Saturday, July 5, 2014

"By Chance or Nature's Changing Course"

In the eighth minute of today's quarter-final World Cup match between Argentina and Belgium the ball was deflected off the leg of a Belgium defender into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, an Argentinian who had been invisible in previous matches. Higuain took a sturdy swing with his right foot and rolled the ball into the far corner, away from the goalkeeper's despairing lunge. It was the only goal of the game and advanced Argentina into the semi-finals.

After the game I opened my computer and continued my interrupted surfing of my favorite websites. On the site of The Atlantic magazine I found this article:
"What If America Had Lost the Revolutionary War?
A Fourth of July thought experiment"
By Uri Friedman*
It was today's juxtaposition of football match and article which inspired me to write this blog post now rather than at some future time as I had intended.
The category of historical speculation called “Counterfactuals” has probably been around forever; one imagines Adam speculating, “What if it had been a tangerine?” (One good result that I envision is that there wouldn't be any fashionistas.) In magazines and books the counterfactuals are rife: “What if . . .
the South won the Civil War?
Kennedy had not been assassinated?
Hitler had invaded England?
The Spanish Armada was not defeated?”
Those are some perennials.
And this year on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I an article in the New York Times wonders, “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived.”
I must confess that I cannot take any of this seriously. To my mind, such speculation is basically a parlor game.** It certainly is not a thought experiment. The lives of nations, like our own lives, are subject to the whims of chance and accident. Supposing you do decide to assume an alternative historical happening (such as Al Gore being narrowly elected—there's at least one book on Amazon that speculates on that), how many assumptions are you allowed going forward? Based on Gore's campaigning, you might reasonably assume that he would do (or try to do) A. But after A, how certain can you be that B would follow—or C after B? To build a whole new history based on such a causal string (unaffected by chance or accident—or counterpressure from attempting to do A, B, or C) is fatuous. And a lot of the counterfactual fatuity is based on the projector's using the re-framed history to advance his own political, economic, or philosophical views.***

Friedman asked Harry Turtledove, the author of a counterfactual novel about the American Revolution, “what the world might have looked like in 2014 if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, or if the war had never been fought in the first place.”  
"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. . . .
"Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars."
Turtledove, it seems from Friedman's article, is just indulging Friedman and his parlor game question. Nevertheless, isn't it a bit of a reach to assume a deterministic chain of events that reaches almost two-and-a-half centuries into the future?

A slight, accidental deflection of a ball off a leg determined the outcome of today's football game. How many accidental deflections would change the presumed course of England's future as projected by a counterfactual historian imagining, say, that Elizabeth I had been deposed by Mary, Queen of Scots' conspirators or by a successful Spanish invasion? Or the fate of the colonies in the New World?

You want a parlor game? Try Charades.

**After writing this, I discovered this quote from Martin Kettle:
To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a "parlour game". To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was "unhistorical shit".
(Kettle, himself, likes counterfactuals.)

***Did somebody whisper "Niall Ferguson"?

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