A claim which cannot be settled cheaply

by Maria on July 12, 2003

So, Italian tourism minister Stefano Stefani has finally fallen on his sword and apologised for his anti-German comments in defense of Berlusconi. Except that it’s not really an apology at all;

“I love Germany,” Mr Stefani wrote to (German newspaper) Bild. “If, through my words, a misunderstanding resulted for many Germans, I would like to hereby apologise many times.”

Just like his boss, Stefani merely ‘expresses regret’ that the thick headed targets of various insults – ‘Nazi guard’ or “stereotyped blondes with ultra-nationalist pride” who have no sense of humour and pass their time with belching contests – actually interpreted these comments as offensive. It takes a certain amount of pig-headedness to issue an apology that offers fresh insult, but I suppose that’s inevitable when the apology is triggered by political necessity and not genuine remorse.

Marina Warner, in a series of essays for Open Democracy, examines the history and politics of another kind of political apology; the currently trendy apologies made by leaders for long past acts, an easier task than a heartfelt mea culpa for last week’s gaffe. She notes that direct apologies for recent wrongdoings are the only ones that really count, but that they’re mostly in the female preserve. The grand political gestures – Blair’s apology for the Irish Famine, Pope JP II’s millennium apology to women and Jews – may help bind modern day identity politics, but rarely amount to more than words;

“Apologising represents a bid for virtue and can even imply an excuse not to do anything more about the injustice in question. Encurled inside it may well be the earlier meaning of vindication. So it can offer hypocrites a main chance. It can also, as in the case of the priestly self-fashioning of some political leaders, make a claim on their own behalf for some sacred, legitimate authority.”

So it seems that we may have to wait a century or two for our friends at Forza Italia to (hypocritically) bend the knee.



Anno-nymous 07.12.03 at 9:50 pm

Don’t forget Bush’s apologies for American slavery this past week. I’m glad America, as a nation, is finally ready to face up to that ugly era of our past…


Factory 07.12.03 at 11:30 pm

Although these apologies may be in bad faith, political leaders can be quite against the notion all together. Frex John Howard and an apology to aboringinals.


Bob 07.12.03 at 11:44 pm

Can anyone please tell me whether the Republic of Mongolia has offered a recent apolgy for the Mongol invasions of the 13th century?


henk 07.13.03 at 12:58 am

mr or mrs anno-nymous, i’m not sure bush did apologize for american slavery. i thought he did at first, but what actually happened was more or less that he called it a bad thing what his country did.

see also http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-2884573,00.html


Charlie B 07.13.03 at 1:41 am

I do find it depressing that Chris Bertram has got caught up with this kind of stuff – the tone of which is so self-rightous, the content of which is nugatory and the slant of which is so predictable. Junius was a breath of fresh air and Chris a model of fairness. He never gave people the opportunity for facile Bush-bashing comments (which prove what?)


Greg 07.13.03 at 2:27 am

I find it interesting that Blair, rather than the Queen, issued that apology for the Famine.

The apology might have had more weight behind it then, if the Queen, as personification of the United Kingdom, had apologised. Instead, one of her ministers did so…

I’d be curious to see his exact words.


James Hamilton 07.13.03 at 11:27 am

I’d like to add weight to Charlie B’s comment above. I can’t understand what Junius is doing here either – his blog was intelligent, refreshing and at times healthily disagreeable-with, but Crooked Timber thus far strikes me as a straw man factory with far too high an opinion of itself. My advice to Chris, for what little it’s worth, is to get out before you get tarred as a bigot.


Maria 07.13.03 at 12:23 pm

charlie b & james hamilton; do yourselves a favour, if you don’t like the other posts, and can’t handle that, then just don’t read them. Our posts are clearly labelled so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

If you feel compelled to read and respond, then please try within reason to keep your posts relevant and appropriate. I don’t think anyone on this blog is doing it to get flamed, for no discernible reason, as bigots. Ad hominem/feminam attacks are just unpleasant for all concerned and don’t add anything to the discussion.


Jurjen 07.14.03 at 10:28 am

At the risk of coming off as a sycophant, I started reading this blog because the Farrell siblings contribute to it.

I think Warner has a point; often apologies are worded to spread the blame so wide that, since evryone is guilty, no-one is guilty. And a fine example of apologising in order to absolve onself of any further responsibility (particularly to offer any kind of redress) may be seen in, for example, the Japanese government’s handling of the “comfort women” issue in recent years. This is, I think, a better example than the issue of American slavery, because (some of) the actual victims are still alive.


zippy 07.14.03 at 4:01 pm

I think it’s funny that everyone seems to buy into the root concept, to wit “Something was said that someone somewhere might find offensive, so there must be an apology.” My response: why? As noted in this article (though in a muddled fashion), apologies serve no purpose – they are most often made out of political necessity, and thought of (again, often in a muddled fashion) as a way to avoid the consequences of one’s statements.

If a speaker makes a statement, presumably he agrees with his/her OWN sentiments. If a large number of people disagree, that’s fine – they can then hash it out. Why avoid the issue by getting the original speaker to “unsay” it?

PC piffle. Rank silliness.


Chris Young 07.15.03 at 9:30 am

No, there has to be an apology, it’s a necessary piece of punctuation.

Any Germans reading this thread? Do you feel lots better now? Thought not. However most of you probably don’t want to spiral into a trade war with Italy either.

Apologies (except for accidents), whether personal or political, don’t usually mean “Everything I have said or done is worthless, the only thing that will keep me from topping myself is the gift of schadenfreude at my expense that I have given you”. They mean “Please don’t hit me”, or, as in this case, “Look, we have to go on doing business, shall we move on”. Punctuation. German and Italian civil servants can now sit back down and carry on doing whatever they were doing last week.

But I agree about historical apologies. At best useless, at worst damaging, and historically embarrassing.

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