuade us of their veracity by appealing to our sentiments and imagination. Most human beings are highly susceptible to “what ifs,” a fact confirmed by social science research, which reveals that we routinely imagine scenarios pertaining to our own personal lives—usually about whether different decisions might have led to better or worse outcomes.

These factors can help us understand the different ways in which the coming year’s television programs employ counterfactuals; they may also provide an explanation about their growing popularity.

Making History is the most historically focused of the shows. It features what I call a “Connecticut Yankee Counterfactual,” in which present-day individuals return to the past (naturally with the aid of a time machine). Academics will rejoice, as the show features a pair of university professors (a white computer scientist and a black historian) as its protagonists. They return to the late eighteenth century with the goal of ensuring the occurrence of the American Revolution (which the computer science professor has somehow undone in a previous visit). Like the identically-named but unrelated alternate history novel by British writer Stephen Fry from 1996 (about the prevention of Hitler’s birth by yet another pair of academics), the show offers a comedic take on alternate history by playing the scenario of time travel for laughs instead of lessons, very much like the film Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).

The NBC show Timeless resembles Making History insofar as it also features present-day characters traveling to the past. It, too, features a history professor among its main characters, giving her the task of working with a white soldier and a black engineer to prevent a time traveling villain from catastrophically altering the course of American history. Unlike Making History, Timeless is not a comedy, but an action and adventure show that employs counterfactual speculation for dramatic effect.

Time After Time, meanwhile, reverses the plot lines of Making History and Timeless by employing a “Rip Van Winkle counterfactual” and depicting someone from the past being transported to the present. The show portrays H.G. Wells using a time machine to track down Jack the Ripper in New York City. In a sense, the show is a darker version of the recent Fox television program, Sleepy Hollow, which features an eighteenth-century American Revolutionary soldier, Ichabod Crane, pairing up with a female African American police officer to battle mythological monsters come to life in present-day Westchester County.

Frequency (the CW), finally, focuses less on changing the course of grand historical events than individual fates. It is an example of a “personal alternate history,” insofar as it traces how small points of divergence lead several characters’ lives to evolve differently along parallel tracks. The show follows in the tradition of films like Sliding Doors (1998), the recent Tony-nominated Broadway show, If/Then (2013), and Kate Atkinson’s best selling novel, Life After Life (2013).

The new television shows seek to entertain, but they also strive to instruct. Like many works of science fiction and utopian literature, they use the premise of time travel to advance social commentary. Making History’s trailer, for instance, features a comical scene in which the white and black professors answer an eighteenth-century woman’s hopeful inquiry whether “in 2016, white people and black people are friends?” with the simultaneous statements: “yes, exactly” and “not at all.” Time After Time features an African American time traveler being stuck in a 1930s jail and declaring to his racist white guard that “I hope you live long enough to see Michael Jordan dunk, Michael Jackson dance, and Mike Tyson punch… because the future is not on your side.” On a bleaker note, Jack the Ripper in Time After Time makes the ominous observation that in view of all the “violence and bloodshed” of the twenty first century, “today, I’m an amateur.”

The surging wave of counterfactualism in American culture reflects the impact of larger forces. “What if?” thinking tends to flourish in eras of rapid change—in moments when people try to make sense of how key points of divergence shift historical events onto new tracks. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought an end to the comparatively stable “post-cold war” years of 1989–2001, the pace of change has intensified, thanks to U.S.–led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008, the abortive Arab Spring, the crisis of the EU, and the global rise of authoritarian capitalism and xenophobic populism. The popularity of counterfactualism also reflects the enduring influence of postmodernism, whose promotion of a relativistic, “post-fact” world has fostered a willingness to imagine alternate pasts beyond the agreed-upon historical record. This trend has been accelerated, moreover, by the many disruptive technological developments—the rise of the Internet, smart phones, social media, streaming video services, and the like—that have fueled and accompanied the “information revolution.”

Historians continue to debate whether or not the wave of “what ifs” should be welcomed or critiqued. But there is nothing inherently worrisome about counterfactual thinking. Not only does it date back to the beginning of the western historical tradition in Ancient Greece (and the work of Herodotus and Thucydides), it has influenced the profession ever since. Counterfactuals, moreover, are compatible with multiple models of historical causality, whether the “Great Man” theory of Thomas Carlyle, which privileges the importance of individual agency, or more deterministic perspectives that emphasize the significance of grand forces, structures, and systems. Counterfactuals, finally, have no inherent political valence; while they may seem to privilege the role of elites (and distressingly echo Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal claim that “I alone can fix” the problems of the country), they can also inspire ordinary people to shape events.

Perhaps this is the reason why counterfactuals resonate so powerfully today. At a time when ordinary people are struggling to cope with forces, structures, and systems beyond their control, contemplating speculative scenarios allows us to fantasize about transcending our sense of powerlessness and using individual agency to effect positive change. As historians, we should recognize the emotional resonance of counterfactuals and understand that the process of imagining how the past could have been can be part of the effort to shape the future. We should all heed the advice of Timeless’s Delta Force sergeant, Denise Christopher (played by Sakina Jaffrey) who in trying to enlist the services of the reluctant professor, Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer), pointedly asks her: “I’d think that someone who loves history would want to save it.”

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A New Celebrity Counterfactual: Kim Kardashian on the Armenian Genocide

Give credit where it’s due. 

For better or worse, Kim Kardashian has a major platform for airing her views.  In publishing a full page advertisement in today’s New York Times directing attention to ongoing Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian genocide (most recently with the publication of the advertisement in the Wall Street Journal by a group called “Turkic Platform”), she is using her pop culture pulpit for good.  She might have been somewhat more eloquent in describing her objections (she uses the generic terms “crap” and “crappy” a bit too much for my taste), but the thrust of her argument is clear: it is important to “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.”  And yes, “Education Matters.”

That said, I was surprised to see KK employ a questionable counterfactual claim to rhetorically enhance the urgency of her appeal.  In the last paragraph, she writes: “Many historians believe that if Turkey had been held responsible for the Armenian genocide, and reprimanded for what they did, the Holocaust may not have happened.  In 1939, a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” 

Having written extensively about counterfactual claims on the Holocaust (see my book, Hi Hitler!), I would be interested to learn which scholars KK is thinking of.  I don’t know of any historians who have employed this particular “what if” claim.  To be sure, many historians have used the famous (albeit highly disputed) Hitler quotation to suggest that the world’s ostensible indifference to the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler to pursue his Final Solution of the Jewish question in radical form.  In other words, this claim by historians includes an IMPLIED counterfactual.  But to my knowledge, it’s rarely, if ever, been explicitly expressed (certainly not among scholars of German or Jewish history).  KK is thus overreaching.

I did a little digging, however, and found some claims in some texts produced by writers of Armenian descent.  To cite one example, Marian MacCurdy writes that “If the Armenian genocide had been recognized, it is possible that the Holocaust would not have occurred.” (The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma, p. 164).  Amos Elon also quotes an Armenian official in Jerusalem observing, “The Armenian holocaust was forgotten or ignored. If it had not been ignored, perhaps Auschwitz would not have happened.”  (Elon, Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, p. 226).  Taking a more skeptical stance, Stefan Ihrig’s study, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler declares, “the argument that without the Armenian Genocide there would not have been a Nazi Holocaust is unnecessary and to some extent folly” (Ihrig, p. 357).

Indeed, KK hardly needs to employ her counterfactual to defend her appeal, which remains fundamentally legitimate.  Too many Turkish officials, academics, and others have denied the truth of what happened to the Armenians in the First World War.  (By the same token, plenty of Turkish academics, journalists, and writers have taken a more critical and honest approach to the highly politicized subject).

The Armenian question aside, what does KK’s claim say about the current state of counterfactuals?

On the one hand, her advertisement reveals and reinforces the appeal of counterfactuals, which retain considerable rhetorical power.  Her ad further enhances the value of speculative thinking, as she is employs it in defense of historical truth.  This is important for a variety of reasons.  In our increasingly “post-fact” and “post-truth” world, it is critical that we do, in fact, “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.”  For the record, this is the message that stands at the core of the forthcoming film, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz as historian Deborah Lipstadt.  (See my forthcoming review in The Jewish Review of Books). 

Yet, despite KK’s embrace of counterfactual reasoning to promote the cause of truth, many skeptical observers continue to see the former as antithetical to the latter. Counterfactual history is often accused of contributing to the increasingly blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, between historical truth and outright denial.  All of these trends are often blamed on rise of postmodern culture, which has allegedly nurtured them with its relativistic spirit.  There is a good deal of validity to this claim.  But it would be entirely misguided to throw the counterfactual baby out with the dirty bathwater of historical denialism.  Like any historical methodology, counterfactual speculation can be used for a wide range of trivial, mischievous, and also nefarious ends.  It can also be used – as this blog has long maintained – to pursue the goal of enlightenment. 

I wonder whether we are at a crossroads with respect to counterfactual history.  On the one hand, we are clearly in the midst of a new “golden age” for the discipline, as seen in the proliferation of alternate history novels, web series, and television shows (coming soon: a blog post of mine on this theme for the Organization of American Historians).  But the growing disaffection with the relativistic reality of western intellectual and cultural life may lead to a backlash.

I have been wondering if we are in store for a paradigm shift within western historical consciousness.  Peter Novick’s celebrated study, That Noble Dream, convincingly shows how the American historical profession has vacillated between waves of support for the belief in objective truth and the belief in relativism.  If, as I suspect, the free-wheeling relativism of our present-day world (on the World Wide Web, in our political discourse, and beyond) is going to stoke popular demand for a return to standards of objectivity, what will be the consequences for counterfactual thinking?  Will it become re-stigmatized all over again as culpable for our excesses of relativism?  Will it become the Socrates of historical methodologies, blamed for corrupting the minds of the young and impressionable? 

All of these questions deserve more thought than I am able to provide at this juncture.  But I hope to revisit them going forward as I continue researching the history of counterfactual history.