Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Politically Correct Transparency: Ben Affleck and Finding Your Roots

One of the most disappointing things in the genealogy field lately is the whole Ben Affleck debacle with Finding Your Roots. It is one of the most publicly talked about genealogy related discussions since the article about 'every president but one descends from John Lackland'. For those who are unaware of what happened Ben Affleck was a guest on the 2nd season of Finding Your Roots, a show hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. featuring the ancestry of all types of celebrities. During Affleck's segment he discovered he descends from slave owning ancestors. After the filming Affleck contacted Gates and asked that the slave owning ancestors be left out of the final cut, which was the final result. Fast forward a few months later when a massive leak of emails brought this to light and people began to cry foul over the decision to omit the information about Affleck's slave owning ancestors from the episode. After an internal investigation on the matter PBS decided to postpone airing the 3rd season, initially set to air in September, citing Affleck's 'improper influence' and would not reschedule the airing until the show did staffing changes including the addition of another fact-checker and an 'independent' genealogist. As well a possible 4th season is up in the air and PBS will yank the episode with Affleck from future airing. 

Now for my opinion...

It is such a shame as Finding Your Roots is the best genealogy show out there. Much better than any of the Who Do You Think You Are programs, most especially the US version. And for it to all be knocked-down in the name of politically correct transparency because one guest out of the 30+ asked to keep his slave-ancestor out of the program. I'd be curious to see how many people who are so up-in-arms about this who have actually watched this show, let alone this specific episode. One girl I know posted a very berating post about the subject, claiming that had it not been omitted from the show it could have started a discussion about the history of slavery in the United States. To me this shows she has never seen the show because not only has Finding My Roots discussed the history of slavery in the United States at length but every Henry Louis Gates Jr. program has investigated the history of slavery in America more than any other historical or genealogical subject. As well it was a good episode and now they are yanking the episode without consideration (as far as I can tell) to Ben Jealous or Khandi Alexander, the other guests featured in the episode with Affleck. The shows lack of inclusion about his slave-owning ancestors took away nothing from the episode as it was full of interesting information. 

Anyone doing genealogy also knows that there is an absolute abundance of information learned when doing a tree, especially starting from scratch, and to cut all that down into 1/3 of an hour long program leaves a lot out. Not only do they have to condense all this information into 20 minutes but they have to also include the introduction of the guests, talk about their childhood and immediate family, and discuss the DNA of each guest (although some episodes have left out the DNA for some guests), leaving less time to discuss each guest's ancestors. Knowing there is such a small amount of time in each episode, how do we know Affleck's slave owning ancestor wouldn't have been left out without his request? Maybe it wasn't that interesting of a section other than the fact that the ancestor owned slaves and being Affleck requested this info to be out they figured it wasn't a big deal to leave it out (I would do the exact same thing had this been the case).

Seems to me that all these people jumping on the 'hate band-wagon' are hurting the potential this show gives genealogy. Programs like this can actually inspire people to look into their family histories and become interested in genealogy. And as a young man who enjoys genealogy a bit too much I know first-hand how few people my age - and younger - show an interest in the subject. With that said, I'm curious as to what is to be gained by this witch-hunt against Ben Affleck and Henry Louis Gates Jr.? I understand the show should be held to a high standard, especially being a show that prides itself in uncovering historical information, but they never falsified any information so I don't see what is to be gained from this. What are people looking for other than the sheer drama of calling people out on supposedly 'not doing the right thing'? And another question, would people have cared so much if a guest had requested to leave information out on an ancestor being connected to something else such as the Donner party or descending from a tory family? 

In the end I think most of the people complaining really don't care about the show and just want to be part of an angry mob. Today PBS announced the 3rd season would now be aired in January but didn't mention a possible 4th season. One thing I've found interesting is the lack of input from other guests from the show. After two seasons with two to three guests a show as well as a myriad of other famous guests on Faces of America and African American Lives 1+2, it's surprising no one has spoken up for Henry Louis Gates Jr. Especially when you are talking about celebrities like Oprah, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Corey Booker, Ben Jealous, Anderson Cooper, and so many other people who make a living talking and discussing topics of race and politics. Maybe they are scared of the politically correct social media machine which seems to have made such an impact in our society today that it destroys careers and families within mere hours of post. But in the end that's what this seems to be about, politically correct transparency. 

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