Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Later: Martin Luther King in Alternate History

To mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, I thought it would be worth reflecting on how he has been portrayed in works of alternate history. 

More often than not, commentators have employed “fast forward” counterfactuals. This kind of counterfactual advances the tape of history and imagines how the later occurrence of historical events would have affected their significance. This method has commonly been applied to the lives of key historic individuals, usually by pushing back the date of their death.   

How would King be viewed today if he had lived a longer life?

One hypothesis is that he would have moved in a more radical political direction  
In his book, The Radical King, Cornel West has written:

Had he lived longer, he would have been able to devote more time to fighting issues relating to both class and race.  This would have made him more controversial and his legacy might be less hallowed.   He might never have had a holiday named for him.

In his essay, “Afterword: Interview with Dr. King on his 80th Birthday,” published in April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (New York, 2009), Michael Eric Dyson declared:

Similarly, Bill Shipp, in his essay, “What Would Dr. King Think of His Dream Now?” in: The Ape-slayer and Other Snapshots: A Collection of Random Writings, remarked:

It is hard to imagine viewing King as anything but a martyred hero, but fast forward counterfactuals make clear that an individual’s significance depends profoundly on the temporal vantage point from which it is assessed.  A longer life usually means more opportunities for failure; a life cut short, by contrast, evokes missed opportunities and chances never taken advantage of.

Another method of portraying MLK in alternate history was visible in Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s novel, The Two Georges (1996).  

It depicts King serving as the governor general of the North American Union (NAU) from its capital city of Victoria (present day Washington D. C.).  In this alternate world, the NAU is a product of the 1760s, when the American colonies are able to reconcile with the British monarchy and avoid seceding from England.  George Washington and George III cemented a longstanding relationship and the former agrees to the latter’s request for the NAU to remain part of the British empire. 

In this world, the British abolish slavery in the 1830s, thereby allowing African Americans like King to enjoy upward mobility into the ranks of the NAU elite. As I have written elsewhere, the novel is a fantasy scenario that portrays the failure of the American Revolution having positive consequences for American history – certainly in the realm of race relations.  

The novel was written against the bleak backdrop of (and was an allegorical commentary on) the LA riots of 1992 and the rise of the racist militia movement. 

I’m curious whether any commentators today will mark the anniversary of King’s death by reflecting counterfactually on the topic from a present-day perspective informed by Black Lives Matter, the Alt-Right, and the Trump administration.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Counterfactual Communists? Netflix Announces Polish Alternate History Series Will Be Called "1983"

I just saw that Netflix’s forthcoming alternate history series about Solidarity-era Poland has now been given an official name: “1983.”  

(To paraphrase a classic line from the film, This is Spinal Tap, I'm assuming the name means that it's "one less" than George Orwell's famous dystopian novel, 1984).

In a press release yesterday, Netflix announced that 1983 will be directed by Academy Award-Nominee Agnieszka Holland and “feature Robert Więckiewicz and Maciej Musiał as a disgraced police investigator and an idealistic law student who stumble upon a conspiracy that changed the course of the nation and kept the Iron Curtain standing.”

Shot in Warsaw, Wroclaw, Lublin, and Silesia, the series is based on the following premise: 

“Twenty years after a devastating terrorist attack in 1983 that halted the course of Poland's liberation and the subsequent downfall of the Soviet Union, an idealistic law student and a disgraced police investigator stumble upon a conspiracy that has kept the Iron Curtain standing and Poland living under a repressive police state.  Now, in 2003, after two decades of peace and prosperity, the leaders of the regime enact a secret plan made with an unlikely adversary in the 1980s that will radically transform Poland and affect the lives of every citizen in the nation - and the world. What these two men discover has the potential to ignite a revolution and those in power will stop at nothing to keep it a secret.”

I imagine the writers of the series pitched it to producers as “Fatherland meets Solidarity” -- in the sense that the 1992 Robert Harris thriller and later HBO film also featured a police investigator trying to bring a deep (in its case, Nazi) secret to light.  This time the offending party is probably the Polish communist party.  But who knows, when international intrigue is involved....

As always, alternate histories have clear political messages.  It remains to be seen
how “those in power” in “1983” will be interpreted.  If they are communists, then Poland’s current right-wing Law and Justice government will probably be content.  But, needless to say, the government of 1983 can easily be interpreted as symbolic of the current government -- in which case, we can expect substantial criticism of the series.  Meanwhile, American viewers will probably interpret the show – especially the hunt for the pivotal “secret” -- against the backdrop of Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of President Trump’s possible collusion with Russia.  

Much of this is (fittingly) speculative.  But we shall soon find out.  1983 is supposed to debut later this year.

Friday, March 2, 2018

What If Trump's Words Had Come Out of Obama's Mouth?: A "Ventriloquist Counterfactual"

In a sign of counterfactual bipartisanship, representatives of both the liberal and conservative news media this week critiqued President Trump by employing counterfactuals that asked people to imagine how they would respond to his policy proposals or behaviors if the same ones had been embraced by Democrats such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

I never thought I would ever quote Tucker Carlson on this blog, but in a television commentary the other night, the FOX News host objected to president Trump’s proposal to take guns away from potentially dangerous people without due process by declaring:
Imagine if Barack Obama had said that,” Carlson said. “Just ignore due process and start confiscating guns.”  He added that Obama would’ve been “denounced as a dictator” for making such a comment, and added: “We would have denounced him first, trust me….Congress would be talking impeachment right now. Some would be muttering about secession.”
The Daily Beast, meanwhile, ran a similar story by Rory Cooper, entitled “Seriously, Imagine If Obama Had Done What Trump Has.” (Thanks, btw, to CHR reader Heiko Henning for alerting me to this piece).
In the essay, Cooper touched on the conservative response to Trump’s gun comments, which were relatively mild, writing that the “NRA released a tepid statement of disapproval of the “bad policy” recommended by Trump while Sen. Ben Sasses (R-NE) registered his alarm that anyone, let alone the president, would trample on an individual’s constitutional right to due process so cavalierly….And…. that was about it.
Cooper then declared:
“The same conservative establishment that would have seethed at Obama had he backed such a set of policies was basically silent.
He then when on to ask readers to think about a related set of counterfactuals involving Hillary Clinton:
"Just imagine the reaction from “conservative” leaders to the following headlines had Hillary Clinton been elected president":
·      President Clinton Sends Congress $4.4 Trillion Spending Plan That Features Soaring Deficits 
·      Friday Will Be The One Year Anniversary of Hillary's First, Last and Only Formal White House Press Conference
·      Clinton Attacks FBI Director, Denies Asking Him Who He Voted for President
·      Clinton’s Fiscal Stimulus Could be Bigger Than Obama’s
·      Thirty to 40 White House Officials and Administration Political Appointees Are Still Operating Without Full Security Clearances, Including President Clinton’s Son-in-Law
·      Clinton Lawyer Used Private Company, Pseudonyms to Pay Porn Star
·      Clinton Blocks Release of Republican Russia Memo
·      FBI Director Contradicts Hillary Clinton’s Timeline on [Senior Aide’s] Abuse Probe
·      How Clinton Is Making Money in The White House, And Why Nobody Will Stop Her
·      Hillary Clinton Goes Golfing During Funerals for Shooting Victims 
·      Former Clinton Aide Pleads Guilty; Agrees to Testify Against Other Clinton Aide

Cooper summed up by writing: “But just imagine a world in which those headlines were reality? The speeches attacking President Hillary Clinton at CPAC would practically write themselves.”

The counterfactual claims by Carlson and Cooper reveal, once again, how “what if” scenarios can serve both analytical and rhetorical functions.  They shed light on how the response to a declaration would have been different if someone else had said it.  And they provide a powerful method exposing the hypocrisy about (and potentially shifting someone's perspective on) a given issue. 

I struggled for a while to classify this kind of claim.

It is not a “trading places counterfactual,” because there is no reciprocal relationship between the two parties in question (in this scenario, between Trump and Obama/Clinton; that is to say, while Trump’s words are imagined being voiced by his Democratic rivals, there is no imaginging of the latter articulating the ideas of the former).

It is not a “conversion counterfactual,” as the identity of one person is not being shifted into that of another.

It is not a “leopard spot counterfactual,” because having Trump’s words being voiced by Obama is perfectly plausible (and does not require us to suspend our disbelief that such a thing might actually happen).

So maybe it’s worth inventing a new type of counterfactual – perhaps a “ventriloquist counterfactual.”  It portrays a comment made by one person as emanating from another one.  Just like how Edgar Bergen related to Charlie McCarthy.

I will have to give this one a bit more thought.  And I will have to see if there are other examples I can locate in order to see whether it represents a larger phenomenon.  But it seems to merit consideration in my ever-expanding typology of counterfactuals.