Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Land of Might Have Been: Is Alternate History a Waste of Time?

Cass Sunstein has an interesting piece at The New Republic reviewing a recent book on counterfactual histories by Richard Evans. Along the way, some interesting examples of the genre get mentioned:
An anthology that was published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War.
I'd never heard of this before, and haven't had a chance to real it myself yet, but this appears to be the text of Churchill's essay. I'll be curious to read it, though I'm skeptical of what is apparently one of its central conceits: Robert E. Lee successfully ends the Civil War by issuing a decree abolishing slavery, thus removing from the North its moral cause. This apparently results, eventually, in a union of English-speaking peoples uniting the United States and Confederate States to the British Empire. One can see how this would appeal to Churchill, but I find it a stretch at several levels.

Evans' book is apparently highly critical of the counterfactual endeavor, arguing that it's a waste of time and that the scenarios suggested are not well thought out. Certainly, it can be a bit of a waste of time, but I think Sunstein makes a good point that the evaluation of causes in history almost necessarily involves a certain amount of counterfactual thinking:
Yet the most fundamental problem is that Evans does not grapple sufficiently with the fact that historians do not only offer narratives; they also offer explanations. They say that some event—the rise of Nazism, the Vietnam war, the election of Ronald Reagan, the attacks of 9 / 11—had particular causes. It is not possible to take a stand on the existence of causes, or on their relative importance, without thinking about what the world would be like if one or another were removed. If we say that the Vietnam war or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “caused” by the Kennedy assassination, we must be imagining a world in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and hence making a claim about what would have happened in that alternative and historically unrealized world. And if so, we are engaging in counterfactual history. As Jon Elster puts it, historians “have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it.

Evans himself is no exception. In responding to Ferguson’s argument about the likely consequences of British neutrality in 1914, he offers some counterfactual history of his own. He suggests that if Britain had stayed out of the war, Germany would not have scaled back its war aims. And in responding to Charmley’s arguments about the potentially beneficial effects of appeasing Hitler, he suggests that Germany would have attacked Britain in any case, with a higher probability of victory. He appears to support Churchill’s suggestion that Britain could have become a “slave state.” True, his statements on these counts are qualified, but in explaining the rise of Nazism (an area in which he has great expertise), Evans writes more firmly, saying that the “key factor” was “the Nazi’s storm troopers’ escalating use of violence” —which is an unambiguous suggestion that in the absence of that violence, the Nazis might not have come to power. He even speculates that with “more skillful maneuvering by men like General Schleicher,” a representative of the army might have ended up running Germany, 
rather than Hitler.
He also provides a useful breakdown of three different types of problems with alternate history speculations:
It is important to distinguish among three quite different objections. Some counterfactual narratives are implausible, because they are inconsistent with what we know about the historical context. With respect to Germany, Evans offers precisely this objection to both Ferguson and Charmley. Or consider the speculation with which I began, to the effect that if Gore had become president in 2001, the United States would have ratified an international agreement to regulate greenhouse gases. The problem is that developing nations, including China, have long been unenthusiastic about such a treaty, and without their participation, it is highly doubtful that the U.S. Senate would ratify any agreement. Some counterfactual histories rest on an inadequate understanding of historical constraints.

Others suffer from a different problem. They are hopelessly speculative, because they depend on wildly elaborate causal chains that are best treated as the 
exercise of an active imagination. Some counterfactualists suggest that if some apparently trivial change had occurred, large consequences would follow (“the butterfly effect,” made famous by a short story by Ray Bradbury). As a matter of logic, it may not be possible to rule out such elaborate causal chains, but they require a large number of contingencies to come to fruition (and a large number of other contingencies not to do so). Much of Evans’s exasperation is reserved for narratives that fall into this category. As 
examples, consider Tuchman’s suggestion that if Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s, the wars in Korea and Vietnam might not have happened, or Parker’s claim that if the Spanish Armada had successfully landed in England in 1588, Philip II would have established Spanish rule in North America. OK, maybe—but who could possibly know?

Still other counterfactuals run into difficulties because they depend on a change that cannot logically be made without simultaneously introducing, or allowing for, other changes which the counterfactualist is attempting to bracket. Once we introduce some changes, all bets are off. Gloria Steinem offered a memorable counter-
factual: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But if men could get pregnant, they would not be men, at least not in the same sense, and in a world without men we cannot say much about the legal status of abortion. The most fantastic counterfactual narratives fall in this category. If Nazi Germany had cell phones, Hitler might have won the war—but if Nazi Germany had cell phones, the world would be so unrecognizably different that it is not clear that we can say anything at all. If horses were smarter than people, they might rule the Earth. As Ferguson writes, “No sensible person wishes to know what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings.” (Though come to think of it, that’s a pretty interesting question.)

That last does indeed sound like the premise of a potentially interesting absurdist novel.


Craig said...

The middle complaint misses the point, as well as the fun, of alternate history. As quoted on the definitive online biography of the form,, "There are no correct alternate histories, there are only plausible alternate histories."

AH isn't about what *would* have happened, it's about what *might* have happened -- and that's often enough to shed light on actual history in interesting ways.

Darwin said...


I think that's a fair point when dealing with Alternate History fiction. Indeed, there sometimes it's the more wildly divergent ideas that are more interesting than the more plodding sort of slight differences.

I think the complaint may hold a bit more weight in situations such as the ones he cites where historians try to extrapolate elaborate contrafactuals based on small changes. At least, if they're trying to do so with a mantle of historical judgement as opposed to just writing fiction.