Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Counterfactualis Interruptus at Fort San Juan

Today Yahoo News reported an intriguing story with tantalizing counterfactual possibilities, only to leave them blowing in the wind.

Archaeologists in North Carolina have just uncovered remnants of a long lost Spanish fort, whose origins date back to the year 1567, some forty years before the first permanent British settlement at Jamestown.

The story goes on to note:

"The settlement around Fort San Juan was occupied for less than two years and it met arather bloody end — likely brought on by the Spaniards' botched bartering for food and their sexual transgressions with Native American women. But the short-lived fort's traces serve as a reminder of how different U.S. history might have been if Spain had been more successful in its early colonial campaigns."

Well, yes, it is such a reminder....But how would American history have been different?  No one expects such a teaser to be fully answered in such a short story.   But after asking the question, the report devotes no further attention to the "what if?" premise whatsoever.  

Of course, had the fort been successfully defended, and had a more substantial Spanish presence developed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, any number of possibilities come to mind: a Catholic instead of Protestant North America.  Fierce clashes between the Spanish, Dutch, British, and French. An earlier independence movement against Spanish rule....

Please, Yahoo, tell us more!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What If Broadway Musicals Had Been Written By Jews?

I was tickled to read in a recent Forward review of Mark Cohen's new book, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman, that the Jewish comedian offered a counterfactual explanation for the origin of his Jewish parodies of Broadway musical songs (collected under the title "Goldeneh Moments from Broadway"):

Sherman asked: “What would have happened, how would it have been, if all of the great Broadway hits of the great Broadway shows had been written by Jewish people?”

Sherman's counterfactual observation was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, of course.  But it made the point, perhaps less well-known at the time than today, that Broadway musicals were, in large part, the product of American Jewish songwriters.  

On the face of it, a "what if?" question is meant to ask us to imagine an alternate reality.  But since Sherman's question alludes to an existing reality, it deliberately undermines itself by asking us to imagine what already exists.  The rhetorical function of the question is thus -- presumably -- get people at the time to recognize something that was not readily admitted.  Or to share an in-joke with the cognoscenti who already know the truth.

Click here to hear Sherman's song parody "76 Sol Cohens" (a take-off of "76 Trombones," from The Music Man).

Monday, July 15, 2013

“What Ifs?" and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Case

Lots of the post-trial commentary on the Zimmerman acquittal has employed counterfactual reasoning to draw moral lessons from the trial, especially the miscarriage of justice.

From the blog, The Political Frekshow, comes the essay: “Race Reversal: A Hypothetical Scenario Of What Would Happen If Trayvon Martin Were White And George Zimmerman Were Black, And Why Race Has Everything To Do With The Case.”

It aptly notes that:
If Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman black, this would not have become a national story. If they had reported it at all, the right-wing media would have praised Martin for trying to stand his ground before a dangerous violent thug. It defies credulity to think they would be dismissing the killer's behavior, making despicable excuses, such as blaming the kid's clothing, or if— unthinkable in this reversing-the-races scenario—there had been no criminal charges filed against the killer, dismissing the story altogether.  The questions here don’t even need answers. The questions answer themselves.
Had Trayvon Martin been white and George Zimmerman black, Zimmerman would be headed for death row. Right-wing media would be hailing Martin as a hero. A martyr who had stood his ground against a dangerous predator. They would be saying that it’s too bad Martin hadn’t somehow fought back against Zimmerman, and that if he had somehow succeeded in fighting a man so much larger than him, it would have been justifiable if he had left Zimmerman dead.

These comments highlight how counterfactual thinking allows us to imagine alternate possibilities to real events, thereby providing us with the tools for ethically judging them.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rick Perry's Counterfactual Cheap Shot

In his recent attack on Texas state senator Wendy Davis following her successful filibustering of the proposed Texas state law outlawing abortions after 20 weeks, Governor Rick Perry resorted to a counterfactual low blow.

Eager to diminish Davis's credibility, Perry cited Davis's personal history as a single mother who had gone on to graduate from Harvard Law School, noting: “It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to meet its own potential....I’m proud that she has been able to take advantage of her intellect and her hard work, but she didn’t come from particularly good circumstances....What if her mom had had said, ‘You know, I just can’t do this, I don’t want to do this?’ At that particular point and time, I think it becomes very personal for us."
Translated into English, Perry's comment is a classic example of using counterfactual reasoning to rhetorically underscore how history -- in this case the personal history of an individual -- would have turned out worse if things had been decided differently.  
Perry's goal, of course, was to underscore the immorality of abortion by implying that if Davis's mother had aborted her, then she would never have come into the world.  His remark implies that Davis is being hypocritical for supporting abortion.   
Needless to say, Perry's claim blurs the distinction between abortion as a procedure and the right to have an abortion.  No doubt Davis is grateful her mother decided to carry her pregnancy to term.  But she would surely support the right of women everywhere to have the choice available to decide otherwise.