Whatifalthist Explained

A number of months back I ran a poll asking which of a selection of geopolitics YouTubers I should do a review of. I was surprised to see Whatifalthist win the poll dramatically. The few videos of his I had watched had struck me as inoffensive and vaguely amusing. Having now done a deeper dive, it’s clear I was missing a lot. This kid, and I do mean kid, I think he’s like 22, does delightfully nerdy deep dives on European history, but his takes on countries and events outside of “Western Civilization” are sometimes… problematic. As I looked into it further, I was surprised to find that he has a lot of the same educational gaps and right wing ideological hang-ups that I did when I was 22. It’s an odd artifact of our age that he is working out his ideas with an audience in the hundreds of thousands. I don’t think he should be pilloried for it. This was an interesting video to write. If I were criticizing someone with serious institutional backing, or over the age of 25, I think I would have been a lot harsher. But this kid literally seems to have grown up on-line, starting a YouTube channel half his lifetime ago to answer fun nerd questions. I’m not sure I got the balance right. Let me know what you think.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

All right folks, because you demanded it, today’s the day, we’re finally going to weigh in on Whatifalthist.

Whatifalthist is the channel of a guy named Rudyard Lynch. It started out with alternative history speculation, but now seems to mostly be about history and geopolitics. The channel is quite successful, doing a much better job than I do at drawing an audience for similar subject matter.

The first thing to say about Whatifalthist is that I enjoy many of his videos. I am in awe of the range of topics he covers, and the length at which he does so.

In recent months he has attempted to sum up a wide range of world civilizations, and thrown in genetics, Germany & Taiwan for good measure. As I will get into, this breadth of coverage sometimes leads to some very shallow analysis, but wow do I admire the ambition and work ethic.

If you watch more than a handful of videos though, the whole approach begins to grate a bit. My understanding is that this guy is in his very early 20s, and he puts on this old right wing curmudgeon personality that is more than a little ridiculous. And I feel comfortable calling it ridiculous, because when I was in my early 20s, two decades ago, I did the exact same thing.

I was an angry young man, who didn’t like the world I saw, and gravitated towards a ready made right wing critique. I am lucky that there wasn’t a YouTube when I was in my early 20s and the War On Terror was starting. All I could do was send long emails to my friends and family filled with nonsense about how defending Western Civilization required killing a bunch of Iraqis.

Obviously no literate person in 2022 can defend US foreign policy anymore, and I haven’t seen whatifalthist try. But the more I watch, the more I see my old cynical Libertarian but also Western Chauvinist worldview peeking out behind his work.

Whatifalthist’s videos used to come with this disclaimer, which I find very charming. Any of us, who choose to do this kind of work are on an ego trip. But I think the regurgitating part is still true of his channel. And I think Whatifalthist is poorly served by his reading list.

This gets more obvious the less well covered the topic is. Last week he uploaded a China video that I think is pretty spot on. The Peter Zeihan-style demographics millenarianism gets a little old, but that’s a common malady. All of us geopolitics nerds have to think about China a lot, and Whatifalthist is a pretty smart guy, so he sees through a lot of the defense industry nonsense. But when he covers something that isn’t widely discussed, the situation gets pretty bad. Like the Scramble for Africa, for example.

Whatifalthist starts off his analysis of the scramble by beating up on a straw man that I don’t think any serious academic has argued for since the 1920s. Anybody who has studied the scramble seriously knows there wasn’t any economic rationale for what the European empires did to Africa. It was just bloody, evil conquest for the sake of bragging rights at international conferences. Whatifalthist seems to think that pointing this out makes the scramble more virtuous somehow…

“Almost none of the African colonies turned a profit. For the ones that did, like South Africa the money wasn’t extracted back to Europe but was spent in the colony. The big exception to this that people like to treat like it was the rule is the Leopold’s Congo in which the Belgian evil tyrant brutally exploited the Congo to extract Rubber back to Belgium for 20 years, in the process killing 8 million people. However, out of the 54 African countries over a 70 year period this is the only real case of something like this happening. “

So when I heard that, I was enraged. But upon review, I was like no, let’s be fair to Whatifalthist. He couldn’t possibly be saying that the Congo was the only place where bad things happened. He was just making the smaller, also dubious point that the Congo was the only place that was truly profitable for Europeans, right?

“Similarly European economic conduct can’t be described as fully exploitative. The African colonies before the Great Depression in real terms had Free Trade in which they could trade with whoever they wanted independently of their home countries. The Europeans subsidized the industries, and Africans, although they were paid far less than Europeans still got far more than they would be paid in a subsistence economy.”

Now that is some bullshit. Let me give you some things to google.

How about the Herrero Genocide. According to the US holocaust museum, that’s a people numbering 80,000 that the Germans wiped out almost entirely.

Let’s consider the nature of “war” during the scramble for Africa. The biggest example would probably be the Battle of Omdurman, where a fully industrialized British army wiped out 12,000 Sudanese fighters in a single day, with the loss of under 50 soldiers on the British side. Maybe the sorts of books that Whatifalthist reads see this as some kind of great victory. But this wasn’t a battle to defend British honor. It was a battle to crush Sudanese Freedom, in Sudan. The battle of Omdurman was a massive one day horror show, but this imbalance was part of everyday life throughout Africa for 70 years. Any attempt to rebel, or even, in many cases, participate in basic economic life as anything other than near slave labor was crushed mercilessly. The idea that the indigenous were encouraged to participate in free trade is insanely ignorant.

Africa is a huge continent, and whatifalthist is right that there was no real economic rationale for European presence in most of it. There were large swathes of interior Africa, ironically including much of the Sudan, where Europeans were barely present. In those places you could maybe make a case for indigenous freedom and just maybe some economic opportunities. Also, Africa is very diverse. The story is different in important ways North and South of the Sahara too, but in Sub-Saharan Africa if there was something the White man wanted, be it gold, land, or forced labor, the white man took it. Mercilessly.

“In Kenya the fertile White Highlands were designated for their exclusive use. In 1931 half of the entire land area of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was stipulated for the use of white farmers who at the time numbered no more than 2,500. In South Africa some 87 percent of the total area was declared white land” Martin Meredith’s Fate of Africa

How the hell were Africans supposed to benefit from free trade when they weren’t allowed to own land in most of their own countries?

‘A perfect example of how Africa was colonized for strategic and not economic reasons was that after World War II, when the competition between European countries was stopped by all becoming American allies against the Soviets, decolonization in Africa took within a ten year period without much real resistance on the European’s part.”

Jesus fucking christ. Google the Suez crisis, or the horrific independence wars in Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique & more. I mean c’mon. If you are going to write about Geopolitics, you should probably know a little 20th century history.

Most of Africa was colonized by France and Britain. After their humiliations in the second world war, Both countries were very committed to holding on to their empires by any means necessary. It was only the blood spilled by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Kenyans, Algerians, and other freedom fighters across the continent that forced the Europeans out. France and Britain did leave some places relatively quickly, but those were the large, empty, places that had no economic value to them anyway. Europeans had to be bloodily forced out of everything in Africa that was of value. The Portuguese held on until the 1970s, when they were finally kicked out by violent independence movements as well.

Whatifalthist’s deeply ignorant coverage of Africa shows the weakness of his sources. Whatever crap inspired this video had to mention the horror of the Belgian Congo thanks to a great book that forced it into the popular consciousness within the past decade or so. But that inconvenience gets explained away and pushed back into a sea of European imperial propaganda that hasn’t changed much from the 19th century.

I can’t get too angry at Whatifalthist over this ignorant nonsense, because it’s exactly what the sort of thing I used to believe when I was mostly reading right wing and libertarian sources on Africa. Whatifalthist’s coverage of white countries is often literate and sometimes perceptive. And I think he’s committed to getting there on other places too.

Consider the way that this still from the Africa video illustrates his learning process. I think after he started making the video, and started thinking a little harder about what he was regurgitating, he started seeing the seams. This passage, which concedes that the Europeans held most Africans in de facto slavery well into the 20th century, makes the rest of his argument nonsense. He quickly moves on, but I take this text block that he has a conscience, and is growing a bit.

Whatifalthist’s volume of production is a problem. These aren’t just half hour videos, these are super fricking dense half hour videos, filled with maps, big blocks of text you have to pause to read. Each individual video is an onslaught. Claim follows claim at lightning speed. Some claims are clever observation, but there is also a lot of politically motivated silliness. Some historical analysis is very clever, but there is a lot of long exploded nonsense, like most of the Africa video I just reviewed. I had intended to do a broader critique of Whatifalthist’s work, but looking into like a third of the claims made in one of his shortest videos has already gotten me to a longer script than I want to produce on this topic. But I did watch a bunch of his videos. Let’s do a speed round.

This video forecasting imminent economic collapse tells the kind of story I have told before on this channel, though I told it more cautiously. I agree that inflation and budgets will eventually matter. After the 2008 financial crisis I was writing blog posts calling Paul Krugman crazy for wanting more deficit spending. And then I watched Donald Trump blow up the US federal budget with no consequences. I believed everything this video says about imminent economic collapse in 2010. But it’s 12 years later. Nothing I believed came true. The inflation fundamentalism presented here has been proved wrong a million times. If you see Weimar hyperinflation in a month or two of 6% inflation you are either very, very young, or very, very stupid.

The MFF’s chat moderator is from Malaysia and he drew my attention to how insane this video suggesting Singapore should have taken over Malaysia is. For one thing this does not stand for Hong Kong Singapore Banking Corporation. For another the crazy counterfactual proposed in the video actually happened. Singapore’s dictator Lee Kuan Yew tried to run Malaysia and rightly decided it was impossible for an affluent city state to successfully control a country with eight times the population and like infinitely more land mass. Whatifalthist loves reductive theories about culture, politics, and imperialism but apparently doesn’t have much of an appreciation for geography or basic numbers. I had fantasies like this as a young man too. The Iraqis and Afghans corrected me.

Before I watched that scramble for Africa debacle. I was going to critique this wars of the 2020s and 2030s video. Despite Whatifalthist’s considerable critical thinking skills, this video is a fairly dumb regurgitation of the paranoid fantasies churned out by war mongering outfits like Harvard University and the New York Times. It’s mostly warmed over Halford Mackinder and Thucydides Trap nonsense. If you’re interested, I have videos demolishing both of those mythologies.

I think the Whatifalthist YouTube channel is best described as Juvenalia. Rudyard Lynch is obviously a smart kid, and he’s clearly better at building an audience than I am. He’s going to do great things. But he hasn’t yet. Discarding the silly ideology of my adolescence helped me see the world much more clearly. I look forward to seeing what Lynch produces when he does the same.