Thinking About Life: Apologizing

By JENNY TEICHMAN  |  Dec. 17, 2001 at 1:35 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, England, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Apologizing usually means saying "sorry" for bad deeds. But it can also mean explaining that the deeds in question were not bad after all. In Plato's dialogue "The Apology," Socrates does not say he is sorry, on the contrary he explains, and justifies, his actions.

Cardinal John Henry Newman's Apologia, too, is an explanation, a justification; Newman was not ashamed of his conversion to Catholicism.

However, when demands for an apology go with demands for reparation that means someone believes someone else has done something bad.

African-Americans and Australian Aborigines want apologies and reparations for injustices suffered by their peoples in the past. Is it right or wrong to resist their demands?

A familiar objection runs as follows: white Americans living now do not own slaves and white Australians living now have not massacred any Aborigines. Why should they apologize?

Well, but why not? In the real world it is possible to inherit a debt and necessary, sometimes, to apologize for bad things done by predecessors or colleagues. If a bank clerk steals money from your account and then runs away to Brazil, the bank manager owes you an apology and the bank itself is bound in law to make reparation to you or your heirs.

Demands for apologies and reparation for past deeds are not wrong in principle. But the practical difficulties are sometimes enormous.

Genuine reparation is only possible in certain circumstances. It is feasible when some of those wronged are still alive (elderly American Indians, elderly Australian Aborigines) or when the children of those wronged can remember what happened. For time makes a difference. It is right that German, Swiss and Austrian institutions should return stolen money and valuables to children and grandchildren of people killed in the Holocaust. But it would not be easy to find a way to recompense Jews whose forbears were expelled from Spain in 1492.

After a certain time it becomes impossible to identify all the individual wrong-doers and their descendants. The ancestors of most African-Americans were slaves, but not so many white Americans are descended from slave owners. No one knows how many people in Africa are descended from the Africans who sold slaves to white men 200 years ago.

Should governments pay reparation? Surely not in the United States where the descendants of slaves comprise a considerable percentage of today's taxpayers. It cannot be right to make them contribute taxes towards to their own compensation. In Australia things are different. The Aboriginal population is small enough to be exempted from taxes if need be. And the wrongs perpetrated against them and their forbears include bad things done in the 20th century and within living memory.

The suggestion that reparation for slavery should consist of financial aid given by the United States to the countries of Africa is cynical. Those who propose it ought to know that aid of that kind too often ends up in the hands of greedy dictators and genocidal warlords.

Demands for apologies can be very selective. There are editors in Australia who complain that the people who resigned from Western communist parties during the 1950s and 1960s have not expiated their errors by making public confessions. Maybe the complainers would like to force aged ex-communists to wear a scarlet "C," like the Scarlet Letter "A" worn by the adulterous woman in Hawthorne's novel.

Yet the same editors run articles denouncing the idea that Australian aboriginals are owed apologies or compensation even for the wrongs they suffered within living memory. In this matter the authors rely on the false idea that debts cannot be inherited. They also complain about "bleeding hearts". Thirdly they argue, very implausibly, that white men in mainland Australia, unlike those in its offshore island, Tasmania (where native DNA disappeared 100 years ago) and also unlike Europeans in Mexico and North America and Africa, have always been fair to the weaker people they supplanted.

So much for selectivity. Now, the opposite of selectivity is inclusiveness. But inclusiveness would open a hornets' nest of international recriminations. If the U.S. government apologizes to African-Americans, should India apologize for widow burning? Will we all insist that Sicily apologizes for the Mafia? Must America apologize to Iranians for supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran? Angry demands for public confession have a nasty whiff of Joe McCarthy and Torquemada and Mao's "political correctness."

Slavery still exists in many countries, a fact ignored by most governments. However there are non-governmental organizations which publicize the evil practice and work for its abolition. It would be wonderful if African-Americans and black people everywhere lost interest in personal reparation and decided, in their many millions, to join up with Free The Slaves (Washington) and the Anti-Slavery Group (Boston) and Anti-Slavery International (London) and other groups with the same aims as those.

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