Victor Davis Hanson often uses counterfactual reasoning in his work, but his recent post entitled “President Franklin Delano Obama Addresses the Threat of 1930s Violent Extremism,” fails to fulfill the criteria of a being a genuine counterfactual.
Subtitled “Imagine Obama as an American President in 1939,” the premise is automatically disqualified from counterfactual status as it is based upon the physical impossibility of Obama being president before he was born. Rather than functioning as a legitimate counterfactual, it can be viewed as an “anachronistic counterfactual” that sacrifices plausibility for the sake of polemic.
Of course, there is a genuine counterfactual implied in Hanson’s essay. It could be worded as follows: “What If the United States under FDR had responded to the Nazis in the same way that the United states under Obama has been responding to ISIS?”
Hanson could have drawn many of the same provocative conclusions that he offers up in his essay, while maintaining the integrity of his counterfactual.
Indeed, many of the claims are worth pondering. Hanson provokes us to think hard about whether the Obama administration’s efforts to separate ISIS from Islam is truly convincing by exporting the present-day administration's reasoning back into the 1930s.
For instance, he has (fictional President) Obama exclaiming:
“So make no mistake about it: National Socialism has nothing to do with Germany or the German people but is rather a violent extremist organization that has perverted the culture of Germany. It is an extremist ideology that thrives on the joblessness of Germany and can be best opposed by the international community going to the root of German unemployment and economic hard times…”
Hanson is right to remind us that Nazism was partly rooted in German political culture and that it would be shortsighted for us to ignore ISIS’s links to Islam.
Hanson is equally provocative in using his anachronistic “what if” to cast doubt on the idea that western/liberal actions can be blamed for Islamic extremism by showing how an analogous claim would irresponsibly let the Nazis off the hook for their aggressive behavior in the 1930s.
This becomes clear when he has the 1930s Obama proclaim:
“More broadly, groups like those headed by Herr Hitler and the National Socialists exploit the anger that festers when people in Germany feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better. Here I would remind ourselves of our past behavior in waging wars near the homeland of Germany. I opposed the Great War, and further opposed the Versailles Treaty that disturbed the region and stirred up violent passions and extremism.”
Hanson, to be sure, is wrong to entirely dismiss the contention believed by his fictional President Obama (as well as real one today) that American actions had/have a role in leading to the rise of the Nazis and ISIS. (Western decisions after World War I vis a vis Germany did help foster a climate where the Nazis thrived). Moreover, he is wrong to dismiss circumstantial factors beyond German culture in leading to the rise of Nazism (After all, Nazism only thrived in Germany when the country descended back into internal domestic crisis).
But Hanson is right to raise these issues for discussion.
I only wish he had done so in the guise of a different historical narrative that enjoyed higher plausibility.
For instance, he could have followed the example of P. J. O’Rourke who produced a well-known National Lampoon illustrated essay in 1980 entitled “If World War II Had Been Fought Like the War in Vietnam.” It condemned the “soft” US military campaign in Vietnam by showing how if the US had fought the Second World War in the same way, it would have led to disaster. Like Hanson, in short, O’Rourke imagined a counterfactual nightmare in order to criticize the present.
Hanson’s counterfactual resembles the anachronistic quality of Justin Bieber’s (admittedly much lazier) remark several years ago about the high likelihood of Anne Frank becoming one of his fans if she were alive today.
I will keep an eye out for more anachronistic counterfactuals to see if they constitute a noticeable trend.