Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, March 10, 2017

Can Counterfactuals Help Explain the Relationship Between American and Nazi Racism? On James Whitman's "Hitler's American Model"

James Q. Whitman’s new book, Hitler’s American Model, raises important issues that are worth exploring about the influence of American racism on the policies of the Nazi regime.  One way of testing the causal relationship is to borrow from Max Weber’s time honored method of altering a variable in a causal relationship and seeing how a changed antecedent would affect the consequent.

One critic, Joshua Muravchik has already done so in a perceptive, if imperfect, review in Moment Magazine.  In challenging Whitman’s claim that segregationist American laws pertaining to Blacks and whites in the U. S. influenced Nazi legal minds drafting the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 (not 1934, as Muravchik mistakenly writes), he declares:

"Suppose for a moment that the Nazis had found no “inspiration” in American examples. What then? The German lawyers had a mandate, flowing from the Führer, to draft laws that would strip Jews of their citizenship and prevent them from further contaminating German blood through sexual contact. Had there been no American “models” to guide them, would the lawyers have reported back to their superiors that, however desirable it might be to protect the Aryan race from the Jews, they could recommend no measures because they could find no foreign precedents? Would there have been no Nuremberg laws? Would the Führer have backed down and away?"

The suggestion, of course, is that Nazi policy would have unfolded exactly as it did in reality.

Similarly, in The Journal of Genocide Research (2013), Thomas Kühne critiqued the claim of Carroll Kakel’s book, The American West and the Nazi East, that the story of 19th century American colonial activity in North America (ie. western expansion) inspired Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum in World War II. 

As Kühne put it:

“Apart from few Hitler quotations, Kakel relies on a likewise scanty body of secondary sources on the reception and the images of America in Nazi Germany and by the Nazi movement. The far-reaching, implicit consequence of his comparison—if there had been no American West, the German East and possibly the Holocaust would not have materialized, or if so, only in a different way—is thus based on astonishingly thin evidence. Hence, Jens-Uwe Guettel, author of rather differently conceptualized book on transnational exchanges between German and American imperialism and expansionism, is able to quickly deflate the foundation of Kakel’s thesis: in Hitler’s first 800-page book, North America is mentioned three times, each ‘brief, superficial and metaphorical’. America is invoked a little more often in Hitler’s second book (unpublished during his lifetime), but not with reference to German expansion in the East.”

My point in drawing attention to these counterfactual critiques is not to question to value of comparing American and Nazi racism.  Such a comparison can be highly instructive.  Rather, I seek to show how establishing causal influence can be aided by counterfactual analysis. 

Muravchik's and Kühne’s observations suggest that, even without the American precedents, Nazi policy would have probably proceeded as it did in semi-deterministic fashion.  Their observations suggest that any Nazi references to American precedents served less as sources of inspiration than rhetorical justification.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The "Alt-Right" and "Alternate History": The Illusory Connection

A little while back, I wrote about my concern that the growing (and legitimate) backlash against the Trump administration’s embrace of “alternative facts” might bode ill for the field of alternate history – if for no other reason than the growing stigmatization of the adjective “alternative.”

Here’s more evidence for concern:

First, there is the publication of a new Slate article, “Alt-Right Facts,” complaining (again legitimately) about CPAC trying to create an “alternate history” about the origins of the “alternative right” (alt-right) by effacing the relationship between Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and Breitbart News.

Second, there is a new article on the progressive website, Alternet, that appears to smear the popularity of alternate history novels on the far right by linking it to a broader agenda of political upheaval.

The article, entitled, “Trump’s Advisers Want a Civil War,” by Paul Mason, focuses specifically on the genre of Civil War alternate histories. 

The key sections read as follows:

“Although it comprehensively lost the American civil war, the racist right in the US has for decades consoled itself by reading crazed “alternate history” novels, in which things turn out differently. Now, Time magazine has revealed that Steve Bannon, the White House chief of staff and Donald Trump’s closest aide, believes the next phase of American history should be as catastrophic and traumatic as the conflict of 1861-65.

“What if ...” stories about the civil war entered popular literature in the 50s, about the time the Jim Crow system of apartheid was being challenged by black protesters. Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, has the Confederacy winning the war but freeing the slaves. So does If the South Had Won the Civil War, an imaginary history by leftwing writer McKinlay Kantor, published in 1960. In these and other 20th-century explorations of Confederate victory fantasy, the south wins but is forced to end slavery in order to unleash industrial capitalism. The subtext is not hard to decipher: the war between white American brothers was pointless, as economic development would have solved the problem of slavery anyway.

However, after the 80s, the new American right saw things differently. Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, now close supporter of Trump, took time out from impeaching Bill Clinton to co-author three excruciatingly dire alt-history novels about the civil war. In Never Call Retreat, the final in the trilogy, written by Gingrich with William Forstchen and Albert Hanser, the Union side wins the war but, by implication, the south wins the peace. With Sherman’s Union army poised to destroy Atlanta, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, persuades the south to surrender. “The patience of our opponents is at an end,” this fictional Lee tells the Confederate government. “We shall reap a terrible whirlwind that will scar our nation for generations to come.” Lincoln then delivers the Gettysburg address to a nation that has, by implication, made peace with the slaveowners and the ideology of white supremacy they lived by.

While you ponder the parallels with today, consider this statement from Bannon, made on his radio show in December 2015 to explain the worldview of his Breitbart website: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war.

For Bannon, the No 1 enemy in this “war” is Islam, with China No 2. But there is also a fifth column in America to be dealt with as part of a “global existential war”. For Bannon, this fits into a generational theory of American power whereby the nation fulfils its destiny through a cycle of catastrophic crises: first, the revolution of 1776, then the civil war, then the intervention into the second world war and finally the crisis Bannon intends to provoke through Trump.

In Bannon and Gingrich, then, you have two men influencing the most powerful office in the world whose beliefs about the dynamics of US history could be best described as dangerous bullshit. Bannon fantasises about turning the culture war into a real one; Gingrich about the survival of an undestroyed south.

From my perspective this analysis doesn’t help us very much.  Not only does it misread Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (which was actually written as a left-wing indictment of American racism).  It throws the baby of “what if?” thinking out with the bathwater that the alt-right has seemingly dirtied.  I am as suspicious of the Trump administration is the folks at Slate and Alternet.  But I maintain that it is important to defend counterfactual and alternate history from efforts to stigmatize it as politically suspect.  As I have argued frequently, exploring “what if?” scenarios is politically ecumenical; it is neither right nor left.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watching "The Man in the High Castle" in the Era of Trump

Here are my thoughts about the second season of The Man in the High Castle, published in today's issue of The Forward.  

For the link, click HERE

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Counterfactual Jewish State Near Niagara Falls? A Review of Nava Semel's "Isra Isle"

I'm posting a LINK to my review of Nava Semel's new novel, Isra Isle, in today's issue of the Forward.

It's a thoughtful reflection on the dilemmas of Zionism and the possible alternatives that might have existed to a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Threats to the Credibility of Counterfactual History in the Trump Era: Conway and Spicer Give Ammo to the Opponents of "What Ifs."

I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but the field of counterfactual history may not fare well in public opinion in the years to come.  The rise of a “post-truth” and “post-fact” world will likely sour people on the concept of counterfactual history, which may be misleadingly stigmatized as associated with the legions of spin-doctors who play fast and loose with the truth.

Just today, as reported in a new piece on The Hill, for example, Kellyanne Conway provided the opponents of alternate history with new ammunition by raising the matter of “alternative facts” with MSNBC host Chuck Todd.

As the piece reported:

“A top adviser to President Donald Trump on Sunday said White House press secretary Sean Spicer provided “alternative facts” to reporters during his first briefing.”

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving, Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Host Chuck Todd fired back at Conway over her comments.”

“Look, alternative facts are not facts,” said Chuck Todd. "They're falsehoods."
Spicer on Saturday conducted his first press briefing with reporters, railing against the media for its coverage of the crowd size at Trump's inauguration ceremony.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said.”

For the record, Spicer also smuggled in a tendentious counterfactual into his news conference yesterday.  Just as his boss, President Trump, argued several weeks ago that he would have received a higher total in the popular vote count had he campaigned differently (and in different states) in the months leading up the election, Spicer argued (as quoted in a Vanity Fair piece), that:

“This is also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”

Vanity Fair went on to reveal that:

“After Spicer’s comments, the United States Secret Service told reporters that no magnetometers were used on the National Mall during the proceedings. “

Again, the point should be obvious: while Spicer and Trump have employed counterfactuals deceptively, that should not discredit them as an analytical or rhetorical mode of discourse.  It is their merging of self-serving “what ifs” together with fraudulent or questionable claims that is the problem.

In the final analysis, it is crucial to stress that counterfactual history (like its related literary subgenre, alternate history) is committed to the idea of historical truth.  It is a mode of historical inquiry that seeks to establish (to the extent that such a thing can be established) the truth of “what happened” by placing it in the context of what might have happened.  Genuine counterfactual history is only appreciated by people who actually know the facticity of the past – by people who understand the ways in which imagination can solidify and reinforce our understanding of what really happened.

Like any other intellectual endeavor, however, counterfactuals can be abused – especially by politicians – for partisan and tendentious purposes.  This is true of political figures on both the right and the left.   Unfortunately, the fondness of authoritarian populists, such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, for counterfactuals means that they fall under suspicion by liberal democrats, who may be tempted to dismiss them altogether – baby-in-bathwater style – as indelibly guilty by association. 

I will remain alert for any trends in this direction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tom Friedman's Counterfactual Trump Tweets

Tom Friedman uses a variation of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual in his latest New York Times column.  This type of “what if” typically exports the soul of a key historical figure into the soul of another in order to highlight ways that the former might have behaved differently.  To wit: William Gould speculated that if President Richard M. Nixon had responded to the disclosure of the Watergate burglary in 1973 in the same way that “[President John F.] Kennedy [responded] after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and taken the blame for himself, he would have continued to be president.”

Friedman doesn’t so much have Trump behaving like another historical figure as have him behave like someone unlike Donald Trump.  Friedman’s goal is to emphasize Trump’s divisive leadership style in the months since the election, by asking readers to imagine how much more unity he might have been able to engender if he had tweeted more benevolently.

Friedman provides a variety of examples and writes:

“What if, after Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes to decry Trump’s cruel impersonation of a handicapped reporter, Trump — instead of ridiculously calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” — had tweeted: “Meryl Streep, greatest actress ever, ever, ever. Stuff happens in campaigns, Meryl. Even I have regrets. But watch, I’ll make you proud of my presidency!!!!”

“What if, after John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights hero, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election, Trump hadn’t sneered that Lewis was “all talk, talk, talk” and “should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape.” What if Trump instead tweeted: “John Lewis, a great American, let’s walk together through your district and develop a plan to improve people’s lives there. Obama was all talk. I’m all action. Call me Friday after 1 p.m. 202-456-1414. I’ll show you how legit I am.”

“What if on New Year’s Trump — instead of tweeting “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies” who “lost so badly they just don’t know what to do” — had tweeted: “Happy New Year to every American — especially to Hillary Clinton and her supporters who fought a tough campaign — very tough. Let’s together make 2017 amazing (!!!!!!) for every American. Love!”

“What if, after a cast member of the musical “Hamilton” appealed to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us,” Trump — instead of denouncing the actor as being “very rude and insulting” and claiming he “couldn’t even memorize lines” — had instead tweeted: “To the cast of Hamilton: Appreciate your sincere concern for our country. When I am in the room where it happens, good stuff will happen. I will not throw away my shot to work on behalf of all of us!!!”

“What if Trump — instead of calling Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “head clown” — had tweeted: “Chuck, you are THE MAN!!! Top Democrat now that Obama’s gone!!! You love to deal. Send me your best health care experts and we’ll fix this thing together in 24 hours, so every American gets better, cheaper care. We’ll both be heroes (well, me just a little bit more). Call me!!!”

“That is the sound of magnanimity. It would have generated a flood of good will that would make solving every big problem easier. And it would have cost Trump nothing.”

Friedman’s counterfactuals are instructive and would certainly be convincing were they not utterly unrealistic.  They are akin to saying that “if Trump were not Trump, then he would have rallied Americans to tackle the country’s many challenges.”

But Trump IS Trump.

And so while showing how he could have garnered additional support by behaving differently in his recent tweets is instructive, it is futile to wish him to behave otherwise.

I suppose I should come up with another term to define this subset of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual.  But I’m having a tough time.  The “If I Weren’t Me” counterfactual doesn’t grab me, nor does “If He/She Were Someone Else” counterfactual.  What about a “Leopard Spot” counterfactual?  It suggests that no matter how hard a “leopard” tries to behave differently, it can’t change its “spots.”  The problem is that this phrase refers to the futility of the counterfactual, not its premise, which is that a historical figure could have/might have behaved in a fashion contrary to his or her nature.  I guess I could subsume the premise of changeability within the phrase “leopard spot.”  Hmmmmm….must think more about this one….

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"The Guardian" Promotes Alternate History (Thanks to Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle")

Amazon Prime’s hit series, The Man in the High Castle, continues to generate interest in counterfactual history. 

Today, I stumbled across a whole series of alternate history videos sponsored by Amazon on the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Listed under the title, “The Double Take,” the site contains videos and articles featuring alternate history authors, historians, and museum curators discussing counterfactual scenarios involving, Germany, Japan, and the U. S. during World War II.

The three main videos are:

1. “Alternate History Video: Could Hitler Have Fooled the World Forever?”  This video features Harry Turtledove discussing the history of Nazi propaganda and speculating about how effective it might have been had the Nazis won World War II.  He argues that the Nazi empire would have been short-lived and that its propaganda would not have been able to stifle the yearning of oppressed peoples for long.

2. “Alternate History Video: What If Hitler Took the World to War Sooner?”  This video features historian Gerhard Weinberg discussing Hitler’s mistakes in World War II.  He argues that if Hitler had unleashed the war earlier in 1938 at the time of the Sudeten crisis (as he originally wanted), Germany might have had an easier time defeating France and then would have had greater success attacking Britain by air (as the latter’s rebuilding of its Air Force was not yet complete, as it would be by 1940).  The result would have been a German victory in the Battle of Britain and then an outright naval invasion of the British Isles.  This, Weinberg says, would have prolonged the war considerably – so much so, that Germany probably would have been hit with the first atomic bomb (which the U. S. had developed to strike Germany originally in the first place).

3. “Alternate History Video: Can Cultures Truly Merge After War?”  This video features the Honolulu Museum of Art’s curator, Stephen Salel, examining how American and Japanese culture might have developed had Japan never gotten involved in World War II.  (The answer: both cultures would have remained more insular and the relationship between the two countries would have resembled the relationship between the U. S. and China today, in the sense that there’s little cultural influence from China upon the U. S.)

The three short videos are worth watching in and of themselves.

But they are mostly notable for their presence of the website of one of Britain’s most respected newspapers.

Amazon’s motives for promoting counterfactual history are clear: to generate higher ratings for The Man in the High Castle.  But I don’t see any down side in the cross promotion agenda.  If counterfactual history further gains popularity as a result of it, so much the better.