Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Slavery: please, spare me all the apologies

It is still not entirely self-evident as to why middle-class blacks are begging the British authorities to apologies for a social system that was abolished long before any of us were even born. Slavery was an accepted and legal social system up until abolition in 1807. There appears to be an ever-growing catalogue of groups claiming monies or apologies for events that occurred in the distant past. No doubt spurred on by more recent apologies, like Tony Blair apologising for the Irish potato famine, or the former American president Bill Clinton apologising to the Japanese for internment of their people during WW2.

If anything, the lives of today’s blacks in Britain, and the US are a million miles away even from today's Africans, let alone their ancestor who were physically forced into slavery over 200 years ago. Indeed, the only thing we as blacks have in common with our ancestors is DNA, that's about all. (1) The ever increasing calls for an apology sits quite nicely with today's Western therapy and compensation culture. It's as if apologies by our political masters acts as a therapeutic measure that will somehow help to solve any social problem there might be. (2)

However, loud calls for apologies over slavery actually end up reducing black people to the status of child abuse victims - who are apparently unable to get over the psychological trauma of being, err, well, black. From the perspective of those who argue for apologies, there is an insulting assumption that today's blacks are still shackled under the weight of slavery. An irony of sorts, given that it's black educationalists and lawyers who are the main driving force behind all this apologising. The advocates of apology have transformed themselves into a new industry that is forever redefining the meaning of suffering, and trying to turn it into ill-gotten cold cash, or apologies.

Don't get me wrong here, I welcome all the heated debates about British slave abolitionists and slave revolts - indeed, it's precisely why I call this blog neo-Jacobin, as a reminder of the work of C.L.R. James, in his historical account entitled The Black Jacobins, which detailed the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in human history. What I really object to is the more recent prostitution of history that we have witnessed around the bicentenary 'celebrations'. (3) As Mick Hume rightfully points out, all the recent apologies around slavery are 'meaningless moral rituals'. Indeed, who ever heard of anyone going to prison for apologising for a crime they never committed?

So, what was the point of Ken Livingstone apologising? It appears as if he is trying to compete with William Wilberforce for popularity. All this apologising - but for what? So we can begin to heal some social wounds? Well, it won't work, how can it? Indeed, in a multicultural society dominated by the politics of identity and victimhood, saying that you are sorry will not be enough - no sooner as one apologies, sure enough another demand is made, and so on, and so on. No sooner had Tony Blair apologised, there were immediate calls for him to go further - even if he walked around the world in chains, it still wouldn't be enough. How could it be? You cannot compensate those who suffer from victim identity, if you could, it would render those identities redundant. For some, saying sorry is just not enough - so our political elites should do us all a favour and stop apologising.

Read on:

(1) Suing for slavery. By Josie Appleton. 2004

(2) Slavery reparation: why now?. By Josie Appleton. 2001

(3) Who's not sorry now. By Mick Hume. 2007

Photo: "The Slave Market, Atlanta, Ga". [Also known as "Auction & Negro Sales, Whitehall St."]. By George Barnard

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