Bob Jones: Historic apologies just pointless gestures

Show-pony politicians who succumb to pressure to say sorry for ancient outrages are just being ridiculous.

A few years ago, Helen Clark apologised to Maoridom for some historic offence, says Jones. Photo / Steven McNicholl
A few years ago, Helen Clark apologised to Maoridom for some historic offence, says Jones. Photo / Steven McNicholl

In India recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron rightly refused to apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre. He laid a wreath on the commemorative site (another pointless gesture), then in response to demands for a formal apology said, "We are dealing with something that happened more than 40 years before I was born. I don't think it's right to look back in history seeking out things for which to apologise."

This apologising by politicians to groups whose ancestors suffered from some outrage committed by the ancestors of others is a recent-years fad and amounts to politician show-ponyism.

Two weeks ago, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised to women who - as orphans, pregnant girls and the like - had under compulsion served as virtual slaves, sometimes with the state's collusion, in workhouse laundries run by embittered, bullying nuns. Given that some of the victims are still alive, this apology was justifiable.

But most are just plain silly.

For example, recently, Massey University lecturer Jim Veitch demanded the Government apologise for the 1943 massacre of 48 Japanese prisoners of war in Featherston. There are disputed reports on what happened after the prisoners staged a sit-in and refused to work but it's hard to believe it wasn't an outrage. As Veitch says, "It's nothing to do with the Japanese behaviour during the war, it's got to do with our guys violating the Geneva Convention." Be that as it may, Veitch's request was absurd. You can't apologise for the infamy of others on behalf of the innocent. It's like me punching someone in Auckland and 50 years later an Invercargill housewife apologising to her neighbour for this.

As it is, the Japanese take a belligerent view when it comes to admitting, let alone apologising, for the sins of their fathers, notably in respect of the so-called "comfort women", namely Korean girls forced into becoming a harem for World War II Japanese soldiers. Some, now elderly, are still alive. So too with Japan's unbecoming attitude, virtually one of denial, for their troops' appalling conduct in China and towards prisoners of war.

A few years ago, Helen Clark apologised to Maoridom for some historic offence, while about the same time Australian Prime Minister John Howard, pressured to apologise to Aborigines for a resurrected past outrage (since revealed to have been hugely exaggerated), point-blank refused. Always sensible, Howard stated the obvious, namely the relevant parties no longer exist.

I'm not suggesting the past be forgotten but human history is littered with vile behaviour by nations or groups towards other nations or groups, all participants now long dead. In recent years, Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the world heavyweight championship, which he did in Sydney 105 years ago, has been the subject of a ridiculous number of revisionist plays, films, musicals and books in America for being allegedly wrongfully imprisoned.

In fact, he was found guilty under the Mann Act because he was guilty and was in good company, other notables such as Charlie Chaplin and Frank Lloyd Wright also being prosecuted. Introduced in 1910 to combat white slavery, the act forbade, as with so much American catch-all criminal legislation, transportation across state borders, in this case women for immoral purposes. In those days immorality encompassed sex between unmarried partners and, believe it or not, the act still exists.

In 2009, the previous year's presidential candidate, boxing buff John McCain, secured a unanimous vote in Congress in support of a presidential pardon for Johnson. President Obama wisely declined, doubtless recognising it as simply fashionable behaviour.

We certainly shouldn't forget past atrocities but today's blameless generations should not be held responsible. We're approaching the centennial of the first modern-era massacre in which an estimated one and a half million Armenians were murdered by the Turks, an event that helped give currency to the term genocide.

Ever since, the Armenians have gone on and on about it because the Turks refuse to apologise and admit to genocide. They should let it go, but instead remain obsessed by the Turks' refusal. So office-holding foreigners visiting the capital, Yerevan, no matter how minor, are carted up to the memorial museum overlooking the city and a plaque recording their visit joins dozens of others. It has its humorous side, the plaques encompassing the ilk of Minister of Transport for Lesotho or Mayor of Wollongong, all of this somehow substantiating the genocide claim, as if that's needed.

The worst victims of this behaviour are Germans, still unjustly hated for the Holocaust, as if they are responsible for events 70 years ago. A friend of mine is tall, blond and blue-eyed. A few years ago, he and his wife toured Israel. One night they popped into their hotel lounge for a pre-dinner drink. Only a few people were there but they were seemingly invisible as nothing would attract the two waitresses' attention. Tiring of this, my friend went to the bar, whereupon the barman quickly scuttled out the back and stayed there. Suddenly the coin dropped. At the top of his voice my friend shouted, "I'm not a German." Instantly the barman emerged, the waitresses rushed over, there were effusive apologies and drinks were on the house. It's ridiculous.

- NZ Herald

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