Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Counterfactual Thoughts on Ben Urwand's "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler."

In my discussion of the controversy sparked by Ben Urwand's provocative new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler in this week's issue of The Forward, I employ counterfactual reasoning at several junctures to reflect on the book's controversial thesis.

First, I point out that "there is...[a] counterfactual conundrum underlying the book’s moralistic line of reasoning. As is true of all historians who write about Nazi Germany, Urwand is right to apply a moral framework to his subject. But his conclusion that the Hollywood studios’ behavior towards Nazi Germany was “shameful” implies that there was a counterfactual alternative. It implies that if the Hollywood studios had stood up to the Nazis, they could have had a positive effect on history.

Unfortunately, this is doubtful. Based on the evidence provided in The Collaboration, it seems clear that if the studios had produced more anti-Nazi films or films featuring Jews, they would have simply been banned by the regime. Even if such films had somehow found their way into the German market, they would have remained ineffective. Urwand himself writes that while some “American movies that contradicted National Socialist ideology were shown in Germany,” their subtle political messages were overlooked by German moviegoers. There is little reason to think that the messages of more stridently anti-Nazi films would have had any more positive effect." 

Later in the essay, I note that a comparison of Nazi Germany and present-day China provides food for further counterfactual thought, especially as it highlights the perils of projecting present-day moral views back upon the past.

“At the same time, its moralistic perspective distorts as much as it clarifies. Through its use of condemnatory language and historical comparisons, the book projects the sordid realities of wartime collaboration in Europe back upon to the peacetime United States, thereby leading readers to blur the distinctions between them. In short, book’s impassioned tone sometimes clouds its judgment.

Indeed, it ultimate prevents the book from explaining the willingness of so many people in the 1930s to work with the Nazis. Today, this fact strikes us as unfathomable today, given our view of the Nazis as the epitome of evil. And yet Hollywood was hardly unique. In the 1930s, many Americans were happy to pursue a business as usual relationship with Nazi Germany, whether American companies (Ford, GM, IBM), American universities, which promoted student exchanges and welcomed visiting Nazi dignitaries to their campuses, and American athletes, who competed in the 1936Berlin Olympics.

This activity is very difficult to explain if we view the Nazis from our postwar perspective as the perpetrators of genocide. But it makes more sense if we realize that before the outbreak of war in 1939, many Americans did not see the Third Reich as unusually evil. If anything, as Michaela Hoenicke Moore has shown in recent book, Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933-1945, they viewed the country as more benign than Japan or the Soviet Union. This realization is lost in Urwand’s book, which would be stronger if it established the broader context of American views on Nazi Germany in the period.

This issue of perspective is further underscored by a present day analogy. In many ways America’s relationship with Nazi Germany in the 1930s resembles its relationship with China today, in the sense that both countries’ economic power allowed (and continues to allow) them to evade any consequences for their political repressiveness. Today, Hollywood studios and – as The New York Times recently reported – book publishers routinely allow their works to be censored in order to gain access to the Chinese market, despite the regime’s well-known brutality. Few people today raise moral objections to this practice, let alone embark upon moral crusades to halt it. This reality helps us understand why Americans behaved similarly in the 1930s.

To be sure, views can change in light of later events. Just as American views of Nazi Germany gradually changed after the eruption the Second World War, we can speculate counterfactually that if the U. S. were to go to war with China one day in the future, many would eventually look back and condemn current practices as “collaboration.” Conversely, had Hitler died in 1939 and World War II never happened, few today would bother to condemn Hollywood’s relationship with the Nazi regime. As the Holocaust never would have happened, the moral stakes of the film industry’s appeasement of the Third Reich would have been far lower. In other words, although we always reinterpret the past in light of subsequent events, Urwand’s importation of a post-Holocaust perspective, while understandable, somewhat impedes his analysis.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cheney's Cardiac Counterfactual

In an essay in today’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd employs a curmudgeonly counterfactual in discussing one of her bĂȘte noires, Dick Cheney.

Discussing Cheney’s recent book that he “has written with his cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, about his heart transplant at the age of 71,” she casts a negative light on his comment that  it has been a “spiritual experience,” one in which “I wake up every morning literally with a smile on my face, grateful for another day I never thought I’d see.”

Dowd argues that Cheney deceived George W. Bush about the condition of his heart when he was being considered as his running mate in 2000, writing “In his “60 Minutes” interview with Dick Cheney, Sanjay Gupta made it clear that Cheney had gotten special treatment to ascend to the vice presidency, given that he’d already had three heart attacks, the first one at 37. As Dr. Gupta noted, the Bush campaign was concerned enough to check with the famed Texas heart surgeon Denton Cooley, who talked to Dr. Reiner and then informed the Bush team — with no examination — that Cheney was in “good health with normal cardiac function.”

“I’m not responsible for that,” replied the man who never takes responsibility for any of his dark deeds. “I don’t know what took place between the doctors.”
Four months after being cleared, Cheney suffered his fourth heart attack during the 2000 recount and had to get a stent put in to open a clogged artery.
Dowd then comes to her counterfactual:
If the doctors had not signed off on Cheney’s heart as “normal,” then Cheney would never have been vice president, and Donald Rumsfeld never would have been defense secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz never would have been his deputy, etc., etc. And W. wouldn’t have been pushed and diverted into Iraq.
In this alternative scenario, “It’s Not a Wonderful Life,” where Cheney is not peddling his paranoia, how many Americans would not have lost their lives and limbs?

For the record, Dowd has previously invoked the famous Jimmy Stewart “what if?” scenario in an older Times opinion piece on the Iraq War ("A Not So Wonderful LIfe," 12/19/04, see below).  As with that essay, Dowd uses counterfactual reasoning to concoct a better world that would have been – in this case, if Cheney’s dissimulation had been exposed at the time.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On "What Ifs? and Flying Squirrels: Another 18th Century Counterfactual

Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts’ compelling essay about the benefits of teaching students to appreciate “the value of deceleration and immersive attention” uses counterfactual reasoning to underscore the importance of resisting our present-day world’s insistence on immediacy and instantaneousness.

She bases her claims on a close reading of John Singleton Copley’s painting, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765).  After explaining the virtues of taking one’s time to appreciate the formal features of any painting (she describes how requires students to spend three hours at a museum examining a painting of their choice), she recounts how the Boston-based Copley had to wait eleven months to get feedback from his British colleagues on the painting’s merits (he shipped the painting across the Atlantic and then had to wait for the responses).

She goes on to highlight the need to “understand that delays are not just inert obstacles preventing productivity. Delays can themselves be productive….We can see this directly in the painting, which is full of allusions to time, distance, and patience.  The painting is about its own patient passage through time and space. Look at that squirrel. As the strange shape of the belly fur indicates, if one takes time to notice it, this is not just any squirrel but a flying squirrel, a species native to North America with obvious thematic resonances for the theme of travel and movement. (The work’s full title is A Boy with a Flying Squirrel.) Moreover, squirrels in painting and literature were commonly understood to be emblems of diligence and patience….”
After listing further details, she concludes with the counterfactual observation: “Copley’s painting…is an embodiment of the delays that it was created to endure. If Copley had had instant access to his instructors in London, if there had been an edX course given by the Royal Academy, he would not have been compelled to paint the way he did. Changing the pace of the exchange would have changed the form and content of the exchange. This particular painting simply would not exist. This painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.”
Roberts' observation is notable for illustrating how counterfactual reasoning can lay bare the realities of our own time by hypothetically projecting them into the past and seeing the consequences that would have ensued.   This particular “what if?” underscores the enormous gap between past and present, between a society rooted in patience and one increasingly incapable of it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A New/Old Counterfactual: Jean Jacques Rousseau's "Origins of Inequality" (1754)

Once you start looking for counterfactuals, they start appearing everywhere.  In reading Anthony Pagden’s new book, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, I came across a fleeting quotation from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s treatise, A Dissertation 
On the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind (1754) that revealed a counterfactual basis for the entire enterprise.    I went back to the original document, portions of which I regularly teach to undergraduate students in my Western Civilization course, and found that, indeed, the philosopher premised his text upon what is clearly a self-consciously counterfactual foundation. 

Rousseau begins notably by explaining his decision to set his analysis in a “state of nature,” a much-loved setting of other Enlightenent thinkers who were eager to develop what they optimistically called the “science of man.”

He writes, “Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into, in treating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin.” 

In other words, Rousseau admits that his entire essay will employ a form of speculative reasoning.

He then comes to the main counterfactual:  “Religion orders us to believe that God Himself took men out of the state of nature immediately after the creation and that they are unequal because He wanted them to be. But religion does not forbid us from forming conjectures…concerning what the human race could have become if it had been left to itself. That is what I have been asked and what I propose to examine in this Discourse.”

Challenging the Biblical story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Rousseau wants readers to imagine human development as it would have unfolded outside of divine punishment -- a premise as secular as it is counterfactual. 

I am unsure how common this kind of historical counterfactual thinking was in the 18th century.  But it certainly has retained its viability as a mode of setting up thought experiments to prove analytical points. 

Just for fun, it’s also worth noting that Rousseau used other counterfactuals to hypothesize about the nature of “savage man.”  For example: “The body of a savage man being the only instrument he understands, he uses it for various purposes, of which ours, for want of practice, are incapable: for our industry deprives us of that force and agility, which necessity obliges him to acquire. If he had had an axe, would he have been able with his naked arm to break so large a branch from a tree? If he had had a sling, would he have been able to throw a stone with so great velocity? If he had had a ladder, would he have been so nimble in climbing a tree? If he had had a horse, would he have been himself so swift of foot? Give civilised man time to gather all his machines about him, and he will no doubt easily beat the savage; but if you would see a still more unequal contest, set them together naked and unarmed, and you will soon see the advantage of having all our forces constantly at our disposal, of being always prepared for every event, and of carrying one's self, as it were, perpetually whole and entire about one."

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Baseball Counterfactual: How Will Red Sox Fans Remember the Tigers Series?

To all my Red Sox friends,

First, as a die-hard Phillies fan, I’d like to say “you’re welcome” for Shane Victorino.

His grand slam, which helped propel the Sox into the World Series, will surely be remembered for years to come.

Or will it?

Harvey Araton’s essay in yesterday’s New York Times raises an important issue about how future events can affect the relevance of counterfactuals.

Citing the example of David Ortiz’s Game 2 home run (and the iconic image of Torii Hunter flopping into the bullpen, his upturned legs mirroring the raised arms of Boston policeman Steve Horgan), Araton made the point that, for the moment to truly assume major significance and become enshrined in Red Sox memory, the team would have to win the series with the Tigers and move on into the next round of the playoffs.  (The print edition of Araton’s essay was published before the Sox actually won Game 6; the online version has since been updated).

Araton supported his case with several “what ifs?”

“Lasting greatness typically requires a continuum of events, a chain reaction. Had the Yankees followed up Derek Jeter’s classic flip play in 2001 by losing Games 4 or 5 to the Oakland A’s in that division series, his nailing of Jeremy Giambi at the plate would have been a nice addition to Captain Jeter’s video scrapbook, not much more."

"In the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner could have laughed off Mookie Wilson’s Game 6-ending ground ball through the wickets had the Red Sox preserved an early lead and won Game 7 against the Mets. Instead, Buckner was consigned to infamy when Jesse Orosco closed out the Sox.”

Araton does not spend much time exploring the theoretical dimensions of his hypotheses, but he is clearly correct.

We assign significance to events based on their links to subsequent events.  And we do so on the fly, in real time, while events are in flux.  Looking back on Buckner’s gaffe, we can clearly see its relevance to the Series’ outcome more than two decades after the fact.  (Indeed, all baseball fans could see its relevance a week after the fact, once the Mets had won the Series).  The day after the misplay, however, all bets were off – until Game 7 had been decided.

When we are in the middle of events – that is, while their outcomes are still unknown – we cannot know for certain which “what ifs?” will end up being significant. 

The only counter-argument to Araton’s point may be Carlton Fisk's famous Game 6 home run against the Reds in the 1975 World Series, which retained its staying power in Red Sox lore despite the team ultimately losing the series. 

Perhaps it was a strange hybrid memory blending pride and masochism – a tantalizing glimpse of how close victory COULD have been for the long suffering Red Sox fan base (which had known no World Series victory between 1919 and 2003).  

Given the team’s recent success, is there a chance that Fisk’s heroics will be eclipsed over time by Ortiz’s and Victorino’s?

For now, it’s another provocative “what if” without an answer.

Don’t ask me – I’m a Phillies fan.