When historians see that their nation is in big trouble, facing the proliferation of protests that raise bedrock questions about American race relations, and locked in disputes over the proper pacing of “re-opening” after the regime of social distancing, it is time for people in my line of work to follow the example set by rodeo clowns and head straight into the epicenter of trouble. We are called to put ourselves at risk—thankfully only of scorned expertise and bruised egos.
Once rodeo clowns see that a rider is in big trouble, tangled in his gear while the animal beneath him is twisting up a storm, the clowns don’t hold themselves back. They head straight into the epicenter of trouble, putting themselves at risk to distract the bull and do everything imaginable to rescue the rider.
To use the terms of our times, in a bull-riding competition the clowns (also known as bullfighters) are hands-down the most essential of workers. No rider with an ounce of sense would agree to come out of the chute on a bull if the clowns weren’t waiting in the arena.
When it comes to responding to the nationwide protests against police brutality and to the tensions between economic recovery and public health, no one in any line of work is escaping the burden of making hard decisions. When all hell breaks loose and disorder rules, rodeo clowns stay self-possessed and focused, setting an example not just for historians, but for elected and appointed officials and, indeed, for all citizens who want the best for their country.
Rodeo clowns would be at terrible risk if they did not carry expertise with them into the arena. They know the turning radius of an angry bull, and they know how to identify the pocket of safety where the bull’s horns cannot reach. And even more important, they know themselves: They know how to make quick calibrations to map the subtle line that separates confidence from over-confidence.
The legendary rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen has summarized this expertise: “to be a rodeo clown takes a lot of . . . patience, knowledge, and timing.”
Even though they have the advantage of a defined goal (“save the rider” is a lot clearer than “save the nation”), rodeo clowns still get tossed around and still hit the ground hard. Here is the most important lesson for historians to acquire from the clowns: Step forward to help your nation, and the next thing you know, you could be landing on the earth without a lot of dignity to cushion the impact.
And there’s no escaping the fact that rodeo is controversial. Animal rights activists abhor it. From the point of view held the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the bull and the rider should never have been locked into a contest in the first place. But from the angle of the rodeo clown, the rider is in troubleand that train has left the station. There is no time for the clown to visit the PETA website to contemplate a different perspective.
Here is what we know with certainty: No rodeo clown will ever linger on the sidelines thinking, “What a lost cause! Let’s leave this guy to his fate.”
The crucial talent for a clown, one second-generation professional told a reporter for Forbes in 2009, is “adrenaline control,” or “the ability to remain calm in a dangerous situation.” “A lot of times,” Dusty Tuckness said, “the crowd won’t even realize that we prevented a huge wreck.”
For half my life, I have been entranced and enchanted by rodeo clowns, dazzled by their breathtaking willingness and capability to help people who are in trouble. For the whole of my life, I have myself felt compelled to try to be helpful. Yet I am fully aware that compulsive helpers can sometimes make things worse.
Still, I continue to believe that bringing people together to talk, with the chance that they might hear each other, stands a chance of helping. When the nation faces a crisis, working together has to be the better way. Along with thousands of my fellow Westerners, I’m going to keep trying. This isn’t our first rodeo. Not by a long shot.
Patricia (Patty) Nelson Limerick is a contributor to Writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a writer and professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and board chair and faculty director of its Center for the American West.