"Gilded Age" of the Washington-Hollywood Elite
American culture is at odds with a lot of things that shade its values, character and work ethic. Most notable of these are politics and Hollywood, the celebrity-driven entities that dominate media coverage.
The collision of Hollywood and the presidency with a sizable chunk of Washington's media, which report on the latter and party with the former, has elevated both as cultural icons that dictate not just fashion but values, causes and behavior — or, at least, behavior they consider good for the rest of us to emulate.
That's fine if you are not exercising purposeful bad judgment, especially when confronted with character-defining decisions. Yet time after time, in this new “Gilded Age” of the Washington-Hollywood elite, character is abandoned.
Last week we learned that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. compromised his integrity when actor Ben Affleck — a guest on “Finding your Roots,” the PBS documentary on celebrity lineages that Gates hosts — asked Gates to omit a portion of his ancestry.
Affleck, soon to be seen as Batman on the big screen, learned he had a slave-owning ancestor and promptly pushed Gates to spike that detail.
“We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote in an email to Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment, adding: “He's a megastar. What do we do?”
The only reason we know this happened is that the Gates-Lynton email exchange was part of the hacked Sony emails released by WikiLeaks.
The insult to the rest of us is that only a megastar matters; if it were you or I, such a request would be laughed off.
Gates left out Affleck's slave-owning family detail.
Now, think about this for a moment: Gates, a highly regarded expert on the black experience in America, sells out to a megastar. He then insists in an email statement that he “focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry,” and the slave-owning omission was an issue of programming space that had nothing to do with Affleck's repeated requests.
Not even the dullest of minds will buy such malarkey.
Later, after the issue came to light, Affleck issued a tepid apology on Facebook (because that's what we do in today's world; we post our regrets on Facebook). He said he was “embarrassed” by the potential revelation but now “I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story.”
We all face hard decisions and revelations in our lives; some we have direct responsibility for, some we do not. Yet, no matter from where the arrows come, most of us have the good grace and the character to look in the eye of whomever we wronged and to apologize.
We all make mistakes. But how we handle those is what defines us.
In this case, both men had a moment to show grace and character. Instead, both showed a stunning lack of credibility and trustworthiness, and an abundance of defiance and arrogance.
Gates easily could have said, “I was wrong, I made a poor decision,” and pledged to be more accountable and honest in his reporting.
Affleck needed to say, “I was wrong, I never should have demanded that someone omit uncomfortable facts; I should have owned my history and taught people that is how America moves forward.”
Most of us have two moments to get things right — first, when we do something, and then when we get caught. But neither of these men rose to either occasion; they only displayed regret in getting caught.
Most of us have the impulse to do the right thing; it can be nagging, annoying, but we listen to it. We know we have to live with ourselves, with our families, or within our communities every day, and we cannot navigate our lives honestly and successfully without integrity.
Americans are much better than what the gilded culture of the country's most privileged communities — Hollywood, New York, Washington — produces.
It's not that hard to get things right. All you need is a spine and a moral compass.