Good column by Stanley Fish in today's New York Times about the resistance by some politicians to taking responsibility for slavery and other past evils. The heart of his argument:
. . . the objection most often voiced is that the wrong people would be apologizing to the wrong people. That was the point made by Tommie Williams, the Georgia Senate majority leader, when he said: "I personally believe apologies [for slavery] need to come from feelings that I've done wrong," and "I just don't feel like I did something wrong."Fair enough, and here is a second point that Fish didn't mention. Conservative politicians--the ones who most frequently get on their high horse to disclaim responsibility for evils like slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, etc.--seem to have no difficulty claiming a spiritual and political connection to heroic deeds from our nation's past. From Bush--who loves to compare himself to everyone from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Truman--on down to every local politician who wraps himself in the mantle of Washington and Jefferson on Independence Day, they all love to bask in the glow of this reflected virtue.
Williams's counterpart in the house, Speaker Glenn Richardson, made the same claim of innocence on behalf of his colleagues. "I'm not sure what we ought to be apologizing for," given that "nobody here was in office."
But this is very bad reasoning, and you can see why if you read just a few recent Supreme Court cases on any subject. Invariably, the justice delivering the court's opinion will cite a precedent from a case decided 50 or 100 years ago, and say something like, "In Smith v. Jones, we ruled that . . . " But of course he or she didn't actually--that is, personally--rule on anything in 1940 or 1840, so what's with the "we"?
The answer is that by using "we" to refer to an action taken before any present member of the court had reached the age of reason or was even alive, the justices acknowledge that they are part of an ongoing enterprise, and as such are responsible for its history; not as individuals, but as persons charged with the duty of carrying on a project that precedes them and will survive them.
If the wisdom, courage, and perserverance of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are part of our national inheritance--and they are--then so are the cruelty, arrogance, and deceit of the Ku Klux Klan, Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover. If we want to claim the former, let's show a little integrity and maturity by owning up to the latter.
Tags: Stanley Fish, slavery, apology