A sorry state of affairs

The Fijians plan to apologise for eating the British; and the British plan another Bonfire Night panic.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • I’m sorry but don’t say sorry

When US president George W Bush, visiting Africa this July, refused calls to apologise for the slave trade, I hoped that this signalled the end to our cult of historical apologies. No longer would we have to put up with Tony Blair saying sorry for the slave trade, Australians apologising for the ‘lost generation’ of Aborigines, or the Pope issuing contrition for the countless nasty doings of his predecessors.

Alas, we now hear that the Fijians are to apologise for eating the British. It transpires that in 1867 the islanders, who practised ritual cannibalism, hacked to death and gobbled up a British missionary, the Reverend Thomas Baker. Tribesmen on the island fear this incident has sullied for too long the good name of the Fijian people, and that now it is time to make amends. Next month, island chiefs are to hold a traditional ceremony to offer their apologies to the missionary’s descendants.

This is walking into a sensitive area. Some people don’t like to be reminded that non-Western societies practised cannibalism. Many anthropologists assert that Europeans simply invented these lurid tales of man-on-man feasting action to dehumanise and thus exploit the non-white peoples of the world. Sure, exaggerations were undoubtedly made, but there remains good evidence that cannibalism was practised by at least one North American tribe, the Anasazi, as well as in parts of west and central Africa, New Guinea, Polynesia, and by the Aztecs, the Maoris and Australian Aborigines.

(This is not to say that we in the West have banished the practice altogether. Earlier this year it was revealed that a German man, Armin Meiwes, invited to his house someone he had met on the internet; Meiwes chopped off his penis, ate it, and dined on his remains for months afterward. Elsewhere, The Fortean Times reports that an Austrian man, this one autocannibalistic, recently hacked off his own toes, put them in a pan, fried them, and ate them. He had been inhaling butane gas before the incident. According to the Austrian police, ‘he told the ambulance men that he had more toes than he needed and didn’t think he would notice if he got rid of a few.’)

On the plus-side, the Fijian apology should serve to remind today’s anti-modern designer tribalists that before nasty old civilisation turned up, life was not like a Timotei advertisement – that in pre-modern societies life is tyrannical, short and brutish. On the other hand, it is regrettable to see the cult of historical apologies now spewing from the mouths even of the formerly colonised people of the globe.

This wouldn’t be the first time. During Bill Clinton’s tour of Africa in 1998, in which calls for public atonement for the slave trade were made, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said that chiefs of tribes who had sold their own people should be the ones apologising. ‘Black traitors’, he said, were more to blame than Europeans for the forcible transfer of millions of Africans to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Five years later, Benin’s ambassador to the USA apologised to the descendants of African slaves for his country’s role in the slave trade.

But this misses the point, too. It was not the ambassador of Benin’s fault. He did not do it. Nor was I responsible for the Irish potato famine. Neither am I through maternal lineage a ‘sixth-generation’ survivor of a ‘famine holocaust’. Historical apologies are about using the sins of one’s fathers for self-promotion, to make one appear compassionate in a world where ostentatious displays of empathy are all the rage. Saying sorry for something that you have not actually done requires no emotional investment. It is an empty form of sentimentalism, and as Oscar Wilde once said, a sentimentalist is someone who wants the pleasure of an emotion without paying the price for it.

  • Infuehreriating obsession

I don’t blame the German ambassador for complaining that British schools place too much emphasis on teaching Hitler in history lessons. Our obsession with the Nazis is rather embarrassing, a way of mentally compensating for the fact that while we won the war, Germany won the peace. Are we ever going to give today’s peaceable, prosperous and polite Germans a break?

I always thought it was just my brother who was obsessed with the Nazis. As a teenager, his bookshelf was bursting with books about Hitler and the Third Reich. I assumed it was just a morbid stage adolescents go through – he was also obsessed with Jack the Ripper and used to go around Whitechapel taking photographs of places where victims had met their grisly ends.

Yet my brother still drools over documentaries about the Nazis, as do we all, not to mention books and films. This year alone has seen the release of two biopics on Adolf Hitler: Max, a portrait of a crap artist as a young man, and Hitler: The Rise of Evil, a television movie in which the bad guys have English accents and the goodies sound American. Mel Gibson – are you happy now?

Hitler’s undimmed popularity derives, I suspect, from the fact that we live in a morally rudderless world. With no referent to decide what is good and what is bad, Hitler serves as a substitute satanic figure, the embodiment of evil (alongside Saddam Hussein and the Serbs, of course). If we were honest, we would study Hitler in theology classes. This would free up history classes to teach us all those lovely old-fashioned subjects, such as the repeal of the corn laws, crop rotation in the thirteenth century and how the ancient Celts invented the helicopter.

  • Fawk off

I heard on the radio this week someone saying we should abolish Guy Fawkes Night because it is anti-Catholic. How refreshing to hear this anachronistic argument, instead of the now customary, timid whining about how fireworks should be banned on safety grounds. Never have we needed Bonfire Night more than now, to symbolise our lust for life, glory, action and beauty.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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