Tina Bridenstine: The nuance of history

Tina Bridenstine

“The Greatest Showman” hit theaters a while back, and it’s a feast for the senses with its compellingly catchy songs and stunning choreography. The history, however, seemed candy coated. I knew very little about P.T. Barnum, the main character of the film, but even I sensed maybe he wasn’t entirely the good-hearted and philanthropic dreamer portrayed by Hugh Jackman. So I did what I’m sure many people did – I googled “P.T. Barnum.”

What I found was a series of articles blasting Barnum, saying he exploited animals and the disadvantaged, including a child and a slave he bought.

Barnum also has some defenders in the ranks. There are a few who say he wasn’t exploiting people but instead giving them a livelihood that might otherwise be impossible.

We like to view things as black or white. Barnum peddled lies and exploited people, or he was a great business man who gave the disadvantaged a better life. More than a century later, none of us will ever meet the man in person to form our own opinions. Maybe, though, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Maybe Barnum did exploit people for his own ends. Maybe he also gave them a chance at employment that they would not have found elsewhere. It’s not pretty or comfortable, but then, neither was the time in which they all lived.

So often, we find flaws in historical figures and we tear them down. We feel ashamed, sometimes even betrayed, to learn the things our ancestors were capable of. Thomas Jefferson, the pilgrims and so many others played important roles in our history, and they’ve garnered controversy in recent years.

Maybe because they were so instrumental in who we became, we hold our historical figures to high standards – higher, maybe, than those we keep for ourselves.

There’s a line in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where one character tells another, “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.”

This is true, I think, of the human race in general as generation follows generation. Students learn the lessons taught to them, and then they take that knowledge and learn things even their teachers did not know. It’s the reason the human race continues to advance. You can see it in the arts, in the sciences, and yes, in society itself.

We learn and we try to better ourselves, bit by bit. Maybe it’s more of a waltz than a jog, with the occasional step back, and maybe we sometimes estimate our worth higher than it is. Even science is culpable to being wrong sometimes. We’re so certain we’re more advanced than any of the generations before us, because we’ve discovered the answers. But sometimes future generations find more information and discover that there are things we have wrong as well. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Sickness is not caused by unbalanced humors in the body.

In that vein, the times our ancestors lived in are not now. Laws have changed. Social mores have changed. Attitudes have changed. I imagine it’s important to be aware of the mistakes of the past and to try to be better, but we also have to understand why people do the things they do from the standpoint of history.

P.T. Barnum lived in a flawed society. Slavery was legal when he started his career. There were no laws protecting the animals in his circus, such as elephants, much less public outcry against exploitation of them. If his actions now seem reprehensible to us, keep in mind that so do the actions of society at large during that time. Wrong decisions aren’t always made by men in black hats, twirling their mustache as they callously hurt the innocent. They’re made by everyday people who are the product of their times. Someday, a century from now, I imagine our own descendants will find some of our own attitudes to be distasteful.

Maybe these people who loom so large in our history aren’t villains or heroes. Maybe they’re just imperfect humans, making imperfect choices in imperfect times.