Mis-Using the Terms, "Counterfactual History" and "Alternate History": “Cold Case Hammarskjold" and "The 1619 Project"

Despite the recent arrival of counterfactual history into the western cultural mainstream, confusion still surrounds the topic.

Recent media articles reveal that, while writers are increasingly using terms like “counterfactual history” and “alternate history,” they often fail to understand exactly what they are. 

Some writers use the terms positively:

In her review of the new documentary film, “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” Ann Hornaday, describes it as a cut-and-dried murder mystery that becomes a gnarly thicket of hegemonic ruthlessness, racism, shadowy cabals and a proudly unreliable narrator, this trippy junket to the dark side is ideally suited to our conspiracy-minded age. Believe it or not — but see it, if only to experience the most proficient exercise in alternate history this side of “Serial.”

Hornaday’s review is flawed in two ways.

First the documentary (which looks fascinating) does not alter the course of history.  It merely purports to uncover the shadowy forces behind the occurrence of real historical events unknown to the general public (and still to be exposed).  As a result, the film is better described as a “secret history.” 

Second, the comparison to the hit podcast (and newly released streaming series), Serial, is misguided, as it, too, does not alter the course of, but merely speculates about other possible real causes behind real historical events.

By contrast, other writers have invoked counterfactual history in pejorative fashion:

In response to the New York Times recent “1619 Project,” certain conservative critics complained that the account of American history was tantamount to “counterfactual”.  Here the term counterfactual functions as a synonym for “distorted,” “tendentious,” or “illegitimate.”

In a story published on the evangelical Christian news site, One News Now, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary noted that he “isn't buying the Times’ attempt at revisionist history,” declaring “’I certainly say yes, that the history of slavery still impacts the U.S. But the idea that we were founded in 1619 is counterfactual to history.’”

Craig Pirrong, who blogs as the “Streetwise Professor,” wrote in a response to the 1619 projecct that “the nation has struggled with the legacy of slavery, and race relations are strained at best. But it is for precisely that reason that inflammatory…counterfactual campaigns like the 1619 Project are wrong, divisive, and destructive.”

I’m less interested in explaining, and mostly interested in flagging, these misuses of the concepts of counterfactual and alternate history. They reveal that no matter how much progress the twin fields have made in garnering popular attention, they remain surrounded by misconceptions.

Perhaps the appearance of new alternate history dramas in the coming months (The Hunt, The Plot Against America, and the final season of The Man in the High Castle) will help solidify what “counterfactual” really means in a historical context.


Pete said…
Good Quality Post! Looking forward to reading your other articles, Keep it up!

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RJS said…
Counterfactual is such an ugly, annoying and misleading term. Why do academics promote its usage? Can't we use safer terms such as alternative history or hypothetical history?