Monday, 27 November 2006

Apologizing for Things You Didn't Do

Dizzy has a post up about Blair's near apology for the slave trade.

I agree with Dizzy: an apology usually expresses a sense of responsibility for an action or event, which cannot be the case here. But Blair's near-apology is part of a political debate in which Blair (as the embodiment of the British state) is responsible, because we have accepted that people not involved in slavery by two hundred years or more, are nonetheless victims of it, hence anyone to do with the state is a perpetrator of it. The logic is twisted but understandable, even if it is nonsense. The problem is, it comes down to simple political axioms: all black people are de facto victims of slavery, whatever their personal situation, and all white people are de facto privileged at least in part because of it. Britain's role in slavery, as Dizzy did point out, and Blair didn't, extends to ending it - the British state realised the evil of it, and ended it as far as it could. But this is ignored, it has to be, otherwise the comforting simplicities of the narrative would be obscured. The article on the BBC quotes a few people, who, despite their privileged media and even governmental roles, seem to think they were victims directly involved in the slave trade and deserve greater apologies, up to and including reparations.

As an Irish descedent, whose living relatives were directly abused and discriminated against by the British state, I would object to having my taxes used, through reparations, to declare me responsible for slavery. Perhaps, though, we could insist on proper reparations from Germany for the two world wars in order to pay for it. Or we could trace everyone's origins so the money would have to come only from people whose ancestors have lived in Britain (excluding internal victims, like Irish people, some Scots and so on) since before 1807 would have their tax money used to pay the reparations. Of course, to qualify for reparations, you would have to trace your ancestry to the slave trade and have the research independently verified.

Handily, as we have an ethic that blithely declares blanket victimhood and blanket responsibility, such tricky little problems can be ignored. The politics of victimhood are endless: expressing sorrow for the slave trade and making it clear, as if it were really needed, that we're all against slavery, is, I suppose, fair enough. Making us morally responsible, or financially responsible, is not: because we had no choice in its direction or outcome. You can't get a conviction if your defendant had no role in the crime itself. And it will do nothing for race relations to institutionalise the view that white people are the root of all evil.

4 comments:

Ray said...

Ok, repeat after me: Reparations are given for "crimes against humanity" for which there are no statutes of limitations.

You personalize something, e.g., the pain of your Irish ancestors under British rule, but these were *not* "crimes against humanity". There were Germans in Nazi Germany who did not support genocide against the Jews, but after WW II *they* still had to pay reparations in the form of taxes for their nation's "crimes against humanity"...

The U.S. because of it genocide toward indigenous people such as the Lakota, Cherokee and Choctaw are paying reparations for treaty violations that occurred even *before* the end of the slavery because, again, there *are no statutes of limitations on crimes against humanity.

The UK, like the USA benefited from enslaving Africans for nearly 300 years and it is time to make atonement for these crimes...

The Tin Drummer said...

Au contraire, Ray, I won't be repeating anything after you, thanks. What happened to my ancestors, was, despite your attempts to minimalise it, a crime against humanity, recognised as such by none other than, er, Tony Blair, so, by your definition, as a victim, why should I pay for other victims? Besides, the Germans who paid for the state of Israel had been *directly involved* in their government's actions, as they had voted them in, which was a principle recognised by the Allied Powers for years after the war. If they continue to pay reparations to Israel (they certainly don't to us), it is because they choose to. Modern German society bears no responsibility for the holocaust: if it did, we could hardly deal with them, could we?

I bear no responsibility, and will accept none, for slavery.

It's not a particular time to make atonement; we started that process when we abolished it. We have no reason to make ourselves particularly ashamed either. There are plenty of other countries and cultures it might apply to, though, whose own roles in various types of slavery tend to go unremarked upon when the "Britain is a bunch of bastards" argument gets trotted out again.

dizzy said...

Ray, I, and no one alive in Britain today had anything to do with the slave trade. I owe you nothing. Frankly you're talking bollocks.

You're like a teenager who screams "I wish I was never born, it's all your fault" to his parents. Now do you want some salt and vinegar for that chip on your shoulder?

james higham said...

I've run a number of posts on this topic - apologizing. There's no place for it. Do the right thing in the first place.