Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gary Hart and Donna Rice's "Nose"

Matt Bai’s essay, “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics,” from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, offers a gripping account of Gary Hart’s rise and fall in the year 1987.  What I found most interesting, though, was (predictably enough) the story’s counterfactual ending. 

At the end of the essay, Lee and Gary Hart mull over the “what if” dimension of the scandal.  It was not just the fact that Hart’s withdrawal from the race represented a rupture in American political culture; it also may have affected the course of American history.
Lee Hart, in reflecting on her husband’s wistful sense of what might have been, remarked:
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee said.
And Gary Hart himself concluded:
Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully. 
Bai continues: "This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.”
(As the article spells out earlier: “In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.”)
Hart went on to speculate:
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”

It is overly simplistic to evoke Pascal’s famous notion of “Cleopatra’s nose” and claim that Donna Rice’s sex appeal led to the war in Iraq.  But the entire story underscores the ways in which chance events can have unforeseeable consequences. 

More than anything else, though, Hart’s emotional reflections reinforce the notion that people construct counterfactuals in order to led meaning to their lives.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Counterfactual Chatter in "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki"

Perhaps because I was able to read a decent bit of mainstream fiction this summer, some of my recent postings have focused on the presence of counterfactuals in contemporary literature.

In addition to spotting some contradictory "what if" reasoning in Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, last month, I found some interesting passages in Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

The novel features a group of five childhood friends in the Japanese city of Nagoya who part ways as they enter adulthood and display multiple regrets about the circumstances of their parting.

Late in the novel, two of the main characters, Eri and Tsukuru have an extended counterfactual exchange about their mutual mentally unbalanced friend, Yuzu.  Eri expresses regret to Tsukuru about having become distanced Yuzu, who tragically ends up getting murdered.  She compares Yuzu to "a pretty bird, [with] the kind of neck that could snap so easily" and she declares: "If I'd been in Japan that probably never would have happened to her.  I would never have let her go off to some town she didn't know, all by herself."

She then confesses her teenage crush on Tsukuru and apologizes for having cut off ties with him, noting, "If I had only had a little more confidence and courage, and no stupid pride," I never would have abandoned you like that, no matter what the circumstances."

Tsukuru replies, "You don't have to worry....I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then,...we might have still ended up pretty much where we are."

Eri replies "Will you tell me one thing?...If I had come right out then and told you I loved you, would you have gone out with me?

Tsukuru: "Of course I would have....I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend.  And I think we would have been happy together."

The narrative then continues:

"The two of them would likely have been a close couple, with a fulfilling love life, Tsukuru decided.  There would have been so much they could have shared....Tsukuru had the feeling, though, that this closeness would have been short-lived.  An unavoidable fissure would have grown between what he and Eri wanted from their lives...and eventually...they would have gone off in separate directions."

The exchange illustrates several things.  First it confirms the finding of social science research that regret is a common emotion associated with wondering "what if?" (usually in the vein of "if only...", otherwise known as "wishful thinking.")  Predictably enough, the exchange appears to be full of fantasy scenarios (upward counterfactuals) that imagine history turning out better.  And yet, the exchange ultimately settles into a "reversionary counterfactual," in which an apparently alternate course of events eventually ends up conforming to the real historical record.   Tsukuru concludes that he and Eri never would have stayed together had they given their relationship a chance.  The counterfactual exchange, in other words, ends up showing how history's course was predestined.

Not the most original point, to be sure, but interesting to see in a prominent novel, nevertheless.  I am new to Murakami's work and found Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to be generally satisfying (but less captivating thatn The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which I liked quite a bit more).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Questionable Counterfactual: Could World War II Really Have Been Avoided?

In an interview with the German newspaper, the Osnabrücker Zeitung, the historian and former head of the Institut for Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Horst Möller, answered a variety of questions pertaining to the Second World War.  Notably, the content of the interview, sensationalistically entitled “The Second World War Could Have Been Avoided,” was full of counterfactual questions and answers.

The first was “could the war have been avoided?”  In responding to this question, Möller criticized the Treaty of Versailles for creating many “problems involving national minorities,” for example, three million Sudeten Germans on the German border with Czechoslovakia.  “One possible way of avoiding the war would have been to pursue a more reasonable set of Peace Treaties that would have addressed the problems.”

He added that a second way to have avoided the war would have been for the Allies to respond to Hitler’s aggressive actions in 1935/36 – for example his remilitarization of the Rhineland – “with more decisiveness.”

Asked to assess the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact for the war’s outbreak and whether it “would have been imaginable without it?” Möller noted that Hitler was committed to war by 1937 (as shown by the famous Hossbach Memorandum), but that the pact was still “decisive” as it “minimized Hitler’s risk” of invading Poland.  “Without the pact,” he asserted, “the war would not have unfolded as it did.” 

Finally, in answering the question whether “Hitler was primarily responsible for the war?” Möller replied, “without Hitler, the Second World War would not have transpired as it did, neither in its radicalism or timing.”  Even if Hitler’s task was made easier by Stalin, “he was the main guilty party, with plenty of helpers.”

Möller's answers are basically sound.  He judiciously balances between the primary and secondary factors responsible for the war's eruption.

That said, his claim that the war could have been avoided is not very convincing.  Given Hitler's commitment to war, it would have been extremely difficult for the Allies to have kept him from trying to realize his goals through force.  

To be fair, it doesn't seem that Müller's main goal was to emphasize the war's counterfactual dimensions.  More likely, the journalist conducting the interview wanted to emphasize them for publicity purposes.   We all know that "what if?" claims garner attention.  The interview is notable for concentrating its focus as much on what might have happened as what did. Perhaps this focus represents the new default perspective for journalists hoping to spice up their coverage historical topics.  It has certainly been seen in lots of European and American media articles about recent historical events, for example, the hundredth anniversary of World War I.  Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, but its prominence is quite clear.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sneak Preview: "Hi Hitler!"

I am happy to announce that Cambridge University Press will be publishing my latest book, Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture this coming December/January.

Readers of this blog will hopefully be interested to know that counterfactual observations run throughout the book, especially in two key chapters: "Probing the Limits of Speculation: Counterfactualism and the Holocaust" and "Nazis That Never Were: New Alternate Histories of Nazism."

Click HERE for the link to the book's listing on the Cambridge University Press website.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Counterfactuals in "The Goldfinch"

I recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, and was struck by an important exchange about counterfactuals between the two main characters, Boris and Theo.  (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet read the novel!)

Near the narrative’s conclusion, the two men are discussing the circumstances surrounding the theft and recovery of the famous painting by Carel Fabritius (1654) when Boris contrasts his philosophy of life from that of Theo.

Boris explains his philosophy with the help of a reference to Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Idiot (1869), in which the main character, Myshkin, does many good deeds but only ends up producing disaster. 

Boris observes: “I used to worry about this a lot.  Lie awake at night and worry.  Because – why? How could this be?....Myshkin was kind, loved everyone, he was tender, always, forgave, he never did a wrong thing, but he…hurt everyone around him.  Very dark message to this book.  ‘Why be good.’  But…what if [the story] is more complicated than that?   What if maybe opposite is true as well?  Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions--?  where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions?  Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way?  You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?....Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?

Theo replies: “I’m not sure I see your point.”

Boris continues: “Well I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you….You -- wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if, ‘what if,” Life is cruel.  I wish I had died instead of….” 

(Throughout the novel, Theo revisits the circumstances that led to his mother’s death and his survival in the museum explosion and constantly second guesses his actions, wondering if a different set of decisions could have led to a different outcome).

Boris continues:

“Well-think about this.  What if all your actions and choices, good and bad, make no difference to God?  What if the pattern is pre-set? …What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?  What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”

“Get where?”

“Understand, by saying ‘God,’ I am merely using ‘God’ as reference to long-term pattern we can’t decipher….

“The point is maybe that the point is too big to see or work around to on our own.  Because…well, if you didn't take picture from museum, and Sascha didn’t steal it back, and I didn’t think of claiming reward – well, wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings remain missing too?  Forever maybe?  Wrapped in brown paper?  Still shut in that apartment?  No one to look at them?  Lonely and lost to the world?  Maybe the one had to be lost for the others to be found? “

Theo replies: “I think this goes more to the idea of relentless irony than divine providence.”

Boris concludes: “Yes – but why give it a name?  Can’t they both be the same thing?”


The interesting thing about the exchange is the inherent contradiction between Boris’s use of counterfactuals. 

He initially attacks Theo for his counterfactual mindset, criticizing his tendency to pursue wishful thinking and Monday morning quarterbacking.  He implies that maybe all things happen for a reason, as part of a divine plan.  In other words, he highlights the dominance of fate, which is the antithesis of a counterfactual sensibility. 

But then, at the same time, he employs counterfactual reasoning to justify his own criminal activity. He declares that all of his mistakes, errors, and misdeeds have had the fortunate consequence of producing a happy outcome (the opposite of the plot in The Idiot).  In other words, despite the many bumps in the road, everything worked out for the best.  This assertion exhibits all the classic features of a nightmare counterfactual, whereby a happy ending redeems anything negative that happened before hand.  It resembles the Panglossian mindset lampooned by Voltaire in Candide.

Boris brings to mind the many critics of counterfactual reasoning who nevertheless utilize it in their daily lives without being aware they are doing so.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Obama's and Hillary's Competing Syrian Counterfactuals

Two recent interviews with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are notable for their inclusion of competing counterfactual claims.

In his recent interview with President Obama in The New York Times, Tom Friedman elicited several counterfactual observations from the President on Syria.

To Friedman’s question “wouldn’t things be better had we armed the secular Syrian rebels early or kept U.S. troops in Iraq? “ Obama declared:

“The fact is…in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not “squandered an opportunity” to share power with Sunnis and Kurds. “Had the Shia majority seized the opportunity to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds in a more effective way, [and not] passed legislation like de-Baathification,” no outside troops would have been necessary. Absent their will to do that, our troops sooner or later would have been caught in the crossfire….”

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

In short, Obama uses his “what if?” scenario to argue that history would not have turned out any better.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton seems to believe otherwise

In her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Clinton was asked about US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s criticism of Obama’s failure to do “enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have.”
She replied with a series of counterfactuals:
The first was hesitant: “I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.”
But then she added:  I did believe…that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition. 
So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them….
Goldberg then replied: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?”
Clinton replied: “Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
In contrast to Obama’s counterfactual, Clinton used her “what if?” scenario to imply how history might have been better.  
Clinton’s counterfactual is much more hesitant than Obama’s.  Political calculation explains this, as she cannot go on record criticizing her previous boss too overtly heading in to the 2016 election cycle.  
But it will bear watching whether the intensifying crisis in the Middle East leads to many more Monday morning quarterbacking counterfactuals.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ron Rosenbaum on Whether the Holocaust Would Have Happened Without Hitler

In a recent podcast of The Gist in Slate Magazine, Mike Pesca interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum about the publication of the second edition of his book, Explaining Hitler. 

Notably, the title of the interview featured an eye-catching counterfactual premise: “The Gist asks whether the Holocaust would have happened if Adolf Hitler were never born.” 

In fact, little of the interview was devoted to the premise, which was essentially used to garner attention.  Moreover, Pesca erred when he began pursuing his counterfactual line of questioning by declaring (erroneously) that “no one has really taken this tack before: What if you kill Hitler, will the Holocaust still happen, will the war still happen? It’s the biggest hypothetical in time travel, without Hitler is there a Holocaust?”

(In fact, plenty of authors have pursued this line of reasoning; but we can leave that aside for the time being). 

The main point is that Rosenbaum responded by noting:

“I studied Hitler’s inner circle and there were vicious antisemites like Goebbels and Heydrich.  It’s possible that certain fanatic Nazis might have done this [ie. ordered the Holocaust’ but my feeling is that a lot of them wanted to express  their fanatic Jew-hatred to earn points with Hitler as much as from personal conviction….”

“Certainly we know Hitler’s central drive was for extermination….I would be hard pressed to think of a scenario in which lacking Hitler’s all-encompassing drive it would have happened.”

In short, Rosenbaum ratified the prevailing scholarly consensus, epitomized by Milton Himmelfarb’s claim from 1984: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.”