"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Public Apologies Over Historical Events And Demand For Reparations - Bad Ideas

This week Prime Minister David Cameron while in India went to Amritsar and apologized to Sikhs for the British massacre of hundreds of civilians in 1919.  He gave no explanations as to why the British government had decided that now was the right moment to make a public confession after almost 100 years had past, but I am sure that his advisers suggested to him that with nearly 350,000 Sikhs currently living in the UK and many more Indians, it couldn’t hurt.  In fact, there is little downside to public apologies, particularly those that involve incidents which happened over a century ago. 

Actually many public apologies are long overdue.  Certainly Mongolia should issue an apology for the estimated 40 million people slaughtered by Genghis Khan as he rode out of the Asian steppes in 1200 and marauded his way through Europe and the Far East. It matters little that Genghis Khan and his relatives brought horses to conquered lands, and those who survived the Mongol holocaust had a better means of transportation that trudging; but a lot people were killed and someone should say that they’re sorry. 

The Chinese owe an apology to their own people for Mao’s deliberate consignment of millions to death; and the Russians certainly should apologize for Stalin, his gulags, and the millions of people sent to Siberia to work, freeze, and die. However, these despots committed their massacres a scant 70 years ago, and a lot of people in Russia and China still have warm memories of The Long March,

Mao’s bathing in the Yangtze, and Stalin’s courageous fight against the Nazis.  In another 50 years, the time will be right for a public mea culpa.  This may not be as easy as it sounds, for Stalin’s depredations occurred when he was the leader of the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore; and Russia may not be willing to apologize on his behalf and that of a defunct, discredited empire. 

The Catholic Church owes some apologies for the Crusades - devastating, marauding ventures across Europe to the Holy Land to rid the world of Muslims.  Admittedly these knights-in-armor did not cut the same indiscriminate swathe of death in Western Europe as Genghis Khan, and waited until they spotted the Saracens before chopping off heads, so abject apologies may not be really appropriate.  Plus the fact that most Christians feel that the Catholic Church and the Crusades should have finished the job properly and rid the world of Muslims before they came to be the nettlesome problem they now are.

Perhaps the subject that generates the most demands for apologies is slavery.  Those responsible for human bondage must admit their guilt and repent their sins.  This is all well and good, even if slavery has existed since earliest recorded time and never was given a second thought for most of it; but who, exactly should be blamed?

Christopher Columbus might be a good place to start.  If it hadn’t been for his discovery of the Americas, and had he not found vast reaches of fertile land open for investment and development, there never would have been tobacco and cotton plantations and their subsequent demand for slave labor. If there never had been a Columbus, native Americans would still be living happy, uncomplicated, idyllic lives. Therefore it would be appropriate for Spain to issue an apology for Columbus and his opening of the New World to slavery and disease.  If it hadn’t been for Columbus, the conquistadors, and enterprising civilian settlers who followed, the Indians would not have been pushed out of the way across the Mississippi; and would not have gotten syphilis, smallpox, whooping cough, and the flu.

Italy should also apologize for Columbus because he was an Italian from Genoa.  However there was no Italy at the time of Columbus and nationhood had to wait 400 years for Garibaldi, so Italy cannot be expected to collectively apologize – that should come from the Genoese; but they don’t exist any more, and all residents of Genoa are Italian, which brings the argument full circle and no apologies offered.

The Catholic Church, once again, should apologize for slavery because it was mostly Catholic countries which were involved in the trade.  The Spaniards and Portuguese and healthy portions of the Dutch and English were Catholic.  In fact the Popes were involved in many of the wars of medieval and Elizabethan Europe and were complicit in the slaughter of untold numbers of people, so apologies would be welcome on that front as well.

Stopping with the European traders does not really go to the source of slavery.  The Arab slave merchants were the all-important middlemen between African tribes and European slavers.  Without them the local tribal chieftains would have kept their slaves to themselves and never gotten them to market.  These tribal chieftains also are complicit in the slave trade, for if they had not enslaved conquered enemies and used them as barter with other tribes, thus establishing an intra-African commerce in human beings, the Arabs would have been empty-handed.

Stopping with African tribes still does not go far enough back in history, and it is important for those civilizations who started slavery to make apologies.  The Egyptians owe the Jews a big apology for their years of enslavement; and if it hadn’t been for some impressive wizardry by Moses, they might still be there.  Egypt would certainly have a lot more mathematicians and violinists than it does now, but that does not excuse their enslavement.  However much a simple apology might be appropriate from the Muslim Brotherhood, we are unlikely to hear it any time soon.

The Romans and Greeks kept slaves as a matter of course .  They were part of Roman life, carrying water, oiling down noble bodies, submitting to the sexual impulses of aristocrats, and adding a little spice to married live.  The Greeks may have been less lusty and physical in their demands and more democratic and inclusive, but still, slaves are slaves, and the Greek government should certainly offer an apology for getting the Western world off to such an immoral start.

The point is, of course, that history when seen through the lens of today always looks ugly.  Not only were slaves treated badly, but so were women and animals.  Somebody ought apologize on their behalf, despite the progress that has been made to grant them humane treatment, gender equality, and Emancipation.

Put another way, public apology for historical events is revisionism at its worst. Genghis Khan never thought twice about the young lives he snuffed out or the heads impaled on stakes along his route.  The Crusaders thought they were doing a good thing by going after the Muslims – the right thing and the holy thing.  They had no thoughts of diversity, cultural pluralism, or religious relativity.  The world would be better off without those barbaric heathens, the Christians thought, so wipe them out.  Most people in the 1600s thought that Africans were savages, not much better than the apes, so enslaving them involved no particular moral dilemma.  Certainly nothing to lose sleep over let alone to apologize for.

Let history rest.  It was, is, and always will be.  We may choose to interpret it differently, but the facts remain.  Our 16th century ancestors did what came naturally – expansion, plunder, conquest, self-preservation and defense, and expansion all over again; and we are no different although our sensibilities might have changed. No apologies required and certainly no reparations.  If we start down that road every country in the world will have to start emptying its coffers.


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