Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gary Hart and Donna Rice's "Nose"

Matt Bai’s essay, “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics,” from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, offers a gripping account of Gary Hart’s rise and fall in the year 1987.  What I found most interesting, though, was (predictably enough) the story’s counterfactual ending. 

At the end of the essay, Lee and Gary Hart mull over the “what if” dimension of the scandal.  It was not just the fact that Hart’s withdrawal from the race represented a rupture in American political culture; it also may have affected the course of American history.
Lee Hart, in reflecting on her husband’s wistful sense of what might have been, remarked:
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee said.
And Gary Hart himself concluded:
Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully. 
Bai continues: "This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.”
(As the article spells out earlier: “In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.”)
Hart went on to speculate:
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”

It is overly simplistic to evoke Pascal’s famous notion of “Cleopatra’s nose” and claim that Donna Rice’s sex appeal led to the war in Iraq.  But the entire story underscores the ways in which chance events can have unforeseeable consequences. 

More than anything else, though, Hart’s emotional reflections reinforce the notion that people construct counterfactuals in order to led meaning to their lives.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Counterfactual Chatter in "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki"

Perhaps because I was able to read a decent bit of mainstream fiction this summer, some of my recent postings have focused on the presence of counterfactuals in contemporary literature.

In addition to spotting some contradictory "what if" reasoning in Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, last month, I found some interesting passages in Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

The novel features a group of five childhood friends in the Japanese city of Nagoya who part ways as they enter adulthood and display multiple regrets about the circumstances of their parting.

Late in the novel, two of the main characters, Eri and Tsukuru have an extended counterfactual exchange about their mutual mentally unbalanced friend, Yuzu.  Eri expresses regret to Tsukuru about having become distanced Yuzu, who tragically ends up getting murdered.  She compares Yuzu to "a pretty bird, [with] the kind of neck that could snap so easily" and she declares: "If I'd been in Japan that probably never would have happened to her.  I would never have let her go off to some town she didn't know, all by herself."

She then confesses her teenage crush on Tsukuru and apologizes for having cut off ties with him, noting, "If I had only had a little more confidence and courage, and no stupid pride," I never would have abandoned you like that, no matter what the circumstances."

Tsukuru replies, "You don't have to worry....I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then,...we might have still ended up pretty much where we are."

Eri replies "Will you tell me one thing?...If I had come right out then and told you I loved you, would you have gone out with me?

Tsukuru: "Of course I would have....I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend.  And I think we would have been happy together."

The narrative then continues:

"The two of them would likely have been a close couple, with a fulfilling love life, Tsukuru decided.  There would have been so much they could have shared....Tsukuru had the feeling, though, that this closeness would have been short-lived.  An unavoidable fissure would have grown between what he and Eri wanted from their lives...and eventually...they would have gone off in separate directions."

The exchange illustrates several things.  First it confirms the finding of social science research that regret is a common emotion associated with wondering "what if?" (usually in the vein of "if only...", otherwise known as "wishful thinking.")  Predictably enough, the exchange appears to be full of fantasy scenarios (upward counterfactuals) that imagine history turning out better.  And yet, the exchange ultimately settles into a "reversionary counterfactual," in which an apparently alternate course of events eventually ends up conforming to the real historical record.   Tsukuru concludes that he and Eri never would have stayed together had they given their relationship a chance.  The counterfactual exchange, in other words, ends up showing how history's course was predestined.

Not the most original point, to be sure, but interesting to see in a prominent novel, nevertheless.  I am new to Murakami's work and found Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to be generally satisfying (but less captivating thatn The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which I liked quite a bit more).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Questionable Counterfactual: Could World War II Really Have Been Avoided?

In an interview with the German newspaper, the Osnabrücker Zeitung, the historian and former head of the Institut for Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Horst Möller, answered a variety of questions pertaining to the Second World War.  Notably, the content of the interview, sensationalistically entitled “The Second World War Could Have Been Avoided,” was full of counterfactual questions and answers.

The first was “could the war have been avoided?”  In responding to this question, Möller criticized the Treaty of Versailles for creating many “problems involving national minorities,” for example, three million Sudeten Germans on the German border with Czechoslovakia.  “One possible way of avoiding the war would have been to pursue a more reasonable set of Peace Treaties that would have addressed the problems.”

He added that a second way to have avoided the war would have been for the Allies to respond to Hitler’s aggressive actions in 1935/36 – for example his remilitarization of the Rhineland – “with more decisiveness.”

Asked to assess the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact for the war’s outbreak and whether it “would have been imaginable without it?” Möller noted that Hitler was committed to war by 1937 (as shown by the famous Hossbach Memorandum), but that the pact was still “decisive” as it “minimized Hitler’s risk” of invading Poland.  “Without the pact,” he asserted, “the war would not have unfolded as it did.” 

Finally, in answering the question whether “Hitler was primarily responsible for the war?” Möller replied, “without Hitler, the Second World War would not have transpired as it did, neither in its radicalism or timing.”  Even if Hitler’s task was made easier by Stalin, “he was the main guilty party, with plenty of helpers.”

Möller's answers are basically sound.  He judiciously balances between the primary and secondary factors responsible for the war's eruption.

That said, his claim that the war could have been avoided is not very convincing.  Given Hitler's commitment to war, it would have been extremely difficult for the Allies to have kept him from trying to realize his goals through force.  

To be fair, it doesn't seem that Müller's main goal was to emphasize the war's counterfactual dimensions.  More likely, the journalist conducting the interview wanted to emphasize them for publicity purposes.   We all know that "what if?" claims garner attention.  The interview is notable for concentrating its focus as much on what might have happened as what did. Perhaps this focus represents the new default perspective for journalists hoping to spice up their coverage historical topics.  It has certainly been seen in lots of European and American media articles about recent historical events, for example, the hundredth anniversary of World War I.  Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, but its prominence is quite clear.