Sunday, June 10, 2007

Do adults need to play "what if" games?

By Gordon Garnos

THE ISSUE: When our children were small, they seemed to always be asking, "What if...?" Usually these were innocent little questions, but once the game got under way, there was no stopping the what ifs. These kids seemed to search into the depths of their thinking to come up with another "What if?" After a while this game got a little tiring. "What if...?" seems to be a universal question for both our little ones and a lot of adults as well, as you will see.

WE OFTEN THINK about the antics of our children when they were small. I¹m sure you do to. The "What if?" games they played could tie up a family for a long time--and most of that time there was very little that was constructive coming from those games.

I recall a story in the The New York Times that told of a growing number of scholars who were embracing something called "counterfactual history." Their self-imposed task was to study the historical record and to theorize about alternative outcomes had those involved acted differently. This was nothing more than an adult, even scholarly, version of the old game, you guessed it, "What if?"

FOR EXAMPLE, what if sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, during a Wild West show in Berlin in 1889, had missed the cigar in the mouth of the volunteer, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, and instead shot him in the head? Would the hot-headed young emperor's premature demise have prevented World War I and the calamities that followed?

With a little research the Quarterly Journal of Military History a few years ago noted that 36 scholars tackled a variety of "What if?" questions. Stephen Ambrose pondered the likely consequences for European democracy if German forces had won the battle of the Bulge. Another contemplated the course of the British--and by extension, American--history had the Spanish Armada defeated the British fleet in 1588?

SURELY, ALL OF US have engaged in such games, whether about public events or turning points in our own or our children¹s lives. What if Nixon had lost to Humphrey in 1968? What if Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King and Michael Jordan had never been born? What if you'd joined the Navy instead of going to college? What if your parents had stayed in Texas instead of moving to South Dakota? For that matter, what if they hadn't met?

Practitioners of "counterfactual history" try to make a good case that their efforts amounted to more than a mere game. In a way it¹s sort of reminding ourselves that of all events are inevitable, that the actions of politicians and even statesmen and sometimes just ordinary people have changed the course of history and may do it again.

FROM THIS SO-CALLED "counterfactual history" assumption, the folks in Watertown could also ask, "What if that big flood control dam wasn't ever built?" Will we ever again suffer as the community did when the floods hit us in 1952, 1969, 1986, 1992, 1997 and 2003? What if the Aberdeen flood wouldn't have hit this spring?

When it comes to South Dakota, we could play "counterfactual history" all day long. Here are a few:

What if Governor Michelson's plane hadn't crashed? What if then Representative Bill Janklow's car hadn't hit that man on the motorcycle? What if Janklow decided to run again for governor? What if that foreign company hadn't purchased the State Cement Plant? What if video lottery was banned from South Dakota? What if state Representatives Sutton and Kauldt hadn't been elected to the Legislature?

What if that so-called gorilla project by Elk Point turns out to be a nuclear energy plant, or a refinery? What if neither South Dakota State University or the University of South Dakota didn't go to Division I? What if South Dakota had a state income tax, or just a corporate income tax?

IF WE CONTINUED this type of "counterfactual history" stuff, especially about our state, I predict we all could get very tired playing this silly game, just as we did years ago when our kids asked, "What if...?"