Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sobel Wiki: government in a minor key

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on John McDowell, the seventh Governor-General of the Confederation of North America. McDowell's time as chief executive of the C.N.A. is another example of Sobel not getting the details of his own timeline right.

The government of the C.N.A., as set out in the Second Britannic Design of 1842, is basically parliamentary in nature. The governor-general is chosen by a majority vote of the Grand Council, the 150-seat unicameral legislature of the C.N.A., and as Sobel noted, "would serve so long as he retained the confidence of that body." The C.N.A. already had a two-party system in place when the Second Design was adopted, and those two parties dominated its politics for the first thirty years of its existence. But in 1869, a third party was formed called the People's Coalition, and in 1873 it managed to win ten seats in the Grand Council. This wasn't quite enough to deny one of the older parties a majority, but it was close. Five years later, the Coalition did win enough seats to deny any party a majority. The Liberal Party won a plurality of 62 seats in 1878, fourteen short of the necessary 76 needed for a majority.

Under the terms of the Second Design, the members of the Grand Council had to keep balloting until a candidate received a majority of the votes. We never find out what would happen if the Grand Council remained permanently deadlocked, because it never happened. What happened in 1878 was that eventually, the Liberal candidate, John McDowell, received enough crossover votes from the other two parties to become governor-general.

Note what did not happen: McDowell did not form a coalition government with one of the other parties. His was a minority government, and at any time, the two opposition parties could join together in a no-confidence vote and bring him down. Those of my readers who live in countries with parliementary governments know how unstable a minority government is.

Astonishingly enough, despite being head of a minority government, McDowell made it through an entire five-year term of office without ever facing a no-confidence vote. In 1888, McDowell's successor, Ezra Gallivan of the People's Coalition, also found himself at the head of a minority government, and he too made it through an entire five-year term of office without ever facing a no-confidence vote.

The trouble was that Sobel, being an American, just couldn't make the necessary conceptual leap. Of course a chief executive won't fall from power just because his government doesn't have a legislative majority. So McDowell made it all the way through his first term of office, and Gallivan made it all the way through his.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sobel Wiki: Disunited Empire Disloyalists

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is another one of the really core articles: the State of Jefferson. As I've noted before, For Want of a Nail can be seen as a whole series of events from our history going the other way, starting with the subtitular Battle of Saratoga. The founding of Jefferson in 1782 is the next in line after Burgoyne's victory. In our own history, the American victory in the Revolutionary War led to thousands of Loyalists emigrating to Nova Scotia and Quebec, thereby creating the bilingual Canada that serves as a Loyalist counterpart to the United States of America. In the Sobel Timeline, the American defeat in the war leads to thousands of Patriots emigrating to Spanish Texas, thereby creating the bilingual Mexico that serves as a Patriot counterpart to the Confederation of North America.

One of Noel Maurer's biggest complaints about Nail was that Sobel just didn't know enough about Mexico to create a plausible alternate version of it. Sobel's description of Spanish Texas in the early 1780s is a pretty good illustration of this. Sobel speaks of Texas* having three main areas of Spanish settlement, which was true. Then he names them: San Antonio, Espiritu Santo, and San Xavier. San Antonio is right on the money, but Espiritu Santo? There was a settlement about a hundred miles down the San Antonio River from San Antonio, and it was partly based on a mission called Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga that was founded in 1722, but that settlement was called La Bahía, not Espíritu Santo. And San Xavier? There were several short-lived missions named after St. Francis Xavier, but they had all been abandoned by 1782. The third chief settlement in Spanish Texas at the time was called Nacogdoches.

Now, I know they didn't have the internet back in 1971, but Sobel was a college professor with all the resources of Hofstra University at his command. How hard would it have been for him to find a book on Spanish Texas and get the names right?

*One of Sobel's little jokes in Nail is that he invariably refers to Texas as Jefferson, the name given to it by its American settlers. Sobel was messing with Texas!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FAN #313: "Uncommon Women" by David Mix Barrington

Up today at the Sobel Wiki is the new latest For All Nails vignette, #313: "Uncommon Women" by David Mix Barrington, in which Dave MB's Sobel Timeline alter-ego enjoys an outing with his girlfriend in August 1976.

This is the first new FAN vignette to be written entirely by someone who wasn't me since Mike "President Chester A. Arthur" Davis posted his last Martin Cole vignette two years and eight days ago. (There were two other non-Pez vignettes posted to soc.history.what-if in the interval, but both Jonathan Edelstein's "Domestic Scene" from exactly two years ago, and Dave's "Notes from the Investigation, Part 2" from last August 25, were largely written in the early oughts, and only completed and posted after I started the ball rolling again two and a half years ago.)

It pleases me no end to see For All Nails continuing its slow but inexorable revival, so I'd like to take this opportunity to remind the members of my vast global audience that the resurrected FAN Cabal is open to anyone who wants to take a whack at extending the Sobel Timeline, whether they were part of the original Cabal or not.

"Uncommon Women" was also posted to shw-i earlier today.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sobel Wiki: rocky mountain way

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on the Rocky Mountain War, which is pretty much the central event in For Want of a Nail... (and I'm not just saying that because I wrote half a dozen For All Nails vignettes about the war). As Sobel says in the first paragraph of his preface, the United States of Mexico and the Confederation of North America are more than neighbors, they're more like cousins. They were both offspring of the American Revolution (or, as it's known in the Sobel Timeline, the North American Rebellion), but they took different paths afterwards. You could say much the same thing about our world's U.S.A. and Canada, but those two countries are, as Trudeau famously observed, like a mouse beside an elephant. Sobel created a world where the Patriots and the Loyalists each got their own country, and the two countries were an even match for each other.

"Robert Sobel", the Australian business historian who is the nominal author of Nail, is a firm believer in the idea that the two nations are natural enemies, have always been so, and will always be so. He plays this theme up throughout the book, in spite of considerable evidence in the narrative that it isn't so. To cite one instance, Simon Cardenes, Mexico's leading author in the late 19th century, is also a particular favorite among North Americans, and when Mexican dictator Benito Hermión names him the U.S.M.'s ambassador to the C.N.A., Sobel lauds Hermión for making an excellent choice.

But there are a few instances where the two countries are genuinely hostile to each other, and the Rocky Mountain War is the most serious one. It's an eight-year-long all-out war between the two countries, and "Robert Sobel", the anti-Mexican ideologue, makes the most of it. Chapter 11, "California Gold", ends with a growing series of border clashes between the two countries in the late summer of 1845. Chapter 12, "The Rocky Mountain War", sees the clashes grow into full scale war between the two countries, as the C.N.A. carries out a series of invasions of the U.S.M., each more costly than the last. The chapter ends with growing popular opposition to the war in both nations resulting in the election of peace candidates in each. Chapter 13, "The C.N.A.: The Corruption of Progress", begins with the two national leaders agreeing to a truce in the summer of 1853, with the signing of a peace treaty two years later.

The war is a defining moment for both countries. The cost of the war permanently sours the people of the C.N.A. on imperialism, and the country becomes isolationist and pacifistic, even as the world's other major powers are swept up in a constant struggle for overseas colonies that ends in worldwide war in the 20th century. For the Mexicans, the war has the opposite effect. The territorial losses suffered in the peace agreement, minor though they are, cause the U.S.M. to become steadily more militant over time, carving out a colonial empire that includes much of South America and a significant section of Asia, culminating in an unprovoked attack on Japan in 1942.

For Want of a Nail... ends in 1971, with the C.N.A. and U.S.M. seemingly replicating the slow descent towards war of the 1840s. The discovery of a Mexican spy ring in the C.N.A. in 1969 causes the two nations to break off relations and close their borders, and guerrilla activity has begun to break out along the long border. In For All Nails, the two nations achieve a detente, and even form a tentative military alliance in the mid-1970s, but I don't think that's how Sobel meant the story to end.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The siblings and the credit card

Once there were two siblings who had worked out a financial arrangement. One sibling would decide what they ought to buy, and the other sibling would go out and buy it. The second sibling would use a credit card to pay for the things the first sibling said to buy, and every month the credit card company would send them a statement.

Part of the siblings' financial arrangement was that the first sibling would have to give permission before the second sibling could pay the credit card bill. The second sibling had come to think of the first sibling's permission as a mere formality, and so it seemed at first. Then, one month, after the credit card statement arrived, the first sibling said, "I'm not going to give you permission to pay the credit card bill unless you make it worth my while."

Needless to say, this left the second sibling in a quandry as to how to respond to the first sibling. One alternative was for the second sibling to say, "Well then, I won't pay the credit card bill. The credit card company will cancel the card, and we'll both starve to death." In other words, the second sibling could call the first sibling's bluff. The trouble with that idea was that it might not be a bluff. The first sibling was more than a little suicidal, and had been known to remark from time to time that it would be for the best if the two of them did starve to death.

Another alternative would be for the second sibling to say, "Fine. I'll give you whatever you want as long as you give me permission to pay the credit card bill." But the second sibling knew that that wouldn't be the end of it. Once it had been established that the first sibling could use the payment of the credit card bill to blackmail the second sibling, the second sibling would be in thrall to the first sibling for the rest of their lives.

Yet another alternative would be for the second sibling to say, "I'm legally obligated to protect our credit rating, so I'm going to pay the credit card bill whether you give me permission or not." That would take care of the credit card bill, but it would also cause a rift between the two siblings. The first sibling would sue the second sibling for violating their financial arrangement, and the case would end up being tried by a third sibling who was a judge. The second sibling knew that the third sibling was rather unstable, so there was no way of knowing who the third sibling would decide for. Even worse, the first sibling might have the second sibling arrested; the second sibling knew this for a fact, because the first sibling had done that very thing not too long before, after finding the second sibling in a compromising position. The second sibling had been aquitted before, and would doubtless be aquitted this time, but being arrested was a traumatic experience that the second sibling wouldn't lightly risk.

Then a thought occurred to the second sibling. Some time before, the first sibling had given permission for the second sibling to raise money by baking and selling smiley-face cookies. It seemed silly at first thought, but it might well be possible for the second sibling to bake a very special smiley-face cookie, and use that to pay the credit card bill. Of course, it might not be possible, and either way, there was always the risk that paying the credit card bill with a smiley-face cookie might also provoke the first sibling into suing or arresting the second sibling.

The second sibling stood and pondered what to do . . .

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sobel Wiki: Sobel and the feudal spirit

Back during the golden age of the soc.history.what-if newsgroup (which is to say, back when I was regularly posting there, roughly 1999 - 2005), the forum was plagued by a rather peculiar internet troll. As is often the case with internet trolls, he appeared under a series of different pseudonyms, as he would be banned for his trollery, and then return under a new name (and usually a new ISP). However, despite his many nyms, he was known among the forum's regular posters by his original pseudonym: Quonster. As is also often the case with internet trolls, Quonster was not there to cause random disruption just for the hell of it. Quonster had a Cause, and for reasons beyond comprehension he meant to use shw-i to propagandize for his Cause.

In Quonster's case, the cause was absolute monarchy, with the attendant institutions of a powerful landed hereditary aristocracy, and a rigidly defined caste system based on aristocratic lineage (or "pedigree" as Quonster put it). Quonster was fixated upon Wilhelmine Germany as the perfect exemplar of his ideal society. Like many other people with a poor understanding of the society of the European Middle Ages, Quonster fixed on the word "feudalism" as a label for absolute-monarchy-with-attendant-hereditary-aristocracy, and used it incessantly (in fact, one of his many pseudonyms was "Feudalist").

This is all by way of introducing this week's featured article on the Sobel Wiki: the Bloody Eighties, a period of anarchy and social upheaval that swept Europe in the early 1880s. In the Sobel Timeline, the failure of the American Revolution was followed eleven years later by the failure of the French Revolution, thereby avoiding the political and social upheavals that Europe experienced in our history from 1789 to 1815. However, in the Sobel Timeline, the upheavals were not prevented, but only delayed for ninety years, with the fall of the aristocratic order finally taking place during the Bloody Eighties.

When Sobel talks about the traditional aristocratic order in his chapter on the Bloody Eighties, he refers to it as "feudalism" in exactly the same way Quonster did, to mean absolute-monarchy-with-attendant-hereditary-aristocracy. This might be evidence that Robert Sobel, specialist in modern American business history, was too tightly focused on his own speciality to realize that feudalism doesn't mean what he thinks it means.

On the other hand, it's important to distinguish between our timeline's Robert Sobel, and the Robert Sobel who is native to the Sobel Timeline, and who is the putative author of For Want of a Nail. Alt-Sobel, as we might call him, is a very different person, with a very different background, from our own Sobel. He can be thought of as the fictional narrator of Nail, with our Sobel engaging in the novelist's craft of writing the book in the persona of this fictional narrator.

In a review of Nail published in the New York Post, Martha MacGregor noted that the book "is a spoof, and the spoof is in its form -- too many footnotes, too much bibliography, too dense detail." So it's not unreasonable to suppose that Sobel was having some fun at the expense of the author of this tediously written tome, by having him misunderstand what feudalism actually was.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Impeachment poll update with extra added Benghazi

Two months ago, I established the Johnny Pez Obama impeachment poll, asking blog readers which alleged high crime and misdemeanor the House Republicans would cite when they impeached President Obama at some point during his second term. A month ago, the poll was up to ten votes; since then, it has risen to eighteen.

As was the case a month ago, the Benghazi attack is leading the results, now up to seven votes. As was also the case a month ago, an equal number of voters believe Obama will make it through his second term without being impeached, while the remainder all voted for "something else".

And of course the Benghazi conspiracy theory remains in the news, with the latest wrinkle being conservative accusations that Secretary of State Clinton is faking her recent concussion and blood clot in order to avoid testifying about Benghazi.

My blog readers may be wondering what it is about the Benghazi attack that has driven conservatives into their current frenzy of conspiracy-mongering. I know it had me deeply puzzled. So I started looking into the conspiracy theories, to see what insight they could give me into the conservative mind.

The conspiracy theories are many and varied, but they all boil down to accusations that Obama could have prevented the attacks and/or wiped out the attackers, but chose not to. This actually makes sense, when you remember that one of the oldest right-wing Obama conspiracies is the "secret Muslim" conspiracy: the belief that Obama is, and always has been, a fanatical Muslim who was only pretending to be a Christian to further his fiendish scheme to Muslimify the United States of America. Add that in, and you can see what's going on. The wingnuts believe that Obama let the attack on the Benghazi compound take place because, being a Muslim himself, he wants the terrorists to win.

That is the unspoken assumption underlying the whole Benghazi madness: one of the weirder Obama conspiracy theories. Remember that the next time some wingnut brings up Benghazi, because it lets you know what he really believes about Barack Obama.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

See what you miss when you don't pay attention?

I've definitely got to spend more time parked in front of my computer, because somehow I missed this fantastic rant by Lindy West of Jezebel back when it first appeared in October. Stil, better late than never.