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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ben Affleck's moral vanity

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.


Shaun F said...

John - I agree with your assessment these people were molded by certain cultural values at the time. My experience with what you wrote about is kind of funny in an odd way. I met a nice young German girl in 1996 in Nuremberg who had a terrible guilt and shame associated with her grandparents conduct in the War. I was like "I don't understand how come you can feel guilty for something you weren't complicit in." I can't honestly say I remember her response. (Now, I understand the German woman a bit better, because of the culture she was brought up in.) About two weeks ago I was speaking with a 64 year old male friend and he stated he was "Ashamed to be Canadian because of the conduct of our Government and the Residential schools." I looked at him and said the same thing I said to the German girl so many years ago. He completely lost it, and hasn't spoken to me since. Some of these encounters are real eye openers as they tend to scrape the veneer of certain people – which I actually don’t mind. Any thoughts? Moral vanity: that is an interesting variance of pride.

John Craig said...

Shaun --
I agree with your take completely, as I said in the post. The generation of Germans after WWII all grew up with these tremendous guilt complexes, but now there seems to be a backlash against that. As far as that Canadian goes, what a silly goose. You were effectively saying something to absolve him of guilt, and he acted as if you were trying to steal something from him. (What? His moral posturing?)

historical guilt seems to be very much the province of northwest Europeans. Blacks and yellows, and even southern and eastern Europeans don't seem to buy into the concept. If you go back far enough, all of the races have shown they are quite capable of unspeakable cruelty; but most of their descendants don't rend their hair because of it.

Rifleman said...

It would have been far better if Gates had shown a little more forbearance with that Cambridge cop, and screamed at Affleck instead.

But Gates is a little punk. He was kissing up to a "star" in one case and hitting down at a lowly, blue collar servant in the other.

Gates' attitude was "I'm a HARVARD professor, how dare you not treat me like a higher being, lowly peasant!!"

With Affleck he was deferring to someone who had higher status, despite being an actor with zero charisma, and ultimately merely an actor.

So the difference is about Gates' vanity as well as Affleck's.

John Craig said...

Rifleman --
All true. I think I was sort of making that same point, though I suppose I could have given them equal billing in the headline.

jova said...

I doubt Ben Affleck acted out of guilt..he probably did not want this to hurt his image, which could negatively effect his career. As a typical leftist he probably has been known to denigrate southerners and their history, knowing his family was part of this southern heritage probably embarrassed him.

with the PC police always looking for targets, he may have been wise to keep his family history a secret. I assume he had no knowledge of these ancestors , otherwise he would not have done the show.

John Craig said...

Jova --
Agreed, Affleck did not act out of guilt; but I'm guessing it was moral vanity rather than a matter of his career. The PC police are always on the lookout, but even they have never gone after anyone because of what his ancestors did five generations back, as far as I know. Plus, liberals always have a layer of protection not afforded to conservatives who run afoul of the thought police.

Quartermain said...

The Streisand effect can now be called the Streisand/Afflect effect.