Some Ramblings About Apologies
Not too long ago, Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the Canadian government for the Chinese head tax. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 put a head tax of $50 on all Chinese immigrants attempting to come to our beloved country. This head tax increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. Basically, the Chinese were paying the equivalent of the average worker's annual salary just for one of them to come into this country. In 1923, the Immigration Act was replaced with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, as its title suggests, excluded Chinese Immigration altogether.
Some Canadians felt that this apology was setting a bad precedent. They felt that apologizing to the Chinese would force an apology for every single group that was ever wronged by the Canadian government. At least one Canadian asked if this meant that he would get an apology from the Romans for the treatment of their ancestors. How long until the descendents of that shaggy-haired berzerker of the Black Forest get their compensation for a gladius to the solar plexus?
This topic interests me deeply. How long does it take before an entity is no longer responsible for its historical actions? Do the victims of an injustice need to be alive in order for compensation to be doled out? Can we judge a previous civilization or generation according to our present-day values?
When some historians learned that deserters who had been shot during the First World War were being pardoned, they protested. The officers who carried out the punishments were merely following military law, they claimed. By pardoning the deserters we are condemning the officers who carried out their sentences. We have no business retrospectively moralizing history, do we? While it's true that we must place events in their historical context, we also should not fall into a trap where history is viewed from a foundation which is, basically, an amoral soup. Did the Aztecs carry out human sacrifice? Sure, but that was their religion. Did the CIA assassinate Lumumba? Almost certainly, but it was the Cold War.
This does not mean that we shouldn't be understanding of historical moral differences -- far from it. We would be horrible historians if we didn't contextualize. We should, however, recognize that there are moral absolutes that transcend time. Murder is always wrong, whether you're a 7th century Norseman or a 21st century guerrilla. Injustice and immorality are not new; they've been here as long as sin. Of course, reading history would get very tedious if the historian kept interjecting every so often to express moral indignation. In the same way, history would get rather romanticized if the historian kept interjecting every so often to excuse certain behaviour. Often it is enough to portray a historical event or character in its context and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. Humans have an innate sense of justice and morality.
It is true that we need to be sensitive to the context of an event. We can condemn American support for brutal rebels and dictators in Africa and Latin America, but we would be remiss if we didn't place this in the wider context of the Cold War. The Cold War doesn't justify a coup d'etat, but it would be wildly unresponsible not to mention it.
Is it possible to read history without some kind of moral foundation? Perhaps, but if someone can read about the Holocaust and find the cold hard rationality in it, excuse the perpetrators of this heinous act, and deny the cancerous existence of evil then they ought to be examined. Any good historian, however amateur, would have a difficult time denying the human capacity for truly evil acts.
I read one editorial which complained that if Canada apologized for the Chinese head tax, then some poor schmuck down the road will have to apologize for something the present government is doing. People, the writer argued, are just reacting to the forces of their time and we shouldn't condemn them. Besides the distasteful implication that this was not a racist policy, this also implies that only contemporaries can offer moral judgements, or worse, that there can be no moral judgements. What kind of justice is there if its standards change after every age? I can only hope that unjust actions of today are scrutinized and apologized for in the future and I hope that past actions continue to be judged and apologized for.
This leads to the question of how an entity can be held responsible for something which occurred 50, 100, 200 years ago when the individuals making up that entity are entirely different. If someone truly believed that an entity bore no responsibility for its past actions then they would be fundamentally opposed to returning stolen art, for example.
A common retort to demands by black Americans for reparations for slavery is "My ancestors may have had slaves, but I never had a slave, why should I pay?" Historical injustices perpetrated hundreds of years ago can often still be felt today. While I may never have had a slave, my ancestors certainly benefitted directly or indirectly from the slave trade. Thus, if I can take pride in the Dutch resistance to the Spanish, I should also be ashamed of the Dutch role in the international slave trade. Surely if I can glory in Vimy Ridge, I can also feel shame for the Chinese head tax. I am not personally responsible, but I am connected to these things.
Of course, when money enters the equation, the whole thing becomes that much more complex. After all, how do you measure suffering in monetary terms? Personally, I would hesitate before suing an organization on behalf of my ancestors. Although I would still feel the sting today, I would not feel comfortable profiting from their suffering. Sure, it is compensation and not a bribe and, yes, every apology is empty without true remorse, but I would still feel uncomfortable. As always, there are a lot of questions which remain unclear and unanswered in my mind.