Saturday, July 28, 2007

Caution! Genealogists at Work! by Louis Evan Palmer

Genealogy used to be the preserve of aristocrats, monarchists and other pretenders who sought to validate their claims to special status and, more importantly, to various lands, goods, services and loyalties. It ranked in importance with the recording of tax-related information.

Ironically, nowadays, these aristocrats often complain about entitlements for the commoners.

The creation of religions and tribes and nations expanded the scope of genealogy by giving people more reasons to tie themselves to various persons. These attachments waxed both good and bad depending on the ascendancy of the person, or group or ideology they represented.

People wanted to be related to aristocrats in Russia until the Communistic revolution when this became a death warrant. Similarly in France before and during the French revolution. Then proletarian roots became more important. Or, as some did, a person would renounce their aristocratic ancestors and what they stood for.

Some religions like Judaism and Mormonism place an emphasis on genealogy. Judaism because the religion, or its original form and more traditional branches, traced its roots by physical descent through the mother from its patriarch. Mormonism because they believe in offering salvation to all family members both dead and living but need to be able to name them in order to perform their ritual. Islam also places a premium on descent from the prophet which is reflected in the Shite offshoot.

Tribes around the world like the Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan or the Zulus in Southern Africa place great value on lineage.

The whole area of descent from victimized groups is fraught with emotion and recrimination. Afro-Americans descended from slaves. Anglo-Americans descended from slave-owners. Descendants of persons who have come to be viewed as criminals or exploiters. Descendants of the dispossessed like the American Indian.

However, to focus on the major draw of genealogy apart from matters of justice and reparations, it seems that there is a deep persistant belief in a kind of magical inheritance such as would be described in Frazer's "The Golden Bough". We expect to acquire something we're bereft of whether it's status or insight or completion. In the case of medical or genetic conditions, we seek knowledge & potentially better health and longevity. In the case of famous or imfamous ancestors, people seek notoriety, some even revelling in having a murderer in their family tree rather than an ordinary peaceful person.

This exploration of genealogy doesn't touch on spiritual matters such as past lives or spiritual beings who we might be associated with. This is the regular physical genealogy.

The search for roots sometimes assumes the form of entertainment and fodder for parties and small conversation. People run a risk of being disappointed or shocked. They may not be prepared for what they find or able to assimilate the (typically unreliable) information they collect. Persons should ask themselves why they are searching. If they discover that one of their ancestors was the product of a rape, will that greatly disturb them? If they discover that one of their ancestors committed a terrible crime, would that upset them?

Unfortunately, many previous popular expressions of interest in genealogy have had negative consequences and been associated with dictatorial regimes or oppressive societies and cultures. This search embodies a belief, often unrecognized, in guilt or merit by association. It might be best left to scientists as they try to establish the pattern of descent for the whole of humanity raher than to try to raise one or the other branch above the others. You are what you are - for good or bad, your ancestors shouldn't matter. Extending that argument, perhaps estates should be taxed so that inheritances are reduced to some normal amount of income and possessions. We as a society want to get away from backward-looking "born" people to forward-looking "made" people.

The people and groups that are most "into" genealogy probably bear watching as genealogy's most faithful companions have traditionally been ideologues and extremists.

Caution! Genealogists at Work!, Louis Evan Palmer, The Way It Can Be,
Copyright 2007 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.


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