Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Defense of Genealogical Obsession

Someone has written to with the complaint that "My parents are obsessed with genealogy."

They are baby boomers and have been tracing their lineage for several years now. They are obsessed with their new hobby. This is strange because they are not the type to have obsessive interests. Every time I see them, they tell me about Great Great Uncle Jonas who died of smallpox or Great Great Grandma Enid who campaigned for the mayoral candidate of New York. At our last get-together, my mom talked so much I wondered if she was manic (although she has never had a mood disorder). I have never, at any point in my life, seen her this enthusiastic, even about anything that had to do with her children.
Advice columnist Cary Tennis responds with some armchair analysis that reveals a shaky grasp of both psychology and genealogy.
My basic take on genealogical research is that it would be wonderful if the purpose of it were to broaden our sense of common humanity, not to find evidence of some innate superiority. For such are the ideological roots of racism -- a belief in innate values that come invisibly in the blood.

Better to look for evidence of our connection, rather than our difference. [Link]
I'm not sure what "evidence of some innate superiority" would look like, but I'm quite sure I've never run across it in my research. And even an ignorant Klansman would know that "innate values"—were they to "come invisibly"—would come in the genes, not in the blood.

Sure, genealogical research may be twisted to evil purposes, but only by evil people—not by overly enthused baby boomers looking to spend their kids' inheritance. Mr. Tennis's dim view of genealogy crumbles to dust when exposed to this truth: the avid genealogist can be equally interested in other people's ancestors. That's why we answer queries from strangers and transcribe reams of records for others to use. It's about the thrill of the hunt and the joy of discovery, not the self-indulgent ego-stroking that Mr. Tennis describes.

Anyone who starts his research with the aim of finding noble antecedents soon discovers that the paupers outnumber the princes, and that the princes were mighty prolific. We all descend from kings, and all kings descend from stableboys. We're all cousins, and cousins are never too far removed. You don't have to advise us, Mr. Tennis, to "look for evidence of our connection." We can't help but find it everywhere we look.


I'm all about innate superiority. Nothing better describes my Lodenkamper ancestors, whose name, of course, translates to "dirt farmer."


Oh, Dave, you really need help. Consult an advice columnist immediately.

Randy Seaver


Thanks for the excellent post - the piercing humor and the settled wisdom of what genealogy is all about.



Thanks, Randy. BTW, many others have commented on the Salon story--most of them on our side of the fence.


Tennis anyone?

I think Mr. Tennis is trying to attract attention to his "advice" column by stirring up controversy. Why else would an unknown risk showing his ignorance? This reminds me of the Wall Street Journal wannabe writer (whose name I've forgotten) did a lame hatchet job on genealogy some years ago.

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