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i'm sorry, i need to apologize

bergens tidende, 22 august 2007

Twelve hundred years ago hordes of bloodthirsty Vikings descended on Ireland, pillaging, raping and killing. And they did not even say sorry.

Last week, finally, justice was done. Brian Mikkelson, the Danish culture minister, apologized to the people of Ireland for the ravages caused by his rampaging forebears. After a millennium of hurt and distress, Irish men and women can now rest easy in their beds, having at last found closure to a great historical trauma.

It is easy to lampoon Mikkelson's absurd apology for events for which not only does he bear no responsibility but which took place before his nation was even created, and about which the supposed victims barely know or care. But Mikkelson is not alone. Political contrition has become all the rage. The Queen has apologized to the Maoris in New Zealand for dispossessing them of their lands and to the people of India for the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Tony Blair apologized for the Irish potato famine. Bill Clinton said sorry to the people of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Rwanda for failures of American foreign policy. Pope John Paul II expressed contrition on more than a hundred occasions including for the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is used to be said that sorry was the hardest word. No longer, at least for politicians.

Why have political apologies become so fashionable? Largely because, over the past decade, the nature of politics has changed. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of Marxism, the blurring of the distinctions between left and right, the disintegration of working class and other oppositional organisations - all have transformed political debate making it less about competing social visions than a humdrum discussion about how best to manage the existing political system. As visions of a transformed future seem less plausible, so people have become more obsessed by the past. The desire to atone for past wrongs has come to supplant the search for a better tomorrow.

The politics of social change has given way to the politics of therapy. In the past activists mobilized around the slogan 'Don't mourn, organise'. Today, activists appear to organize to mourn. Their aim seems less to effect political change than to gain psychological comfort. Damage. Trauma. Healing. The very language of apology is more akin to that of the psychiatrist's couch than of conventional political debate. It is a language that fits neatly into our let-it-all-hang-out world of confessional celebrity culture and professional victimhood.

Advocates of political apologies suggest that official contrition helps bring peoples together, compensate for past injustice and atone for wrongdoing. But apologies are meaningful only insofar as they make you face up to the consequences of your actions. That is why personal apologies can be painful to make, and often require considerable courage. Not so with political apologies. One cannot imagine Brian Mikkelson having sleepless nights over the hurt done to the Irish, nor the Queen beating herself up over the Maoris' lost lands. Indeed, it seems to be an iron law of political apologies that no one is willing to be held to account for their own actions, but everyone is happy to shoulder the blame for someone else's deeds, especially if those deeds happened way back in history. Tony Blair took time out to apologize for the potato famine but was silent when it came to Iraq.

Not only are political apologies meaningless but they also pervert the notion of collective responsibility. Those who demand that Britain, for instance, should apologize for the slave trade, or Germany for the Holocaust, or indeed Denmark for Viking raids, are suggesting that people are guilty not because of the actions they themselves took but because of the particular national, religious, ethnic or racial group to which they belong. This is the modern, secular version of the old Biblical belief that the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons. It is a notion that carries with it the implication that moral worth travels down the generations - the children of Nazis, or all white Britons, are somehow morally sullied, while the descendants of Holocaust survivors and of black slaves possess greater moral authority. It is ironic that the attempt to come to terms with, say, the terrible racist consequences of slavery and the Holocaust should itself generate an idea with which all racists would be comfortable - the biological inheritance of virtue and vice, of guilt and victimhood.

By detaching action from responsibility, political apologies can make it more difficult to take the steps necessary to enforce real change. Saying sorry for slavery, for instance, does not address the causes of the problems facing black communities today. Indeed it might make it more difficult to address those problems by encouraging people to view themselves as victims of their history rather than as creators of their future.

The demand for political apology turns history into a series of sins to be atoned for rather than events to be learned from. The acknowledgement of past wrong-doing is certainly important. But the remembrance of yesterday's wrongs should not supplant the search for a more just tomorrow.