Last spring, it was revealed that actor Ben Affleck urged the PBS producers of his genealogical profile to omit a distant ancestor who had owned slaves, or at least served as a trustee of slaves. This limb of the family tree “embarrassed” the actor, Affleck said. Obligingly, the producers removed the ancestral miscreant from the program, giving them more time to dote on ancestors who fit the actor’s self-image.
Hey, wait a minute. Can he do that? Is that allowed? Can anyone just switch around a few names and dates so that we look better? Can we pretend that what happened years ago didn’t happen – or that it didn’t mean what you think it means but really means what I think it means?
Answer: Are you joking? Of course we can. Ben Affleck was clumsy and unsophisticated — “Uh, just make sure my people look like champions of justice, okay?” — but he was doing nothing different — in principle — from anyone else picking over the past for evidence supporting their chosen narrative.
Affleck and PBS twisted facts to support a present need. But such abuse of history is what humans do. Not all examples are so obvious. Many abuses serve causes far more consequential than an actor’s vanity.
Take today’s debate over Syrian refugees. Should refugees be warmly welcomed by the tens of thousands or carefully vetted under tight restrictions?
Sadly, the knee-jerk reaction of many is to invoke history — in particular FDR’s post-Pearl Harbor internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. These were American citizens who had done nothing wrong — and no one today doubts that FDR’s policy of putting them in camps was a gross violation of the Constitution.
But day after day we hear that, because this act in 1941 was so wrong, we must not tighten restrictions on incoming refugees today. How does that make sense? The fact that fear of sabotage drove the internment of Japanese Americans causes a bell to go off — ding! — and suddenly history dictates that fear of terrorism must never drive policies on foreign immigrants?
It is prudent to search history for examples of wisdom to follow and evil to avoid. But it is facile and irrelevant to say that since FDR was wrong in his hysterical suspicions in 1941 we may never base policies on reasonable suspicions of foreigners seeking entry.
We can’t relive the past or undo it. We can look for parallels in history and try to extract value. But every era is unique. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking, along with Ben Affleck, that distorting or mis-applying the past is going to make us look better in the present.