Friday, May 12, 2006

Sorry is the easiest word

From the Guardian:

There's a big debate in Bristol tonight about whether or not the city should formally apologise for its prominent and financially rewarding role in the slave trade. Liverpool, the other main British slave port, has already done just this, and there is a growing penchant for groups that see themselves as victims of past injustices to demand an apology from their former oppressors. It's easy to make fun of the trend, but I'd like to treat the issue unjocularly.

The Queen is said to have apologised to the Maori of New Zealand, to the Indians over the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, and even to the Acadians of Canada (for their deportation in the 18th century), but on closer inspection these were apologies by implication, symbolic rather than direct. I cannot trace her having uttered or written the word "apology". Careful study of Tony Blair's supposed apology over Ireland's potato famine in the mid-19th century reveals a lesser admission: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy." That's far from the present government saying sorry. A few years ago, Blair almost ruined an international conference with his refusal to commit the British government to apologising for slavery.

Pope John Paul II apologised unreservedly to Aborigines for past injustices by the Roman Catholic Church , but a similar apology has not been forthcoming from the Australian government, whose predecessors were directly responsible for the maltreatment of the country's indigenous people. Prime Minister John Howard has frequently expressed regret at the behaviour of past administrations, and its appalling consequences, but has firmly resisted calls for an apology, which would, he argues, suggest that his government is somehow to blame.

That's the real issue. Can you apologise for something you didn't do?

As a Bristolian I would like to apologise unreservedly for the slave trade, as a Briton for the movie Love Actually, as a white westerner for McDonalds, as a Catholic for the numerous worthless apologies by the Pope, as a Darwinist for Orrin Judd, and as a human being for the extinction of the dodo.


Blogger Bret said...

But McDonalds is the pinnacle of human success! Nothing to be sorry about there. (Of course being not being an American you don't deserve any of the credit anyway).

May 12, 2006 8:03 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

(Of course being not being an American you don't deserve any of the credit anyway).

That is a brilliant observation, Bret.

White males were pretty much exclusively responsible for ending slavery in the US.

White males were pretty much responsible for the institution of slavery in the US.

Since anyone not needing continuous supervision would risk hernia-induding laughter should I claim credit for the former, by what stretch of the imagination can I be assessed blame for the latter?

Expressing regret for a turn of events (as the Queen has done) is one thing, but an apology in the absence of blame is the emptiest exercise possible.


Your apologies caused another coffee-spew event.

May 12, 2006 8:46 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'd like to apologize for the Mongol invasion.

Now, what do I get?

May 12, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't think that the apologies are a bad thing, but they can be taken too far. Though the current US government isn't to blame for slavery that was approved of and allowed by past US governments, it is a symbolic gesture that acknowledges the abuses of past governments. This is a notion that is alien to people nowadays, but it was once assumed that children, families, governments, etc, inherited the sins of their ancestors. I am glad that we no longer take this notion literally, but I think there is merit in maintaining it symbolically.

May 12, 2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I would like to apologize to our British friends for Madonna.

May 12, 2006 11:25 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I haven't noticed many apologies coming back the other way. If my government has to apologize for slavery, how about the governments of Africa?

They were all involved in slavery -- some, like Algeria, had no other function -- and Americans were the slaves.

If we were all to apologize, by proxy, for every damn thing anybody ever did, that would be one thing.

What's actually happening, though, is that a clique of people are selectively mining history (or pseudo-history) to score political points against me.

They're my enemies and I recognize them as such.

May 12, 2006 1:44 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

There's something self-congratulatory about it, or at least something presumptuous.

It's certainly a trend though, and it's catching. After a while it won't be 'why are you apoligising for x', but 'why haven't they apologised for x yet?'

(A bit like standing ovations - a few people doing it marks them out as superfans, but if a big enough number get up you feel a scrub if you don't. I heard Pavarotti had a 3 hour ovation once - nobody can have enjoyed that, and it must have been a brave man to be the first to stop).

May 13, 2006 6:22 AM  

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