Time travel: significant people, the surge of history and dumb luck

In The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz’s characters debate whether history is shaped by social cause or by “great men.” If, say, you shot Christopher Columbus, would that change the history of colonial oppression? Or was he just a vessel on the flow of events, and someone else would have stepped into his shoes? It’s an old debate but one I’ve been thinking about since reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, charting the persistent right-wing themes that endured through the 1970s after supposedly being crushed, and resurfaced with Reagan’s presidency.

Clearly the forces of white supremacy, male supremacy and authoritarianism were stronger than most people in the 1970s grasped. And those trends in American life have endured since, culminating in Trump and his die-hard Republican followers. It’s a good argument for the social-change theory of history.

Or is it? While clearly the trends were there, Perlstein’s book points out how nobody but Reagan seemed to perceive them; where other conservatives backed off Nixon, Reagan kept the faith and assured Americans they were good, their country was good, nothing to worry about here. He had a real gift at winning people over and making bullshit sound plausible; without him exploiting that pool of white, right-wing resentment, would things really have gone the same way?

Ditto Trump. Clearly the rest of the Republican Party is comfortable with his views; he’s an outlier, but he’s not unique. If Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush had won, we’d see a lot of the same policies (Bush did plenty of voter-disenfranchising in Florida, and I’m sure they’d be pushing through shitty conservative judges) but would they have the same impact shoving the country rightwards? Trump broke with a lot of orthodoxy, criticizing the Iraq war and proposing to give better social benefits. He openly made fun of veterans. It turns out Republican voters liked a lot of his proposals and were willing to forgive the rest for a healthy dose of racism and male supremacy without the usual efforts to say the quiet parts quietly.

So if I were writing a novel about changing history, I’d probably play with both forces interacting. A time-traveler who prevent a Trump or Reagan presidency wouldn’t remove America’s conservative underbelly but I suspect they would change history quite a bit.

But it doesn’t take someone Great to shape history; someone can be a significant turning point without being an important person. John Wilkes Booth triggered a turning point when he shot Lincoln; when Yigal Amir murdered Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin, he accomplished his goal of derailing the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. That’s not to say we’d have had utopia if Rabin or Lincoln had lived, but we might have gotten a better world than this timeline. FBI Director James Comey’s contributions to the non-scandal of Clinton’s emails was one of multiple factors that swung the election to Trump; again, while Republicans would be just as cutthroat — Ted Cruz was proposing the Senate not confirm any Supreme Court judges she nominated — Trump’s disastrous shitgibbon presidency would not be a thing. Little people count as much as great people.

And in all that, there’s chance to consider. The black death, for example, reshaped European society by massively wiping out a large part of the population. Spanish flu killed 50 million people; who knows what they or their descendants might have accomplished for good or evil? There are several turning points that might have averted or altered WW I significantly. Edvard Radzinsky says in The Rasputin Files, for example, that if Rasputin hadn’t been in the hospital when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was stabbed, he might have averted Russia going to war (he’d done it a couple of times before). If Russia doesn’t get involved, Germany has no reason to send Lenin back there to destabilize the government …

I have no idea for a novel that uses all these insights (if such they are), but I think there’s definitely potential there.

#SFWApro. Cover design Will Staehle, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Politics, Reading, Writing

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