The Cheap Talk of the “Apology”

Yesterday brought news of yet another “official apology,” this time from the British and Australian governments for a program that ended some forty years ago. The program shipped orphans down under from the mother country, in the hopes of giving them better lives. “Better” being an ambiguous term, given the cruel life that apparently awaited many of these children in the outback, but perhaps appropriate given the grim circumstances they were guaranteed were they to remain in Britain. Octogenarian participants were duly trotted out, given their moment to tell their sad stories, and left to await a decision as to whether Great Britain will cough up a few pounds as recompense for their suffering.

Group apologies for transgressions committed by past generations have grown in recent years. President Clinton apologized to Americans of Japanese descent who were interned during World War II. Less than two years ago, the Australian government apologized to its aboriginal people. A while before that the British government apologized for its countenance of the slave trade, as did the Anglican Church and France. There are periodic calls for the US government to make similar statements. However sincere these expressions of remorse might be, it seems to me that the energy that goes into lobbying for them, crafting them, and delivering them might be better directed at calling for the end—and working toward the end—of 21st Century slavery. According to the non-profit Free the Slaves, some 27 million people, mainly in Africa and India, are enslaved. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with cleaning up this blot on the conscience of humanity first, so our ancestors won’t have to apologize for our tolerance of the slave trade? But it’s easier to talk than it is to act.

Easier still is an apology for a transgression you did not yourself commit. What animates the impulse to apologize for someone else’s actions, let alone those of a different generation, mystifies me. Oh, I get it when a frazzled mom apologizes for her toddler’s crashing his tricycle into your shins. That’s not the kind of apology I’m talking about. I mean the kind of cringe-inducing apologies that presume the guilt of an entire citizenry, that overlook any examination of the historical context in which the alleged offense is said to have occurred, and that in fact are inadequate substitutes for the only way a present generation can ameliorate the sins of its fathers: by learning from their mistakes. Sounds easy, I know, and maybe even a little facile, but history cannot be apologized away. Stubborn facts remain. A nation’s history stands as both a beacon to light the future and guard rail to save us from the pitfalls of the past. Attempts—such as mealy-mouthed apologies—to “put it behind us” or “lay it to rest” are the first steps down the road of rewriting history. We’ve apologized, so we’re absolved. But then we wonder why everything isn’t all of a sudden magically OK, like the kid who spills his milk but gets dessert anyway because he apologized for splattering his sister.

None of us alive in the here and now either inflicted the wounds of centuries past nor fell victim to them. We bear neither scars nor blame. But if we scar our children by bringing them into a world addled by false guilt assuaged by empty apologies, then the blame truly will be ours.

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