Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game of Confederates? Thoughts on HBO's Upcoming Civil War Alternate History

I'm quoted in today's New York Times article by David Itzkoff on HBO's projected alternate history series, to be called Confederate, about a world in which the Confederacy defeated the Union in the Civil War.


Undoubtedly, the fact that the project is being pursued by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the creators of the megahit HBO show, Game of Thrones, explains much of the attention to the topic. So does the relevance of the Civil War in present day America, where ongoing racial prejudice against African Americans angers the left and the removal of confederate statues angers the right.

I would argue that the discontent expressed by certain critics about a Civil War alternate history merely underscores the genre's importance, especially insofar as it helps us revise, rethink, and wrestle with difficult historical legacies.

This is equally true of the recent Amazon Prime hit show, The Man in the High Castle -- but only because contemporary political trends have been headed in a right wing, if not neo-fascist, direction.

Counterfactually speaking, if we were living in more politically stable times, The Man in the High Castle would not have had the resonance it does.  It would not be controversial to interpret the show  -- as many have -- as a commentary on present day American "fascism."  Without the backdrop of today's political climate, the show's plot would be relatively cliché.  After all, for decades, it's easy to hate Nazis because of their unambiguous evil.

This is less true of the Civil War.

No matter how many people view the Confederacy as equally evil as the Third Reich due to the institution of slavery, many others continue to overlook it and instead seek inspiration in Southern "heritage."  That explains much of the discomfort about how HBO's Confederacy may portray the topic.

It's certainly understandable.

Still, to my mind, it's premature to judge the show before it begins shooting.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Really? Democratic President Donald Trump? Matt Latimer's "Transplant" and "Trading Places" Counterfactual

I’d like to thank regular CHR reader, Heiko Henning, in Germany for alerting me to the publication of Matt Latimer’s recent alternate history in Politico, “What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat?”


The essay is a great example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one that deposits a historical figure into a different physical setting from one in which he or she was originally situated. This usually takes the form of having an individual being born in a different country. Scholars have inquired how the famed modern architect, Le Corbusier, would have developed had he born in Germany instead of Switzerland. A well-known Saturday Night Live episode from 1978 asked how history would have been different if Superman had grown up in Nazi Germany instead of Kansas (and an upcoming FILM imagines Superman being raised in the Soviet Union.  Similar scenarios have been asked about Napoleon being born in America, Lenin being born in India, and Bill Gates being born in China.

In his article, Latimer (drawing on an idea first floated by Peter Beinart) imagines Trump running – and winning -- as a Democrat. 

Latimer writes:

“It’s a fascinating thought experiment: Could Trump have done to the Democrats in 2016 what he did to the Republicans? Why not? There, too, he would have challenged an overconfident, message-challenged establishment candidate (Hillary Clinton instead of Jeb Bush). He would have had an even smaller number of competitors to dispatch. One could easily see him doing as well as or better than Bernie Sanders—surprising Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, winning the New Hampshire primaries, and on and on. More to the point, many of Trump’s views—skepticism on trade, sympathetic to Planned Parenthood, opposition to the Iraq War, a focus on blue-collar workers in Rust Belt America—seemed to gel as well, if not better, with blue-state America than red. Think the Democrats wouldn’t tolerate misogynist rhetoric and boorish behavior from their leaders? Well, then you’ve forgotten about Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy and LBJ and Bill Clinton.”

Latimer acknowledges some potential “flaws” to the scenario, but concludes that it’s not entirely crazy to imagine him outflanking a coronation-minded Hillary Clinton on the left and blitzing a weak Democratic field like General Sherman marching through Georgia.”

No, not entirely crazy -- just 99% crazy. 

Latimer's essay is a fun read, and it can be credited with imaging an interesting time line of events between January and July of 2017, in which Trump appears at various functions and makes a variety of executive decisions – as a Democrat.

But the narrative’s plausibility is torpedoed by its nakedly obvious political agenda: to exonerate present-day GOP passivity in the face of Trump’s malfeasance by alleging that Democrats would have been just as indulgent of Trump in alternate history as the GOP has been in real history.  (In the essay, the Dems agree to Trump's withdrawal of the US from TPP, his signing a “Muslim Ban,” and construction of a wall between the US and Mexico). Latimer further seeks to boost this counterfactual sympathy for the GOP by imagining that it would have assumed the same protest stance as the Democrats – and received the same dismissive cold shoulder.

In short, Latimer places the Democrats and Republicans into a “trading places counterfactual,” in which the two sides simply exchange their current roles due to the altered circumstance of Trump’s party membership.

The fallacy of both counterfactuals – as used in this essay – is that it mechanistically assumes a total equivalence of behavior by the two political parties based on the simple fact of Trump’s political affiliation.  It is as if the structural reality of possessing power would have led the two parties to behave identically to one another -- without any consideration of political principles.  Pure political power -- possessing and retaining it -- is the only consideration.  No consideration of other factors appears relevant: most obviously, the ongoing GOP control of Congress (which, one assumes would have persisted even if Trump had won as a Democrat and would have limited Trump’s administrative behavior).

The essay has many flaws, but the most obvious is the premise that Trump could ever have run and won as a Democrat in the first place.  The birther fiasco -- not to mention all of Trump’s other disqualifying lies and character flaws -- would have have alienated key parts of the Democratic base (middle class women and minorities in particular) and ultimately been wholly disqualifying.

Readers can go through Latimer’s essay at their leisure and shoot as many fish as they can find in his counterfactual barrel.

But the tip-off for anyone seeking to find the essay’s core agenda is Latimer’s by-line as a former speech writer for the George W. Bush administration.  Given this background, the essay can easily be interpreted as a counterfactual bid at GOP self-exoneration.

Counterfactuals, as this blog has long sought to show, have tremendous rhetorical and political resonance.  They are embraced by all political wings of the spectrum.  It should be no surprise that a GOP establishment stalwart is seeking to whitewash the GOP’s current behavior by alleging that Democrats would have been no better.

But it won’t wash with most readers outside the GOP.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Forthcoming "What Ifs" of German History Volume: "Eine andere Deutsche Geschichte"

I always thought it would be a great idea to edit a volume of essays on "what ifs" of German history.

I'm happy to say that someone else has beaten me to it. This coming fall, Christoph Nonn and Tobias Winnerling are publishing a new edited volume entitled, Eine andere deutsche Geschichte: Was wäre wenn?  (An Alternate German History: What If?), with Ferdinand Schöningh.

I especially like the cover image of Martin Luther as the Pope (hmmm...I wonder how that came to pass?)


The publisher's website does not list the table of contents, but a recent symposium at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf provides a sense of the contributors' essays.  They range from the Reformation to the Revolution of 1989.

It is pasted below.



I look forward to reading and hopefully reviewing this volume before too long.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Counterfactual Satire: Justin Warner Mocks Trump's "What Ifs?" About Andrew Jackson


It’s not often that I have the opportunity to report on satirical riffs on counterfactual history.  But my colleague Steve Weitzman at Penn (a contributor to What Ifs of Jewish History) kindly directed me to a hilarious LIST produced by Justin Warner for McSweeney's of “historical tragedies and the people who might have prevented them had they not died sixteen years prior.”



Given Donald Trump’s sloppy use of counterfactual history, I’m leery of the claim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity for the genre.  But in the case of Warner’s satirical list, I’d like to think that it may inspire further examples of counterfactual creativity. 

For the record, as the list entirely abandons plausibility in favor of demented non-sequiturs, I feel liberated from having to assess any of the scenarios from a critical perspective.

Enjoy!

HISTORICAL TRAGEDIES AND THE PEOPLE WHO MIGHT HAVE PREVENTED THEM HAD THEY NOT DIED SIXTEEN YEARS PRIOR

[Trump] made the puzzling claim that Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening in regard to the Civil War.” But Jackson died in 1845, and the Civil War didn’t begin until 16 years later, in 1861. — Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2017
- - -
Civil War: Andrew Jackson (d. 1845)

Attempted Assassination of King Umberto I of Italy: Martin van Buren (d. 1862)

Hitler Invades Poland: Warren Harding (d. 1923)

9/11: Henry Cabot Lodge (d. 1985)

Portrayal of James Bond by George Lazenby: Josef Stalin (d. 1953)

Hindenburg Disaster: Frederick Martin, English cricketer (d. 1921)

Introduction of New Coke: Dwight D. Eisenhower (d. 1969)

Great Chicago Fire: Charlotte Brontë (d. 1855)

The Black Death: Some guy in France who almost invented penicillin but also liked feeding rats (d. 1330)

Pliny The Younger’s Poorly Reviewed One-Man Show About Losing His Father In The Eruption Of Vesuvius: Pliny The Elder (d. 79)

Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Howard Cosell (d. 1995)

Replacement of David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar: E. M. Forster (d. 1970)

Replacement of Sammy Hagar with Gary Cherone: Paul Lynde (d. 1982)

Replacement of Gary Cherone with David Lee Roth: Dr. Seuss (d. 1991)

Inauguration of Donald Trump: Oddly enough, Morton Downey Jr. (d. 2001)

Inauguration of Mike Pence: Dolly the Sheep (d. 2003)

Everything About The Handmaid’s Tale Coming to Pass Except the Environmental Stewardship: Planter’s Cheez Balls (discontinued 2006)


Death of Last Living Thing On Earth: Definitely either Bowie or Prince (d. 2016)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Donald Trump's Lazy "Fast Forward" Counterfactual: 93 Year Old President Andrew Jackson

Sigh.  With friends like these....

Donald Trump’s latest example of counterfactual reasoning places yet another straw on the back of a camel already overburdened by the weight of earlier comments.  (See my POST about his fantasy “what ifs” about the election from late November).



As reported in the New York Times (click HERE for the article link), Trump’s comment was made in an interview on SiriusXM Radio and focused on how the Civil War might have been avoided had Andrew Jackson been around.  As he put it:

‘I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” ’

As plenty of observers have pointed out, Jackson died in 1845 and the Civil War only erupted in 1861.  So the comment is inherently ahistorical.

However, it is far from being an entirely illegitimate scenario. 

Historians have routinely imagined “fast forward” counterfactuals in which historical figures are imagined as somehow living longer and being present for events they never personally witnessed – all in order to imagine how they would have reacted.  Whether imagining Lenin living longer and seeing the Bolshevik Revolution through the crises of the 1920s, JFK living longer to deal with the War in Vietnam, or FDR living longer to deal with the Cold War, these kinds of counterfactuals are quite common. 

Trump, in fact, is theoretically on target in musing that Jackson – had he been President in 1861 instead of Lincoln – might have kept the Civil War from happening at that point in time.  He was a slave owner, after all, and may well have appeased the Southern planter aristocracy in one way or another.  In other words, he might have kept the Civil War from happening when it did in real history.

Interviewed in the New York Times, John Meacham commented:

Had Jackson been alive at the start of the Civil War, Mr. Meacham said, it would be difficult to predict his reaction. It would have brought his commitment to the Union into conflict with his identity as an unapologetic slave owner. Mr. Jackson was from Tennessee, which fought for the Confederacy. Mr. Trump visited his tomb there this year.

But any president would have had to contend with the South’s attempt to expand the institution of slavery into territory newly acquired by the United States. It’s what Mr. Meacham called the unavoidable historical question.

“The expansion of slavery caused the Civil War,” he said. “And you can’t get around that. So what does Trump mean? Would he have let slavery exist but not expand? That’s the counterfactual question you have to ask.”

Needless to say, Trump’s counterfactual suffers from the obvious implausibility of Jackson being on the scene – let alone being President – in 1861.  Born in 1867, Jackson would have been 93 in 1860, when he would have theoretically been re-elected to the highest office in the land.

Trump’s reason for making the counterfactual comment remains murky.  It seems to have little to do with present-day political issues.  Rather, it reflects his identification with Jackson, not to mention his belief that being “tough” and having a big “heart” are somehow sufficient to change the course of history. 

Still, historians can take something away from Trump’s gaffe.  After all, it is an object lesson in the importance of chronology.  My own college students often grumble at the need to know the order of historical facts.  There shouldn’t be a need to defend such knowledge.  But if nothing else, Trump’s miscue can remind us all that that keeping them straight is one way to avoid public embarrassment. 

Oddly enough, Trump’s apparent ignorance that Jackson was already dead before the Civil War strangely echoes his ignorance that Frederick Douglass and Luciano Pavarotti are also dead.  (His apparent comments to the contrary received considerable media attention.  Click HERE and HERE for links).

Our current President’s historical ignorance is hardly his most serious liability.  Hopefully, critics of counterfactual history will not blame the entire genre for his sloppy use of its methodology.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Can Counterfactuals Help Explain the Relationship Between American and Nazi Racism? On James Whitman's "Hitler's American Model"

James Q. Whitman’s new book, Hitler’s American Model, raises important issues that are worth exploring about the influence of American racism on the policies of the Nazi regime.  One way of testing the causal relationship is to borrow from Max Weber’s time honored method of altering a variable in a causal relationship and seeing how a changed antecedent would affect the consequent.


One critic, Joshua Muravchik has already done so in a perceptive, if imperfect, review in Moment Magazine.  In challenging Whitman’s claim that segregationist American laws pertaining to Blacks and whites in the U. S. influenced Nazi legal minds drafting the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 (not 1934, as Muravchik mistakenly writes), he declares:

"Suppose for a moment that the Nazis had found no “inspiration” in American examples. What then? The German lawyers had a mandate, flowing from the Führer, to draft laws that would strip Jews of their citizenship and prevent them from further contaminating German blood through sexual contact. Had there been no American “models” to guide them, would the lawyers have reported back to their superiors that, however desirable it might be to protect the Aryan race from the Jews, they could recommend no measures because they could find no foreign precedents? Would there have been no Nuremberg laws? Would the Führer have backed down and away?"

The suggestion, of course, is that Nazi policy would have unfolded exactly as it did in reality.

Similarly, in The Journal of Genocide Research (2013), Thomas Kühne critiqued the claim of Carroll Kakel’s book, The American West and the Nazi East, that the story of 19th century American colonial activity in North America (ie. western expansion) inspired Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum in World War II. 

As Kühne put it:

“Apart from few Hitler quotations, Kakel relies on a likewise scanty body of secondary sources on the reception and the images of America in Nazi Germany and by the Nazi movement. The far-reaching, implicit consequence of his comparison—if there had been no American West, the German East and possibly the Holocaust would not have materialized, or if so, only in a different way—is thus based on astonishingly thin evidence. Hence, Jens-Uwe Guettel, author of rather differently conceptualized book on transnational exchanges between German and American imperialism and expansionism, is able to quickly deflate the foundation of Kakel’s thesis: in Hitler’s first 800-page book, North America is mentioned three times, each ‘brief, superficial and metaphorical’. America is invoked a little more often in Hitler’s second book (unpublished during his lifetime), but not with reference to German expansion in the East.”

My point in drawing attention to these counterfactual critiques is not to question to value of comparing American and Nazi racism.  Such a comparison can be highly instructive.  Rather, I seek to show how establishing causal influence can be aided by counterfactual analysis. 

Muravchik's and Kühne’s observations suggest that, even without the American precedents, Nazi policy would have probably proceeded as it did in semi-deterministic fashion.  Their observations suggest that any Nazi references to American precedents served less as sources of inspiration than rhetorical justification.


Friday, February 24, 2017

The "Alt-Right" and "Alternate History": The Illusory Connection

A little while back, I wrote about my concern that the growing (and legitimate) backlash against the Trump administration’s embrace of “alternative facts” might bode ill for the field of alternate history – if for no other reason than the growing stigmatization of the adjective “alternative.”

Here’s more evidence for concern:

First, there is the publication of a new Slate article, “Alt-Right Facts,” complaining (again legitimately) about CPAC trying to create an “alternate history” about the origins of the “alternative right” (alt-right) by effacing the relationship between Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and Breitbart News.

Second, there is a new article on the progressive website, Alternet, that appears to smear the popularity of alternate history novels on the far right by linking it to a broader agenda of political upheaval.


The article, entitled, “Trump’s Advisers Want a Civil War,” by Paul Mason, focuses specifically on the genre of Civil War alternate histories. 

The key sections read as follows:

“Although it comprehensively lost the American civil war, the racist right in the US has for decades consoled itself by reading crazed “alternate history” novels, in which things turn out differently. Now, Time magazine has revealed that Steve Bannon, the White House chief of staff and Donald Trump’s closest aide, believes the next phase of American history should be as catastrophic and traumatic as the conflict of 1861-65.

“What if ...” stories about the civil war entered popular literature in the 50s, about the time the Jim Crow system of apartheid was being challenged by black protesters. Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, has the Confederacy winning the war but freeing the slaves. So does If the South Had Won the Civil War, an imaginary history by leftwing writer McKinlay Kantor, published in 1960. In these and other 20th-century explorations of Confederate victory fantasy, the south wins but is forced to end slavery in order to unleash industrial capitalism. The subtext is not hard to decipher: the war between white American brothers was pointless, as economic development would have solved the problem of slavery anyway.

However, after the 80s, the new American right saw things differently. Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, now close supporter of Trump, took time out from impeaching Bill Clinton to co-author three excruciatingly dire alt-history novels about the civil war. In Never Call Retreat, the final in the trilogy, written by Gingrich with William Forstchen and Albert Hanser, the Union side wins the war but, by implication, the south wins the peace. With Sherman’s Union army poised to destroy Atlanta, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, persuades the south to surrender. “The patience of our opponents is at an end,” this fictional Lee tells the Confederate government. “We shall reap a terrible whirlwind that will scar our nation for generations to come.” Lincoln then delivers the Gettysburg address to a nation that has, by implication, made peace with the slaveowners and the ideology of white supremacy they lived by.

While you ponder the parallels with today, consider this statement from Bannon, made on his radio show in December 2015 to explain the worldview of his Breitbart website: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war.

For Bannon, the No 1 enemy in this “war” is Islam, with China No 2. But there is also a fifth column in America to be dealt with as part of a “global existential war”. For Bannon, this fits into a generational theory of American power whereby the nation fulfils its destiny through a cycle of catastrophic crises: first, the revolution of 1776, then the civil war, then the intervention into the second world war and finally the crisis Bannon intends to provoke through Trump.

In Bannon and Gingrich, then, you have two men influencing the most powerful office in the world whose beliefs about the dynamics of US history could be best described as dangerous bullshit. Bannon fantasises about turning the culture war into a real one; Gingrich about the survival of an undestroyed south.

From my perspective this analysis doesn’t help us very much.  Not only does it misread Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (which was actually written as a left-wing indictment of American racism).  It throws the baby of “what if?” thinking out with the bathwater that the alt-right has seemingly dirtied.  I am as suspicious of the Trump administration is the folks at Slate and Alternet.  But I maintain that it is important to defend counterfactual and alternate history from efforts to stigmatize it as politically suspect.  As I have argued frequently, exploring “what if?” scenarios is politically ecumenical; it is neither right nor left.