Sunday, 19 April 2015

Inconvenient history

The BBC programme 'Who do you think you are' has been immensely popular with UK audiences and its US counterpart 'Finding your roots', whilst occasionally nodding to mind numbing US documentary formats, has also enjoyed good viewing figures on PBS. The editor of the US series, Prof Henry Louis Gates (of none other than Harvard University) has now walked into a minor media storm when an email exchange was revealed between himself and Sony in which he voiced his concerns that one of Sony's superstars Ben Affleck, who was a subject of one episode, asked Gates to suppress information about his ancestors that the research team unearthed. The information Affleck did not like to see in the public domain was that one of his forebears had been a slaveowner, presumably something that ran counter to the carefully crafted liberal (leftist) image of himself.

As the email exchange shows Gates was unhappy about the request and appeared to be minded to reject it, but then agreed to a version that left out the controversial finding. In a piquant detail, PBS warns Gates that if it became public that he sanitised the historical record of one of his subjects upon request, he would risk his scholarly reputation. Still, Gates obviously bowed to pressure from Affleck.

Ben Affleck - A liberal for good times only

Photograph: Startraks Photo/REX/Startraks Photo/REX
Gates is now engaged in a media battle to salvage his reputation, releasing a press statement pointing out that he retained complete editorial control over the episode. As Gates knows full well, keeping editorial control is key to his scholarly reputation. Yet the email exchange shows otherwise. He came under pressure from Affleck and yielded. To put this into perspective, imagine a pharmaceutical firm would run a trial and suppress findings about the deleterious side effects of the medication tested upon request from the firm's CEO.

Affleck does not come off much better in this story. Interestingly, the programme revealed that his mother was active in the civil rights movement. The information about slave owning ancestors could have shed some fascinating light on her personal motivation for political action yet, suppressing the inconvenient detail of slave owning clearly deprived her story of political engagement of any meaningful context.

It is hard not to see this as some sort of voluntary Orwellian cleansing of personal history based on the (mistaken) assumption that we are born of impeccable liberal convictions. What we should
celebrate instead is the ability of human beings to reflect, learn and change their ways. That fundamental point gleaned from history appears to have escaped bother Gates and Affleck.


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