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September 08, 2011

Alternate Paths of History

In the first scene of the 1938 movie, Angels With Dirty Faces, two boys - Rocky and Jerry - break into a railroad boxcar looking for something to steal. They glomm a few boxes of fountain pens and are chased by a policeman. The kids are going to get away until Jerry gets his foot stuck in a railroad track. Rocky stops to save his friend, and all the while the cop is gaining on them.

The two boys run down a alley with the cop right behind them, and they must scale a wall in order to shake the cop. Both boys leap up - but Jerry was a little faster than Rocky and so he cleared the wall, while the policeman grabbed Rocky's leg and arrested him.

On that happenstance of chance - one boy escaped, the other captured - the forces of society work their will. Rocky goes to reform school, becomes a criminal, goes to jail, becomes a gangster, and becomes a fairly powerful malefactor. Jerry, frightened by his near-brush with justice, becomes a student, a priest, and a social activist.

It all swings on that tiny moment, on which boy got over the fence. It could have gone either way; we're reminded that Rocky had a character of sufficient virtue that he went back to rescue his friend rather than abandon him to his fate and ensure his own escape. It leaves us wondering, is my current situation really the pure result of my own efforts? What if chance had gone the other way?

Of course, if you're one of those people who thinks they understand quantum mechanics and subscribes to Everett's many-worlds interpretation, the notion that at each branch point all possibilities happen in a divergence of realities, then it actually happened both ways - in Version8, Jerry8 makes it over the fence; in Version9, Rocky9 makes it over the fence. You8 just accept that Jerry8 made it over the fence because you're in Version8.

This provides a reasonable entree into considering alternative histories. What if the Allies didn't win a substantial victory in WW2? What if the invasion of Normandy wasn't decisive, what if the Allies and the Axis fought to a stalemate and sued for peace, what if the world became on a grand scale what Korea is today?

What if there was one sphere of Axis Europe and Imperial Asia, co-existing with the oposing sphere of the United States, the United Kingdom, and China? How would today be different?

If I were to dwell on that, I'd imagine that our government and our lives would have been influenced by the continual military stalemate and by the normalization of totalitarianism. We'd probably end up with a domestic situation where civil liberties are suspended and then forgotten, with a military-industrial complex that prostitutes democracy, with a security apparatus dedicated to the homeland Motherland, with little children being groped at airport checkpoints, and with politicians prioritizing their own fortunes above the future of the Homeland and pandering to the base instincts of extremists.

Well, that's a bit far-fetched! That goes so far as to break the willing suspension of disbelief, but perhaps there are more moderate alternate histories. Pittsburgh artist Matthew Buchholz's prints may provide a more entertaining alternate history.

What if the dinosaurs weren't extinct? What if zombies and UFOs are real?

From Matthew Buchholz's Etsy page:

but wait, there's more ---- and it's not just Pittsburgh. Mr. Buchholz has sussed out the cause of the Great Fire of Chicago:

There's even more depictions of alternate history here.
Teh interweb is amazing.


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