The Nation's Pulse

All Apologies

For Virginia's posturing pols, sorry seems to be the easiest word.

By 2.14.07

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In the state of Virginia, where I live, they are this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of English settlers, at Jamestown, in what was to become the United States of America. Well, "celebrating" may not be exactly the right word, for as part of the state's commemoration of the event, the House of Delegates has unanimously voted to express its "profound regret" for the institution of slavery, which existed here between 1619 and 1865. "Contrition" is the word used in a rival resolution in the state Senate, and the difference between them, if any, will doubtless be hammered out in a House-Senate conference. I, for one, can't wait to find out just how sorry we're all meant to be.

This semi-apology seemed to me a bad idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which was what those unpracticed in the ways of gestural politics might have thought was the obvious one, namely that the people doing the apologizing were not actually the ones who had done the wrong. Nor, for that matter, were those they were apologizing to the ones to whom the wrong had been done. Both were long dead and long past caring. But it's never too late for politicians to find new ways to feel good about themselves by apologizing on others' behalf. For good measure, the legislature added a stout condemnation of the "egregious wrongs" which had been done by white Europeans to the indigenous population.

Both apologies -- if that is what they were -- must be judged to have fallen foul of the same objection, namely that of the regicide and fratricide, King Claudius, in Hamlet, who asked, "May one be pardoned and retain the offense?" Obviously not.

America is what it is, to an extent that must be forever incalculable, because chattel slavery existed here for more than two hundred years -- just as it is in an even more direct way on account of the military defeat and subsequent assimilation of the American Indians. We couldn't change this even if we tried, and there is zero chance that we're going to try because, on the whole, both the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave-owners like America the way it is.

Well, there's a lot to like about it. Americans of all colors and heritages are incomparably freer and more prosperous than almost any other people in the world. Could that also have something to do with the history which included slavery? Why no mention of the fact that the culture that enslaved Africans also freed them -- and in defiance of what was then and still is the common practice in many other parts of the world where that culture's writ does not run? A much more commonsensical view of slavery was expressed by the black Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg a decade ago when he emerged from a sojourn among present-day Africans and said: "Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God I'm an American."

But the apology debate was not really about slavery at all, as quickly became apparent when its focus shifted to the scandal of Delegate Frank Hargrove who said that slavery had long ceased to exist and "black citizens should get over it." And he added: "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?" There then ensued the now-customary ritual of offense-and-apology which went on very much as usual even though there was no formal apology from Delegate Hargrove. I would like to have thought that he recognized, as the media never does, that his own apology would be as much an exercise in moral posturing as the one he was objecting to, but he then went on to substitute for it a bit of posturing of his own in the form of a resolution to make June 19th, the anniversary of the day when the last slaves were freed in 1865, a state holiday.

These are examples of the extent to which all our politics has now been reduced to moral posturing, though a much less potentially dangerous one than the proposed resolution in the U.S. Congress against President Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq. Those, like Virginia's Republican Senator John Warner, who are sponsoring or will vote for this shameful and cowardly motion -- designed only so that those associated with it cannot (in their own view) be blamed for anything bad that happens as a result of the surge -- could not but have known that it will accomplish nothing save the demoralization of American forces and the encouragement of the enemy. But this was of no importance to them in comparison with the urgent need to get on record their own precious opinions.

It's the same mentality, as I pointed out in this space two weeks ago, shown by Sen. Jim Webb in the Democrats' reply to the President's State of the Union address. Senator Webb is also from Virginia, I'm sorry to say -- the state that they used to call "the mother of presidents." Now it's beginning to look as if you'd have to describe it as the mother of prigs, poltroons and poseurs.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.