February 17, 2010

What if...?

We are too impressed with the pattern revealed to us...
to remember that for the participants history is a
haphazard affair, apparently aimless, produced by
human beings whose concern is essentially with the
trivial and irrelevant. The historian is always conscious
of destiny. The participants rarely–or mistakenly.

–Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee

There was a time, not too long ago, when historians became interested in what was known as “alternative history.” The idea was to pose a speculative, counterfactual scenario and ask, “What if...?” What if John Kennedy had not gone to Dallas in November of 1963, or had survived the attack? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or Germany had been the victor in World War II? What if the USSR had emerged reenergized from the period of “Perestroika,” in a new and partially capitalist form? And so on.

Alternative history had a rather short life span within the history profession (to my knowledge), but it has always been a staple of science fiction. The British novelist Kingsley Amis tried his hand at it in The Alteration (1976), in which he conceived of a world where the Protestant Reformation failed to catch on, and Europe remained Catholic. In this world, as one might imagine, there were severe limits placed on freedom of expression, as well as on scientific research; but the up side was a society not beset by endless technological innovation, an ever-expanding economy, and a hectic pace of life. It was a civilization that moved at a human pace, one that did not confuse “progress” with a fourteen-hour work day and a surfeit of ultimately pointless electronic toys. Such a window onto the past enables us to view the present–the culture that did come to pass–with a much more objective eye. For it may be the case that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and that the “parallel universe” that got discarded (or rather, that never came to pass) would have been a much better option for those involved, or for their descendants.

One of my favorites in the “alt. history” genre is Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, written in 1955 and by now an underground cult classic. The action takes place in a United States–a northern United States–that lost the Civil War. Instead of being an industrial powerhouse, it became a kind of backwater, drab and impoverished, while it is the South that is vibrant and culturally alive. This is reality in a mirror, as it were; and it reminds me of the comment made to me some years ago by a German friend. “Many Europeans,” he told me, “don’t regard the Northern victory as necessarily a good thing. The preservation of the Union led to a dramatic economic expansion and eventually, to the American Empire, with its destructive ambition of dominating the world. A Southern victory would probably have prevented that.” Of course, the Fascist attempt to dominate the world was much more pernicious, but my friend’s point is nevertheless a valid one, as a host of nations, from Guatemala to Vietnam, can attest to. American history may, in other words, be a positive thing only from an American viewpoint. And in any case, what would have been the ambition of a victorious Confederacy? Probably not imperial, although in Bring the Jubilee the author has it invading Mexico and renaming Mexico City “Leesburg,” after Robert E. Lee(!).

The point is that we tend to take reality as a given. True, there is a certain historical momentum to events that cannot be overlooked. I don’t believe, for example, that the United States would have ultimately been deterred from its imperial trajectory had John Kennedy lived or the Supreme Court not stolen the election for George W. Bush in 2000. In both cases, things were too far gone for any serious changes to have occurred, it seems to me (though granted, Vietnam and Iraq may conceivably been spared the horror we put them through, which would have been no small thing). In a similar vein, the hopes many people (both within and outside of the United States) once placed in Barack Obama have proven to be illusory, as he reveals himself to be little more than Bush with a human face. But continuity is not always the rule; and in his essay “History and Imagination,” the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper makes a good case for alternative history, history “on the cusp”:

At any given moment in history there are real alternatives....
How can we “explain what happened and why” if we only
look at what happened and never consider the alternatives....
It is only if we place ourselves before the alternatives of the
past...only if we live for a moment, as the men of the time
lived, in its still fluid context and among its still unresolved
problems...that we can draw useful lessons from history.

It is not that we can arbitrarily choose a different future; history doesn’t work that way (and who would the “we” be, in any case?). But what alternative history can do is dispel the notion that there is only one right way to live, namely the way we are living now. Not that, for example, a Confederate victory in what some Southerners call “The War for Southern Independence” (or even, “The War of Northern Aggression”) would have necessarily given us a better world–slavery having been the obvious dark aspect of the Southern way of life–but that the destruction of a gracious, slow-moving, community-oriented society in favor of a frantic, commercial one is nothing to crow about. Awareness of this (i.e., beyond the geographical boundaries of the South) could be a departure point for political organizing; and at the very least, it opens the door to a different set of behaviors on the individual level, for what that might be worth.

I trust the reader understands that I am not making some declaration here of “The South Will Rise Again!” I’m just selecting one possible example among many, and one could just as easily discuss the Amish of Pennsylvania as a kind of living alternative history in this vein, or perhaps the Shakers, had they survived. As I said in previous essays, I suspect “choice” will be forced upon us, rather than be something we voluntarily undertake. But the value of alternative history is not merely, as Trevor-Roper says, to explain what happened, but more important, to explain what could have happened. For we are not living in the best of all possible worlds; this much is obvious. But how much more impoverished would our existence be, if we had no concrete images of worlds that might be significantly better?

©Morris Berman, 2010