Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, February 21, 2016

From the Archives: Harry S Truman's Counterfactual Critique of Polls

Because it's election season and we're all beholden to polls, we should recall Harry S. Truman's great counterfactual put-down of polls (which I came across today):

"I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership--men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world."

(From Truman's diary, 1954, Post-Presidential Papers).

I suppose we can classify this "what if?" scenario as an example of a "transplant counterfactual."  It's not the classic version of the scenario, in which a historical figure is re-situated in a different historical era.  But it does imagine present-day technology (and populist expectations) being transplanted into the past as a method of showing how the ability of world historical figures to lead their followers forward would have been limited.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What If Anne Frank Had Survived? An "Extended Play" Counterfactual

I was interested to learn about a new play being performed in Montreal: "The Secret Annex," written by Alix Sobler and directed by Marcia Kash.

As reported in a story in The McGill Tribune, the play features an intriguing "what if?" premise:

"What if Anne Frank had survived? What would her life and struggles consist of after enduring the most well known genocide of the past century, possibly of all history? This is the alternate universe that writer Alix Sobler portrays in The Secret Annex, directed by Marcia Kash. With a cast of only five, Sarah Farb stars as the surviving heroine. A veteran to the role of Anne Frank, Farb played the protagonist at the Stratford festival last season and now reprises her role effortlessly in Montreal. Anne Frank, a young German Jew, was hidden in an attic for three years during the Nazi control of Amsterdam. In Sobler’s world, however, Anne survived through Nazi rule and is now living in New York City at the age of 25. As an aspiring writer, she struggles to have her diary published to show the world her collection of memories from her confinement."

The article concludes by noting;

"The play succeeds in asking the uncomfortable and disturbing question: Do people love the story of Anne Frank because she represents a martyred heroine of tragedy? Would Anne’s beloved story be as loved if she had survived, or would it never make it past the publisher’s office? It’s lovely to pretend that her story had a happy ending, but it didn’t. The reality of the holocaust pervades even the alternate universe of the play. Anne never lived to see her 16th birthday; an infinite amount of possibilities halted the day she entered the Amsterdam attic. Anne’s diary serves as a stark reminder of the lives that were lost during the Holocaust, and the dreams that could not be followed because of it."

The premise is not new.  Philip Roth explored it in his novel, The Ghost Writer (1979).

But it is worthy highlighting the fact that the premise is an instance an "extended play" counterfactual -- a "what if?" scenario, in which a historical figure whose life was cut short in reality gets to live out his or her life as it would have unfolded without a premature death.  There are countless people who have been profiled in this fashion: Vladimir Lenin, JFK, Martin Luther King, among others.  The traditional conclusion for the admirers of such figures is that their premature demise preempted subsequent accomplishments, thereby burnishing their tragic/heroic qualities .  At the same time, more sanguine observers often contend that an early death may have actually spared these figures subsequent failures, which would have compromised their reputations had they actually lived.

As is so often the case, wondering "what if" in this fashion reflects our own subjective wishes and fears about how history might have been different.