The meaninglessness of political apologies

We missed this piece in the Social Affairs Unit last month, in which Dalrymple criticizes the issuance of governmental apologies for the past actions of others:

Guilt, it used to be said, was an expression of conscience, but we moderns have found a way of divorcing the one from the other. The avowal of guilt now has nothing to do with conscience, and floats free of anything the person claiming guilt may himself have done or omitted to do.

He gives the example of a letter from Belgian minister Louis Michel, ostensibly apologizing for Belgium’s refusal to come to the aid of Rwandans during the 1994 genocide there:
The author begins in an unctuously self-congratulatory way:

On the occasion of the official visit of the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, to France, which seals the normalisation of relations between two friends of Belgium, in which I cannot but rejoice, let me be allowed to testify to the manner in which my country has turned the page in our past relations with Rwanda, in order to look to the future.

In all that follows, there is not a single identifiable individual who is alleged to have done anything wrong, certainly not the author himself.
The nearest he comes to blaming anyone is the following:

We are convinced that at the time of the genocide the Belgian authorities could, and should, have acted differently in order to have prevented it.

What the Belgians could and should have done is not specified for the readers of the newspaper, who can hardly be expected to know, nor is the identity of the people who should have done it specified.

5 thoughts on “The meaninglessness of political apologies

  1. Arthur

    It is an excellent article. I especially liked this point:

    “For foreigners to assume a significant part of the guilt is both to puff themselves up with moral importance and to deny the agency of those who actually were responsible.”

    On the other hand, I think it should be obvious that when politicians and diplomats speak in public they have to speak in a diplomatic way. More important than stating clearly who was responsible is making efforts to prevent similar things happening again.

    I guess deciding what to say in these kinds of situations is a perennial dilemma.

  2. Jaxon

    Yes I daresay these so called apologies are spurious at best.

    As TD, more or less, explains in Litter – when, say, the holocaust or the slave trade is learnt in school it probably has more to do with demonising the past so the priesthood of the Brave New World Order can get on with their providential role of indoctrination: maybe do a bit of work on the side in the porn industry (no, TD doesn’t say that).

    Interestingly enough (I hope I’m not straying too far from topic) Steven Pinker (whose similar tendency TD challenged in Gift Of Language) has recently written a book Better Angels Of Our Nature the thesis – how we as humans have become less violent.

    Is that like more civilised?

    I hope we’re improving, I wonder what percentage of our ‘improvement’ is proportionate to our level of debt.

  3. Seymour Clufley

    I am very suspicious of Steven Pinker. Apart from anything else, I heard him on In Our Time casually likening parents smacking kids to “violence” – he seems to be one of these intellectuals who delights in seeing traditional things as bad.

    I thought it was hilarious when TD cited this contradiction in Pinker’s book:

    “Over and over again, Pinker stresses that children do not learn language by imitation; rather, they learn it because they are biologically predestined to do so. ‘Let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language.’ It comes as rather a surprise, then, to read the book’s dedication: ‘For Harry and Roslyn Pinker, who gave me language.'”

    Having said all that, I do think Pinker’s rebuttal to TD’s criticisms was quite effective:

  4. Jaxon

    I had read Pinker’s response and it didn’t impress me much.

    “…language as a topic of scientific understanding. Many phenomena look very different when they are judged by moral, political, or aesthetic criteria and when they are taken apart to see how they work. Dog breeders have strong opinions on the merits of breeding practices, but those opinions should not be confused with principles of mammalian genetics.”

    Basically Pinker from the vantage point of hard won analytical research has conflated Harvard prestige (straying into scientism) with his moral, political leaning, if not agenda; TD admits upfront that he’s the layman.

    “…and (as Dalrymple hopes his readers won’t notice), the children in his vignettes acquire the language of their peers, not of their parents.”
    Giv me frickin’ strength! Peers reproduce too you know, darling little Bill Sikes’.

    “He is quick to diagnose his uncle’s inarticulateness (which he compares to that of a stroke victim) as a product of a lack of schooling in standard English…” This is more interesting and TD’s father is hardly the best model of a the sort of education he received, and Burns and Lincoln are the rule.

    “He reproduces verbatim a transcript of the speech of a teenage mother, failing to note that a verbatim transcript of anyone’s speech is filled with self-interruptions, while being tone-deaf to the considerable grammatical complexity even in her speech.”
    Certainly a lot more complexity than a Parrot I should think, it would be interesting to know how much of tax payers money goes to raising parrots, and incarcerating all those daddy parrots etc etc

    After all that, to be fair, I suspect, what I’ve gleaned from Better Angels, that Pinker’s brush with Dalrymple has had a constructive chastening effect.

  5. Henry Reardon

    One of the most startling examples of the phenomenon discussed in this article was when a group of Europeans toured the Middle East a few years ago apologizing to everyone they met for Europe’s participation in The Crusades, eight or nine centuiries before! Apparently, they felt that it was morally necessary for these distant descendants of European Crusaders to apologize for their ancestors’ violence against the Middle Easterner’s distant forbears.

    By what stretch of the imagination are you or I responsible for the actions of men dead for many centuries? How are the distant descendants of people who were hurt in such a long ago war owed apologies for things that were done to people who have been dust for nearly a millenium?

    We can’t undo history. Surely the best we can do is to try to learn from our past mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.

    [I put this same comment at The Social Affairs Unit article but, since it hasn’t appeared there yet, thought I’d duplicate it here just to be sure it appears somewhere.]


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