Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Absurdity of Genealogy

I write this for two reasons. First, the National Archives offices, including here in Denver where I am working this week, are dominated by genealogists. I really can't stand genealogy. Why? It's actually a little hard to say. I think that part of it is that people confuse it for legitimate history and that bugs me. But a far bigger part is that people are always trying to validate themselves by finding famous ancestors in their past. As if being distantly related to James Monroe really means anything today. People always are looking for those famous ancestors to namedrop with like they were Arsenio Hall while ignoring the drunks, criminals, and lazy bums that dominate both their current and their past families. That's what matters people, not that your great-great-great-great-great grandfather was there with Francis Scott Key when he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Do I think my work is more important than that of genealogists? Well, yes but obviously that's subjective. But given that I'm sitting around counting the ethnicity of loggers this week, I'm questioning my whole premise here.

My agitation over genealogy is particularly acute this week because I am surrounded by them. But I was sparked to write about it more by reading Jack Hitt's article "Mighty White of You" in the July issue of Harper's. Hitt hilariously shows how genealogy is ultimately about claims to a past by Americans who feel rootless and how those claims can often turn into racial triumphalism. He makes fun of his own childhood obsession with genealogy, particularly his belief that he was descended by Charlemagne, something that was dashed when a college professor noted that literally everyone in the world could make such a claim and that it means nothing.

But more importantly, Hitt writes about how this search for your past has led to the ridiculous debate over Kennewick Man and other findings meant to show that proto-Europeans were in America before the Indians. Hitt shows how easy it is to misinterpret the "evidence" that there were pre-Native Americans in the Americas and how such interpretations often shade into the rhetoric of race war. He quotes from one website where a white wrote "Kennewick man is older than any known [Native American] remains, and appears to be much more European than N/A, so your people stole the land from my European ancestors who were here first.

Yes, that's right. We now have no reason to feel guilty about what we did to the Indians because they did it to our deep ancestors so long ago. Even if in fact such a thing did happen, this is a completely absurd argument. Our responsibility to the Native Americans remains the same regardless of what happened 20,000 years ago and no "scientific" discoveries will change that.

Hitt also discusses how Americans constantly project their current myths back on to the past. Take your mom-and-pop genealogy for instance. They are always talking about their rich ancestors and how that reflects so well on their families. Or in a more modern version, how many people subscribe to the myth that Indians lived in an environmentally-friendly manner with nature? And how many of these people claim their Cherokee princess background?

Well the same processes are taking place with Kennewick man and his supposed cousins. For instance, Hitt destroys the idea of the forensic reconstruction of Kennewick man's face, as he quotes the archaeologist who identifies it as having based the reconstruction on Patrick Stewart after watching Star Trek.

Yes, you heard that correctly. The facial reconstruction which we've all seen pictures of is based on Patrick Stewart.

Other discussions of Kennewick Man have similarly projected our modern conceptions of beauty, desire, and ambition back upon this creature and similarly recent artistic conceptions of Neanderthals have changed from them as ape-like creatures to them as pretty damned good looking Europeans.

Who's promoting this? Not only the media--Lesley Stahl and the Washington Post Magazine say particularly stupid things, but also "Norse-Americans" who are supposedly reclaiming their heritage by embracing Kennewick Man and other pre-Indian Americans, including a Center for the Study of the First Americans at that bastion of intellectual liberalism, Texas A&M University.

The chilling last paragraph of Hitt's article is a good way to sum up both his and my arguments about the mythology of the European ancestors. Before I quote it though, I should say that there is obviously value in knowing your ethnic makeup and the health history of your family. However, I highly question if there is any positive value that comes out of reading anything into yourself or your life today based upon your distant ancestry. Anyway, here it is:

"Because we no longer read mythological stories, we no longer appreciate their immense power. We find ourselves stunned at how something so many deeply long to be true will simply assemble itself into fact right before our eyes. If the majority profoundly longs to believe that men of Caucasoid extraction toured here 16,000 years ago in Savile Row suits, ate gourmet cuisine, and explored the Pacific Northwest with their intact pre-Christianized families until the marauding Mongoloid injins came descending pell-mell into their tribal haunts to drive Cascade points into European hips until they fell, one after another, in the earliest and most pitiful campaign of ethnic cleansing, then that is what science will painstakingly confirm, that is what the high courts will evenhandedly affirm, and that is what in time the majority will happily come to believe."

Wow that quotation is applicable to so much today. Sigh.