Gorman Beauchamp demolishes, and then dances over the corpse of, one of principal idiocies of our time.
Fifty years ago, New American Library published the Mentor Philosophers series, each with a title beginning The Age of . . . Belief, Ideology, Reason, and so on; the 20th-century selections bore the title The Age of Analysis. Had the series continued to the end of that century and into this, the volume should no doubt be The Age of Apology. Our postmodern ethos seems to hold that if anything can be proved to have happened, then surely someone needs to apologize for it.
We live amid a veritable tsunami of apology. The Catholic Church, which, of course, has much to apologize for, has, of late, offered mea culpas to Galileo, the Jews, the gypsies, Jan Hus, whom it burned at the stake in 1415, even to Constantinople (now Istanbul) for its sacking 800 years ago by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, an event for which the late John Paul II expressed â€œdeep regret.â€ No wonder that a group in England, claiming descent from the medieval Knights Templars, is asking the Vatican to apologize for the violent suppression of the order and for torturing to death its Grand Master Jacques de Molay in 1314, an apology timed to commemorate the 700th anniversary of that fell deed. In America, the National Council of Churches apologized to Native Americans for Europeansâ€™ discovering their continent and appropriating their land (but did not return any churchâ€™s specific holdings to any specific tribe). The United Church of Canada followed suit, officially apologizing to Canadaâ€™s native peoples for wrongs inflicted by the church; the native peoples, however, officially rejected the apology.
The current lieutenant governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, personally presented the leaders of the Mormon church with a copy of his state legislatureâ€™s House Resolution 793, expressing â€œofficial regretâ€ for the 1844 murder of Joseph Smith and the expulsion of his followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The language asking for â€œpardon and forgivenessâ€ was toned down when certain lawmakers protested that they could not ask for forgiveness for acts that they had not personally committed â€” a retrograde notion, apparently, of individual responsibility. Tony Blair, as British prime minister, apologized to the Irish for his nationâ€™s insensitivity to the plight of the victims of the Potato Famine in the 1840s. A hundred years after the event, the U.S. Congress offered a formal apology to the Hawaiians for the overthrow of their monarchy in 1893. The French parlement unanimously adopted a law stating that â€œthe trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade, perpetuated from the 15th century against Africans, Amerindians, Malagasies and Indians, constitutes a crime against humanityâ€: the centuries of slavery before the 15th and the slavery of other peoples do not, apparently, constitute such a crime, at least in France.
In 2005 the U.S. Senate formally apologized for something that it had not done: make lynching a federal crime. Such a record of inaction, claimed one of the resolutionâ€™s sponsors, constituted a â€œstain on the United States Senate.â€ True enough, no doubt, but one of how many? Imagine if the United States or any other government began apologizing not only for sins of commission but for those of omission: an infinite regress of culpability.
My favorite apology so far, however, appeared in a brief Reuters account. â€œVillagers of the tiny settlement of Nubutautau [Fiji] wept as they apologized to the descendants of a British missionary killed and eaten by their ancestors 136 years ago,â€ the news agency reported. â€œThe villagers and the relatives of the missionary, the Rev. Thomas Baker, were taking part in a complex ritual intended to lift a curse the locals say has caused an extended run of bad luck.â€ A cow was slaughtered and kisses given to the 11 relatives of the missionary by the village chief, Ratu Filimoni Nawawabalavu, â€œa descendant of the chief who cooked the missionary.â€ No word on whether the curse lifted. …
Our mania for apology stems from a radical sort of â€œpresentismâ€: the belief, in practice, if not fully articulated, that the actions and actors of the past should be evaluated, and usually condemned, by present-day standards. In our relativistic age in which advanced opinion notoriously eschews universals and absolutes, the criteria obtaining at the moment in Cambridge and Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor and Palo Alto, Austin and Madison seem to have more than contingent status. The criteria appear perilously close to absolutes, the sort of absolutes obeisance to which allows moderately competent graduate students in sociology or culture studies to relish their moral superiority to almost any denizen of the benighted pre-Foucault past. One has only to listen to the incredulous-to-hostile laughter that, at academic conferences, greets the opinions of, say, Henry Adams or Thomas Carlyle on the mental capacities of women, or of Hegel or Hume on Africans, commonplace a century or two ago, to understand how relative our relativism really is.
Presentism wants not only to judge the past by the criteria of the present, but, in a complete failure of historical imagination, canâ€™t conceive of the criteria of the future being radically different from todayâ€™s.
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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.