Rebecca Onion writes for Aeon about taking the “what ifs” of history very seriously:
In October 2015, when asked if, given the chance, he would kill the infant Hitler, the US presidential candidate Jeb Bush retorted with an enthusiastic: ‘Hell yeah, I would!’ Laughter was a first response: what a ridiculous question! And didn’t Bush sound a lot like his brash ‘Mission Accomplished’ brother George W just then? When the New York Times Magazine had asked its readers to make the same choice, only 42 per cent responded with an equally unequivocal ‘Yes’. And as the Atlantic’s thoughtful piece on the question by Matt Ford illustrated, in order to truly answer this apparently silly hypothetical, you have to define your own beliefs about the nature of progress, the inherent contingency of events, and the influence of individuals – even very charismatic ones – on the flow of historical change. These are big, important questions. If well-done counterfactuals can help us think them through, shouldn’t we allow what-ifs some space at the history table?