It was announced today that PBS has suspended the Finding Your Roots series because of Ben Affleck's having put undue pressure on Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show's host, to delete a reference to his slave-owning ancestors.
When I first heard about this controversy a year ago, it struck me as silly. Does something that happened in your family several generations ago reflect on you? No one is held responsible for his parents' sins, let alone his great great great grandparents'. And even those distant ancestors were merely creatures of their time.
The fact is, we're all swayed by whatever's currently fashionable to think. The Puritans, for instance, didn't just happen to be a bunch of people who all happened, just coincidentally, at the same time to have similar values. They were simply molded by the culture they grew up in to think of certain things -- such as premarital sex -- as sinful. And other things -- such as killing Indians -- as not. Had any of us grown up in that era, we would likely have felt the same.
People who claim that they would have had their current values had they grown up in another era are simply self-deluding. In fact, they tend to be the very types so heavily influenced by fashionable thought that they would have almost undoubtedly would have shown equally mindless acceptance of the status quo 100, or 300, years ago.
So, while slaveowners were participating in a system that was inherently unfair, mostly, they were merely creatures of their time. Their individual characters were expressed by how they treated their slaves, not whether they were for or against slavery.
In any case, my first reaction to hearing about Affleck's request was that he was evidently unable to see this, and had an overdeveloped sense of guilt. Why should he feel responsible for something he had absolutely no control over?
But then it hit me that it was probably more a matter of vanity. Affleck didn't want his otherwise impeccably liberal credentials to be tarnished by any association -- however remote -- with the institution of slavery.
The ironic thing, of course, is that by making a stink about it, Affleck drew far more attention to his slave-owning ancestors than he would have gotten had he merely let the program air. (How many people actually watch Finding Your Roots?)
When Affleck made his demand, Professor Gates was too intimidated by this huge Hollywood star to stick to his principles and face him down. So, he asked his producers at PBS for guidance; in the end, they acquiesced and deleted the reference.
Gates had no such doubts about how to behave with the Cambridge cop who arrested him for disorderly conduct back in 2009: he screamed at him hysterically.
It would have been far more appropriate if Gates had shown a little more forbearance with that Cambridge cop, and screamed at Affleck instead.