More on Apologies

I agree with almost all of what Kevin Rudd said in his Sorry speech. However, there are some parts of it that expose muddled thoughts that could do with closer examination:

It is for these reasons, quite apart from concerns of
fundamental human decency, that the governments and parliaments of
this nation must make this apology - because, put simply, the laws
that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations

We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible,
not those who gave effect to our laws.

I see the need to admit wrongdoing. Brendan Nelson's counter-speech, punctuated by rationalizations, "best
of intentions" justifications and weasel wordings like "Aboriginal Australians made involuntary sacrifices", was not the way to heal any wounds or redress any wrongs. It was a way to make white Australians feel good about their great and glorious past. This is itself wrong. The more we justify our predecessors' actions as being well motivated, the more we allow ourselves to self-justify our own actions. We need to learn our lessons and apply them to more current issues, like how we've treated refugees. But let's leave Nelson alone.

My difference with Rudd is in his sleight of hand that treats the "parliaments of the nation" as unchanging entities. "We ... are ultimately responsible" is placed in the present tense. When we talk about the mistakes of the past, made by people who are no longer in power, this is wrong. We cannot take ultimate responsibility for other peoples decisions. The "parliaments of the nation" change with the people of the nation. If we take responsibility for and apologize for anything, it should be the continuing current racist attitudes in our nation and the way they influence our corporate behavior.

We accept the burden of the decisions of our predecessors. We accept the debts incurred. We accept the responsibility to fix the problems of the past, but this is completely different from accepting responsibility for the decisions made by our predecessors. We could apologize on their behalf, but that would be blatantly presumptive of us unless we have some access to their thoughts and attitudes. The best we can do is express our sorrow, our shame, our empathy, our current understanding of how wrong our nation was, and our commitment to prevent the repetition of past mistakes. We can say "sorry", but to imply any responsibility for other people's decisions is hollow and meaningless.

Judaic teachings have a concept of sin being passed down from father to son through multiple generations. The original sin concept is rife in Western thought. It contributes to a confusion of thought regarding identity and responsibility. Our sense of justice tells us that someone did something wrong, so someone must pay. When the people who did the crime are no longer available to take the punishment, we're left with a wound. Who can heal it? Where is the mystic karmic justice to "balance" the world? We can see the false ideas of universal fairness creeping in here. The pain of unresolved injustices and the religious ideas of inheritance of sin mesh to produce a derived false idea that we, now, are somehow "ultimately" responsible for what they, then, did.

Strip away the mysticism; accept that people are fully responsible for their own actions, and we have a much clearer view of life, but we have done nothing to solve the ongoing feeling of injustice. For that we needed an "apology", an open admission that the stolen generation actions were wrong, and a real commitment to fix whatever can be fixed. For that I commend Rudd:

None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard, very hard.
But none of it is impossible, and all of it is achievable with
clear goals, clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on
respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility as the guiding
principles of this new partnership on closing the gap.

How much of the rancorous debate about an apology could we have avoided if we hadn't muddled our ideas of responsibility? Responsibility to fix something is separate from the responsibility for breaking something. We can accept the former, but we would have to arrogate the latter.


You mentioned Judaic teachings. Can I weigh in about that? The Hebrew Bible is somewhat contradictory about this concept, on the surface. In one place it talks about "registering the sins of fathers to their sons, to third generations and to fourth generations". In another place, it says, "sons shall not die on account of fathers". The rabbinic explanation of these two verses, if I recall correctly, is that 'one is when they are holding the deeds of their fathers in their hands, one is when they are not holding the deeds of their fathers in their hands'. (apologies for the awkward translation, but I wanted to be as literal as possible to avoid accidentally imposing my own view onto their words)

As I understand it, this means that if the children have abandoned their fathers' ways, and, particularly, any profit that came from their parents' misdeeds, then they cannot be held accountable for them, but if they hold on to the profits of evil while disclaiming responsibility for it, then they can and will be punished for it 'unto the fourth generation'.

For instance, to speak about the United States, the American Indians may have a very legitimate grievance against the United States government and citizens for taking their land and confining them to reservations. It doesn't help for present-day Americans to say, "We are not the ones who did it", if they are the heirs to the stolen land, and the ones who control it to this day. By not making restitution for the sin, they perpetuate it, as it were.

I don't know how it is in Australia.

As far as I know, there was no payment at all made for land appropriated from Australia's indigenous people. There has been a lot of action over the past couple of decades about land rights and compensation. That's a huge discussion in itself, so I won't even start.

The lost generation is a difficult case to interpret in terms of holding deeds in one's hands or not. I don't think there are any Australians in positions of power today who would advocate separating Aboriginal children from their parents, except in situations endangering the child (i.e. the same conditions under which children would be removed from a non-Aboriginal family). In that sense, we don't hold the attitudes of former governments, and it's hard to see how anyone in Australia could be profiting from the lost generation actions of the past.

It is interesting to hear more detail about the sins of the fathers teachings as interpreted within a Judaic tradtion. Of course, the way Christianity adopts and uses those teachings is to use one to support one piece of doctrine (original sin--to emphasize the need for salvation for absolutely everyone i.e. a marketing tool) and the other to support the way they want to interpret sin (i.e. everyone for themselves--because anything else is too likely to lead to confusion and contradictions). Of course, that division of applicability doesn't stop them using the inherited sin idea whenever it's convenient, and building complicated definitions of different types of sin. *sigh*

Presumably you're right: there is no direct link between present-day Australians and earlier generations of Australians when it comes to the 'lost generation' of Aborigines. Still, it's very human to feel a connection to one's ancestors and descendants, the people ahead of us and behind us in the chain of life, in a very similar way to how people feel pride (or shame) in their ethnicity. From a strictly rational point of view, no doubt, you are right: we are ourselves, not anyone else but in actuality, it's not always easy to think that way. (Have you read "A Cosmopolite in a Cafe", by O. Henry? I don't consider it one of his best, but it makes a similar point.) And if we can take pride in our ancestors, or our countrymen, surely being ashamed and apologizing on their behalf is only the other side of the coin.

Sadly, Australia is not the only country with such a story. A very similar thing happened in Israel with the Yemenite Jews (who, like the aboriginal Australians, have preserved their culture for many hundreds of years). How I wish that the Israeli government would apologize for its actions as the Australian government did, or even acknowledge them.

Incidentally, while trying to give a good literal translation of that rabbinic statement I mentioned, I've just realized that I accidentally used an ambiguous word. By "deeds", I meant actions, not title deeds.

As for original sin (although I know you only mentioned it incidentally), that's an interesting point of comparison between Judaism and Christianity. Not being a Christian, I am sure that my understanding of the Christian concept is unsophisticated, but if original sin means that men are born needing atonement for a sin that they did not commit, then it is a uniquely Christian concept. On the other hand, there is some parallel in Judaism--after all, the story of Adam's sin comes from the Hebrew Bible. The general Jewish understanding (as far as I myself understand it) is that Adam's sin fundamentally altered the nature of the world, and what it was to be. In particular, it embedded the Evil Inclination (whatever he represents) into man's nature, so that since then, man has a natural inclination to sin, which it is his task to fight and suppress. But I wonder whether all this theology interests you. (I find it interesting, but of course I wear the shoe on the other foot.)

PS- I had a glance at Wikipedia's entry for original sin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that there is a range of views as to the meaning of Original Sin in Christian theology, some closer to and some further from the Jewish view.

I had read A Cosmopolite in a Cafe a couple of years back when I went through an O Henry kick, but I couldn't remember it from the title so went back and re-read it. While it's an amusing poke at the mask that covers the deeper feelings, and may be true of a lot of people, I don't think I could summon any ire at all if I were to hear someone speaking ill of Melbourne or its residents. Over the past 40 years I've observed a real diminution of the importance of nationality and parochiality. Even in sports (a subject of considerable weight to a lot of Australians) the boundaries are seen to be arbitrary: an Eastern Bloc Olympics medalist one year can be an Australian champion by the next Olympics.

Maybe I've been conditioned by Melbourne, growing up with the Serbs and Croats who had just immigrated, and the Greeks and Italians who were already well established, and seeing the steady influx of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesians, Indians etc. It's hard to get all patriotic about your place or people when you can see all these people from around the world getting on with life. The one thing that we learn to value is a political structure that keeps race and religion at arms length (or usually tries to). And as Kevin Rudd put it in his apology speech, we expect everybody to get a fair go. While I don't feel at all responsible for the crimes of the past, I'm happy to see my tax dollars being spent on fixing the problems we have now, a good number of which have been caused or aggravated by government actions and ordinary Australian actions from the past. In that sense, I'm accepting my part of the responsibility to fix the problems without feeling any ownership of the causes, nor any strong kinship with those who've contributed to it.

I think you've probably got a fair idea of the Christian views (plural) of original sin now. But I'd disagree with labeling it as a uniquely Christian concept. Early Christianity was heavily influenced by Gnosticism, so the idea of a pure soul in a tainted, guilty body (the body being part of the material world which was created by the demiurge) would have been easy to integrate.

I do find the history of religions interesting. It's amazing to see the way beliefs and understandings can change and adopt new survival strategies, to the point where the behaviors and practices are completely different, but the adherents will still think of it as the same religion with exactly the same deity (or deities).

So you really have no Aussie pride? Wow.

I like Australians--at least the handful I've come into contact with. (I include New Zealanders in that small count; I don't know whether that is a controversial thing to do.) Wouldn't you say there's some sort of national culture? And doesn't that lead to a sense of national identity?

"Uniquely" was a bad choice of word. I'm certainly no expert in comparative religion. I was really just comparing the two.

There is a national culture, but it has a fairly strong element of self denigration. We're a "nation of knockers". Any nationalistic pride is counterbalanced (at least to some extent) by a reluctance to put heroes on pedestals, a willingness to cut down tall poppies, a desire to be seen as a nation of ordinary no-nonsense blokes and sheilas who don't make a fuss and don't try to seek attention or personal elevation.

Of course, this is a very broad generalization. You'll find plenty of Aussies who are more "American" in their attitudes. And just because we can be negative about our nation doesn't mean you won't find a strong national pride in most Australians.

But if you're looking to compare cultural outlooks, the nation of knockers idea is a good start to understanding Aussies. I don't think you'll find any of the sense of exceptionalism and entitlement (e.g. "God's chosen nation") like in the USA and to a lesser extent (in recent history) the UK. Our background as a nation of convicts probably helps to explain the respect we hold for "Aussie battlers".

I'm at the shallow end of the nationalism spectrum. I don't feel at all like O. Henry's caricatured cosmopolite. I am a citizen of Australia. Australia is home for me because it's where my family and employment is. It's where I can be comfortable and free. However, there are many such places in the world where I could be similarly comfortable and free, so I see no need to attach strong emotional bonds to Australia as such.