The Wilson Quarterly

The Catholic Church has apologized to Galileo, the Jews, Jan Hus (for burning him at the stake), and Istanbul (for sacking it in the Fourth Crusade, when it was known as Constantinople). It’s weighing requests for similar action in the torture death of Knights Templar grandmaster Jacques de Molay in 1314. But what about the scattered heirs of the citizens of Jerusalem, massacred by victorious Crusaders in 1009? Or poor Cecco d’Ascoli, burned at the stake in 1327 not by ordinary kindling, but by the flames of his own encyclopedias? Where does it stop? asks Gorman Beauchamp, a professor of humanities at the University of Michigan. It’s not just the Catholic Church, he notes. A mania for apologies is sweeping the world.

Apologies offered for actions taken before the apologizers were born seem “vacuous and more than a little exhibitionistic,” he writes. Actual ­victims—­slave laborers in Nazi Germany, Japanese Americans interned after Pearl Harbor, “comfort women” forced into prostitution by the ­Japanese—­deserve an official apology and more. But apologies to the ­long-­dead are “gestural feints toward ­now-­empty victim categories.”

The slavery ­reparations move­ment exemplifies the American version of the international apology craze. Who should pay restitution for slavery, and who should be paid? Should the nation exempt the mil­lions of immigrants and their descendants who arrived in America after slavery was abolished? If slave descendants are compensated, why not compensate the heirs of the earliest cotton mill workers, 70 percent of whom died of brown lung disease? And if slavery is to be the subject of compensation when practiced by dead white people, why passively stand by when the current Sudanese kidnap their black compatriots into ­servitude?

“We as a nation have grown and profited from the exploited lab­or . . . of people of every race, creed and condition of servitude, from the indentured servants of colonial days to the migrant workers of today,” Beau­champ says. “Can we even begin to imagine a social mechanism that could right wrongs of this magnitude that were committed so long ago?”

History offers so much to apologize for that it’s hard to know where to stop. The towering 19th-century historian Lord Acton said that “neither paganism nor Christianity ever produced a profound political historian whose mind was not turned to gloom by the contemplation of the affairs of men.” History de­presses, saddens, chastens, tempers, and rigor­ously instructs us. It’s an essential process, Beau­champ says. But “no more apol­ogies.”

* * *

The Source: "Apologies All Around" by Gorman Beauchamp, in The American Scholar, Autumn 2007. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/butupa

Read Next

Bach the Unknowable