Friday, February 15, 2008

Sorry is the Hardest Word

At least a decade too late, the federal government has finally followed the lead of the states in acknowledging the littany of horrors visited by this country upon its native population. It was a simple gesture in many ways, but the reactions tell us that it was not an incosequential one. For those - like our esteemed friend, Tony Abbott - who had earlier argued that a formal apology represented nothing more than a empty gesture, a token of politically-correct symbolism, the unbridled outpouring of emotion must have come as a surprise. Try telling the grown men in the crowds across the country, reduced to tears and inspired to the point of talking openly - perhaps for the first time in their lives - about the possibility for "hope" and "healing", that this was nothing more than an empty gesture!

The genuine impact of this little word and the ease with which it was said, underlines the pettiness and cruelty of John Howard's reluctance to be engaged on the matter. How small he now looks. His curious vendetta against reconciliation has been broken and the nation has moved on without him. His steadfast reluctance to formally apologize, as head of parliament, for the parliament-sanctioned kidnapping of Aboriginal children has earnt its rightful place as a historical footnote, an archaic oddity of national policy that future generations will struggle to understand. His legacy, however, may yet die hard.

Nelson's political acrobatics on the day - submitting in principle to the idea of an apology while simultaneously attempting to placate the skepticism of his conservative base - received the scorn they deserved. His attempt to charcterise the policy of reloctaing Aboriginal children (and refusing them any future contact with their families or culture) as an essentially well-meaning (and, in some cases, well-enacted) policy was particularly odious. The sentiment of this passage - and much of his speech - is the sentiment that goes right to the heart, I think, of the conservative reluctance to respect the legitimacy of this formal apology: that is, the rejection of any and all personal responsibility for the attrocities committed. I didn't take away any children, so what do I have to apologise for?

This has been a common theme, elucidated ad nauseum by rankled culture-warriors all over the country. They have, however, as usual, missed the point. Perhaps the most poignant moment of Rudd's speech was the one that addressed this issue directly:

"We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves. As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors; therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well."

Without wanting to dive too deeply into the waters of post-modern thought, the notion of continuity - particularly of parliament - is essential for the meaningful existence of a country. If you want to recognise the legitimate need for countries (which, as I have outlined in a previous post, is something I have my reservations about) then it must be understood that new countries aren't formed every time a new government ascends to power. None of the individuals responsible for the policies that led to the stolen generation are still in power, but as benefactors of the nation that they helped form, we inherit their "burdens" as well. If the spirits of the Anzacs still live with us today,  as Dr. Nelson suggests, then so do the ghosts of the stolen generation.

And that is why we are compelled to say sorry.

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