Please Don't Apologize, Mr. President (For Things You Didn't Do)

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Column by new Root Striker David M. Brown.

Exclusive to STR

Persons sometimes treat others very badly. This treatment may be institutionally encouraged, and continue for a long time.

For example, officials of the Catholic Church once sanctioned torture as a means of extracting confessions from heretics and, with luck, curing them of their heresy. In his account in The Age of Faith of the Inquisition as it developed in the 13th century, Will Durant writes (p. 781):

"The popes advised that torture should be a last resort, should be applied only once, and should be kept 'this side of loss of limb and danger of death.' The inquisitors interpreted 'only once' as meaning only once for each examination; sometimes they interrupted torture to resume examination, and then felt free to torture anew. Torture was in several cases used to force witnesses to testify, or to induce a confessing heretic to name other heretics. It took the form of flogging, burning, the rack, or solitary imprisonment in dark and narrow dungeons. The feet of the accused might be slowly roasted over burning coals; or he might be bound upon a triangular frame, and have his arms and legs pulled by cords wound on a windlass. Sometimes the diet of the imprisoned man was restricted to weaken his body and will and tender him susceptible to such psychological torture as alternate promises of mercy or threats of death."

The obvious question—well, not really obvious, but I’ll ask it anyway—is: Have you apologized yet for the sadisms of the medieval churchmen; and, for that matter, for all the other bad things anyone has ever done throughout history? You are, after all, a member of the same group to which those perpetrators belonged. Even if you’re not a pontiff and not a Catholic.

But wait. Should you not also be receiving an apology for that medieval torture; and, for that matter, for all the other bad deeds anyone has ever done? You are, after all, a member of the same group to which their victims belonged. Ergo, apologize to yourself already—or enlist a General-Will-Incarnating Leader to do so on your behalf.

You may be loathe to either give or get such unwarranted apologies. But persons like the author of a recent New York Times (“Apologize for Slavery,” June 19, 2015) do want a formal statement of contrition for an alleged collective guilt from individuals who happen to share certain superficial and non-incriminating characteristics with the guilty. Given their arbitrary assumptions, such guilt-imputers have no logical reason to stop at skin color, sex, religion, nationality, or any other any other group characteristic(s) when identifying the collectives membership in which somehow morally taints regardless of the member’s own individual conduct. The most general and fundamental group to which we all belong is Homo Sapiens. We’re all human beings, and we’re thereby capable of doing both good and evil; our human capacity to reason, value, act, choose is what makes the categories of moral and immoral conduct intelligible. “Therefore,” we are each of us guilty, in however attenuated and residual a form, of all the evils any other human being has ever committed. “We,” then, owe a lot of apologies.

Timothy Egan asserts many things in his apology-urging op-ed, which was occasioned by the 150th anniversary of the final formal emancipation of slaves, in Texas, in June 1865. He asserts that Obama has not been bold “on” the “color divide”; that the “absurdity around” the actions of a racial con-woman and of a racist mass-murderer exemplify how “a post-racial era seems very much out of reach”; that although it took a few centuries to apologize for the persecution of Galileo, at least now the church “speaks with authority, backed by science, on climate change—leaving Republicans in the United States in the dungeon of ignorance.” In what way disagreements over the politics and science of weather illuminates the question of whether Americans living in 2015 are morally responsible for slavery ended in 1865 is unclear. Is the reader expected to infer that disagreement on whether government should try to control global weather is morally the same as practicing slavery? Is the world owed an apology because persons still disagree about “climate change”? Egan doesn’t say. But the inclusion of the smear seems like ritualistic chorus-echoing.

The main assertion and conclusion is that President Obama should offer “words of contrition—a formal acknowledgement of a grievous wrong by a great nation” for America’s slaveholding past. Not for slavery as such—since Americans did not conceive the millennia-old practice—but for the fact that the U.S. was “at one time, the largest slaveholding nation on earth.”

Obama would not be apologizing as an individual or for himself alone, but as a representative of We the People—even if none of us people agrees that the apology is appropriate. But if the acceptance of collective guilt implied by such an apology were warranted, why should Obama restrict himself to apologizing only for America’s slaveholding past? Why not apologize for slavery as such? Or for all evils that men have ever perpetrated? There’s no warrant for doing do, but none for the smaller-scale nobis culpa either.

Perhaps the most familiar insistence on inherited collective guilt is the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin. The idea is that we human beings not only may individually commit evil, but also that we each willy-nilly inherit the onus of somebody else’s moral lapse, as well as an innate and predetermined tendency to do wrong. We’re supposedly born in a state of sin—guilty of moral wrongdoing before we even have a chance to build any kind of moral track record. Secular versions of original sin are just as arbitrary. If one’s membership in the group is unchosen—or chosen in a way that doesn’t implicate one in any wrongdoing—any imputation of guilt on secular collectivist grounds is just as unsubstantiated by the facts of human nature and moral life as the same imputation on theological collectivist grounds.

Egan doesn’t explore such questions explicitly, although he refers to “America’s original sin”; which, allegedly, President Obama is in a special position to repent, having “little ancestral baggage on this issue.” Why would the amount of Obama’s “ancestral baggage” matter in any respect? But throughout his article, Egan hops from one loaded non sequitur to the next with the acuteness and dexterity of a drunken one-eyed hippopotamus. An example is his equating of “contrition” with “acknowledgement.” Historians and other writers about American history continuously “acknowledge” the fact of slavery without also waxing irrelevantly contrite about it. In like wise, he avers that because modern-day Americans with no connection to slaveholders nevertheless “own” the past, “we have to condemn it.” “Contrition” and “condemnation” are as little equivalent as “contrition” and “acknowledgement.” But Egan is eager to skid past the need to argue for his controversial call for contrition, so treats it as near-synonymous with counsels that nobody could dispute. What it comes down to is that we “own” America’s history of slavery (in the sense of being somehow collectively responsible for it) because we “own” it. But that Americans of today are responsible to any extent for the conduct of persons long-dead is precisely what he must show if he is also to also show that we should feel contrite about that conduct.

Egan is not entirely oblivious to the absurdity of his unsupported conclusions. So he tries to suggest that substantial pro-slavery sentiment in some guise or other not only still exists today but also loops through a temporally backward-flowing wormhole to exacerbate the cruddy attitudes back then. This is where mass-murderer Dylann Roof comes in handy. “The Confederate flag that still flies on the grounds of the Statehouse in South Carolina, cradle of the Civil War,” Egan writes, “is a reminder that the hatred behind the proclaimed right to own another human being has never left our shores.” Of course, it’s not the flag by itself that especially reminded anybody in recent weeks of slavery-motivating hatred, but the hateful actions of the white supremacist who slew congregants at a Southern Baptist church in June and who turned out to be partial to the Confederate flag. This piece of cloth didn’t determine Roof’s actions, however.

Most defenders of displaying the Confederate flag are neither killers nor aspiring slaveholders. But whatever the defaults, emotions, or wrongdoing of any flag-partisans may be, what they should apologize for, if anything, is only their own ideas and conduct. Moreover, non-racist, non-pro-slavery Americans are not responsible for the persistence of racist or pro-slavery sentiment in the breasts of others. The propriety of an apology for American slavery on “our” behalf is thus doubly undemonstrated, if Egan is citing the actions of contemporary racists to affirm that all modern-day Americans owe contrition for actions that no one now alive had anything to do with, especially in light of the fact that the physics of time-flow-reversing wormholes is speculative at best.

The irrational notion of our collective guilt—and so of our collective need to collectively atone for it—rests on the deeper irrational notion that individuals do not exist as independent, self-responsible agents but rather only as dependently part of a collective social organism, complicit in everything that that "organism" "does" as manifested in any one of its person-cells. But this collectivist assumption—this simultaneously ethical and metaphysical subjugation of the individual to the group—is false both literally and analogically. No observable facts support it. None, certainly, are adduced by Egan. Individuals are influenced by others, and can cooperate with others in pursuit of a common end. But each individual is observably responsible for his own conduct alone, not also for that of persons whose actions he does not control, influence or abet. An individual cannot be held even indirectly and tangentially responsible for actions taken long before he was born.

Throughout history, members of various groups—racial, political, economic, geographic—have abused members of other groups. Determining a particular individual’s culpability in any instance of such depends on the kind of evidence featured in courts. Criminal trials that are not mere farces depend on scrupulously objective assessment of relevant evidence. When all goes well, a person is held “guilty” of a crime only if the facts prove his guilt—not because he shares some irrelevant trait with the actual perpetrator(s). The apology of a person guilty of wrongdoing may or may not mean something. But the relationship of that apology to the individual’s own conduct would then at least be discernible.

Evaluate yourself honestly and justly. Don’t apologize for bad things somebody else did. Apologize, when appropriate, only for bad things you have done, presumably after making any appropriate amends. President Obama has much to apologize for, none of which include slaveholding in the old South. He can start by admitting that Obamacare is a disastrous assault on our individual rights and agreeing to sign any repeal of it; after which I will be glad to listen to his apology for helping to torture the Constitution and to further enslave medical practitioners, patients and taxpayers. Egan can start by repudiating and apologizing for his badly reasoned article.

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David M. Brown's picture
Columns on STR: 1

David M. Brown (EditingWrite.com) is a freelance writer and editor. He is the author of The Case of the Cockamamie Killer and Omelet: A Tragedy of Bill Shake-a-speare