By Vexen Crabtree 2007
Organisations, nations and communities' modern representatives sometimes take to making symbolic apologies for the sins committed in history by their ancestors. Bill Clinton apologized for American policy in Rwanda and El Salvador; Pope John Paul the 2nd asked forgiveness for all of the Crusades which Christendom waged against heretics Jews and Muslims; the Archbishop of Canterbury apologized unreservedly for the Church's extensive role in the Slave Trade and the UK's "Queen has apologised to the Maoris for dispossessing them of their land and to the people of India for the Amritsar massacre"1.
Although the specifics are complicated and historically technical, many past injustices inflict upon descendants a simplistic emotional want for correction. Sometimes those associated with the "winners" want to show remorse, and sometimes the ancestor victims want to see others acknowledge history. Prof. Steve Pile says that past events "continue to influence events today; we still live with these events - not all the time, and not everywhere, but they nonetheless sometimes cast shadows"2. Also, some people justify subconscious (or conscious) greed by disguising it with a historical-sounding morality. They pretend to be insulted by the past because they see an opportunity to gain from it. In other cases, people genuinely want a simple apology. Much of the time, Pile reminds us, people do not really know what they want - "sometimes the demands of the past are inarticulate, emotional [..., ] it is not always clear what those people want, nor how these injustices might be appeased"2.
“Can a terrible historical injustice ever be recompensed? The answer should be yes. But any attempt to redress past wrongs has to pass certain commonsense tests to do with the length of time that has passed since the outrage and the ease with which victims and victimisers can be identified. Those criteria can never be objective: atonement is not statistically measurable.”
Some continuing dramas include:
Disputes about immigrants - even though "we" were sometimes responsible for their original displacement such as during the slave trade years.
There are legal attempts to reclaim land that was stolen many decades or centuries ago by families, companies and governments.
The longer things stay as-they-are, the more peace will be obtained. Disruption begets continued unhappiness and debate, whereas stability fosters acceptance. Secondly, all land, and people, have complex histories that cannot and should not be "fixed" by trying to paint the present into some idealized golden past. I think the author Douglas Adams makes a relevant point, with his typical black humour:
“This planet has [...] a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable [...]. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”
"So long, and thanks for all the fish" by Douglas Adams (1985)
Everyone's historical ancestry involves an exponential count of parentage. That is, we all have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 grand-parents, who all fall under 16 and 32 further sets of parents, which can all squeeze into a mere 100-year history. Extend that to a 200-year history, and we have hundreds upon hundreds of ancestors, nearly always from multiple countries. Professor of philosophy Anthony Grayling thusly points out that "all of us are descended from slaves, or serfs, or bonded people. All of us are. And, many of us, if not indeed all of us again, are probably descended from people who owned slaves or who benefitted from slavery. The whole world rests on historical foundations, many of which involve great wrong"... and he asks if we really should all be bumping into each other and apologizing for our ancestors1.
Going backwards is rarely the way forwards, and if we get into the trap of trying to fix the present by rewinding land ownerships to the past (etc), we shall find that we have an endless and thankless task on our hands, and rather than make people happy we will cause perpetual and cyclic unhappiness.
An individual on a public forum was discussing English 'clearance' of the Scottish highlands, and declared that "the rich English aristocrats who stole my [ancestor's] land should give it back to me and my clan". Although it is easy to understand why this person thinks his clan should have the land back, it is far from an exclusive claim.
If we trace back the history of every piece of land, we will find that it was historically owned by someone else, and probably was fought over, captured, claimed and lost multiple times. It makes no sense to return land to one particular owner rather than another, therefore it makes little sense to return it to anyone. Peace is rarely restored through further re-claiming. The longer land stays as it is, the more likely it is that peace and satisfaction will prosper.
Tracing back ownership even further, no land was initially owned by anyone. A logical conclusion of the argument that land belongs to previous owners is that no land should belong to anyone.
In nature, the vast majority of social species demark territory and boundaries for themselves and group and devote a lot of time to defending it5. It is therefore part of the natural order that animals do claim ownership of land. Like other animals, us humans tend to restrict access of our land against other humans and let animals, for example birds, do what they want. Most animals do the same; boundaries are species-specific, but nests (and homes) are generally barred from all other living creatures5. So anarchical and nature-based claims that we shouldn't own land appear to be wrong; either all of nature is wrong, or land ownership is natural and changes over time. To try to give land back to its ancestral owners is an endless and misguided task.
Popular trash-culture spokespeople and newspapers frequently assert that immigrants should be sent home. Many countries are however, made of immigrants. The United States and Australia's modern citizens are both comprised entirely of imported Westerners on top of an ancient native population that was heavily displaced by the newcomers. But even those natives themselves trekked to these islands on land that is now submerged or frozen. The Native Americans genetically resemble those from the Mongol people of Northeast Asia, who made their way there during the ice age twenty to thirty thousand years ago.
If we are to send immigrants home, then we should all leave our countries and travel back to Africa, which is where all Humans come from. Perhaps all Americans should come back to Europe, all Europeans go back to the Middle East and Africa, etc. It makes no logical sense to say that people should 'go back to where they came from'. It is irrational, reactionary and arbitrary. It is normally the xenophobic reaction of people who do not accept that they themselves were immigrants.
A different issue sits with those who were forcibly imported as slaves. As we destroyed their forefathers' lives bringing them here there are certainly no grounds for disrupting more lives, again, by making them now leave for countries they have never seen.
“Lawyers claiming to represent some 30m descendants of American slaves have launched a series of lawsuits against companies that profited from slavery before it was abolished in 1863. The legal side of their case is complicated, not to say tendentious. But the plaintiffs seem to hope that political pressure will make up the deficit. [...] The plan is to force companies such as Aetna (which 150 years ago insured the lives of slaves for their owners) together with the federal government (which, after all, sanctioned the practice) to set up a compensation fund for the victims and their lawyers. Given the companies' keenness to avoid embarrassment, the guilt most Americans feel about slavery and the relative poverty of many black Americans, the chances are that the plaintiffs will get something.”
Many national leaders have now apologised personally for their countries' role in the historical slave trade. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a Christian leader in the UK, "apologized unreservedly" for his own Church's role1. But Tony Blair, more sensibly, offered "regret" for it all. Although this was surely a more honest and correct word to use, it caused an uproar1 that he didn't offer the same (fake) personal apology as many others had offered.
But the world is not a simple case of bad guys and good guys. African slaves were often acquired and sold by African slave companies ran by indigenous Africans. Arabian and European traders merely came and bought many slaves. The slaves moved from one owner to another, from one continent to another: Yet most claims for compensation are directed at Western countries6. If the people involved were fighting a moral battle, they would also challenge the African descendants of slave-owner collaborators, and not just the companies that happen to be solvent.
Museums' international artefacts often contain items that were forcibly taken, or stolen, from around the world. Some of these events took place hundreds of years ago and most the time, it is a matter of common sense and peacefulness that the items simply remain where they are. But sometimes, someone decides that on behalf of their ancestors, they want something back. For example in 2009 Greece claimed right to some marble sculptures that Lord Elgin sauntered off with in the early 1800s, from the Parthenon. If the British Museum didn't return them, now 200 years after the event, then it would imply they "condone the snatching of the marbles and the monument's carving-up 207 years ago".
The logic of the claim is daft. I would be surprised if any of the staff of the British Museum condoned theft, whether at home or abroad. The logic reveals that the Greek demand was worded in terms of emotional blackmail; but nonetheless, if they want the marble back, they have a right to have the matter considered. Unfortunately, it is not a simple issue and practical reality soon presents a formidable problem to the Greek attempt to examine the ancestral sins of ancient Britons.
If the claim is right, then, it supports the principal that national museums should return items in their collection to their country of origin unless things like receipts can be found. Given that many items pre-date the modern era, it is likely that this means that many international museums could be left rather empty as bones, animals, pottery, mummies, artefacts and many other items disappear. In short, if the Greek claim is right in principal, education and history will suffer. To put it another way, forgetting past sins and allowing people to learn from the artefacts is better.
“You cannot go very far in righting those wrongs without entangling the world's museums in a Gordian knot of restitution claims. That is why, in December 2002, 18 of the world's leading directors [...] argued for a quid pro quo. The Munich declaration, as it is called, asserts that today's ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday's acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display. [...] This has led to a new level of co-operation between museums over training, curating, restoration and loans. Thousands of works are now lent each year between museums on every continent.”
If education and public service matter, then, the Greeks should agree to exchange programs where they use their historical claim to the items to ensure the British Museum will loan them, in exchange for other items of interest (of which Greece has many, I am sure). This way, rotating museum displays results in a better and more interesting education for both Greek and British Museum visitors. Nationalistic claims to ancient property, just like claims to ancient lands, results only in a degraded quality of life for all those affected by the disturbances.
Modern-day governments have apologized for various misdeeds during World War Two. For example in 2005 the Japanese President, Mr Koizumi, on the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender, "offered an unequivocal apology, saying that Japan greatly regretted the suffering that it had caused during the second world war"8. The philosopher Nietzsche and others such as Chomsky, and Orwell, would all have expected the winners to write the history, and the losers to write the apologies. But thankfully in the modern era, history has become more of a science than a politic. Even the "winners" (in so far as a war can have 'winners' when people on both sides suffer) have apologized for the atrocities they themselves committed. In 1997 French president Jacques Chirac accepted responsibility "for the arrest and deportation by the Vichy regime of 76,000 Jews to German extermination camps during the second world war"9.
These national leaders apologised for evils committed six decades ago. In the case of the second world war, the effects of it are still felt quite strongly today and there are people still alive who lived through its horrors, apologies can be a symbolic source of healing.
Some take the misdemeanours of human animals and extrapolate into history a single cause of all immorality and evil. This is despite the fact that all social animals on this planet also exhibit abhorrent behaviour; some Christians still think that Humans have a special cause of bad behaviour:
“The story of Adam and Eve is part of the Biblical mythology of Original Sin. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all 'people of the book' who take as holy the stories of the Hebrew era. In this story, the existence of death and suffering are attributed to the 'sin' of eating from the 'tree of knowledge'. Before this event, there was no death of suffering. Adam and Eve were innocent, and obeyed a serpent that told them to eat from the tree. Apparently, they obeyed the wrong being, because God's punishment was to inflict death and suffering upon them and all their ancestors, including such niceties as making childbirth painful for women.
The story fails to present any valid morals and instead proposes that (a) it is acceptable to punish people for the sins of others (original sin) and (b) that death is a suitable punishment for disobedience (ever wondered why so many oppressive governments were bedfellows with established religions?). [...] It is an immoral story that we shouldn't suffer upon children until they are old enough to understand it as a religious myth.”
The story of Adam and Eve can be used as a perfect example of moral insanity: no-one really believes you can punish people for the behaviour of ancestors that lived before their own time. Similarly, it seems unlikely that you can "apologize" for something someone else has done. Apology, and blame, is an individual responsibility for an individuals' own actions. If we start demanding apologies from people about the things their ancient forebears have done, will we see a return to a biblical morality where extreme and disproportional punishments can be forced upon the populace haphazardly, under the guise of a redress for historical sins? Such madness would cause untold suffering and barbarianism. Thankfully, most people do not believe it is good to punish people for the sins of their parents. "Inheritance of the guilt of the dead" the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, "is not compatible with the standards of criminal justice in a society governed by the rule of law"3. Likewise, I don't think it is particularly good to apologize for things that other people have done, although, I make an exception to this rule in the conclusion!
Giving land to previous owners is not really sensible; most land was stolen, claimed, annexed and dubiously came by once, or twice, or many times. It is wrong to give land back to one set of ancestors of previous owners rather than another previous set. Likewise, all people were originally immigrants and it makes no sense to say that people should go back to where they came from - especially once the immigrants reach second and third generation. If we are fair, then, all land would be returned to its original owner (i.e., not human beings) and all people would be sent back to Africa where they could live in the trees again (i.e., we all come from the same place). Such backwards thinking is impractical and continued dis-settlement of people and places causes unrest: the longer things are left as they are, the more likely it is that peace will prosper.
Apologies can have a genuine emotional impact on those alive today, especially when it comes to events that only a generation or two ago, such as world war two. But aside from those, and political issues, any attempt to redress evils of more than anything older than a hundred years ago is illogical. It seems arbitrary to me because you can trace through every generation many historical evils all of which need apologising for: why insist on one and not the others, merely because it's one that you happen to know about? It is easier to do so than to pedantically refrain and it is certainly more sympathetic to acknowledge atrocities rather than ignore them, but, the whole idea of selective apologies for specific things done by specific ancestors seems very inconsistent.
In extreme cases where there is clear and definite current suffering being caused, the United Nations normally makes sensible recommendations only after making careful studies of the causes and effects of creating or dividing countries. With these very few current-events exceptions, no other land or mass repatriation claims should really be entertained, for anything more than one hundred years ago.
Sometimes injustice is done by a system, or a person occupying a position. Later occupiers of the same position can make an institutional apology on behalf of the system. This is largely what we see when national presidents and leaders apologize for the atrocities of wars committed by previous generations. They are not personally apologizing, but, making a formal statement that the present system does not think that old behaviour to be moral. Such apologies can clear the air, bring moral clarity to the otherwise beaurocratic (and inhuman) processes of government. Apologies can therefore act as buffers, making it clear to the public that they should not accept immoral behaviour.
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
(1985) So long, and thanks for all the fish. Paperback book. New Ed edition. Published by Pan Macmillan.
(2013) "Christian Mythology: Adam and Eve, and the Serpent, in the Garden of Eden" (2013). Accessed 2017 Dec 30.
(2016) "The Benefits to the UK of Immigration" (2016). Accessed 2017 Dec 30.