Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.