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Life as Performance Art

     If you have ever gone to a big potluck dinner or noshed your way through an all-you-can-eat buffet, you know the drill.  Spread out before you at serving stations or trestle tables is a vast array of food. With a plate in one hand, you make your way through the food and take what you want, go to your table, eat, push back your chair, and perhaps repeat once or twice more before you stop.  Sure enough, someone will tell you, “But you didn’t try….”  No, you didn’t, but now that you have had more than enough to eat, you are not about to go back for any more food.
     Finally, just as you are about to push back from the table and ooze out the door to go home and recover, someone comes through the door with a hearty, “Sorry,  we’re late!”  bearing another big platter of food.  “But you must try this,” they demand. It’s up to you whether you can say no without offending them or risk bursting the seam in your pants where it meets the chair.
     There is at least one other place where we encounter this great over-abundance.  It is history. There is far more of it than we can consume, and many new people are adding even more to the table.  Right now, the new space telescope is looking back to the years right after the Big Bang.  Maybe they will get all the way to the ends of the universe, but what will they find?  My money is on a big brick wall. Others keep probing back in history, finding new dinosaurs or possible humanoid critters that might be the ‘missing link’.
      At the same time, everyone on this planet is adding to the newest layer by everything they do or say.  And somewhere in between, some scholar is working his or her way through an ancient library and about to discover a long-forgotten document of great significance. Maybe.  You and I are doing it with every keystroke, and if anyone believes that some snarky message or big of creative accounting won’t be discovered, think again.
     Even the most passionate lover of history soon realizes the impossibility of learning everything.  There is simply too much of it.  Very quickly they narrow down and focus their interests on one or two subjects, and perhaps continue to refine it even more.  Then suddenly, we find something new and unexpected.
    Not only is history a challenge because there is so much of it, but it is unofficially divided into several sub-branches.  They are the factual, subjective, and interpretive.
     As I write this on April 18th, I was reminded that it was on this day in 1775,  that the British militia went for an early morning march out of Boston toward Concord to secure the gunpowder being stored there.  They got as far as Lexington when they encountered a group of colonists who suggested it would be in their best interests to turn around and go back to their barracks. They didn’t.  After some hemming and hawing, and perhaps a bit of trash talk, the Shot Heard Round the World was fired, thus sounding the kick-off to the American Revolution. This is the first sub-branch that is the objective or factual: names, dates, places, and other hard bits and pieces that can be verified. 
     The second sub-branch is the subjective. Depending on your perspective, the British soldiers were heavy handed oppressors or, the boys in red who were maintaining law, order, and the collection of taxes on behalf of King George III.  The fellows who were standing up to them were Patriots or rebels, depending on your perspective.  If you are a member of the daughters or the Sons of the American Revolution, trust me, the men of Lexington were patriots; if you are a member of the United Empire Loyalists of Canada, these fellows were definitely rebels and wild-eyed revolutionaries in need of a good spanking.
     And finally, we come to the third subsection or the more interpretive part of history, where we look at surrounding events and places, what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time, and much more, then begin to draw conclusions.  You and I have opinions; professional historians and academics carefully craft scholarly papers for peer reviews or to be read at conferences.  The major differences are the letters behind their last name and that they get paid for their opinions.
       The interpretation of history means that we can be more creative, and sometimes that creativity leads to new ways of exploring the factual.  That is what happened with the 2005 book, Six Drinks that Changed the World.  The author looked at six different beverages from beer to spirits, wine to coffee, etc., and proposed how they each had a tremendous impact on the development of civilization and related to one another.  The author’s ideas made sense, but were they historically accurate?  That’s not for me to say, but it certainly gave the readers an opportunity to think, explore and discuss.
      More recently, about a year or so ago, The New York Times published its 1619 Project that challenged readers, and the rest of the nation for that matter,  to  add yet another dish to the pot luck dinner on the trestle tables of history. They wanted us to consider new interpretations about the settlement of this country, economic development, and society, but this time from an African slave perspective.
     Six Drinks was highly interesting and very non-controversial; the 1619 Project was not just controversial but divisive.  Nobody had a vested personal interest in different beverages, but the racial implications of the recent publication hit close to the heart. We were challenged to rethink much of what we knew or believed about our past.  It also forces individuals, corporations, and institutions to carefully examine how they benefitted or were harmed by slavery and the discrimination and segregation which continued long after Emancipation.
     It spins off from there, sometimes in directions we like or don’t like. Sometimes a few individuals are so enamored with a new theory that they go overboard and try to force everyone to agree with them.
     My belief is that like nearly all interpretations of any historical event, it must be considered and then rationally debated.  Immediately rejecting it is wrong; so is embracing every word without great thought.  It is for this reason that scholars continue to revisit Frederick Jackson Turner’s late Nineteenth Century theories about the closing of the frontier to this day.  Declaring that he is right or wrong makes about as much sense as the author about different beverages saying that any form of alcohol made men and women quiet and compliant, while coffee fired up the brain and turned them into revolutionaries.  He might be right. So, might Jackson.  So might the authors of the 1619 Project.
     The important thing is to keep thinking, keep talking, and keep the channels of communication wide open so we can all benefit.

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