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Thursday, April 13, 2023

‘I’m Sorry’–Revisionism And The Absurdity Of Historical Apologies

The spate of public apologies for things past continues, and each and every one is a meaningless, venal, and politically-motivated exercise at worst and historical revisionism at best.  What farmer in the Kenyan highlands – poor, uneducated, and living on the margins of state corruption – cares about the bloody wars of Mau Mau insurrection and the forces of British colonial order.  What Palestinian, insanely troubled by Israeli occupation, the Islamic terrorists which have siphoned off millions of foreign assistance to fight a hopeless war, cares about the nine European crusades? Of what possible benefit could come from a German apology for two world wars, Japanese hegemonic aggression, or Soviet expansionism?

History is what it is, a cyclical, repetitive pattern of territorialism, glory, and nationalism.  Since wars are perennial and consistent in frequency or ferocity – the Twentieth Century was one of the bloodiest in history, and no one has learned any lessons – It is impossible to sort out villains from the many who contributed to them. The list of wars is exhaustive – from the Trojan and Messinian Wars from 1300-700 BC to the hundreds fought in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries – and historians disagree on who started them and why. The Livonian War (1558–83), a prolonged military conflict, during which Russia unsuccessfully fought Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for control of greater Livonia—the area including Estonia, Livonia, Courland and the island of Oesel – is particularly hard to disaggregate, but if apologies were ever considered, it would be impossible to assess blame.

Did the Trojan War actually happen? - BBC Culture

In fact, history being the relative, valueless course that it is, the whole idea of blame is irrelevant.  Wars have always been fought for the same, nakedly ambitious reasons and always will be.  How can any nation be blamed for following not only a predictable historical pattern, but the inevitable expression of human nature?  Wars are ineluctable and unavoidable because of the genie in human genes – children, families, clans, tribes, regions, and nations all act in the same aggressive, self-serving, territorial ways.  Why should any one of them be blamed for the expression of human nature?  Of course on a parochial level, breeches in an international code are always called out – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s nuclear threat, or Iran’s Islamic terrorism – but they all will fade and disappear in the fog of history.  They will be regarded by future historians no differently than the Livonian War or the Hundred Years War – inevitable.  There will be no need for Iran, Russia, or North Korea to apologize a hundred years hence because their 21st century aggressions will have been long subsumed within the broad, amorphous context of the past.

The bandwagon is full of those hurrying to apologize for slavery, colonialism, religious excess, and ethnic cleansing.  Yet no one has asked Angola, Ghana, Senegal, or Nigeria to apologize for their principal role in the European slave trade.  If it hadn’t been for African tribal leaders, already slavers in minor tribal wars, who saw tempting profits in the trans-Atlantic trade, there would have been no North or South American slavery.  There are cries for the United States government to apologize for Westward Expansion and the killing or removal of Native Americans who blocked its way.  Yet within the zeitgeist of the 19th century, when European racial and cultural supremacy was taken for granted and that aboriginal peoples were ipso facto primitive and disposable, how can Thomas Jefferson be strung up?

A few years ago 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 surely 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.

Historical apologies are selective, self-serving, and of no real interest to the people ‘offended’.  Why shouldn’t Mongolia and Turkey issue a joint 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.

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 Stalin’s depredations occurred when he was the leader of the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore; and Russia, only a few decades after the Soviet Union, is anxious to reinvent its imperial past.   Mao is an afterthought in modern, imperialist China. 

The Catholic Church has been pressed for years to issue apologies for the Crusades - marauding ventures across Europe to the Holy Land to rid the world of Muslims.  Yet what could be more understandable than European efforts to expand Christian hegemony and put a political threat to rest.  Mohammed’s militant expansionism, bursting out of Saudi Arabia to the doors of Europe were not easily forgotten.  Not to mention the fact that given current Islamic terrorism, many Christians feel that the Catholic Church and the Crusades should have finished the job properly.

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? The Africans for sure, but who else?

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.

Addressing Europeans only 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. 

Considering the Transatlantic European slave trade alone does not reach far enough back in history.  Logic demands that 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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