Counterfactual Revisionism as Utopian History

Richard Handler, one of the producers of CBC Radio’s Ideas, has just penned a column on the dangers of reimagining history. His conclusion: the results are always oversimplified, blinded by a nostalgia ignorant of those inconvenient bits that don’t fit our current conceptions. In a word, following Sami Pihlström’s recent deconstruction, it smacks of “idealism.”

The exemplar of such history is a genre typified by the phrase, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” Among the results of such intellectual time travel, according to the sources Handler cites, is a German victory in WWI and — without international reprisals leading to economic decline and political embitterment — the subsequent elimination of both the Holocaust and Communism.

That these things happened at all is Lincoln’s fault, apparently.

One has the impression there’s a lesson here, perhaps about going to the theater more often. But that’s not all there is to the story. Indeed, the genre’s latest reformulation will be familiar to readers of AHP: the idealization of Islam.

Handler indicts David Levering Lewis‘ latest book, God’s Crucible: How Islam Shaped Europe from 570 to 1215 CE, as the next in the lineage of “What If?” histories.

The signal date was 732. Charles Martel (a.k.a. Charles the Hammer) defeated a Muslim army advancing from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers in present-day France. In that decisive fight, Europe was “saved” and so, supposedly, was Christendom.

Lewis argues that if Martel had lost, Europe would have been “incorporated into the Islamic empire. It would have profited from the commercial, economic, technological and cultural levels of achievement of Muslims.”

Europe, at the time, was a backward place. Under Lewis’s imagining, it would have been spared three or four centuries of retarded development. It might also have been spared its horrific religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, which were just around the corner.

Presented so simply, it’s almost plausible. But such a reaction ignores the expert’s response, critiquing the book’s counterfactual musings in implying the result would be ideal: “this is what happens when historians don’t stick to their knitting.”

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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