Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"What If-TV": Counterfactual Television Shows Set to Premier

I am cross posting this new blog entry of mine from Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, dealing with the new wave of counterfactual television shows appearing this fall and winter.

Click HERE for the original link.


Have we entered a new golden age of counterfactual history? It is too early to say for sure, as the history of counterfactual history remains to be written. But if recent and upcoming television shows are any indication, the clear answer is yes.

Last year, Amazon Prime debuted its immensely popular ten-part web series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel about the United States losing World War II to the Germans and Japanese. Hulu also unveiled its adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 2011 novel 11/22/63, about a present-day American teacher (played by James Franco) going back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Even more notable is the upcoming fall and winter television lineup for 2016-17. In addition to the second season of The Man in the High Castle (which was renewed after receiving unprecedented fan support), four new American television shows with counterfactual premises are set to debut. They include: Making History (Fox) about two college professors returning to the eighteenth century to make sure the American Revolution occurs; Timeless (NBC), about present-day Americans returning to the year 1937 and investigating the crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey; Time After Time (ABC), about H.G. Welles and Jack the Ripper battling it out in present-day New York City; and Frequency (CW), about a young female detective making contact with her dead father who somehow continues to live in the year 1996. (There’s also a bonus: American viewers will soon be able to watch the upcoming five-part BBC television series,SS-GB—based on bestselling British writer Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller about the Nazis defeating and occupying Great Britain in World War II—now that The Weinstein Company has acquired the TV distribution rights).

What does this wave of “what if?” narratives reveal about the status of history in contemporary culture? What relevance, if any, does the wave have for historians?

To answer these questions, it is worth noting that scholars continue to debate the merits of counterfactual history. On the one hand, many historians remain skeptical about the virtues of “what if” thinking, a position recently reiterated by Richard J. Evans in his impassioned, if flawed, book, Altered Pasts (2014). On the other hand, Niall Ferguson, the editor of the pioneering volume Virtual History (1997), recently singled out the importance of counterfactual speculation in his Applied History Project manifesto, which was published in The Atlantic. Given the recent publication of other counterfactually-influenced works of history, such as Peter J. Bowler’s Darwin Deleted (2013), Jeffrey Gurock’s The Holocaust Averted (2015), Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand Lives! (2014), and my own edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (2016), it would seem as if historical “what ifs” are increasingly gaining respectability.

In order to explain this wave of speculation, it helps to know something about the structure and function of historical counterfactuals. As I point out in a new essay in The Journal of the Philosophy of History—whose current issue features a roundtable on counterfactuals—“what ifs” can be divided up into five different categories: causal, emotive, temporal, spatial, andmanneristic. Many different types of counterfactuals belong to these categories (I list a dozen and a half), but they all serve a similar set of functions: they help us understand the causality of historical events, arrive at moral judgments about their meaning, and assess how they evolve in collective memory.  Counterfactuals also serve a rhetorical function, insofar as they attempt to persuade us of their veracity by appealing to our sentiments and imagination. Most human beings are highly susceptible to “what ifs,” a fact confirmed by social science research, which reveals that we routinely imagine scenarios pertaining to our own personal lives—usually about whether different decisions might have led to better or worse outcomes.

These factors can help us understand the different ways in which the coming year’s television programs employ counterfactuals; they may also provide an explanation about their growing popularity.

Making History is the most historically focused of the shows. It features what I call a “Connecticut Yankee Counterfactual,” in which present-day individuals return to the past (naturally with the aid of a time machine). Academics will rejoice, as the show features a pair of university professors (a white computer scientist and a black historian) as its protagonists. They return to the late eighteenth century with the goal of ensuring the occurrence of the American Revolution (which the computer science professor has somehow undone in a previous visit). Like the identically-named but unrelated alternate history novel by British writer Stephen Fry from 1996 (about the prevention of Hitler’s birth by yet another pair of academics), the show offers a comedic take on alternate history by playing the scenario of time travel for laughs instead of lessons, very much like the film Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).

The NBC show Timeless resembles Making History insofar as it also features present-day characters traveling to the past. It, too, features a history professor among its main characters, giving her the task of working with a white soldier and a black engineer to prevent a time traveling villain from catastrophically altering the course of American history. Unlike Making History, Timeless is not a comedy, but an action and adventure show that employs counterfactual speculation for dramatic effect.

Time After Time, meanwhile, reverses the plot lines of Making History and Timeless by employing a “Rip Van Winkle counterfactual” and depicting someone from the past being transported to the present. The show portrays H.G. Wells using a time machine to track down Jack the Ripper in New York City. In a sense, the show is a darker version of the recent Fox television program, Sleepy Hollow, which features an eighteenth-century American Revolutionary soldier, Ichabod Crane, pairing up with a female African American police officer to battle mythological monsters come to life in present-day Westchester County.

Frequency (the CW), finally, focuses less on changing the course of grand historical events than individual fates. It is an example of a “personal alternate history,” insofar as it traces how small points of divergence lead several characters’ lives to evolve differently along parallel tracks. The show follows in the tradition of films like Sliding Doors (1998), the recent Tony-nominated Broadway show, If/Then (2013), and Kate Atkinson’s best selling novel, Life After Life (2013).

The new television shows seek to entertain, but they also strive to instruct. Like many works of science fiction and utopian literature, they use the premise of time travel to advance social commentary. Making History’s trailer, for instance, features a comical scene in which the white and black professors answer an eighteenth-century woman’s hopeful inquiry whether “in 2016, white people and black people are friends?” with the simultaneous statements: “yes, exactly” and “not at all.” Time After Time features an African American time traveler being stuck in a 1930s jail and declaring to his racist white guard that “I hope you live long enough to see Michael Jordan dunk, Michael Jackson dance, and Mike Tyson punch… because the future is not on your side.” On a bleaker note, Jack the Ripper in Time After Time makes the ominous observation that in view of all the “violence and bloodshed” of the twenty first century, “today, I’m an amateur.”

The surging wave of counterfactualism in American culture reflects the impact of larger forces. “What if?” thinking tends to flourish in eras of rapid change—in moments when people try to make sense of how key points of divergence shift historical events onto new tracks. Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought an end to the comparatively stable “post-cold war” years of 1989–2001, the pace of change has intensified, thanks to U.S.–led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008, the abortive Arab Spring, the crisis of the EU, and the global rise of authoritarian capitalism and xenophobic populism. The popularity of counterfactualism also reflects the enduring influence of postmodernism, whose promotion of a relativistic, “post-fact” world has fostered a willingness to imagine alternate pasts beyond the agreed-upon historical record. This trend has been accelerated, moreover, by the many disruptive technological developments—the rise of the Internet, smart phones, social media, streaming video services, and the like—that have fueled and accompanied the “information revolution.”

Historians continue to debate whether or not the wave of “what ifs” should be welcomed or critiqued. But there is nothing inherently worrisome about counterfactual thinking. Not only does it date back to the beginning of the western historical tradition in Ancient Greece (and the work of Herodotus and Thucydides), it has influenced the profession ever since. Counterfactuals, moreover, are compatible with multiple models of historical causality, whether the “Great Man” theory of Thomas Carlyle, which privileges the importance of individual agency, or more deterministic perspectives that emphasize the significance of grand forces, structures, and systems. Counterfactuals, finally, have no inherent political valence; while they may seem to privilege the role of elites (and distressingly echo Donald Trump’s megalomaniacal claim that “I alone can fix” the problems of the country), they can also inspire ordinary people to shape events.

Perhaps this is the reason why counterfactuals resonate so powerfully today. At a time when ordinary people are struggling to cope with forces, structures, and systems beyond their control, contemplating speculative scenarios allows us to fantasize about transcending our sense of powerlessness and using individual agency to effect positive change. As historians, we should recognize the emotional resonance of counterfactuals and understand that the process of imagining how the past could have been can be part of the effort to shape the future. We should all heed the advice of Timeless’s Delta Force sergeant, Denise Christopher (played by Sakina Jaffrey) who in trying to enlist the services of the reluctant professor, Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer), pointedly asks her: “I’d think that someone who loves history would want to save it.”

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A New Celebrity Counterfactual: Kim Kardashian on the Armenian Genocide

Give credit where it’s due. 

For better or worse, Kim Kardashian has a major platform for airing her views.  In publishing a full page advertisement in today’s New York Times directing attention to ongoing Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian genocide (most recently with the publication of the advertisement in the Wall Street Journal by a group called “Turkic Platform”), she is using her pop culture pulpit for good.  She might have been somewhat more eloquent in describing her objections (she uses the generic terms “crap” and “crappy” a bit too much for my taste), but the thrust of her argument is clear: it is important to “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.”  And yes, “Education Matters.”


That said, I was surprised to see KK employ a questionable counterfactual claim to rhetorically enhance the urgency of her appeal.  In the last paragraph, she writes: “Many historians believe that if Turkey had been held responsible for the Armenian genocide, and reprimanded for what they did, the Holocaust may not have happened.  In 1939, a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” 

Having written extensively about counterfactual claims on the Holocaust (see my book, Hi Hitler!), I would be interested to learn which scholars KK is thinking of.  I don’t know of any historians who have employed this particular “what if” claim.  To be sure, many historians have used the famous (albeit highly disputed) Hitler quotation to suggest that the world’s ostensible indifference to the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler to pursue his Final Solution of the Jewish question in radical form.  In other words, this claim by historians includes an IMPLIED counterfactual.  But to my knowledge, it’s rarely, if ever, been explicitly expressed (certainly not among scholars of German or Jewish history).  KK is thus overreaching.

I did a little digging, however, and found some claims in some texts produced by writers of Armenian descent.  To cite one example, Marian MacCurdy writes that “If the Armenian genocide had been recognized, it is possible that the Holocaust would not have occurred.” (The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma, p. 164).  Amos Elon also quotes an Armenian official in Jerusalem observing, “The Armenian holocaust was forgotten or ignored. If it had not been ignored, perhaps Auschwitz would not have happened.”  (Elon, Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, p. 226).  Taking a more skeptical stance, Stefan Ihrig’s study, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler declares, “the argument that without the Armenian Genocide there would not have been a Nazi Holocaust is unnecessary and to some extent folly” (Ihrig, p. 357).

Indeed, KK hardly needs to employ her counterfactual to defend her appeal, which remains fundamentally legitimate.  Too many Turkish officials, academics, and others have denied the truth of what happened to the Armenians in the First World War.  (By the same token, plenty of Turkish academics, journalists, and writers have taken a more critical and honest approach to the highly politicized subject).

The Armenian question aside, what does KK’s claim say about the current state of counterfactuals?

On the one hand, her advertisement reveals and reinforces the appeal of counterfactuals, which retain considerable rhetorical power.  Her ad further enhances the value of speculative thinking, as she is employs it in defense of historical truth.  This is important for a variety of reasons.  In our increasingly “post-fact” and “post-truth” world, it is critical that we do, in fact, “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.”  For the record, this is the message that stands at the core of the forthcoming film, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz as historian Deborah Lipstadt.  (See my forthcoming review in The Jewish Review of Books). 

Yet, despite KK’s embrace of counterfactual reasoning to promote the cause of truth, many skeptical observers continue to see the former as antithetical to the latter. Counterfactual history is often accused of contributing to the increasingly blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, between historical truth and outright denial.  All of these trends are often blamed on rise of postmodern culture, which has allegedly nurtured them with its relativistic spirit.  There is a good deal of validity to this claim.  But it would be entirely misguided to throw the counterfactual baby out with the dirty bathwater of historical denialism.  Like any historical methodology, counterfactual speculation can be used for a wide range of trivial, mischievous, and also nefarious ends.  It can also be used – as this blog has long maintained – to pursue the goal of enlightenment. 

I wonder whether we are at a crossroads with respect to counterfactual history.  On the one hand, we are clearly in the midst of a new “golden age” for the discipline, as seen in the proliferation of alternate history novels, web series, and television shows (coming soon: a blog post of mine on this theme for the Organization of American Historians).  But the growing disaffection with the relativistic reality of western intellectual and cultural life may lead to a backlash.

I have been wondering if we are in store for a paradigm shift within western historical consciousness.  Peter Novick’s celebrated study, That Noble Dream, convincingly shows how the American historical profession has vacillated between waves of support for the belief in objective truth and the belief in relativism.  If, as I suspect, the free-wheeling relativism of our present-day world (on the World Wide Web, in our political discourse, and beyond) is going to stoke popular demand for a return to standards of objectivity, what will be the consequences for counterfactual thinking?  Will it become re-stigmatized all over again as culpable for our excesses of relativism?  Will it become the Socrates of historical methodologies, blamed for corrupting the minds of the young and impressionable? 


All of these questions deserve more thought than I am able to provide at this juncture.  But I hope to revisit them going forward as I continue researching the history of counterfactual history.