Finding your Roots

My wife and I have become fascinated by the PBS show called “Finding your Roots.” Historian Henry Louis Gates hosts three people of prominence and shares with them interesting things he discovers about their ancestry.

The show provides a rich and personal history lesson to the three guests and the audience. We have learned many things we did not know, especially when races and ethnicities intermingle or families flee bigotry, enslavement or persecution.

Here are a few of those learnings:

– every family has unusual circumstances or secrets that may not have been shared, as the information may have been embarassing, highly personal or even dangerous if others knew.

– there were some freed African-Americans living in areas of the South and more surprisingly, some of these freed African-Americans owned slaves.

– we knew of African-Americans that fought for the Union, but some fought for the Confederacy, and some of those fought for the Union after their City fell to the Union.

– Fascists and anti-Semites know no boundary. Some Jews escaped Poland from Polish anti-Semites long before they tried to escape the Nazis. Some escaped Russia for the same reason, then had to leave England to escape it there.

– it is not surprising for the guests to find different races and ethnicities in their background – the history is validated by DNA tests.

As examples of this last point, Bryant Gumbel found out he was about 10% European Jew. Suzanne Malveaux from CNN has multiple races mixed in, including Native American, French Quebec and sub-Saharian African. The comedian Fred Armisten found out his Japanese grandfather was actually Korean who fled persecution and was an acclaimed dancer in Japan. Larry David, who does a great Bernie Sanders impersonation, has DNA that makes him a distant relative of Sanders, which neither knew.

I encourage you to watch the show, even if you may not know the guests. Also, go on Ancestry.com and spend some time tracing your roots. It will suck you in, but do invest some time. History is fun, especially when it is yours.

The United States of Entertainment

While watching “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” during the year-in-review show, one of the reporters (it was either Bernard Goldberg of Jon Frankel) made the comment we as a country do not care about news or the real issues. He then made an interesting observation – “We are the United States of Entertainment.” Last night on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” a Palestinian American reporter named Rula Jebreal, who may be one of the best guests I have seen on the show, made the comment about the US – we are one of the most highly entertained and least informed countries in the world.

These two quotes are so very telling. America does not have the patience to be well-informed and some choose venues of news that lightly cover issues of import, but even worse, misinform or disinform in a Machiavellian sort of way. Fox News would be Exhibit A for the last two categories of misinformation, as they do not resemble a credible news source anymore. They have been more propaganda than news, but they have lately gone postal on some of the stuff they have been running. Yet, there are many Americans who never read or watch news, unless it is about sports or entertainment. So, they would be representative of the new normal in America. We are the United States of Entertainment.

By being so ill-informed, we easily panic about things that we need not panic over. Bill Maher made this observation on the same show last night, the newscasters make us panic over everything, but are overlooking the obvious things we should panic over. He made a keen observation saying we should be panicked over climate change. To prove his point, Michele Caruso-Cabrera, a conservative bent reporter (by the way, why must reporters have a bent?), started blathering about not believing in global warming because Al Gore sold one of his businesses to an Arab interest. What in the hell does that have to do with anything? Gore does not personify global warming, he just helped make it more of a known problem. What happens to Gore does not affect the rising sea level or increasing numbers of forest fires, droughts and floods.

In one of my favorite movies, “The American President” with Michael Douglas as the president, his character made the comment which I will paraphrase – America is advanced citizenship. You have to want it real badly. It means letting someone shout at the top of their lungs against the very thing you have been shouting at the top of yours in support. It means the flag has to be more than a symbol. It means people have the right to burn that flag in protest over grievances. This is one of my favorite lines about America that reveals our greatness as a country.

Yet, to the point made by this fictional president, we have to want it real badly. We have to be more informed citizens. Jebreal’s follow-up comment on Bill Maher last night, is you have the most powerful military in the world. She added you owe it to the world to be informed. So, what do we do about it? Today is supposed to be day of citizenship, a National Day of Service. And, on Martin Luther King Day, an African-American President will be sworn in for the second time. This more than anything else we could do represents that America is the land of opportunity. So, on this day of service let’s commit to do several things which should not be hard to do in the greater schemes of things.

– Listen to each other more. Then ask questions about why someone believes the way they do about an issue. Try not to judge. A good example is the Affordable care Act. It is far from perfect, but has already done some good things and will do more. Yet, many have been told to be against and cannot articulate why. If you share some of the good things that it does, people may warm up to it a little.

– Read and watch reliable sources of news. I personally watch BBC World News America and the PBS Newshour. Their reporters are more informed and the subject matter experts are just that. Read varying points of view as well. Do not only read or listen to people who cocoon themselves with people who feed them what they believe.

– Try to understand the source of information. Here is a simple example. The NRA, Defense Industry and Fossil Fuel Industry are three of the most powerful lobbyists groups in the US. The make a lot of money off legislative decisions. So, they have a vested interest in the outcome. At best, they are subjective on related issues. So, study more closely data from those entities supporting their arguments.

– Try to understand the context of things. Anyone can be made to look stupid if a quote is pulled out of context. Also, note when something was said. Someone saying something for shock value as a youth is far different from someone saying it as a 45-year-old. Also, my friend Amaya reblogged an article written by Mayor Cory Booker while at Stanford. If you only read the first part, you would have said he is bigoted against gays. Yet, the point of the article was his epiphany that he was wrong in his earlier bigotry and had changed.

– Talk about news around the dinner table. Encourage your kids to voice an opinion and read more about what is going on. Help them understand others’ points of view. Dr. Wayne Dyer calls this “defending the absent.” As a parent, I love it when teachers ask the kids to read the paper and find an article of interest.

Folks, I realize fully life is short and we crave entertainment. Yet, we have many who do not have the same options and opportunities as we do. So, we must be informed. We owe to ourselves, we owe it to our neighbors, we owe it to fellow Americans and we owe it to our fellow human beings on this planet.