Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, September 30, 2013

Richard Dawkins on Hitler and the Tenuousness of Human Existence

I was intrigued to read an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ new book, An Appetite For Wonder: The Making Of A Scientist, in Salon.com that offers some interesting counterfactual observations underscoring the tenuousness of human existence. 

Dawkins asks: “How can we know whether the course of a life would have been changed by some particular alteration in its early history?”

After discussing a series of decisions made by his parents (to move him from one place of residence to another; to enroll him in a particular school instead of another), he moves on to ask whether such decisions would have permanently altered his development or whether life has a tendency to converge on a pathway, something like a magnetic pull that draws it back despite temporary deviations.”

To answer the question, he argues, “The hypotheticals that I posed are relatively large. Take something utterly trivial yet, I shall argue, momentous. I’ve already speculated that we mammals owe our existence to a particular sneeze by a particular dinosaur. [Earlier in the book he writes: I have put it before, if the second dinosaur to the left of the tall cycad tree had not happened to sneeze and thereby fail to catch the tiny, shrew-like ancestor of all the mammals, we would none of us be here. We all can regard ourselves as exquisitely improbable. But here, in a triumph of hindsight, we are.]

He then goes on to employ the classic scenario of the contingency  of Adolf Hitler’s existence, noting “What if Alois Schicklgruber had happened to sneeze at a particular moment – rather than some other particular moment – during any year before mid-1888 when his son Adolf Hitler was conceived? Obviously I have not the faintest idea of the exact sequence of events involved, and there are surely no historical records of Herr Schicklgruber’s sternutations, but I am confident that a change as trivial as a sneeze in, say, 1858 would have been more than enough to alter the course of history. The evil-omened sperm that engendered Adolf Hitler was one of countless billions produced during his father’s life, and the same goes for his two grandfathers, and four great-grandfathers, and so on back. It is not only plausible but I think certain that a sneeze many years before Hitler’s conception would have had knock-on effects sufficient to derail the trivial circumstance that one particular sperm met one particular egg, thereby changing the entire course of the twentieth century including my existence. Of course, I’m not denying that something like the Second World War might well have happened even without Hitler; nor am I saying that Hitler’s evil madness was inevitably ordained by his genes. With a different upbringing Hitler might have turned out good, or at least uninfluential. But certainly his very existence, and the war as it turned out, depended upon the fortunate – well, unfortunate – happenstance of a particular sperm’s luck.”

Dawkins does not go on to probe the consequences of Hitler’s failure to be born, but merely by invoking the premise, he seeks to emphasize the sheer randomness of human existence.

Whether or not this is an assertion that gets us very far is open to question.  We can marvel at the mathematical improbability of it all, but then again, there are close to seven billion such improbabilities alive on the planet right now, and billions more who have lived at one time or another beforehand.  Facing the numerical magnitude of so many real lives, it seems somehow besides the point to overly emphasize their improbability. 

As for Dawkins’ invocation of Hitler: despite qualifying his claim about the contingent nature of the “evil” sperm that led to Hitler’s birth (among the billions of others that might have produced “other” presumably less evil children for Alois Hitler), it seems to me that his conclusion, that “If his father had sneezed at a particular hypothetical moment, Adolf Hitler would not have been born,” ultimately distracts us from the circumstances (political, social, economic, etc.) that helped make Hitler into Hitler and lulls us into the complacent belief that had he not been born, the world would have been spared a mid-century catastrophe.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Anti-Defamation League's New Counterfactual Advertisement

Today I ran across a new instance of counterfactualism being used in advertising.

Like the recent German video spot for Mercedes, which employed a powerful "what if?" premise -- an adolescent Adolf Hitler being killed before he can become dictator -- the Anti-Defamation League has produced an eye-catching video that uses a series of poignant “what ifs?” to advance a new ad campaign against hatred and intolerance.

Enitled “Imagine a World Without Hate” and featuring the music of John Lennon’s famous song, “Imagine,” the video presents a series of counterfactual newspaper and television headlines featuring the notable deeds that famous historical figures would have been able to achieve had their lives not been cut short by intolerant killers.

They include:

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, Champions Immigration Reform.”

“Anne Frank Wins Nobel Prize for her 12th Novel.”

“Harvey Milk Expands LGBT Equality Globally.”

Daniel Pearl, 49, Journalist, wins Pulitzer for ‘Uncovering Al-Qaeda.”

“James Byrd, Jr., 63 Jaspter TX Resident Saves Young Girl From Burning Building.”

“Matthew Shepard, 36, Leads Anti-Bullying Coalition.”

Yitzhak Rabin, 90, Honored for Nearly Two Decades of Israeli-Palestinian Peace.”

Following these headlines, the video concludes with the powerful counterfactual message:

"If we all stood up to bigotry.  We Could Change History.  Imagine a World Without Hate.  For 100 Years the Anti-Defamation League Has Empowered Millions to Fight Prejudice."  

The video is notable for several reasons.  Beyond highlighting the ongoing penetration of “what if?” thinking into all realms of contemporary life, it reflects the enduring appeal of the “great man of history” thesis of Thomas Carlyle.  Yet it goes further.  The video not merely confirm the truism that brave individuals have made a difference in the course of historical events.  It further speculates about what their elimination denied to the rest of humanity.   In this regard, the video effectively hitches the counterfactual fantasy of improving the course of history to a present-day call to action in the form of fighting intolerance.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cohen's Greek Crisis Counterfactual

Roger Cohen's New York Times column today, "Why Greece is Not Weimar," includes an interesting counterfactual observation.

After ominously asserting that Greece's "national humiliation, economic disaster, high immigration, political division and international tutelage" bear striking similarities to the conditions of Weimar Germany -- especially in light of the rise of the neo-Nazi political party, Golden Dawn, which is now the third largest in the country -- he proceeds to offer a counterfactual claim of consolation, writing:

"I have little doubt that if Greece were not part of the European Union, with the protection and example afforded by this much maligned democratic club, it would have tumbled into catastrophe by now, much as a humiliated Germany did after 1918. Europe has been Greece’s protector even as the single euro currency has been its tormentor....Through Europe, Greece has been saved from the fate of Weimar....It is critical to recall that the Union is Europe’s surest safeguard against the Continent’s darkest hours."

Cohen is correct that the EU's bailouts of Greece (totaling 240 billion Euros thus far) have kept the country from descending further into chaos.  But he overlooks the fact that the EU (and especially Germany) has hardly been blameless for Greece's troubles.  Whether Germany's violation of the EU agreed-upon limit of yearly borrowing of no more than 3% of GDP (which set the stage for Greece's own later violation of the limit) or its refusal to repay loans made under duress by the Greeks to Germany during World War II (which is hypocritical given the forgiveness of Germany's own massive debts after the war), not to mention to massive lending of French and German banks to Greek borrowers, Europe has also been partly responsible for Greece's current crisis.

Counterfactuals can make us grateful that things aren't worse. But we should not forget that they can also help us recognize that things could also be better.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Counterfactual Colonies: ABC's "Thirteen" to Premier on Network TV

I admit I was excited to read the other day that ABC plans on premiering a new alternate history TV series called Thirteen.  If the reports are accurate, it is set in a world in which the American Revolution failed in 1776 and contemporary “Americans” -- more than two hundred and thirty years later -- are still battling their British imperial overlords for independence.

The obvious precedent for such a series – besides Robert Sobel’s brilliant mock history textbook For Want of a Nail (1973) -- is Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfus’s novel, The Two Georges (1995).  That text was basically a detective thriller set against the backdrop of the 1776 revolution failing and the 13 colonies remaining in a North American Union. 

One of the best features of the novel, as with other top notch alternate history narratives, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), is that its plot was not saturated with too many counterfactual pyrotechnics.  I always find it annoying when the authors of alternate history texts bombard readers with endless points of divergence from the real historical record and skimp on the actual needs of plot, character development, and the like.  Many alternate histories are just glorified outlines of counterfactual chronicles with a few stock characters thrown in as delivery systems.  The best narratives divulge their points of divergence at a leisurely pace and allow readers to actively detect them.

If the producers of Thirteen are smart, they will pace the series slowly, alerting viewers to the distinct features of the alternate world in subtle rather than overt fashion.   Doing so will allow viewers the chance to deduce and decode what must have happened without being hit over the head with altered facts.  Being able to glimpse a stray currency note or postage stamp bearing the face of an unusual historical figure is much more effective than actors bellowing out the facts of the alternate world in stentorian fashion.

It will also be interesting to see whether Thirteen bothers to make any commentary on present day political events.  The Two Georges was an obvious critique of the U. S. in the early 1990s (the L. A. riots, the militia movement, Branch Davidian mess, etc.), which was made clear by the novel’s suggestion that the country might have been better off (especially in race relations between whites and blacks) if the revolution had failed.  (Had it failed Britain would have retained control and abolished slavery in 1830, thereby sparing the U. S. the Civil War, the KKK, Jim Crow, etc.)

How will Thirteen portray American rebels fighting against Britain?   Will the rebels be Lone Ranger- style heroes on white steeds?  Or flawed characters with compromised morals and methods?  Will viewers assume that the rebels are meant to stand in for rebels elsewhere in the world?  In Syria?  Elsewhere in the Middle East?  By the same token, what will be the significance of the British?  Will they British be black-clad fascists a la Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot (2000)?   Or more benign oppressors?  Will the British be seen as symbolic stand-ins for the U. S. and its present-day imperialistic misadventures?  Will the failure of 1776 be seen as a commentary on present-day American geopolitical weakness?  Will conservatives be irate that ABC is positing the possibility that the birth of the U. S. was not inevitable?    

Clearly the series offers many opportunities for present-day political commentary.  Just think about what the producers might do with the concept of a Tea Party....

Will ABC jump at the chance or chicken out? Hopefully, viewers will not be disappointed and seek to tar and feather any network executives.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Krugman's Counterfactual

I don't usually post comments about present-day economic counterfactuals (because there are so many of them and they rarely qualify as history).  

But since Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times perfectly illustrates how "what if?" fantasy scenarios can be used to critique present-day problems, I thought it was worth excerpting.

In assessing the lackluster state of the current U. S. economy, Krugman asks "what the past five years would have looked like if the U.S. government had actually been able and willing to do what textbook macroeconomics says it should have done — namely, make a big enough push for job creation to offset the effects of the financial crunch and the housing bust, postponing fiscal austerity and tax increases until the private sector was ready to take up the slack.  I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of what such a program would have entailed: It would have been about three times as big as the stimulus we actually got, and would have been much more focused on spending rather than tax cuts.

Would such a policy have worked? All the evidence of the past five years says yes.  Would such a policy have worked? All the evidence of the past five years says yes. The Obama stimulus, inadequate as it was, stopped the economy’s plunge in 2009Europe’s experiment in anti-stimulus — the harsh spending cuts imposed on debtor nations — didn’t produce the promised surge in private-sector confidence. Instead, it produced severe economic contraction, just as textbook economics predicted. Government spending on job creation would, indeed, have created jobs....
We would be a richer nation, with a brighter future — not a nation where millions of discouraged Americans have probably dropped permanently out of the labor force."
Unfortunately, for Krugman, this fantasy merely underscores the magnitude of the U. S. government's failure to arrest the country's economic decline. Here again, wondering  "what if?" is synonymous with wishing "if only."