Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sneak Preview of Stephen King's JFK Alternate History Series, "11.22.63"

When it rains it pours....

Just as Amazon Prime's The Man in the High Castle is set to debut, Hulu is jumping on the wave, releasing its TRAILER for its eight part series based on Stephen King's recent novel, 11.22.63, about the attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Given the notion that trends come in threes, where will we find the clincher?

Friday, November 13, 2015

"The Man in the High Castle": An Early Look

Here is my review of the first two episodes of Amazon Prime's "The Man in the High Castle" from this week's Forward.  Click HERE of the link.

If the entire series turns out to be a hit, we can possibly expect more cinematic renderings of alternate history novels in the future.  Anyone have any suggestions as to what they'd like to see filmed?  I wouldn't mind seeing The Two Georges, personally (maybe Richard Dreyfuss could have a leading role -- wouldn't that be meta?).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What's Going On With all the Politicized Nazi Counterfactuals? Steven Colbert Weighs In

The list is a long and growing one.

Politicians Ben Carson, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jeb Bush have all commented on "what ifs" pertaining to the Nazi past in recent weeks.  I commented on Carson's invocation of the Holocaust in explaining his opposition to gun control a few posts ago.  I was interviewed on NPR last week about Netanyahu's implied counterfactual that if Haj Amin Al-Husseini had not met with Hitler in November of 1941 that the Holocaust would not have happened (click HERE).  Meanwhile, Jeb Bush went public on the The New York Times Magazine question from last week: "would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a baby?" saying "hell yeah."  (I was interviewed about this very issue by Mother Jones the other day; click HERE for the interview).

Thank goodness we have Steven Colbert to put together a mashup commentary on all the inanity.
To watch the hilarious clip, click HERE.

As for the deeper meaning of what's going on, I suspect it reflects an ongoing desire to seek moral certainties in a time of ongoing upheaval and political polarization by invoking what still counts as the benchmark of evil: Hitler.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Killing Baby Hitler: The Mother Jones Interview

Somehow I neglected to post the interview I did with Mother Jones last week about The New York Times Magazine poll question: "would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby?"

I try to put the question in historical perspective by discussing the many counterfactual narratives that have explored the consequences of killing Hitler.

Click HERE for the interview.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Jeb Bush, Abraham Lincoln, and Rip Van Winkle Counterfactuals

On the campaign trail today in Florida, Jeb Bush drew attention to a common kind of "what if" scenario that might be termed a “Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual.”  In the same way that the famous Washington Irving character fell asleep and woke up in the future, counterfactuals often relocate a historical figure from the past into the present in order to comment upon it. 

Speaking in Tampa, Florida, Bush remarked: “If Lincoln were alive today, imagine the foolishness he would have to suffer,” Bush said. “Advisers telling him to shave his beard. Cable pundits telling him to lose the top hat. Opposition researchers calling him a five-time loser before the age of 50.”

He said he was speaking from experience. “I have gotten a lot of advice lately myself…more than enough. Some is stylistic. 'Take off the suit coat; ditch the glasses. Get rid of the purple striped tie,'" Bush said. But he has no plans to follow that advice. "Man, I like that tie," he said. "It only cost $20."  To see the full story click HERE.

There are many other examples of Rip van Winkle counterfactuals. 

Just to name two: the successful FOX television series, Sleepy Hollow, imagines the 18th century revolutionary war hero, Ichabod Crane, coming back to life and becoming a police investigator in present day New York state. Similarly, Timur Vermes’s best selling German novel (now a hit film) Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) imagines how a reanimated Adolf Hitler would have viewed contemporary German life.

These and similar counterfactual scenarios obviously lack the plausibility of more sober “what ifs.”  But they are rhetorically powerful tools for providing a new and defamiliarizing perspective on present day reality.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

High Hitler: The Führer's Drug Dependency as a Reverse Causal Counterfactual

Norman Ohler’s new book, The Total High: Drugs in the Third Reich (Der totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich), raises interesting counterfactual questions about Hitler’s reign as the dictator of Nazi Germany. 

I haven’t yet seen a copy of the book, but based on reviews in the German press, it appears that Ohler argues that without a steady intake of illegal stimulants (cocaine, Quadro-Nox, Profundol, Belladonna Obistinol) and the “euphoria” they provided, Hitler “would have been unable to pull himself together for military conferences” and other important governmental meetings.  (This claim can be found in the Tagesanzeiger review).

Or as the Frankfurter Rundschau put it in a separate review: “Without supportive pharmaceutical means, Hitler would not have been able to play his demented Führer role, which cost millions of people worldwide their lives, to the end.”

These counterfactuals seek to underscore the importance of drugs for the Führer’s ability to function on a daily basis in reverse fashion by asserting how their absence would have affected him (rather than how their availability actually affected him). 

The claim can be seen as an example of what might be called a reverse causal counterfactual.  Or as Richard Ned Lebow writes in Forbidden Fruit, “If we hypothesize that ‘x’ caused ‘y,’ we assume that ‘y’ would not have happened…in the absence of ‘x’ (p. 40).” 

Applied to Ohler’s book, this mode of causal reasoning allows us to see that there is a difference between claiming: 1) drugs enabled Hitler to function until the end of the war and 2) without drugs Hitler could not have functioned until the end of the war.

The latter claim assigns more causal weight to drugs than the former, as other things besides drugs (say, food) were presumably necessary to enable Hitler to function during this period.  Claiming those things would have been insufficient in the absence of drugs underlines their causal importance more dramatically.  This kind of counterfactual has also been called a "necessary condition counterfactual," meaning that a given factor 'x' (here, drugs) was a "necessary factor for "y" (Hitler's functioning).  See Gary Goetz and Jack S. Levy (eds.), Explaining War and Peace: Case Studies and Necessary Condition Counterfactuals (2007).

The use of the term, “without,” in the introductory clause of any conditional sentence is probably a good sign that you are dealing with a reverse causal counterfactual, probably the most basic type of formulation of all.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ben Carson's Counterfactual Canard: Arming Jews Would Have Prevented the Holocaust

Recycling a time-honored counterfactual canard, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson offered CNN's Wolf Blitzer his NRA-style view of how arming Jews with guns would have prevented the Holocaust.

As The Washington Post reported in a story today: Ben Carson said Thursday that Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews “would have been greatly diminished” if German citizens had not been disarmed by the Nazi regime.

His comments about gun control in Nazi Germany are explored in his just-released book, A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties, in which he expands on his political views.

He said Nazi Germany was one of the regimes that he used as a cautionary tale against curbing citizens’ gun rights. 

“But just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would 6 million Jews have been slaughtered?” Blitzer asked.

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said.   Blitzer pushed a bit more: “Because they had a powerful military machine, as you know, the Nazis.”

“I understand that,” Carson said. “I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

As I discussed in a previous blog post, gun control opponents often invoke the case of Nazi Germany to bolster their position.  They do so in two ways: first, they cite the Third Reich as potentially heralding a future nightmare scenario for what might happen in the U. S. should the government ever decide to limit access to firearms.  Second, they invoke a counterfactual fantasy of how Jews’ access to guns could have helped prevent the Holocaust. 

Neither scenario is very plausible, of course, but both remain rhetorically powerful arguments, if for no other reason than the fact that the Nazis retain their symbolic power as the paragons of evil and guns remain one of the most politicized issues in contemporary American life. 

The Nazi gun control counterfactual is plainly a canard, but its rhetorical power makes it too tempting for gun rights supporters to forego.  For this reason, the counterfactual will probably be with us for some time to come.