Apologizing for past 'wrongs'

Last month, Cathy Freeman thrilled fellow Australians when she took gold in the women's 400 meters. But she had hardly finished her lap of honor before pressure groups co-opted her victory for leverage in their attempt to get an official apology from the Australian government for the ill treatment of Aborigines.

A woman runs once around the Olympic track and a stubborn government is made to say it's sorry? How preposterous!

Before attacking the logic, let's be clear about a few things. Aborigines have suffered terribly from institutionalized racism. As for Ms. Freeman, she has occasionally made overt displays of Aboriginal pride, but she is not the prime mover in the current campaign to embarrass the Canberra government. She steadfastly resisted activist requests to boycott the games, arguing that the best way to defend her culture is to stand at the top of the Olympic podium.

But this article isn't about Freeman or even Aborigines. It's about the concept of a government apologizing for the "misdeeds" of politicians long dead. In today's victim culture, the idea is enormously popular. A few years ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair officially apologized to the Irish for the potato famine. Bill Clinton has been under pressure to apologize for slavery. Closer to my home, the Scottish government is being lobbied to apologize for the Highland Clearances, even though a Scottish government didn't exist at the time.

Though these cases involve valid suffering, the idea is deeply flawed - legally, philosophically, and historically. And too often apologies are substituted for action; oppressed groups in genuine need of aid are forced to make do with hollow repentance. Governments find it easy, and terribly cheap, to make amends in the present by apologizing for the past.

It's a basic principle of law that the only person to suffer injury is the victim; the only person to whom guilt can be assigned is the perpetrator. Neither guilt nor injury can be passed from generation to generation. The descendants of those who suffered in the past cannot claim membership in the ranks of victimhood unless they, too, have suffered. By the same token, a government cannot apologize for acts which occurred long ago.

Moreover, the only relevant legal system is the law of the day. The American government cannot, for example, pass a law next week which sets the maximum speed limit at 50 miles per hour, and then prosecute anyone who ever exceeded that limit in the past. Whatever one might think about the treatment of Aborigines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fact remains that the perpetrators acted within the law.

But maybe this is an instance when morality is more important than the law. Was the policy of taking Aboriginal children away from their parents and placing them with whites immoral? Perhaps. But whose morality is relevant? Morality is not an absolute standard, but an evolving concept. It exists in constant flux. Those who "mistreated" Freeman's ancestors may seem immoral now, but they were not perceived so at the time, at least not according to the accepted standards of the day.

The idea that governments should apologize for misdeeds in the past is based on the egotistical presumption that today's society rests at the pinnacle of civilization, that in moral terms we are irreproachable. But just as future generations will undoubtedly question our morality, future governments will be pressed to apologize for deeds we think perfectly acceptable today.

The past is another country with a different set of rules. Should we condemn Thomas Jefferson for being a slaveholder at a time when slavery was legal, or should we praise him for being a visionary at a time when democracy was still a dream for many? Politicians should obey the moral code of their day, yet it seems a bit unfair to expect them to anticipate the moral standards of generations hence.

We look into history and see that much of what appears to be cruelty. But the problem with inherited injury is that it is sometimes difficult to trace lines of descent. We can identify descendants of ethnic victims like the Irish, the Aborigines, and African slaves. But not all mistreatment is ethnically targeted. What about the small children who were sent to work in mines in the 19th century and were left crippled? To whom should apology for that cruelty be directed?

And where does it stop? What is the statute of limitations for these crimes? Should the British apologize for the Empire? Should the descendants of Vlad IV say sorry for all his impaling? And what of that nasty empire called Rome?

We can only judge a generation by its own moral code. Adolf Hitler was evil, and so was Caligula. But Jefferson and Lincoln were good men, even if neither would probably pass muster with today's moral test.

We examine the past in order to enlighten our own world. It is far more important to try to understand why societies accepted behavior that we find repugnant, than it is to condemn them. If you make war against the past (as all utopians do), you will always lose.

Apologizing for the past is terribly easy. Meaningless acts are always simple. The angst suffered by Blair when he apologized to the Irish would not fill a sheet on a psychiatrist's pad. Apologies are often a substitute for action, since symbols are cheap.

The Aborigines don't need a sorry government, they need jobs, schools, medical care and fair treatment under the laws of today.

Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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