Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Jeb Bush, Abraham Lincoln, and Rip Van Winkle Counterfactuals

On the campaign trail today in Florida, Jeb Bush drew attention to a common kind of "what if" scenario that might be termed a “Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual.”  In the same way that the famous Washington Irving character fell asleep and woke up in the future, counterfactuals often relocate a historical figure from the past into the present in order to comment upon it. 


Speaking in Tampa, Florida, Bush remarked: “If Lincoln were alive today, imagine the foolishness he would have to suffer,” Bush said. “Advisers telling him to shave his beard. Cable pundits telling him to lose the top hat. Opposition researchers calling him a five-time loser before the age of 50.”

He said he was speaking from experience. “I have gotten a lot of advice lately myself…more than enough. Some is stylistic. 'Take off the suit coat; ditch the glasses. Get rid of the purple striped tie,'" Bush said. But he has no plans to follow that advice. "Man, I like that tie," he said. "It only cost $20."  To see the full story click HERE.

There are many other examples of Rip van Winkle counterfactuals. 

Just to name two: the successful FOX television series, Sleepy Hollow, imagines the 18th century revolutionary war hero, Ichabod Crane, coming back to life and becoming a police investigator in present day New York state. Similarly, Timur Vermes’s best selling German novel (now a hit film) Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) imagines how a reanimated Adolf Hitler would have viewed contemporary German life.

These and similar counterfactual scenarios obviously lack the plausibility of more sober “what ifs.”  But they are rhetorically powerful tools for providing a new and defamiliarizing perspective on present day reality.

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