Tuesday, February 10, 2009

roots and trees

A president, a former vice-president, and a lawyer walk into a DNA factory.

It sounds like the first line of a bad joke.

But it is just part of my life -- and that part of life where we have absolutely no control: our relatives.

Several years ago, one of my cousins started an almost obsessive interest in our family tree. He has traveled throughout the world uncovering some of the more savory bits of our family. But, like most families, most of the information is more mundane than the shipping news.

I must confess, though, I was morbidly fascinated to discover I am descended from the first person to be hanged in Massachusetts Bay Colony for murder. That another relative was tried -- and convicted -- as a witch. That another relative shot his best friend in a dispute over a woman.

But we were all surprised during the Democrat primaries when an enterprising reporter (the type of reporter who apparently did not have enough to do) uncovered the interesting little tidbit that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama were eighth cousins. Almost like the Patty Duke Show -- with a rather odd twist.

My mother immediately called me because her family shares the same connecting relative. Of course, a headline reading: "Oregon dog-owner related to political candidate" does not quite have the same caché as sworn political opponents sharing the same DNA.

I thought about that last night as I was leafing through the latest edition of National Review. Two book reviews caught my eye.

The first was a review of Ira Stoll's biography of Sam Adams -- the founding father, not the Portland mayor who chooses to bed foundlings.

The patriot Adams has long been one of my political idols. A schemer. But one of the first colonists who saw that our marriage to parliament was based on "irreconcilable differences" -- and there was nothing for it, but a divorce. Perhaps one of the more zealous proponents of liberty in the 1760s and 1770s. And another cousin.

The second review was written by one of my favorite writers: Florence King. (A preference I am pleased to share with
Jennifer Rose.) She reviewed Alison Weir's Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.

Katherine was one of those interesting characters from medieval history. We know next to nothing about her -- other than she was the centerpiece of a steamy novel in the 1950s.

The real Katherine started as the daughter of a Flemish merchant. Became the governess for the children of one of the English king's younger sons. Became the mistress of the English king's younger son. And ended up the mother of children who pumped out their own DNA that has resided in every British monarch since Edward IV -- including the Hanoverian lot populating the current throne.

The fact that Katherine was the fountainhead of so many monarchs did not keep her descendants from warring against their cousins and doing some rather unspeakable things. In that era, power was an end in itself, and those that had the power could -- and did -- put an end to anyone who endangered that hold.

Sam Adams had a better idea. People, living in liberty and virtue, could govern themselves peacefully.

Americans can take a good deal of pride that the Adams DNA proved stronger than the Swynford model -- at least, socially. Americans just witnessed the power of the Adams model in a rare event in this world: power passed peacefully from one party to another.

As I watch what is happening in Mexico today, I pray that the Mexican parties will show the same maturity when power passes between them.


Michael Dickson said...

Three things:

1. Mexican political parties are not known for maturity. Nobody much else is down here either.

2. I also have a genealogy-obsessed relative. I don´t share the obsession. If it goes back more than, say, four generations, who cares? We´re all related.

2. You´re exhibiting much courage coming out here among a group of folks whom I would lay odds lean left that you are a reader of the National Review. In Mexico, we would say you have huevos.

Babs said...

They already have.

Steve Cotton said...

Michael -- I find that our blogger community is open to discussing diverse political opinions. I think I have made my libertarian leanings rather clear -- and no one has taken offense, that I know of.

Babs -- I am not certain I would refer to López Obrador as the epitome of political maturity. But, you are correct, the PRI transfer to Fox's PAN was a wonder to behold. The PAN to PAN transfer was peaceful. We wlil see what happens next. After all, in terms of continuity, Mexico is still at the Adams-Jefferson stage.

Donna said...

It seems that since I have become an avid reader of you blog I am hearing more and more about the drug cartels in Mexico and all the horrible crimes they commit. In the local newspaper I get every morning, there was an article about how far into the United States these cartel members have traveled and that the crimes continue to escalate as far inland as Atlanta. I also heard about a Marine killed by his vehicle in the Baja. Now Steve I know you are a capable man and a wonderful human being, but I am thinking your Mexican adventure might need to be re-thought. In any event, you are sure to find the best of the worst. Some of us may worry though.

Anonymous said...

Political maturity??? AMLO is the definition of political immaturity. I have tons of photos of his antics post the 2006 election. He still seems to think he's somehow the legitimate president.

But I suspect that won't stop him from running again in 2012. Even though Mexico only allows presidents one term. I guess a term in absentia won't count.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where some of us think that "political" and "maturity" probably don't belong in the same sentence anyway.

Steve Cotton said...

Donna -- I doubt that there is such a thing as a "safe" place in this world. If I were seeking a comfortable life, I could sit in Salem and vegetate. I may get a larger does of adventure than I want, but I intend to open that window.

Kim -- "Where some of us think that 'political' and 'maturity' probably don't belong in the same sentence anyway." Is it possible that you are even more cyncial than The Cotton?

Anonymous said...

Cutting and pasting yourself next to Dick Cheney?

"We would say you have huevos"


Steve Cotton said...

Rick -- I thought it was hubris for me to take the "angel on the tree" position.

Joanne said...

I hesitate to write this.....

It is very discouraging to me, to read the kind of thinking that looks like Americans view themselves and their political systems and way of life as superior to others. And it sounds pretty provincial to me too.

There's lots of ways to live this life and for countries to govern themselves and how do we really understand it when we are on the outside looking in? I expect to live in Mexico at least 20 years before I get close to figuring it out.

I really like your next post, but this one - not so much.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Joanne. I appreciate your comment. But it is certainly possible to agree to disagree on this point.

I am a big believer in liberal democracy. But I am a bigger believer in the foundation that allows it to exist -- respect for the individual, free ownership of property, rule of law. Given a choice, I am willing to bet that there are very few people who would choose to live in Stalinist Russia over Des Moines, Iowa.

Mexico has all of the elements to become a liberal democracy. I do not have a single Mexican friend who would not support that end. But there is a lot of history to get past. One of them told me the other day that he fears the James Thurber quote far too well summed up his country: "Time lies frozen there. It is always Then; it is never Now."

I have more optimism than he does. Things can be better.