What in the world got into Ben Affleck?

As we wrestle with our own demons and angels here in South Carolina, let’s pause a moment to look away, look away, look away toward Tinsel Town and ponder this puzzling situation:

When Ben Affleck volunteered to be featured on the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” last year, he was hoping to find “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.”

Researchers did turn up plenty for the actor-cum-activist to be pleased about: a mother who was a member of the Freedom Riders, an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.

But they also found Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on his mother’s side. Cole was a sheriff in Chatham County, Ga., in the 1850s and ’60s, according to historical documents uncovered by Family History Insider. And he was the “trustee” of seven slaves.

An attempt to cover up that unwanted detail has led PBS to suspend the show, citing Affleck’s “improper influence” on programming…

OK, it looks like the Ben Affleck we all respected for making “Argo” has disappeared, and been replaced by the old Ben Affleck whom everyone made fun of. To paraphrase “Good Will Hunting,” judging by this, our boy is wicked dumb.

This is Hollywood narcissism carried out to the Nth power, the ultimate example of movie star shallowness: He actually expected to be able to congratulate himself with a family tree full of people who held only 21st-century-approved ideas, and led perfect, ideologically correct lives.

Where does this kind of thinking come from? If he volunteered for this self-stroking show (I’ve seen a few minutes of it a couple of times, and come away wondering why anyone but the celebrity himself would care about some celebrity’s great-grandparents), why would he not want his actual ancestry to be revealed? What would be the point?

Folks, I had at least five great-great grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. One of them owned slaves — possibly others as well, but I only know about this one. Whatever he was like as an individual — and I have no way of really knowing — there is no question that he was of the class that brought us the Civil War. He was a member of the South Carolina General Assembly both before and after the war.

Over the years, I’ve heard all these SCV types, in the midst of their making excuses for the flag, say that their ancestors didn’t own slaves, so don’t blame them. Sometimes I want to say to them, Well, my ancestors did, so why don’t you just hush up and let those of us with standing in this matter try to address the problem?

But I don’t, of course, for fear that that would sound, you know, kinda like I’m looking down on these folks for being from the slaveless classes. Which is more than a little uncool on a number of levels… It’s bad enough that I catch myself looking down on them for being so WRONG. As the Pope says, Who am I to judge?

Here’s the thing: I am in no way complicit in anything that people I never even knew did. You have to be pretty confused to think otherwise. But let’s just say that knowing my ancestry makes the horrendous sin of starting the bloodiest war in our history and committing treason against the nation I love just a bit more real to me.

Are we not put on this Earth to recognize and correct the sins and mistakes of our forebears? Aren’t we supposed to learn from the past, not just bow down to it?

Apparently not, if you’re Ben Affleck.

Why does his silliness bother me? Because he’s doing exactly what these people who defend the flag say that those of us who want it down are doing: Trying to erase the past, to deny it. When applied to those of us who’ve been working to get the flag down all these years, that’s absurd.

But then, some movie star has to go and act exactly the way the neo-Confederates claim the rest of us are acting.

So needless to say, I’m more than a little disgusted…

18 thoughts on “What in the world got into Ben Affleck?

  1. Doug Ross

    ” Whatever he was like as an individual — and I have no way of really knowing ”

    He owned other human beings. How about you start there and work downward? In the best case scenario, he was the benevolent Massah who cared for his property like a stable owner cares for his horses. It doesn’t take a huge leap to get to a level that involves far worse behaviors. And how many generations did it take to reverse those beliefs? Did great grandpa see the error of his father’s way? How about grandpa?

    I’d place as much, if not more, blame on the star struck journalists who gave into Affleck’s request. It takes a lot of sycophants to create a narcissist.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, and Doug: Thanks for reacting in a way that would encourage other people to be, like Ben Affleck, dishonest about their ancestry… 🙂 back atcha…

  2. Lynn Teague

    No one who demands all sunshine and roses should ever get into an honest study of family history. We all have a heck of a lot of ancestors. They were people. Therefore, we can reasonably expect all sorts of foolishness when we start peeling back the layers. Now, with DNA, we can go beyond the documented foolishness and uncover undocumented misbehavior as well. Done with an inquiring mind, an interest in a closeup and personal view of history, and respect for the folly that is part is of the human condition, it can be an enlightening glimpse of the past. Done with the expectation of proving one’s ancestors all had the moral fiber of Mother Teresa and the wisdom of Solomon, it can be devastating. Heck, if they were all saints with the wisdom of the ages, how would they have produced people as flawed as us?

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, pretty much every gossip source says his almost ten-year marriage is breaking up, so…

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    In Boston and the “Left” Coast, having slave-owning forebears is not viewed perhaps as benignly (or even admiringly) as it is down here….

    My ancestors totally did not own slaves. I suspect they were more peasant than anything else, but I don’t know. I can trace them back to Germany in the mid 19th century, but what they did is a mystery. The ones who came here, never even employed somebody, so….

    1. Rose

      Some of mine did own slaves; most did not. It is an historical fact about my ancestors. I am not my ancestors.
      If you can’t take unpleasant results, you shouldn’t risk being on an ancestry show. Duh. No one acted like that on “Who Do You Think You Are?” and they uncovered some unpleasant information.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Exactly. I am how I am, and responsible for what I do. I don’t get credit or blame for anyone else’s actions.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yep. We should only get credit or blame for what WE do, which is why I give credit to those working to get the flag down, and blame anyone who would stand in their way…

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        And since we ARE only responsible for what we do, anyone in Boston or on the Left Coast who blames you for what your ancestors did is obviously an idiot…

    2. Doug Ross

      Agreed, Kathryn… for those of us who grew up in New England, there isn’t a whole lot of slavery in our background. You’d have to go back many more generations than great-great-grandparents to find some shady people in my family tree. There isn’t even a divorce anywhere in my family tree going back four generations. No criminals. Just a bunch of Finns starting with my great grandparents on my mother’s side and Canadians/English on my father’s.

      I can’t help but sense just a teeny, tiny bit of pride? amusement? something in Brad’s description of his slave owning relatives. Sorta like an Italian guy with a Uncle who’s a made guy.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It’s called self-deprecating irony.

        Just don’t go congratulating yourself for having no slaveowners in YOUR tree. As Kathryn says, we deserve no credit or blame for what our forebears did…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And I say that because I thought I heard a “teeny, tiny bit of pride” in y’all’s mentions of having none of that in your trees.

          Or maybe “smugness” is the word.

          Poor Ben wanted to be smug that way. But it didn’t work out…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Nope, just them’s the facts. My grandfathers were an auto mechanic and a railroad electrician. One great-grandfather dug ditches–he had a helmet with a spike like Sergeant Schulz from when he fought for Kaiser Wilhelm, before he was Kaiser. I don’t know about the others. We don’t worship our ancestors or eat rice in my family…..
            Immigrants in the 19th century usually strove to become as American as possible as fast as possible. They left the old country and its history behind them (they kept the food and the religion, plus all the cultural attributes they weren’t aware of.)

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Affleck also doesn’t understand how media works. If he had said nothing, the show would have aired and nobody would have noticed the little hiccup of one bad ancestor. Now everyone knows.

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