People have been telling stories and myths about their ancestors from the time immemorial; in fact the importance of knowing where you come from has been a universal attribute of every society from ancient hunter gatherers onward. But in particular there is clearly something deep in the human psyche that gets off on thinking itself a part of an exalted lineage, and it has been as true in the deep past before anyone had any concept of genetics (talking about “blood” instead) as it is today. In the Antiquity, it was a bonus if you could show your line descending from a god or a great hero. In later times, having a king or a prince in your family tree would be considered equally distinguishing (it still is today to some extent). In yet more recent times, in new countries like the United States and Australia, we have begun celebrating the descent from the original settlers, whether Mayflower in America or the convicts in Australia, proving the shift in the importance – a democratisation, one could say – from the exalted and aristocratic to merely interesting and unusual. The most recent manifestation of our genealogical obsessions likewise reflects the political and the social climate where the traditional heritage is considered to be somewhat boring and vanilla (almost literally if you are a Caucasian) and a premium is placed on exoticism. Thus the quest, now aided by DNA tests, to discover that somewhere along the line our European ancestors – for it is mainly a white passion today – have had close encounters of a passionate kind with Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia or the Pacific; the eroticism of exoticism. This is all a pretty harmless reflection of the often subconscious desire for the multicultural macrocosm of our societies to be reflected in our own individual microcosms. As above, as below, as Renaissance alchemists and astrologers used to say. It’s arguably less harmless when, as Senator Elizabeth Warren did, you manipulate your supposed heritage to obtain tangible benefits, such as special treatment in university admission.
Elizabeth Warren has build her entire career, academic and political, on the “fact” that she was part-Cherokee. It not only helped her at Harvard but it differentiated her from the entire field of white liberal women at a time when the left was increasingly falling under the spell of diversity and identity politics. It’s as if you were awarded bonus points for every instance that put you at a distance from the boring “normal”, and in Warren’s case being part-Native American made for a pretty big plus on top of a smaller female plus. The DNA test has finally revealed that Warren is 1/1024th American Indian, or in other words that one of her great-great ancestors in the 18th century might have been a Cherokee. While Warren considered this to be “strong evidence” of her ancestry (what others would perhaps consider strong evidence of an extremely distant ancestry), the Cherokee Nation has dismissed DNA tests in this context as “useless”, “inappropriate and wrong”.
My family legend says that I have a Mongol ancestor sometime in the 16th century, which is not that unusual for the Eastern Europe, where over the centuries the peoples of Central Asia have done a lot of riding, pillaging and raping. Specifically in the Polish case, many aristocratic families around the middle of the last millennium and onward were fond of keeping Tatar servants on the account of their excellent handling of horses and hunting dogs. To this day, Poland has a small but long-standing Muslim minority of Tatar origins, who despite their different religion and non-Slavic origin have always been very proud and patriotic Poles. While I routinely assign the responsibility to these strong Mongolian genes for my slightly darker complexion and pathetic facial hair, I’m proud to say that I haven’t used my status as part-Asian to claim special treatment or attention, even if it makes as much or as little sense as Warren’s posturing.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr would no doubt be nowadays considered an Uncle Tom who has “internalised racism” for his wish that everyone be judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin. But that’s the whole point of identity politics – you judge people not by who they are as individuals but by their inborn characteristics they had no influence over, such as their gender, ethnicity or sexuality, even if some of these in turn are based more on the “feels” than biological facts (so maybe if transgender people can say they were born in the wrong bodies, transracial people like Warren can similarly claim they were born in the wrong skin). This would not have mattered as much if entire hierarchies of virtue and vice were not constructed on the scaffolding of the DNA’s double helix. Warren would not have given a toss about the Cherokees if Native Americans were not only an exotic “Other” but also a historical victim group and thus entitled to compassion and special consideration.
Mongols are somewhat more ambiguous – they have after all laid waste to much of Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and are not renown for their gentle ways of interaction with others. But while not really victims of the white oppression and imperialism, they are clearly colourful and exotic, and the fact that they stuck it to the “Western civ” probably wins them bonus points. Fortunately, this is all the mutest of points because I really really don’t care, except when someone accuses me of being to the right of Genghis Khan, I can well reply: “What would you know about my great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-great-grea-great-grandfather?”