Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility

by A. Jay Adler on August 14, 2009
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Excuse me. I beg your pardon. Pardon me. My apologies. Forgive me. My bad. Sorry.

What’s the point?

In any given situation an individual feels wronged, harmed in some manner, embarrassed, humiliated – subtracted from. Some act or failure to act has led a person, through a complex of conditions, to feel that something, tangible or other, has been taken from him: money, land, a job, an honor, pride, dignity, respect.

Sometimes, the wrong recognized and assumed in responsibility by the one committing it, restitution is possible. Sometimes not. Many an apology, on an individual level, offers nothing but that: sorry. The insult can’t be undone, the embarrassment erased from the marks of time – a life restored. Still, the apology may be offered; often, when it is not, those who might wish for one – might, in fact, be able to wish only for that – will agitate in some corner of themselves, or more openly, in the absence of it.

Why?

Though nothing else, perhaps, can be returned, someone wronged wishes the wrong be admitted. It was not right, what you did. The world should not be that way. Acknowledge that, at least, so that I can believe you will not do it again. It is a gesture, just a gesture, a symbol – of memory, of knowledge, of intention for the future, of who the offender, in that one instance, in fact really is as a whole person, in totality, greater than the offence.

Even on a personal level, we know, people will resist apologies. It may be that the circumstances are complex, and the claim of the wrong committed not so clear. But it is true, too, that people, all in their natural drive to feel good, and good about themselves, will abjure the shame of an apology. Hey, you shouldn’t have been standing there in the first place. Aren’t you the sensitive one. Get over it. It’s the way of the world, my friend: move on.

And what of collective wrongs? Conquest? Slavery? Indentured labor? Mass kidnappings and disappearances? Terrorism? The brutal destruction and mass death of aggressive war? Genocide?

On July 17, the State of California apologized to its Chinese population for racist laws against them that remained in the statutes until well into the twentieth century and for years of abuse during, for instance, the construction of the Trans-Continental railroad in the mid nineteenth century, for which Chinese were heavily employed. Unlike Japanese-Americans, who received a national apology in 1988 and a reparative payment for their internment during the Second World War, the Chinese received only the apology. They are descendents and doing well. The purpose was symbolic.

Not long after, I guest posted at The League of Ordinary Gentleman on the subject of naming athletic teams and creating team mascots in “honor” of American Indians. The post was derived from two posts here and here on the sad red earth. The issue, I argued, is entirely one of symbol. Even the insult some contemporary Native Americans may feel at this phenomenon is insignificant within the whole context of conquest and transgression. Nothing directly, materially changes as a consequence of a team name change or the elimination of a mascot. However, the willingness to take such acts would reveal something about what kind of recognition Americans have made about the less admirable history of their nation. It would constitute one small acknowledgement of wrongs committed and what might be inappropriate in the context of those wrongs.

There is a history of many Americans trivializing the issue of team names as unimportant, often, it appears, as a way of ignoring the meaning contained in the symbolism. I addressed this in the post. Still, some readers responded with the same sense of laughable triviality. Another couldn’t get past my use of the phrase “dominating mentality of conquest.” It conveyed to him all sorts of abstruse leftist theorizing, “posts-“ of all kinds, “modern” and “colonial,” to which he objects. I tried to get past this ideological resistance by focusing on the individual words – their presence, meaningfully, in the language before and outside of the theories he objects to – and the historical reality, rather than an ideological construct, of an actual conquest of North American Indians, the domination that Europeans and their American inheritors consequently exerted and still do exert over Native Americans, and a frame of mind, or mentality, that is a natural extension of living and acting out of that position of dominance. I don’t know that I got anywhere.

That reader’s negativity on the subject, however, is representative, I believe, of one source of resistance to what are often referred to as collective apologies. The post-colonial era and its studies, along with the whole modern enterprise of studying racism and ethnic and other forms  of discrimination, have , at their worst, produced what many perceive as a culture of victimization – groups everywhere fishing for whatever status they might claim as a class of historical or social victims, and seeking to draw from it whatever advantage or gain they can. The post-colonial era is only forty plus years old, yet already some people are very tired of it. Life may be short and art long, with history longer and my life, while I’m living it, the longest of all, and after decades now of hearing what a victim everyone is, I’m pretty fucking tired of it. Hundreds of years of mistreatment and wrong, it seems – it’s easy to understand; we weren’t there to experience any of it in time – collapses quite readily into a mere concept, a mental construct against the expansive durée of our individual lives.

Another area of resistance focuses on the question of who it is exactly who is making the apology to whom. Who are these “collectives” involved? For whatever reason, I find the British blogging on the subject much more than Americans. Norm Geras has been arguing for the meaningfulness of collective apologies for some time, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Shuggy is here, and just days ago Brett at Harry’s Place here. Brett articulates one problematic point at the start:

To be honest, I don’t really see the point of these symbolic gestures in which people who aren’t guilty of perpetrating an injustice apologise to people who weren’t victims of it.

He goes onto to call an apology for slavery racist because based on race.

Shuggy offered another difficulty:

More problematic though is this notion of collectives having a personality of their own that stretches across generations. The notion of collective identity – and by extension, collective guilt – is a dodgy concept

Shuggy and Norm both pointed to a Ben Macintyre piece on The Times:

There is, of course, no limit to how retrospectively repentant we could all be. The Pope could apologise for the Crusades, we could say sorry for roasting Joan of Arc and the Italians could ask our forgiveness for the way their ancestors marched in here in AD43, and then built all those unimaginatively straight roads that invite people to drive too fast.

Macintyre, of course, makes the perfect point (and I rather enjoy that last). The history of human civilization is sublime and horrific –  in some ways, because of the economies both of productive and destructive scale, increasingly so and simultaneously. Human history is nothing if not, as part of it, a history of people being wronged: inconceivable numbers of unrecorded individual deaths in the dead of night and the darkness of dungeons, populations destroyed and shifted over the earth through large and lower level conquests and plunders. Apologize for what we did wrong? On which day? To which people? And what good, really, does it do?

History moves on, leaving its trail of irretrievable loss and irreversible consequence. Against the power of great nations and circumstance nothing will be regained. Though an Assiniboine Sioux told me of Indians who say they’d take Montana back, for all the tribes, and call it splits, none imagines this will happen. Who believes the Tibetans will ever have their land back from a Chinese nation that only grows in power? Sometimes, it is true, history offers opportunities. Could Jews have recreated a homeland a hundred years earlier, a hundred years later? Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, later, the U.S. Iraq, and the Kurds get their chance. Good of you to apologize. We’ll take care of the matter ourselves, thank you very much.

But this is too facile.

If we have advanced as a species, even as we continue to demonstrate our basest qualities, we might begin by agreeing that part of whatever progress we have made can be demonstrated – as a foundation for believing in the progress – by recognizing and acknowledging the nature of our common human history. Then, we could draw a line between events so far back in time that they have no current consequence in a contemporary society and those that do.

But now two concepts need to be addressed. The first is that of historical continuity of identity. There is nothing novel about this notion. As Norm notes, corporations are held responsible, despite changes in personnel and executive leadership, for crimes they commit. Their corporate nature is a continuing identity. National governments, as a foundation for any kind of diplomatic and international relations, are understood, in terms of treaties and agreements, to continue in identity with previous administrations that instituted them, even while they may change policies and “personality.” The United States is not reconstituted in new being with each succeeding instant, generation, or even collective of lifespans. The United States, as a national entity, is the same that practiced slavery. It has changed in that policy and nature, but it maintains that identity. It is, as a nation, responsible for that history and when it apologizes for slavery, as it appears in the process of doing, it does so as the same nation that committed the crime. It is not, as Brett mistakenly formulates the subject, a race-based, never mind racist, act. White people are not apologizing to African-Americans: the United States is.

The well-named The Living Consequences blog has an excellent, complex consideration of the slavery apology that has so far passed the Senate, by voice vote. One element of complexity is that while, I have argued, it is the national entity that is apologizing, people properly think of themselves as represented by that entity – and there are those among the people who will argue I enslaved no one, and no African-American alive today was a slave. However, historical national identity entails cultural inheritance, and the inheritance entails responsibility. Were modern-day Americans to squander the legacy of liberty passed on to them by the nation’s founders, would not people believe that a trust, a responsibility had not been met – by not only Anglo descendents of colonists but Chinese and Irish and Dominican and Jewish immigrants whose ancestors played no role in the founding, or in slavery or in the Native conquest? And those are a cultural inheritance too, assumed with responsibility.

The United States is, as in so many respects, the historic laboratory for understanding the human nature of this issue. The crimes may have originated in race, but the U.S., in its ideals and its historic reality is not identified or constituted in race or ethnicity, and increasingly so. Americans, even the newest, assume a cultural legacy – it is that alone that makes them American. As I tell my students when we explore these difficult feelings, when the American Indian was being conquered, my ancestors were being murdered and raped by Cossacks in Ukraine. As the resistant will cry, I didn’t have anything to do with it. But if I am to feel pride in the enlightened ideals that formed the U.S at its best – which I do – need I not also accept the burden of the worst? I feel no personal shame. I needn’t. But I am an inheritor. If I am not, then the idea of nation means nothing – even more important for the future, an idea of culture constituted as well in values and ideas, and not only ethnic patrimony and unconsidered practice will mean nothing.

As many critics of the collective apology say, apologies can be mere words, as indeed they can be.  Particularly with the most meaningful candidates for apology – crimes that have continuing, “living consequences” – the “mere” words apology is a fraud, like “sorry if what I said hurt you” but not “sorry I said it.”  The apology for slavery that has passed the senate offers no reparations or other action, though it does not preclude them. Many argue that reparations would be wrong paid to descendents who were not themselves slaves. Others would argue that much expensive American social policy over the past decades has been a form of corrective reparation.

In the case of Native Americans, and the bill sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback that has passed out of the Committee on Indian Affairs, apology is offered on behalf of the American people for the range of crimes committed against American Indians, which are clearly acknowledged. So far so good. However, there is no mention of seeking repeal of Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 Supreme Court decision that justified the American possession of native land (via a form of cultural inheritance) on the basis of the Discovery Doctrine by which Europeans had claimed the land for themselves, and that the Native population was of an “inferior race.”

There is no mention of the ongoing injustices against Native Americans, in the form, for instance, of the thirteen-year old Individual Money Trust Fund suit, or the Tribal Trust Fund suit, in which hundreds of billions of dollars earned from Native lands and held in paternalistic trust by the U.S. government since the end of the nineteenth century have been misappropriated. The government, even under an Obama administration, is arguing that it owes Natives nothing. Since these trusts were established at just the period when the “Indian Wars” are considered to have ended, the current U.S. legal position is in a profound regard truly a current continuation of the conquest and its abuses – their end game.

Under such conditions, the Brownback sponsored apology is, indeed, mere words, and an apology not worthy of the name.


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