Who’s not sorry now?
The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade has become a field day for the new politics of apologism.
Funny how sometimes a two-hundredth anniversary can come along right on cue. The enthusiasm with which all sides have fallen upon the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade suggests that this issue is being used to promote different agendas today. In particular, it has become a focus for what we might call the new politics of apologism.
We have been treated to heated lectures, debates and exchanges about the horrors of the slave trade and the relative contributions to its abolition made by slave revolts in the colonies and establishment rebellions in Britain. Such a re-examination of history is always welcome, although some might think that the credentials of some of the ‘historians’ holding forth (Ms Dynamite?) are open to question.
But the bigger question nobody is asking is: why has everybody from politicians and church leaders to celebrities suddenly seized upon this 200-year-old event with a passion they rarely demonstrate over pressing current issues? It is not as if there is any debate about whether or not slavery was a bad thing.
All of this is not really about the history. Indeed, most seem keen to remove slavery from its historical context and talk about its lessons for today, or how its influence persists, or how there is still slavery in Britain now. The prostitution of history through this clumsily instrumental use of the bicentenary reveals less about the past degradation that was the slave trade than about the degraded state of politics and public debate today.
The anti-slavery jamboree is largely an exercise in moral self-flattery. At a time when there is no moral consensus in British society, slavery has been turned into one of the few issues which all can agree is a moral absolute. To be against it is to put oneself on the side of Good. In that context, it is no coincidence that the government is now discussing making slavery a compulsory part of the school curriculum. The only other historical subject granted that status is of course the Nazi Holocaust, which is largely taught as an ahistorical fable about Good and Evil.
The slave trade is being treated as our own British Holocaust, with a happy ending (we abolished it!) and no survivors today to hog the limelight. Everybody can feel good about feeling guilty about slavery with a clear conscience. The apologies and breast-beating are meaningless moral rituals. After all, nobody will be sent to jail for claiming responsibility for a crime they did not commit 200 years ago. It is a feelgood display of confession and contrition without consequences.
The row over slavery apologies has even descended into a sort of indignation auction, with people competing to show that they are even more sorry about the slave trade than the previous speaker, and more angry than everybody else at the lack of apologies expressed by some others. Thus London mayor Ken Livingstone has apologised on behalf of all Londoners (thanks Ken, but speak for yourself), and ranted against every other public figure who fails to do likewise as if they have blood on their hands.
Many others have also been scrambling for a piece of the indignation action, appointing themselves to speak ‘in the name of’ the victims of slavery. Conservative leaders David Cameron and William Hague have sought to claim the cause for themselves by emphasising the role of conservative English abolitionists such as William Wilberforce in saving the slaves. On the other hand, black celebrities Ms Dynamite and Moira Stewart have been brought on to front television documentaries expressing outrage at the lack of recognition given to slave revolts. One black preacher at Saturday’s London commemoration march topped the lot by telling the TV news that absolutely everybody should ‘apologise to God’ today because ‘none of us did anything’ to stop the slave trade, err, two centuries ago – a point which I feel we must concede is true.
But would any of this matter, if apologising for slavery helps to unite British society and the world today by reconciling people? Nice idea. The trouble is that this circus of apologies and indignation is likely to have the opposite effect, reinforcing tensions and antagonisms.
Those campaigning for apologies and reparations for slavery are not motivated by history, but by the modern politics of multiculturalism and identity. The particular identity encouraged by multiculturalism is that of the victim. Each identity group competes for status by staking its claims to have suffered more than the next. Slavery has been revived as an issue to make the perfect historical platform for some black groups to stake their claim – not just for financial reparations, as cynics see it, but more importantly for recognition and authority.
What matters here is not getting the apology, but nursing the sense of grievance behind the demand for it. That is why saying sorry will never be enough. Giving in to one demand only leads to another. And by reinforcing the notion that black groups today are somehow suffering the effects of slavery and have a legitimate grievance, these ritual apologies and concessions can only strengthen the sense of a separate victim identity.
In November, Tony Blair expressed ‘deep sorrow’ at the slave trade. That was not considered apologetic enough. Last week, after talks with Ghanaian president John Agyekum Kufuor, he went further, insisting that ‘I have said we are sorry and I say it again’. But that was not enough. So now he has issued a statement that the bicentenary is an opportunity ‘for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret for our nation’s role in the slave trade and the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused’. But still there are demands for him to ‘go further’. It is clear that even if Blair had joined those self-publicist penitents walking from Hull to London in chains, it would not have been enough. The victim identity can never be recompensed, or it will cease to exist.
Who really benefits from this? The image of black people promoted, as argued elsewhere on spiked, is that of slaves to the past, doomed by their distant association with slavery (see Chaining black youth to the victim culture, by Neil Davenport). It is a patronising view that says the problems of black communities today are a result of a sort of ‘historical determinism’, that they literally cannot help themselves. It always sounds to me like a version of the ‘cycle of abuse’ theory, depicting black people as children who were mistreated in the past and so cannot function properly in the present. What exactly is ‘anti-racist’ about that?
This debate about apologising for what we didn’t do 200 years ago has been a grim advertisement for public life in the present. There has been a general wallowing in vicarious misery and oppression, as if that revealed the true condition of humanity. We have had to endure countless cheap and miserabilist attempts to compare modern society to the horrors of the past. One descendant of Wilberforce even went on TV to complain about us all being ‘enslaved by consumerism’ today (yeah, I mean, slavery and shopping, it’s all the same thing really, right?).
And political life has been ‘enslaved’ by the new politics of apologism, where leaders are supposed to seek authority by debasing themselves, and the noble concept of emancipation is reduced to getting others to recognise that you are indeed the helpless victim of history you claim to be.
All in all, it is a sorry state of affairs.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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