Blogs > Cliopatria > Ferguson's Sloppy Counterfactual

Feb 3, 2004 6:54 pm

Ferguson's Sloppy Counterfactual

Niall Ferguson has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal (available online only to subscribers) that underscores the degree to which Ferguson is plummeting towards intellectual carelessness. I admire his work, and even his willingness to very seriously go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but that doesn't excuse either a disinterest in scholarship nor careless claims that"history" straightforwardly confirms simple partisan triumphalism.

His work Empire started the trend: it's fine to argue that the British Empire really was about civilizing and liberation after all, if you like--there's an interesting, subtle case to be made along those lines if one is careful and precise enough to control the terms and ground rules under which it is made. But doing so as a scholar, even for a larger public audience, ought to entail a certain amount of intellectual respect for an absolutely gigantic body of careful, historically precise scholarship that argues otherwise both in terms of specifics and generalities. Ferguson simply ignores a generation of historians outright, as if they never existed. This is something that really bothers me about the conservative complaint that the academy is"politicized": it seems to permit some scholars to then utterly, cavalierly ignore work that is disciplinarily very solid, careful and balanced, and to avoid the hard work of actually making a reasoned case for one's own point of view in relation to the existing scholarship and the complexities it lays on the table.

This is all the more evident in Ferguson's op-ed. It's fine to argue that perhaps the Vietnam War was really fought on a matter of principle, and that contesting the spread of Communism turns out to have been important. There's a good, valid, interesting and often quite subtle argument to be made along those lines, one I'm certainly prepared to think about respectfully, even in the necessarily compressed form that an op-ed takes. Ferguson barely even pauses to offer this as a line of reasoning, however, and simply pronounces it self-evidently, obviously true.

What strikes me as frustrating is that he proceeds to strengthen the claim by way of a counter-factual: that had the US stopped North Vietnam from seizing South Vietnam, South Vietnam would today be like Thailand. This conjecture sums up pretty nicely why most scholarly historians hate counterfactuals. I don't: I think they're fascinating and essential to the work of history, and am trying to think about how to do them well, with rigor. In this case, Ferguson scarcely pauses to set up his counter-factual by trying to look at the two decades of Thai history that preceded US intervention into Vietnam in comparison to the same two decades of history in Vietnam--surely an essential part of the counter-factual, and one that throws quite a few monkey wrenches into the works. Throw in South Korea, southeastern China, Singapore, and Cambodia, and the comparative logic of the counterfactual becomes even more complicated. Then and only then do you get to the real political and moral question about how much better or more desirable Thailand really is today.

A lot of work, but doable in an op-ed--especially if you forgo a lot of hired-gun roughing up of John Kerry, which the piece wallows in.

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David Lion Salmanson - 2/4/2004

There is a whole structure vs. agency thing going on here. The more you lean towards structural explanations, the less likely the appeal of the counterfactual (unless you believe in the conjunctive moment). That said, two very interesting counterfactuals of different types are on my mind. The first is the recent Journal of American History article that envisioned Clay defeating Polk in 1846. Relatedly, D. W. Meinig's Geographical History of the United States contains two interesting counterfactuals from the same time period of a lesser and greater United States. For some reason, I have a much harder time with the former (where I come up with all sorts of reasons why Clay's election wouldn't really change anyting) but am fascinated by Meinig's much shorter counterfactuals and can almost envision the circumstances under which they happen, despite the fact that both counterfactuals share time period and, in some cases, certain assumptions (such as whether or not Texas would have been annexed etc.)and the JAH article is actually much longer.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/4/2004

I have argued that myself: counterfactual arguments are implicit in any statement of causality. There is a tendency, though, to assume that the alteration of a single cause necessarily produces a drastically different result (and that you can alter a single cause, ignoring the ways in which that too is structured and caused by its own history). For example, the assumption that the US could have altered the result in Vietnam by "staying the course" assumes that the US would have won without drawing China into the war, or would have won anyway.

Counterfactuals must be very carefully argued.

Timothy James Burke - 2/4/2004

I'd be prepared to claim that all scholarly history involves implicit counterfactuals. Any time you make a claim about causality, you're making a claim that's a counterfactual if there is even the teeniest ounce of contingency in your argument. So it's a healthy exercise to try and explore the possibility space of such a counterfactual--your claim about the causality of what has happened can grow stronger and more cogent if you think with the same rigor about what did not but might plausibly have. The problem is when someone moves from the what-has-happened to the what-might-have and abandons all the evidentiary and logical strictures that governed the analysis of the what-has-happened. Thinking more openly about counterfactuals is not an opportunity for loosening the corsets and running wild.

I presume that Ferguson, for example, is not yet a totally whiggish determinist who believes that in all circumstances any version of a "capitalist road" will invariably turn out for the best, and will eventually be inevitable. In fact, if he really believed that, he'd be completely relaxed about Vietnam's current state--the interesting thing about Ferguson and some of the neoconservatives is that they don't actually have that much confidence in the market or liberal democracy in that they think much must be done with force or compulsion to make them come about and come about in the right way.

Given that this is the case, Ferguson has no business just casually tossing off an assertion that had the United States "stayed the course" the capitalist road would have come immaculately and inevitably into being, and Vietnam would somehow have aligned by fact of its capitalism with Thailand--as if there was no longer history of divergence between the two places. (Hint for the historian of empire: Vietnam and Thailand had very different experiences with modern imperialism.) Ferguson also doesn't dwell counterfactually on what "staying the course" in Vietnam would have required--rather like certain thinkers about the current situation in Iraq, it somehow seems to come down to something as ineffably creepy as "will". In concretized counterfactual terms, that means a continued commitment by the Nixon Administration to ignore domestic opposition (and a presumption that domestic opposition would not have eventually led to the defeat of any pro-Vietnam Presidency in an election, unless Ferguson means that staying the course would also have meant suspending elections) and presumably some different sort of military strategy on the ground in Vietnam itself (invasion of North Vietnam, use of nuclear weapons, different strategies of counter-insurgency, what have you). These are not impossible counter-factuals but they require a historian who wants to indulge in them to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Ferguson's got no business smacking John Kerry for his lousy sense of history under these circumstances: his own reasoning is even more threadbare of the specifics that make a counterfactual at least worth talking about.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/4/2004

I'm ambivalent about counterfactuals much of the time, probably because of the popular misuse of them.

However, they can be an interesting teaching tool. On occasion I have my antebellum US students do a counterfactual essay based on the notion that Andrew Jackson in early 1831 has an amazing conversion and, by the thunder, he will oppose Indian Removal.

It's an interesting way to get them to forget what did happen and ask themselves what was possible.

Ophelia Benson - 2/3/2004

Very interesting post. I like counterfactuals too, and I read both of those counterfactual books that came out around the same time a few years ago - What If and, er, the other one. I forget which was Ferguson's. But anyway, if it's just done sloppily - that's not only doing a bad job, but it helps to discredit the whole idea. Poisoning the well, in short. Bad.