As a peacebuilder and political scientist, I get to read a lot of depressing books. So, when I stumble across like AJ Jacobs, It’s All Relative, that both makes an important point and leaves me laughing so loud that I annoy my fellow riders on Washington’s Metro, it is a double delight.
Jacobs takes off from close to indisputable points.
- Lots of very different bodies of research suggest that we are all interconnected to the point that we all probably share a common male and female ancestor. Modern genealogists are demonstrating exactly how millions of people are connected to each other. If you want, you can find out how closely you are related to Barack Obama—or Donald Trump. In fact, these researchers are finding that the “six degrees of separation” meme may underestimate how close most of us are to each other.
- Very few of us base much of what we do on the realities of the fact that we are all related. Quite the opposite, since we live at a time when our “tribal” affiliations are driving us farther and farther apart. Yet, few of us live that way. Instead, we focus on what divides us from Trump supporters or Muslims or Red Sox fans or…you can fill in the rest.
These are both serious points that I’ve encountered in dozens of books. The second one, in particular, leads me to want to tear my metaphoric hair out. If we know we are all connected, why don’t we act that way? I think I read The Family of Man while I was still in junior high. More recently, no less an expert that Sister Sledge told us that “We Are Family” almost fifty years ago—more on that later….
On p. 77, he gets at the dilemma we face well. “Meaning any two humans—a New York hedge fund manager and a Papua New Guinea yam farmer, for instance—are seventieth cousins. They share a sixty-ninth-great grandfather. Even its double (that number)—140th cousins—that’s still a remarkable number. It means humani y’s most recent common ancestors lived a mere 3,500 years ago, in the time of the great pyramids.”
Being the quirky journalist that he is, Jacobs stumbled on a way to help people really see that we are all related by hosting the world’s biggest ever family reunion that revolved around the theme that we are all related. That’s where the humor comes in.
It all started with a phone call from his eighth cousin in Israel who had had a large reunion of three thousand family members. That got AJ thinking. Why not have a “family” reunion that brings people together because they are part of the human family, however distantly they may be related? What kind of message would it send?
So, he spent the next year going around the country (and to a lesser degree the world) convincing people to come or at least support the reunion by being photographed with an “I am a cousin” sign.
He meets tons of interesting and different people along the way. Some agree to come, like Henry Louis Gates of Harvard and PBS fame. Some, like Donny Osmond and George and Barbara Bush can’t come but get their picture taken with “I am a cousin” signs. He meets Hatfields and McCoys. African-American members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Fifty two weeks (and forty six chapters) later, the reunion takes place. It’s kind of an afterthought to what he went through in writing the first 45 chapters. Still, it leaves the reader with some of the best evidence that we are a common species sharing a common planet.
Or, as he put it six months before the reunion: Can you be a patriot and also a global citizen? I hope I can be both. I’m all for multiple identities. I’m human but also American. I think having a sense of community is good, as long as it doesn’t devolve into tribalism.
Oh yeah, Sister Sledge did show up and sing.