Scratch Henry Gates. He’s in the public eye, yes; he’s an intellectual, yes; but he is not a public intellectual, because it is not his intelligence that he brings to the commons, it is his renown. That is to say that, evidently, what he wishes the public to appreciate about Henry Gates is not his wisdom, but his celebrity, his identity as the guy who made the national news when he sat down for a beer with Obama and the cop who falsely arrested him on his own front porch. This is the guy, not some fusty academic, who hosts a PBS teevee program, Finding Your Roots, in which the ancestry of other celebrities is researched and revealed.
That is made clear in the really shameful affair of his withholding the fact that one of the ancestors of Ben Affleck, a well-known movie actor, was a slave-owner. Affleck asked Gates to leave that information out of the program and Gates complied.
While pondering what to do about Affleck’s request, Gates sent an e-mail to Sony Pictures’ CEO, Michael Lynton, saying, "Here's my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including (documentary filmmaker) Ken Burns. We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He's a megastar. What do we do?" Lynton, who is allowed to be a Machiavellian, since he is a businessman and not a keeper of the flame of truth, replied that it all depends on who knows about the information.
(Gates may have e-reached out to other luminaries about his moral dilemma, but thanks to WikiLeaks’ publication of the hacked Sony e-mail trove, this is the only one we know about.)
Gates’ e-mail to Lynton went on to say, “We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found...Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” Lose control of the brand? What does that even mean in this context? What it means to me is that Gates is presenting himself as some sort of mover and shaker within the entertainment industry.
Since he does see it as a dilemma, Gates seems to be aware of the most troublesome implications of censorship, implications which would bother an intellectual. But if he really wanted moral advice, he would have written to other intellectuals – Cornel West or Toni Morrison, for example – not to the head of Sony. Perhaps he did; if so, it is unlikely that to them he posed his quandary in terms of brand integrity.
This may be old news to most people. I missed it though, perhaps because I snobbishly ignore stories whose headlines include the names of movie stars. I came across it only because the latest article on it appeared in The New York Times’ Business Section, which I read in the loo (fully aware of the symbolism that implies), not because I am interested in business per se, but because I feel that, since we are living in a plutocracy, what happens in business is germane to what happens in Washington. (“What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the country.”)
(If you did miss the story, as I did, just google Affleck Gates to read all about it.)
Frank Bruni whom, evidently, I should read more assiduously than I do, wrote about the affair in an April 22 column. His conclusion is that Gates was “diminished” as soon as he took on the job of hosting a teevee show. But Bruni is wrong about that. The statuses of Carl Sagan, Kenneth Clark and Leonard Bernstein were not diminished by their becoming, in Gates’ term, “megastars” of public teevee. Gates was diminished because, faced with a moral dilemma, he chose the immoral action. It’s as simple as that.