Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, February 19, 2018

Colonial Counterfactuals in "Black Panther"


I finally saw Black Panther last night and have been thinking a good deal about its counterfactual subtext.

The film is not a work of alternate history.  It does not depict how a point of divergence changes the course of our world. It is more of a secret history – a work that depicts a reality hidden from contemporary society that remains unaffected by it and, in turn, does not affect it.   (For the record, I am tempted to quibble with the claim that the film is a work of “Afrofuturism,” given that it takes place in the present.  Sure, there is plenty of high-tech gadgetry, but it merely lends the film a “futuristic” veneer, while the plot remains squarely set in the contemporary world).


Despite not being a work of alternate history, Black Panther nevertheless has a clear counterfactual subtext.  This past weekend in The New York Times Magazine, Ava DuVernay alluded to the impact of European imperialism on Africa, reflecting that at the heart of the film’s fictional country of Wakanda, “lie[s] some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?...And what if they didn’t take us? What would...have been?”  Other responses to the film have echoed the claim of one blogger that it “shows what Africa Would Have Been if White People Didn’t Destroy It.”

There is ample precedent for reflecting on this topic.  Back in the 1972, the left-leaning historian Walter Rodney devoted some thought to how Africa would have developed without European imperialism in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, proclaiming, for example, that “there would have been no difficulty in...African societies mastering European technical skills and bridging the rather narrow gap which existed between them and Europe at that time.”  More recently, the conservative scholar Bruce Gilley sparked controversy in a paper entitled, “The Case for Colonialism,” by claiming that colonialism had actually been good for Africa, which would have been worse off without it.  He cites the case of Guinea-Bissau, for example, arguing that “what might have become a prosperous and humane Macau or Goa of Africa is today a cesspool of human suffering.”  He further praises peoples who have accepted colonial rule, saying of the British, “If anti-colonial sentiments had gone unchallenged in Britain, the country today would be a backwater of druid worshippers.”

Black Panther contributes to this counterfactual debate by offering something of a mixed message. 

Contrary to what one might expect, the film is not an unalloyed fantasy.  It certainly depicts Wakanda as a thriving, prosperous, technologically-advanced society, replete with ‘African-Moderne’ high-rises, ultra-sleek magnetic trains, and miracle medicines.  All of these wonders can be attributed to Wakanda’s possession of Vibranium, an element derived from a prehistoric meteor strike that affords the country untold power. 

Wakanda’s power also derives from its hidden location in the heart of Africa, far from the European colonial gaze, which has enabled it to avoid European incursions.  That said, one suspects that had Europeans actually “discovered” Wakanda, they would have swiftly been trounced by the country’s Vibranium-possessing inhabitants.  For this reason, the factor allowing Wakanda to thrive is less the counterfactual absence of European colonialism than their possession of a technological trump card.

Still, the absence of colonial overlords in Wakanda allows us to imagine how Africa would have evolved without them.   Interestingly, the answer is mixed.  Black Panther displays elements of a fantasy scenario combined with features of a stasis scenario.  It shows history to be better in some respects, but more or less the same in others. 

On the plus side, Wakanda is entirely autonomous and enjoys full sovereignty.  Women play elite roles in the military, economy, and political system.  The society is prosperous and technologically advanced.  We don’t see much about class relations, but a diverse range of people are visible in the few shots of urban commercial activity, so we are left to assume a “live and let live” atmosphere.

On the minus side, Wakanda is not immune from internal political struggles.  The country’s tribes have long been unified in support of the monarchy, but the rebellious Jabari tribe continues to mount the occasional insurrection. 

Moreover, Wakanda’s monarchical political system is depicted as uniquely vulnerable to destabilization.  When the American-raised claimant to the throne, Erik Killmonger, defeats T’Challa in a challenge and claims the crown, the bulk of the citizenry rolls over and accepts him without a murmur.  This allows the new king to order the destruction of the Kingdom’s all-powerful heart-shaped herbs and unilaterally launch a campaign of global mayhem to pay back the world for its crimes against Africa.  The susceptibility of Wakanda’s political system to being taken over by a sociopath is clearly meant as a critique and an obvious endorsement of democracy’s checks and balances. (The ease with which Killmonger’s slides into power and starts wrecking things cannot help but have resonance in present-day America).

Further evidence that not all is rosy in Wakanda is the fat that when T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, sister, Shuri, and ex, Nakia, decide to mount a resistance campaign against the new tyrant, civil war erupts, pitting tribal rivals against one another.  It is hardly an endorsement of Wakandan social relations that Killmonger gets collaborationist support from the forces of T’Challa’s erstwhile friend, W’kabi, who launches an attack on T’Challa’s forces in an epic battle featuring armor plated rhinos.

In short, Wakanda’s avoidance of European colonialism hardly makes it a utopian society.  It suffers plenty of its own problems relating to the age-old human penchant for competition, jealousy, and so on.  These realities make it tempting to conclude that the film ultimately shows history not turning out that differently than it did reality.

This would be false, however.  For while Wakanda has its share of problems, they are easier to accept because they are home-grown.  They are not the result of European interference – of the colonizers stirring up rivalries between local groups, picking winners and losers, and establishing a cycle of violence lasting for more than a century. 

The film reminds us that even if power struggles remain inescapable in human affairs, they are infinitely easier to bear if they are the result of forces internal to society than of forces imported from without.




Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bret Stephens Counterfactually Channels Hugo Bettauer: America Without Jews

When it rains, it pours….

Right on the heels of Paul Krugman’s counterfactually-minded New York Times op-ed, which asks readers to imagine a Know-Nothing-run America without immigrants and respect for education (see previous post below), Bret Stephens’ essay in today’s Times imagines a Jewish spin-off with the same counterfactual premise.

He writes:

“Here’s a thought experiment: Would the United States have been better off if it had banned Jewish immigration sometime in the late 19th century….The question is worth asking, because so many of the same arguments made against African, Latin-American and Muslim immigrants today might have easily been applied to Jews just over a century ago.”


Jews, he points out, were also attacked as disproportionately responsible for committing crimes and of being undereducated, racially undesirable, and unlikely to assimilate.

He goes on to speculate:

“Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprisegeniusimagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?”
Stephens does not answer his own question, but interested readers could easily find the consequences outlined in Hugo Bettauer’s famous novel, The City Without Jews (1922), which portrays the expulsion of Vienna’s Jews paralyzing the city by removing some of its most productive and creative citizens.
Stephens’ rationale for writing his essay is clear – to provide lessons in the current American immigration debated.
He writes:
“Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.”
Stephens’ essay, like Krugman’s, once again highlights the analytical and rhetorical value of “what ifs.”  His strategy of revealing what we’d lose without immigration, as opposed to what we gain by having it, once again illustrates the value of negative counterfactuals in revealing the value of something by asking us to imagine its absence.



Negative Counterfactuals and Know-Nothings: Paul Krugman Reminds Us That Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Apologies for the long hiatus from posting.  Between grading finals, being out of town, and working on my new book manuscript, I've neglected to comment much on the world of "what if?" lately.

In the spirit of getting back in the swing of things, I thought I'd reflect a bit on a truism that we're all familiar with: "absence makes the heart grow fonder."

Social scientists have verified this theory empirically.

But it’s clear that counterfactuals do so as well.

I was reminded of this by Paul Krugman’s recent op-ed, “Know-Nothings for the 21st Century,” in the New York Times.


It discusses the immigration policies of the Trump administration as a present-day version of the mid-19th century, anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” movement, which exploited American fears about Irish and German immigrants.

He writes:

“Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.”

He adds that:

“But today’s Republicans…aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening….Conservatives…have soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.”

In order to alert readers to the danger of this development, Krugman seeks to remind them of the contributions that immigrants and education have made to American life.

But in a telling rhetorical move, he does so not by stressing the direct positive effects that they actually had, but by highlighting the negative effects that their absence would have had.

He writes:

“Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.”

“And that’s what we’ll become if modern know-nothingism prevails.”

Krugman’s claim suggests that imagining the absence of something can get people to appreciate what they would otherwise take for granted.

It confirms that using negative counterfactuals to imagine the un-doing or non-occurrence of key events can be an analytically and rhetorically powerful method of argumentation.