Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies. – John Howard, 1997
Any reader of these columns of Spanish ancestry is hereby informed that I expect a public apology to be appended via the ‘Comments’ facility below for the 80 Years War. Just to joggle your memory, your lot invaded my country (Netherlands) in the 16th century and made life hell for my lot until we booted you out in the 17th century.
The Spanish occupation of the Netherlands: hardly a picnic (contemporary print)
“Get stuffed!” says you. “Whatever my great-[insert several more ‘greats’]-grandfather might have done to your great-[ditto]-grandfather hasn’t got anything to do with me, or indeed with any Spaniard today, mate.”
And you’d be totally right in so responding. The very suggestion that you should ‘apologise’ is preposterous. It smacks of intergenerational guilt (“the sins of the fathers”) and guilt by association (a member of your tribe did something to a member of my tribe, so you’re implicated), which are norms we don’t observe in civilised law today. Anyway, if your ancestors and mine did cross swords, they had their very own reasons for that altercation which seemed morally right to each of them at the time.
‘Apologising’ for the ‘wrongs’ of the past has nevertheless become a mandatory PC dictum, especially where the alleged wrong-doer is White and the self-proclaimed victim is Black (or Brown). The expectation is that the former will prostrate himself before the latter in a fit of remorse and beg forgiveness (preferably alongside liberal offers of ‘compensation’). In Australia there’s even a ‘National Sorry Day’ on 26 May.
Race relations PC-style
I once witnessed one of those farcical ‘sorry’-sessions at Otago Uni. It reminded me of ‘revival meetings’ at which there is some evangelist shyster who puts on a splendid act convincing everyone how evil they are and then initiates an ‘altar call’ at which point some people go up onto the podium and tell the congregation in weepy tones what terrible lives they had been leading until having seen the light thanks to whatever charlatan is running the show. The ‘evangelist’ at this Otago U event would have made Billy Graham sit up and take note of how it’s done the way he homed in on his audience’s guilt buttons in relation to the plight of Maori in NZ. Sure enough, several of the assembled then joined him and took the mike and blurted out the requisite litanies of I’m-so-sorries. (As with ‘revival meetings’, I rather suspect some of these maudlin acts had been rehearsed, but that’s another story.)
The demand for ‘apologies’ for historical events is erroneous on two counts. First, there is the issue of misplaced culpability – the intergenerational transfer of guilt, and guilt by association, as already alluded to above. Secondly, we have the more substantive issue of what constitutes a historical wrong-doing.
Ethical and moral standards change. This is demonstrably true not only with respect to social norms but also in the context of relations between peoples. We are constantly told that the European imperial conquest of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific was a great wrong-doing, but in fact it was not ‘wrong’ by the standards of the day.
The ‘law of conquest’ is as old as humankind and explains a great deal of human history. The aggressive expansion of empires came on the heels of the establishment of the earliest city-states. It was not considered ‘wrong’ for the powerful to subjugate the weak until historically very recently. It was only after the notion of human beings having natural rights – ideas that originated in the Western European imperial heartlands – gained currency that things really started to change.
People can only act according to the ethical and moral dictates of their own time, not those that are yet to come. Imperialism and colonialism were not ‘historical wrongs’ because they were universally accepted as being ‘right’ at the time when they occurred. There is something pathetically naïve about positing today’s standards as the terminus of ethical development – and then compounding the delusion by applying it retrospectively. Yet that is what PC-ideologues do when applying today’s standards to judge the behaviour of people in the past.
Imperialism, vassalage (having to pay tribute to a regional power) and enslavement were the order of the day in ancient times. Arabs subjugated other Arabs, Asians subjugated other Asians, Africans subjugated other Africans – Maori subjugated other Maori (gasp)
This does not mean that any behaviour in the past can be excused by saying that it abided by ethical norms of the period. For instance, the bestial behaviour of the Conquistadores and early settlers in South America drew a lot of flak from a variety of European commentators, including some Spanish intellectuals, at the time, indicating that the perpetrators were out of step with contemporaneous standards.
The Conquistadores: culpable by the standards of their own time (contemporary print)
There is no case to be made for an ‘apology’ in relation to the imperial/colonial era as such. There were certainly wrongs done by local authorities and settlers in the course thereof, but corrective action was usually taken by superior authorities – for instance, Spain began producing decrees regulating the treatment of Amerindians as early as 1512. Admittedly, there were instances where the required interventions did not occur, or failed to have the desired effect owing to their being ignored or circumvented, or occurred so late in the day that much of the damage could not be undone. Should we ‘apologise’ for those instances? My answer is still ‘no’. We are not culpable, as indeed decent people of the time were not.
With regard to the post-independence treatment of indigenous peoples such as Amerindians, Australian Aboriginals and Maori once those colonies achieved independence, events occurred and decisions were made which, in retrospect, may have been regrettable – but, to labour the point, so many of those actions were guided by notions of what was considered ethical and appropriate at the time. We need not go back all that far to find such instances – attitudes have changed an awful lot in the past few decades in this respect. The hue-and-cry over the ‘Stolen Generations’ in Australia 20 years back is an excellent example. There has been a spate of ‘apologies’ by various national authorities in Canada over the past month for similar occurrences over the past century affecting North American indigenes. But perhaps more importantly, not everyone agrees that those actions were in fact all that misguided – among those who defended the Australian ‘Stolen Generations’ policy were people of Aboriginal stock who had been directly affected and had benefitted from it by having been put in the care of responsible people who enabled them to make something of their lives. As one Aurukun ‘victim’ of the ‘Stolen Generations’ policies testified: “It was a good system. Or a better system than now. At least my generation learnt to read and write properly” (reported in The Age of 14 March 2008).
Smearing a man of principle: John Howard made himself thoroughly unpopular by refusing to ‘apologise’ to the Aboriginals for the ‘Stolen Generations’. He reiterated his view in an interview with The Guardian in 2014 that there had been no ‘Aboriginal genocide’.
The doctrinal position that any past decision made by governments of countries such as Canada, Australia and NZ about their indigenous people must by definition have been morally wrong is based on a simplistic ideology riddled with double moral standards and all too often propped up by a warped version of history.
Since every people since time immemorial has done not-very-nice things to numerous others, let’s organise a global ‘apologython’ at which we all ‘apologise’ to one another for what our forebears [allegedly] did. We will all don sackcloth and ashes and try to outdo one another in a pageant of remorse – perhaps we could instigate an Oscars-type award for the most convincing display of tear-jerking and grovelling. Now do note that this will involve not only Whites ‘apologising’ to Blacks and Browns but also Blacks ‘apologising’ to Blacks and Browns to Browns and Browns to Blacks and vice-versa (oh, and of course Whites to Whites….. Spaniards to Dutchies, for instance….. and I suppose I’d better ‘apologise’ back for my lot pouring boiling pitch over the jokers scaling the city walls during the Siege of Leiden and stuff like that). And then I suggest we pass a resolution that from this time forth we all take responsibility for our own affairs and stop cooking up excuses for any prevailing ineptitude and laxity on our part based on what someone else’s predecessors may have done to our own predecessors be it 50 years ago or 500.