Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Friday, November 21, 2003

COUNTERFACTUAL HISTORY IS A PET INTEREST OF MINE, so part of me is glad to see it making an appearance in a mainstream journal like the Times. But most of me is peeved at the low quality of the counterfactual here. I'll give Hamilton credit for admitting that "counterfactual history is not only an inexact science, it is quackery." Of course even the best counterfactuals have zero predictive power; the world's far too complex for even the smartest of us to accurately predict what would have happened if, say, JFK hadn't been assassinated. But quality counterfactual history is two things: plausible and non-self-contradictory. Hamilton's work fails on both accounts.

The standards of plausibility are pretty relaxed here, since by definition the best argument I can make is "my fake history is much more likely than your fake history." I think you can hold these fake histories to a higher standard with regard to consistency, though, and that's where Hamilton's piece really falls apart. A mini-fisking:

1. In his JFK-not-assassinated world, Hamilton repeated has civil rights legislation fail during the 1961-1969 Kennedy administration. That's plausible, since some combination of the martyred president's memory and President Johnson's arm-twisting in the Senate were probably the sine qua non of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But what's crazy is that, he has Martin Luther King, Jr. being appointed to the vice presidency (LBJ dies of a heart attack shortly after he's elected and vice president RFK becomes the new POTUS, creating a vacancy in the #2 spot) three years after the Civil Rights Act is voted down a second time. Does it seem even remotely plausible that a Congress that wouldn't vote for civil rights legislation would nonetheless install in office a black vice president?

2. George H.W. Bush is Reagan's running mate in 1972. That doesn't make any sense. Reagan in '72 is plausible. He was governor of California, a national figure who could possibly have been swept into office by a massive backlash by whites against a Supreme Court-ordered busing plan. But Poppy Bush? Where was he in '72? In our world, he was ambassador to the United Nations, a former Representative, and a twice-failed Senate candidate. Not exactly the stuff that vice presidencies are made of. And in Hamilton's world, he'd probably be even less than that, since it's unlikely that President Robert Kennedy would have named George Bush as his UN ambassador. So H.W. is what, then? The Representative from the 7th District of Connecticut? The president of Zapata Oil?

This is a good example of the "real events" problem that can plague counterfactual history. It would seem intuitively right that bringing in more real-world details into your counterfactual would make it more plausible. Hence the importation of Reagan-Bush from our world. The problem is that if you don't do it right, the imported facts don't fit, and it makes the whole project look weird.

There are a bunch of other problems with the piece, and I could go on for hours, but a) that's boring, and b) I need to get back to work. ["On a Friday night?" Yes, on a Friday night. Damn you, brief-writing assignments!] So adieu for now, sweet blogosphere...