In the PBS program Finding Your Roots, guest stars ranging from Barbara Walters to Derek Jeter to documentarian Ken Burns explore their genealogy and are often taken aback at what is uncovered. Actor Don Cheadle, for example, was stunned to learn (in an earlier incarnation of the show) that his ancestors were slaves – not of white Southerners, but of Cherokee Indians. But it recently came to light that for the first time, a celebrity pressured the show’s producers to bury his own ancestral connection to slavery.
The show is hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. You may remember him as President Obama’s Harvard friend whose justifiable arrest in 2009 prompted Obama to announce to the world that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly.” A hacked Sony email from July 22 of last year, recently posted on WikiLeaks, has uncovered an embarrassing exchange in which Gates wrote to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton, saying “I need your advice”:
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?
That megastar is actor/director Ben Affleck. You may remember him from his dustup with notable atheists and Islam critics Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Maher’s show Real Time last October, which I wrote about for FrontPage here. In that heated confrontation (well, Affleck was heated; Maher and Harris tried to reason with him), noted lefty Affleck attacked the pair for what he considered their Islamophobic positions on the Religion of Peace.
Making his Batman debut in the upcoming movie Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Affleck no doubt feared that his representation of the iconic superhero – not to mention his own reputation – would be tarnished by a familial connection to slavery. So the actor confidentially asked PBS executives to excise that from his family tree after it was exposed during filming.
To answer Gates’ question to Sony’s Lynton about how to handle the request, the right thing to do would be to treat a megastar the same as you treat every other guest on the show. But Lynton’s response was positively conspiratorial:
The big question is who knows that the material is in the doc 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.
So the Sony chief was fine with suppressing the inconvenient truth as long as “no one knows” and that it never came to light. Spoken like a politician at heart.
To his minor credit, Gates replied that concealing the material would be a violation of PBS rules, “even for Batman,” and would “compromise our integrity.” As for Lynton’s question about who knew, Gates said, “All my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know.”
Gates ultimately figured out how to handle the dilemma: cave in to Affleck but minimize the damage publicly by claiming that Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor wasn’t a big enough deal to be included in the program itself. And indeed, it wasn’t included: Affleck’s episode of the show aired last October 14 and focused on the actor’s more admirable ancestors, including a Revolutionary War combatant and Affleck’s own mother, a civil rights marcher. The slave-owner didn’t get even a walk-on.
Gates released a statement that explained: “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry.”
PBS backed up Gates. According to their statement, “[Gates] has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative.”
After the news of Affleck’s request began to gather momentum in the media, Affleck himself released a statement in which he said he felt “embarrassed” by the revelation, that “it left a bad taste” in his mouth, and that he “didn’t want any show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”
But he needn’t feel embarrassed. No shame should accrue to Ben Affleck, or to any of us, simply because of the sins of our fathers; conservatism teaches that we are individuals responsible for our own actions and beliefs, not those of our ancestors or others of our race or gender or any other group classification we may fall under. We are certainly not responsible for horrors committed under a past institution that every rational person today considers abhorrent. Therefore, while it may be interesting that Affleck has a slave-owning ancestor, it’s not his fault.
But progressives are collectivists. You are not an individual, they claim; you are your demographic. If you are white, as Affleck is, your skin color marks you as one of the oppressors, which is why rich white progressives like him bend over so far backward to identify with or defend the supposed oppressed (as he believed he was doing in his argument with Maher about Muslims). Therefore, a slave-owning relative in Affleck’s past is an embarrassment that colors the way other progressives might see Affleck, and the way he sees himself. So it must be suppressed.
Secondly, imagine if the subject of the show had been an openly conservative actor rather than a multiculturalist progressive. Had the show turned up a genealogical connection between a slave owner and Jon Voigt or Clint Eastwood or Kelsey Grammer or Tom Selleck or Mel Gibson or James Woods or Robert Davi or Nick Searcy, does anyone believe for a moment that the producers wouldn’t have pounced on it as that episode’s “most compelling narrative”? Had any of those actors privately requested that the show avoid mentioning his connection to slavery, does anyone believe that Gates, Sony and PBS would have colluded to find a way to help him save face?
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 4/24/15)