Ferraro's Stupid Counterfactual
Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to appear on a Presidential ticket, has infamously said
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."What makes this counterfactual stupid is that, as David Lewis demonstrated in his book, Counterfactuals, one cannot, in attempting to determine the truth of a counterfactual ("If P, then Q", where "P" is false) simply alter the world in the single respect specified by the antecedent ("P" in our example) and see whether "Q" is true or not.
In point of fact, if you changed Obama into a White man, then he certainly wouldn't be in his current position because this is a state of affairs that began back when he, as a Black man, ran for the state assembly of Illinois. Its my understanding that he ran for that position while living in a predominantly Black legislative district. So, if you turned him into a White man, you will have put him in the very difficult position of winning a seat in a Black district against, presumably, a Black opponent. Now that could happen but it isn't likely. So, you would have to move him from that area to a White area. Of course, it would matter which area he was in. If you happened to make him Polish, you wouldn't want to put him in an Irish area or Italian area. As one can readily see, this way lies madness.
Scientists use counterfactuals in empirical research by controlling all of the parameters affecting the outcome of an event but for one, which they vary. In their hands, counterfactuals do not do harm. They are okay in the hands of other people trained in their use such as logicians, for instance, but shouldn't be used by the average, educated, even highly educated, person. This is specialist stuff. So, I hereby direct you not to make claims like, "If Hitler hadn't been born, Germany wouldn't have turned fascist." Or, "If I were better looking, Mary wouldn't have divorced me." You get the idea. Maybe the best rule is "NEVER USE A COUNTERFACTUAL." Nothing good can come from doing so.
One thing that pisses me off every time I hear it is when some White Middle-Class American Protestant male background makes some disparaging remark about the government providing support for poor Blacks or Hispanics or Appalachian Whites saying that they worked for what they have and these other people ought to have to do so too. I was born to White middle-class parents who did suffer economic setbacks, but my mother had an MA degree from Columbia and my father a BA from the University of Illinois. Already, I had one truly fundamental advantage over many of my peers -- all my life it was a given that I would go to college. And, indeed, I and my three siblings all got degrees from universities.
But I had another advantage, namely a rich uncle who said that if I could get into Rice University, I could stay for free at his home in Houston (one long block from River Oaks, the classiest neighborhood in Houston at the time. I got in, and my degree from Rice helped me get into MIT. I could go on and on specifying major advantages I had, some of which I had to work hard to exploit, but which wouldn't have been available to 95% (wild guess) of the American people. Oh, yes, we can add to my advantages that I was born in late 30's in the United States, rather than in Russia.
Ferraro had become addle pated. She needs to be ignored by everyone. One of the funniest aspects of this is that twice she tried to win a Senate seat but failed both times. Obama tried once and succeeded and he succeed in a state that is predominately White.