Vail Daily column: The scars of our history
Cover-ups are high-risk endeavors that can destroy trust and devastate reputations when they are exposed. In spite of the danger, it is hard to go a decade without a juicy political scandal in which some form of cover-up was involved — Lewinskygate, Contragate and the mother of all “gates,” Watergate.
The recent Mastergate imbroglio combines a diverse cast of characters including staid PBS, beleaguered Sony CEO Michael Lynton, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ben Affleck. Affleck wants the public to appreciate him as a writer, actor, director and an Academy Award winner. What he does not want the public to associate him with is slavery. Gates and his team of genealogists on the staff of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots” discovered slave owners among Affleck’s ancestors. Affleck voluntarily participated in the program and was happy to share the positive PR about his family, including evidence of a Revolutionary War hero and a Civil Rights marching mother, but apparently balked at sharing the knowledge that his ancestors once owned other human beings.
What is the big deal? Other celebrities have more recent unsavory relations to acknowledge. Woody Harrelson’s dad was a hit man who killed a federal judge. Leighton Meester was born to a felon serving time for drug smuggling.
Furthermore, Gates discovered several other celebrities profiled on the PBS program with slave owners in their family history. Anderson Cooper took it like a Vanderbilt. When Gates informed him that his ancestor had been killed with a hoe by one of his slaves, Cooper replied, “I don’t feel bad for him.” On the rival NBC genealogy program, “Who Do You Think You Are,” actor Bill Paxton was apprised of his slave owning forebears to which he simply responded, “That’s unfortunate.” The Mastergate scandal was brought to you by the folks at WikiLeaks, the Julian Assange organization better known for exposing government secrets than the inconvenient genealogies of A-listers. The information was found in a trove of hacked Sony emails that included exchanges between Gates and Lynton. In one email Gates writes, “Here’s my dilemma … one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
Lynton wrote back, “The big question is who knows that the material is in the doc (documentary) and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out.”
“O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
— Sir Walter Scott, “Marmion”
Learning that Affleck’s family tree included slave owners did not change my opinion of him, but knowing that he wanted that information suppressed does. No one should be held accountable for the actions and behavior of an ancestor several generations removed, but we are all held to account for our actions and behavior in the here and now.
Saint Ben’s behavior reeks of image control. Slave-owning ancestors conflict with his good-guy Hollywood image now that he has signed on for three Batman movies in the title role. It also displays an insulting distrust of the public’s ability to distinguish between Affleck the actor and the Affleck ancestor who lived more than 160 years ago. Affleck has since apologized for his censorship request, stating on his Facebook page that he was “embarrassed” by the revelation.
Even more disappointing than Affleck’s image control was the backpedaling by Gates. He insisted in a statement released after the leaks that he made an editorial decision omitting the revelation about Affleck’s slave holding ancestors because it was not the most “compelling” material for the program. Unfortunately the fact that Gates sought editorial advice from Lynton rendered his editorial discretion equivocal. If Gates had truly only been exercising his editorial prerogative, that email exchange with Lynton would have never taken place. That the email referenced the “megastar’s” request displays incontrovertible proof that Gates was deferring to the actor rather than simply making an editorial call.
Whitewashing history should be an anathema to an academic such as Gates, inside of the classroom or out. None of us are guilty for slavery, or witch trials or exterminating Native Americans. These are the ugly scars of our country’s past. Scars do not go away. They remain as a reminder of the wound once inflicted. It is part of our history. Not to be embraced, but definitely to be acknowledged.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at http://www.clairenoble.org and follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.