Counterfactuals and Alternate Histories
Robert E. Lee would certainly have benefited had he understood the power of the Force…or at least if Stonewall had not bought it at Chancellorsville. But of course, neither happened…so trying to extrapolate anything at all from either scenario is really little more than a futile exercise. Or is it? Believe it or not…I am beginning to hedge a smidge on my admittedly absolutist stance against counterfactual balderdash.
Fear not. I am not embarking on a career in fictionalizing historical actors into dragon slayers, gigolos, or time travelers. Nor am I planning on devoting any time at all to pondering the countless “what ifs” of history.
Lately, there have been a number of posts in the blogosphere and elsewhere grappling with the counterfactual. One such post suggested that I conflate the terms “counterfactual” and “alternate” when discussing this topic. Guilty as charged. I really see little difference musing over the prospect of Stonewall Jackson attacking Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg and South African White Supremacists traveling back in time to help the Confederacy win the war. Both were impossible. Neither happened (yet, anyway…the word is still out on that SA time machine project). So why bother?
But the posts and related comments got me thinking.
There indeed may be a benefit to all of this. As nonsensical as some of the counterfactual/alternate scenarios play out, the mere consideration of such stories might (it just might) lead a person down the road to finding out what actually happened and why an event unfolded the way it did. Let’s just hope that folks can distinguish history from absurdity.
PS – why do people only ever consider the momentous “what if” scenarios? No one ever asks…”What if Robert E. Lee had had a nut allergy.” That could very well have been of great import to the Confederate cause.