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Beyond apology?

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 22 August 2008

We live in a confessional culture. Bill Clinton was the archetype confessor, deluging his audience with apologies for his involvement with intern Monica Lewinsky. But such fluff is relatively trivial compared to the apologetics behind national, state-sanctioned crimes.

The train of state apologies has been gathering steam. Non-government entities, irked by the onerous burden of a dark history, have issued an assortment of mea culpas on the matter of America’s “peculiar institution” - slavery, and its reconstructionist backlash - Jim Crow segregation.

Such entities had, at various stages of their existence, been indebted to the fruits of slave labor. JP Morgan Chase, Aetna, Wachovia and the Southern Baptist Convention commenced the confessional avalanche. State governments followed. New Jersey deliberated over the motion earlier this year, and fronted with an apology. And now, the United States Congress has added a resolution to the pile.


American policy makers may have taken note of the actions of other governments based on similar historic grievances.

For the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, redress was given in June for the breaches of the 1840 treaty with Britain through land restitution. Almost half a million acres of Crown forestry land was handed over in a settlement worth US$320 million.

Australia left its own precedent in February when an apology was issued to the Aboriginal peoples by a newly elected Rudd Government for policies that had “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss”. Specific reference was made to the policy of forcibly removing children from their families.

With the passing of the apology resolution in Congress in this month, sceptics mobilised: does it really matter, they argue? Is it hankering for an unappeased past that will never been fully redressed, the pain of it ineradicable? The legal form of this appeasement is, of course, compensation, and governments fear that more than anything else. Suffering, according to the official line, should only ever be appeased symbolically - and slavery, speaking of untold suffering, suggests untold sums of money. States see that, not in terms of compensation, but in terms of how they will be punished for previous wrongs. Computing cruelty is a difficult task.

House Resolution 194, written by Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.) commences with the sombre words, “Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865”. It states how “enslaved families” were destroyed by separation; that no other form of “involuntary servitude” had been seen in America, a system that resulted in persons being “brutalised, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage.”

Jim Crow segregation is excoriated, and its lingering effects acknowledged. The apology is then made to “African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow”. The hope of this apology is that “racial healing and reconciliation” will follow.


The responses then, from many, lukewarm. Much like tepid water off a duck’s back. One letter to the News and Notes segment of America’s National Public Radio (NPR) from a listener, Michael Brown, considered the apology, like any expression of mere sorry, “lame”. Lame that is, in the absence of an attainment of equality “at all levels, education, financial institutions, employment, housing, and business development”.

Marvelous to some that it happened but this was simply one step in national catharsis. Psychologist Julie Armstrong, quoted in the Washington Post (August 2), urged a “follow-up” through changes in school curricula and home discussions.

Les Payne of Newsday, as a self-confessed “full-blooded descendant of Africans enslaved in Alabama” admitted “cautious surprise”. Lecturer Chad Dion Lassiter of the University of Pennsylvania considered the action one that had arrived “One hundred and forty-three years may be too late” (August 2). Yes, it may well have had “symbolic” ballast to it, but it still did not confront the fundamental issue of restitution. The sponsor of the resolution, Cohen himself, saw it as an expiatory act.

Of course, the diverse reaction did not preclude opposition to such a national apology. A constant argument on that score is that such national apologies suggest a doctrine of original sin. “Why should Americans today pay for the sins of our forefathers?” blogged a listener on the NPR website. For others, it would destabilise and divide the wounded society. Members of such libertarian organisations as the Ayn Rand society believe that such an apology would actually perpetuate racism.

Carefully worded resolutions on their own accord do little to cure catastrophic harms that took place. The move may be seen as a vote grab. The man proposing it is doing it less for a bleeding heart than political survival. He can hardly be blamed for that. But politics is a case not merely of survival, but justice.

This step, while small, is not so small as to be insignificant. The debate on compensation continues.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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