April 26, 2015

Ben Affleck and the sins of great-great-great-grandfathers

Rick McGinnisRebel Blogger

Last September PBS aired an episode of Finding Your Roots, a program about genealogy featuring celebrities who get a tour of their family tree and their genetic makeup in the hopes of a tearful revelation. Movie star Ben Affleck was featured alongside Benjamin Jealous, CEO of the NAACP, and actress Khandi Alexander (Treme, CSI: Miami) on a show themed around the two wars that shaped America’s first century – the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. 

It wasn’t a surprise that both Jealous and Alexander, who are African-American, learned about ancestors who were slaves, but they were both shocked to learn that they also had ancestors who owned slaves. For some reason, though, the slavery thread apparently didn’t pass through Affleck’s family tree, and instead we learned about a great-great-great-grandfather who set himself up as a medium after the Civil War, channelling the spirits of soldiers for their bereaved families.

But thanks to Wikileaks’ trove of emails hacked from Sony Pictures, news broke months later that Affleck had learned during filming that he did have a slave-owning ancestor, and that the star of Daredevil and Gigli had pressured the show’s producer to edit this out.

Movie biz types talk about the “Streisand Effect,” where egomaniacal stars try to control bad PR but ultimately end up amplifying it by giving ever-ravenous media something more to talk about. Affleck’s clumsy attempt to prune his family tree only ended up making his slave-owning ancestors a bigger story, and further research published by the Daily Mail last week revealed that he had not one but three slave-owners tangled in his roots.

Collateral damage also spread to the show’s host and producer, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. – he of Obama’s “Beer Summit” fame – who caved in to Affleck’s demands despite his misgivings, then tried to justify it when the Streisand Effect went gale force by saying that Affleck’s inconvenient grandparent’s story had been removed because it was “redundant.”

“God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that,” Affleck reportedly said, in a segment edited out of the episode. “But, you know, there it is, part of our history.”

Indeed, there it is, part of Affleck’s – and America’s – history. And you can’t say it’s a history we’ve been encouraged to forget. As Gates said in leaked e-mails to Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, “four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners,” including PBS documentary miniseries maker Ken Burns, creator of that keystone televisual text of ongoing American postbellum guilt, The Civil War.

Watching Affleck’s episode of Finding Your Roots, the legacy of slavery was an overwhelming theme, as Jealous and Alexander learned about the slave-owners they’d call grandpa, one of whom made his way into their genealogy by owning and impregnating a grandmother, the other a freed slave who found it legally expedient to own his wife and children in the antebellum South, rather than free them to be captured and re-sold.

When Affleck’s table-rapping grandfather was offered up, he seemed quaint and anecdotal and a bit of a let-down; in the service of the story Gates was trying to tell, Affleck’s reaction to his slave-owning ancestor would have resonated. Digging up THREE would have been bingo-bango-boffo television.

It’s no surprise that Affleck tried to cover them up. His political ambitions are well known, and the episode that ultimately aired did a lot to bolster them, spending a great deal of time on his mother, a student civil rights activist during Freedom Summer. And Affleck knows that by the rules set out on both ends of the political spectrum, a juicy tidbit like a massa ancestor holding the whip hand would make for a metric ton of mudslinging ammunition in any political race.

Six years of President Obama haven’t created a post-racial paradise, and anyone who imagined that it would was either gullible or cynical. “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors,” Affleck said in a Facebook statement released last week, “and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery.”

“While I don't like that the guy is an ancestor,” he concluded, rather morosely, “I am happy that aspect of our country's history is being talked about.”

Affleck seems to think that America collectively mumbles into its sleeve at the mention of slavery, and that even in his industry a veil of silence is somehow in place around 12 Years A Slave, Django Unchained, Roots, Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, Mandingo, Gone With The Wind, Birth of a Nation and countless other obscure, unseen films and TV shows. The fact is that Americans talk about slavery all the time, but it’s a long time since any of them found a new way to have that discussion.

As generally told on PBS and invoked on shows like The Civil War, slavery is the original sin of the American project, but in political terms it’s a sin for which no penance can atone, and which no generation can escape. For social progressives, invoking the sin of slavery can even make empty gestures like hashtag activism feel as brave as the actually life-threatening work of people like Affleck’s mother.

And as Affleck himself has learned, impugning distant descendants with the sins of the great-great-great grandfathers is political martial arts with potentially mortal effect. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ben Affleck’s beliefs, but I’d like to hope that while the cone of shame is being forced on his head, he might have some regret that his country hasn’t been allowed to live like a century and a half has passed.

On the same episode of Finding Your Roots that excised Affleck’s unfortunate grandfathers, Benjamin Jealous hears the results of a DNA test and learns that he’s less than 20 per cent sub-Saharan African and over 80 per cent European. He admits that he gets mistaken for Jewish, Latino and Italian all the time.

“You are the whitest black man that we have tested,” Henry Louis Gates tells the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People with a laugh.

Asked how he would describe himself, Jealous insists that he’s black, citing the colour bar law in Virginia when he was born. Even more than Affleck’s browbeating suppression of his ancestors, this is actually the saddest part of the show, as a man refuses to embrace the whole of his history in favour of letting himself be defined – for political reasons – by a racist law, letting himself be dragged into a past he calls hateful.


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commented 2015-05-14 11:20:56 -0400
The political/educational/news organizations/special interest groups all designed to ensure false wide spread racism persists(divide and conquer) easy to disengage from all this evil manipulation, engage everyone you meet by acknowledging others and say hello!
commented 2015-04-28 13:38:40 -0400
It’s called buying the rope to hang yourself with. Everyone has some ugliness in their family tree. It’s called the human condition, otherwise original sin. Most live their lives and don’t choose to pursue it. If one chooses to find out, it sure pays not to be as self-righteous as the typical Hollywood progressive.
commented 2015-04-28 12:47:34 -0400
Amusing figures of speech. I wish I belonged to a group that was wronged in the past. How I would make people like me squirm with guilt! How I would enjoy my masochistic re-victimisation. Maybe, I’m decended from Roman slaves. Unfortunately, we’re not an identifiable group. I could have a sex change operation…
commented 2015-04-28 12:17:24 -0400
Tarring the children – and even the great-great-great-great-grandchildren – of those later deemed problems by our society has a long history but so does the realization that this is ridiculous. None of us chooses our ancestors and none of us is obligated to repeat their sins,whatever they were. This applies to even the vilest of human beings who ever lived.

Stalin, who was one of the most evil people ever, had three children via two different wives. His eldest son, via his first wife, died in a German POW camp when he tried to climb an electrified fence. It’s not clear if this was an escape attempt or a suicide but as far as I know, Yacov Stalin never hurt an innocent human being. His half-brother by Stalin’s second wife was a pilot in the Soviet Air Force. He was a bully and a drunk but as far as I know, he never killed an innocent human being. His half-sister, Svetlana, who died recently, also never hurt an innocent human being as far as I know.

No one deserves to be punished for the acts of others, even if those others are immediate ancestors. Punishing someone for the actions of a distant ancestor is just ridiculous. It only makes sense to punish people for what they actually do themselves. It’s that simple.
commented 2015-04-28 11:25:54 -0400
I had my family tree thoroughly researched by Mormonite relatives who believe they can be baptized on behalf of ancestors and dead relatives. Apparently my mother’s side of the family was an unsolvable mystery because they were Irish “travellers” who, as part of their culture, were very adept at wiping such trails clean. …..:-)
commented 2015-04-28 10:13:48 -0400
So what’s with digging up “dirt” over some long-dead ancestors? Seriously? Unless they were famous (or infamous), who really gives a [deleted]? EVERY family has some good and some bad in its past. Heck, even the historical figures in the Bible weren’t all lily-white (Israel’s greatest king was a murderous adulterer, among other figures.) So who cares? Am I responsible for what my grandfather, or great-grandfather, or umpteen-times-great grandfather did? If not, why should it affect me, or anyone it’s supposedly applying to?
commented 2015-04-28 08:47:51 -0400
“If you could see your ancestors all standing in a row, there might be some of them you wouldn’t care to know. But here’s another question which requires a different view: If you could meet your Ancestors, would they be proud of you?”
Dr Merritt Henry Eddy
commented 2015-04-28 00:08:04 -0400
Affleck with political aspirations please say its not so!! He’s just not smart enough, gawd>
commented 2015-04-27 23:38:10 -0400
Whites get blame for having ancestors who owned slaves but never get credit for ancestors who freed slaves. There are far more whites who had ancestors who freed slaves that who had ancestors who owned slaves. Present day activists have succeeded in turning the sins of the past into cash in the present and the future. That is why the issue of slavery is still very much a topic in America today.
commented 2015-04-27 13:22:18 -0400
Liberal are INFAMOUS for holding people responsible for the actions of their ancestors.
I say make this Affleck’s Albatross.