by John Q on February 16, 2008

Australian politics this year has been dominated by the incoming Rudd Labor government’s commitment to offer a formal apology to indigenous Australians for discriminatory laws and actions of the past, most notably the policy of removing children from their families, with the ultimate aim of assimilating them into the white population. The policy, later referred to as creating the “Stolen Generation” was directed mainly at mixed-race children, since it was assumed that the remnant population still living in their traditional lands would “die out” within a couple of generations.

The previous Prime Minister, John Howard, had resolutely resisted an apology and in particular the word “Sorry” and the issue was one of the focal points of the culture wars that went on under his leadership. Continued resistance to an apology was the main reason the Liberals (= conservatives) passed over their most able remaining figure, Malcolm Turnbull, who supported an apology, in favour of the amiable but ineffectual Brendan Nelson, who indicated opposition, but was ultimately forced by public pressure to change his view.

The apology was the first business of the newly elected Parliament this week, and received the unanimous support of the House of Representatives, though given with obvious reluctance on the part of some Liberals. All of Australia’s previous Prime Ministers, except Howard, were present, and the TV coverage (at 9am) drew over a million viewers.

Apologies for various kinds of past national actions have been debated in quite a few countries in recent years. Perhaps because we’ve been arguing over the question for a decade or more, or perhaps just because I’ve followed it more closely, the Australian debate seems to me to have clarified some of the general issues.

Perhaps the most fundamental question is whether it makes sense to apologise for actions undertaken by past governments or previous generations, for which today’s Australians bear no direct personal responsibility. The best treatment of this issue came from Raimond Gaita who made the point that any moral position allowing pride in the achievements of our forebears and our community necessarily entails shame in their failings[1].

Then there is the issue of compensation. The government has been careful to state that the apology does not entail acceptance of compensation claims. Still, whereas the previous government was successful in fighting such claims in the courts, it seems likely that the apology and the related change in the stance of the government will improve the chances of similar cases in future.

More important than compensation of individuals affected by past policies is the need to improve the situation of indigenous people in Australia today, which is improving in some areas, but disastrous in others. After largely ignoring the issues for most of its term, the outgoing government launched a large scale intervention, initially directed at the problem of sexual abuse of children, but rapidly seen to entail a much more costly expansion of health and other services. In opposition, Rudd gave qualified support to the intervention, and now he needs to work out how to change it and how to make it work. In his speech on the apology he made a surprise offer to Nelson to form a bipartisan “War Cabinet” on the issue. Nelson was obliged to accept, but his supporters are now complaining about being co-opted.

The good news is that the problem is finally at the top of our national agenda, where it belongs. We need to capitalise on the sense of unity and reconciliation generated by the apology to ensure that the necessary resources are made available, and that we are not diverted once again into the politics of culture war.

fn1. A consistent egoist might disclaim both pride and shame in the actions of others. But such a person ought not to care about the actions of others (in this case the Parliament) in making an apology.



rm 02.17.08 at 12:45 am

Good on yeh.


Richard 02.17.08 at 1:10 am

Gaita’s point is insightful (and devastating to mainstream conservative objections to this sort of thing). But, regarding your footnote, couldn’t a consistent individualist (egoism is surely an orthogonal issue) resent others’ claims to be speaking in his name?

(I haven’t followed this debate, but I’m assuming that the apology is offered on behalf of some larger collective, e.g. “the Australian people”, and not just the parliament? Otherwise, I can’t even begin to imagine what anyone is objecting to.)


SG 02.17.08 at 1:37 am

For those of you who want to see it in all its glory, the apology can be viewed here. tut tut john for not putting up a link to our big moment!

Gaita’s point, while true, is not so important in the Australian context because many people still alive today were old enough to affect decision-makers when this stuff was happening – the stolen generation only stopped in the 70s. So John Howard was a young urban solicitor, Gough Whitlam (who was there on Wednsday) was prime minister, etc. Anyone over 50 in Australia bears some responsibility directly for these activities.

John said our opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, was “amiable but…” After Wednesday he doesn’t seem so amiable any more – his response to the apology was a heartless, evil piece of work.


John Quiggin 02.17.08 at 2:07 am

Thanks for the link, sg. I looked but my Google skills were off this AM.

Richard, if I object to the Parliament apologising in my name, simply because it’s in my name, I should object even more to them doing wrong things in my name and failing to apologise for them.


Aaron Baker 02.17.08 at 5:59 am

Does it actually make sense to be proud of the achievements of our forebears? I would suggest that both phenomena–national or ethnic or other collective pride and the collective guilt feeling that presumably accompanies these “national” apologies–may be survivals of pretty primitive notions of responsibility and merit: notions that treat these qualities as hereditary, or contagious (i.e. the ancient Greek concept of miasma), or both.


Roy Belmont 02.17.08 at 8:39 am

“…survivals of pretty primitive notions of responsibility and merit…”
Well yeah there’s that annoying primitive crap again. All modern-days and way past that “miasma” stuff too, that’s us. Though it wasn’t til the 19th c. we really actually got all the way past it yes? Lister and Semmelweis and them. Until those hygienic breakthroughs miasma as contagion’s origin was the taught wisdom of western medicine.
Good old bloody 19th, when indigenous populations worldwide suffered more terror and violent loss than ever, before or since.
But, hey, I wasn’t there, you can’t blame me.
Still with us is the miasma of the notion that anything primitive is automatically laughable, fit only to scorn. Scorn being what enabled the greed that begat the very wrongs the Australian Parliament has just apologized for.


taj 02.17.08 at 8:45 am

The only reasons I see that the Liberal Party is still being difficult about this:

) The legal responsibility issue – this can’t really be it any more since they’re no longer in power.

2) They’re appealing to their base, which also doesn’t think they need to be sorry. Are there really that many people left in Australia who think that?

3) They really are a bunch of heartless, petty, evil little arseholes.

So which is it?


taj 02.17.08 at 9:10 am

Aaron, this isn’t “primitive” history we’re talking about, this stuff (stolen generations) went on well into living memory.

As to whether or not people who weren’t there are responsible, on an individual basis sure a given white (or brown, or Asian) Australian may have had nothing to do with it. However if one is to acknowledge that the entire foundation of one’s country is built on countless indignities and injustices, this is a necessary and excellent first step toward fixing that and changing the way the nation sees itself.

When you hear various politicians still saying that Aboriginal culture is primitive and needs to be replaced, it’s easy to see how far things have yet to.


taj 02.17.08 at 9:11 am

… go, that is. I swear I previewed. A bit.


Katherine 02.17.08 at 9:41 am

Oh thanks for this. I’m thinking of doing my MA dissertation on apologies for past crimes and these thoughts and links are really useful.

Alas, there are some people who have reacted to this in a foul way. I hesitate to do it, but here is an email that has been doing the rounds (cut and pasted from comments in the really interesting

“For a large proportion this SHOULD be the Prime Minister’s apology



We apologise for giving you doctors and free medical care, which allows you to survive and multiply so that you can demand apologies.

We apologise for helping you to read and teaching you the English language and thus we opened up to you the entire European civilisation, thought and enterprise.

We feel that we must apologise for building hundreds of homes for you, which you have vandalised and destroyed.

We apologise for giving you law and order which has helped prevent you from slaughtering one another and using the unfortunate for food purposes.

We apologise for developing large farms and properties, which today feed you people, where before, you had the benefits of living off the land and starving during droughts.

We apologise for providing you with warm clothing made of fabric to replace that animal skins you used before.

We apologise for building roads and railway tracks between cities and building cars so that you no longer have to walk over harsh terrain.

We apologise for paying off your vehicle when you fail to pay the installments

We apologise for giving you free travel anywhere, whenever.

We apologise for giving each and every member of your family $100.00 and free travel to attend an aboriginal funeral.

We apologise for not charging you rent on any lands when white people have to pay.

We apologise for giving you interest free loans.

We apologise for developing oil wells and minerals, including gold and diamonds which you never used and had no idea of their value, yet they seem to mysteriously occupy sacred sites.

We apologise for developing Ayers rock and Kakadu, and handing them over to you so that you get all the money.

We apologise for allowing taxpayers money paid towards daughters’ wedding ($8,000.00 each daughter)

We apologise for giving you $1.7 billion per year for your 250,000 people, which is $48,000.00 per aboriginal man, woman and child.

We apologise for working hard to pay taxes that finance your welfare, medical care, education, etc to the tune of $1.2 billion each year.

We apologise for you having to approach the aboriginal affairs department to verify the above figures. For the trouble you will have identifying the “uncle toms” in your own community who are getting richer and leaving some of you living in squalor and poverty.

We do apologise. We really do.

We humbly beg your forgiveness for all the above sins.

We are only too happy to take back all the above and return you to the paradise of the “outback”, whenever you are ready.”



John Quiggin 02.17.08 at 10:19 am

The “apology” immediately above has been circulated by prominent members of the Liberal Party, then presented as a joke. This follows a similar “joke” during the campaign, in which a leaflet supposedly written by jihadists, endorsing Labor, was circulated by a Liberal official and the husband (now ex-husband I understand) of a candidate.

A minor side point is that the idiots who wrote this are incapable of simple arithmetic or even keeping their story straight – the figures indicate that the amount spent on aborigines is either $4800 or $6800 per person, rather less than average public expenditure per person in Australia. It’s well known among those who’ve actually studied the subject that expenditure for services to aboriginal communities is less than for white communities with comparable difficulties.


Brad Wright 02.17.08 at 1:32 pm

It’s well known among those who’ve actually studied the subject that expenditure for services to aboriginal communities is less than for white communities with comparable difficulties.

Not to mention the fact that “comparable difficulties” does not include multiple consecutive generations of repression, attempted genocide, and the life expectancy of a third world nation.


Dave 02.17.08 at 5:27 pm

Indeed, but notwithstanding the strong point that maybe Europeans should never have gone to Australia in the first place, is Aboriginal culture now ‘broken’ beyond repair, in a context where ‘repair’ could mean either reversion to a ‘timeless’ pattern, or assimilation into the mainstream of modernity? What is the ‘right’ way to support a culture that never, by itself, moved beyond hunting and gathering? To which I appreciate the PC answer is ‘whatever the Aborigines want’, but suppose they don’t know what they want? Suppose [just for argument’s sake] what they want is dumb?


praisegod barebones 02.17.08 at 5:51 pm

Suppose [just for argument’s sake] what they want is dumb?

Why should that be worth supposing, even ‘for the sake of argument’ unless you think there’s some chance its being true. Why not suppose that – for example – it’s quite sensible but very expensive and inconvenient for the rich and powerful (just for the sake of argument.)

If you do think it’s likely to be ‘just dumb’ – why, exactly do you think that is likely?


Katherine 02.17.08 at 6:15 pm

And I’m rather afraid, Dave, that your statement that the Aboriginal culture never moved beyond hunting and gathering is rather telling – you assume somehow that this was a function of, what, some essential flaw in Aboriginal people? Rather than, perhaps, their complete geographical isolation, or maybe a lack of plants and animals suitable for domestication?

Might I suggest you go away and read a book by Jared Diamond called Guns, Germs and Steel? It might educate you out of your apparent disdain for hunter gatherers.


Phil 02.17.08 at 7:10 pm

Dave, this is not something I know a lot about but what ‘dumb’ thing do you have in mind? Maybe you mean an unrealistic or unachievable policy? To me a more likely problem, than Aborigines coming up with a dumb solution, is that there is no strong consensus amongst Aborigines as to what the way forward should be. And why are you making this argument if you don’t have a specific problem in mind?


Dave 02.17.08 at 7:19 pm

I wasn’t aware that going back to such a state, pre-antibiotics, pre-innoculations, pre-literacy, pre-pretty much most other stuff that extends life-expectancy past 30, was actually what anyone wanted. Would you? I don’t need to disdain a stone-age culture to think that, having seen the benfits of something more technologically advanced, only a loony would want to *really* go back. And that’s my *point*, given it’s too late to deport every non-Aboriginal Australian, what should the non-Aboriginals do now, in relation to the Aboriginals? Give them money, give them land, give them education? Expect assimilation, expect isolation? Based on the fact that, actually, most cultures are f*cked-up, and have made dumb choices over the years [such as, for example, developing an energy economy dependent on non-renewable resources] and that there is no magic recipe for sustainable living combined with what we choose to call “civilisation”, is there, in fact, a “good” solution? One that maintains the distinctiveness of whatever it may be that Aborigines want to retain the distinctiveness of [and I assume, and correct me if I’m wrong, that there is such a something, since I’ve never yet heard of a culture that said, “yes, take us, assimilate us to the Borg-like Thing that is Westernised globalisation, leave nothing behind but traces for antiquarians to pore over”], and doesn’t on the other hand leave them as a continuing marginal underclass?

Are they, in fact, collectively, notwithstanding the possibility of individual advancement, and in the absence of #14’s presumed overthrow of the “rich and powerful” [for which, personally, I can’t wait, but I think it’ll be like the party of a lifetime, and we’ll all regret it in the morning] f*cked?


Roy Belmont 02.17.08 at 9:26 pm

“…going back to such a state, pre-antibiotics, pre-innoculations, pre-literacy, pre-pretty much most other stuff that extends life-expectancy past 30…”
Look one CT post forward and it’s “Here comes the big one”, which needs including in your list of modern wonders. Not the post, the subject of it. And you really should for honesty’s sake have to link global climate disruption with your technophiliac accomplishments there.
A warehouse full of antibiotics and books won’t be much comfort if/when the whole thing comes apart. Nor will billions of gallons of oil. Or money.
What the chauvinists have to elide, now more and more desperately, is that most of us will choose a short brutal life of hunting and gathering for our grandchildren rather than no life at all; if it’s a binary thing, which it isn’t yet exactly, but sort of yes it almost is.
Australian aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen, these guys are like the seed corn of the human race, cooked and eaten by greedy assholes with no thought to what they were doing. The ragged remnants of those hearty and proficient “primitives” looked down on by the heirs to the fortunes of progress. Yet those primitive folk had been living pretty much the same way for tens of thousands of years. Success in that context is measured by endurance, not excitement or luxury, or population counts. Your post-Enlightenment rational-positivist juggernaut made a little more than 300 years before it ran out of gas. An attackable statement only because it hasn’t happened yet. Sort of like a you-caused-the-end-of-the-world accusation, it can’t be done post-facto.
Hatred of the primitive is just one facet of a larger sick hatred of wilderness, of wildness, nature, the animal other, a bitter resentment toward the big wheels of life that shaped everything we point to as elevated about human.
Now we’re running our own sophisticated evolutionary programs, selecting for traits that have nothing to do with survival. Progress is being measured in meaningless numbers that go nowhere. We’re in charge, and it shows. Now men who couldn’t survive three months in the wilderness control the lives of those who can. Now the alpha males of the modern world hunt wolves from the safety of helicopters.


Peter 02.17.08 at 10:45 pm

One does not have to take either pride or shame in the actions of past generations for an apology to be justified in this case (as in most other cases where a public apology is talked about). As PM Rudd noted in his speech to Parliament, the laws under which children were taken from their parents were passed by previous Parliaments. It is therefore appropriate and proper that later Parliaments, in addition to repealing those laws, should also apologise for them, for the sentiments which led to their creation, and for the consequences (foreseen or not, intended or not) of their enactment and enforcement.

One would have to morally very obtuse not to see this.


aaron whimsy 02.17.08 at 11:52 pm

His language has only earned him scorn, but Dave raises a real issue: assume it is the European society’s responsiblity–in Australia, Canada, or the US– to assist the indigenous society to come to a better state. We still have to figure out what that state is. One answer is the one that Dave prematurely dismisses– whatever the indigenous people want. Of course, there is never going to be a unified voice laying out the blueprint– the idea that indigenous peoples are so homogenous as to all want a single solution is as condescending as the ideas that got us into the whole genocidal mess. So there would need to be decisionmaking on a national level, and white people inevitably would be involved. It makes sense, then, for _everyone_ to think about the attributes of the end state that these nations are obligated to help achieve.

Dave lays out two possible poles: total assimilation, which would strike many as just the completion of the already near-total genocide, or some sort of return to pre-european society, which might mean the withdrawal of, for example, what small medical care is presently provided. It would also require more land than is available without vast evictions.

I’d love hear– really, I wonder about this all the time– where between these two poles people think the proper policy lands. Or are there other dimensions to consider?


H. E. Baber 02.18.08 at 1:58 am

I’m just curious about what happened to members of this stolen generation because the ways in which they were treated in different times and places seems to have been very different. As I understand it–and I’m just speaking from ignorance–some were sent to boarding schools to be trained as farm hands and servants, on the assumption that they were mentally deficient and could only be trained to do menial tasks as second class citizens in the larger society while others were placed in white homes on the assumption that they could, and should, assimilate to mainstream Australian society and that that would be a better deal for them than staying within indigenous communities.

What happened to these stolen children and what were the outcomes? Did any, or many, end up as assimilated, educated, middle-class Australians because of this program?

Please don’t yell at me–I don’t know the facts of the matter and I’m just asking.


SG 02.18.08 at 2:46 am

h.e. baber, some of the stolen generation did indeed end up becoming “assimilated”, educated, middle-class australians (and some of them are a strong bonus in the struggle for Aboriginal rights). Some of these people are also happy with their current lot, I’m sure. Others, as you say, were trained at boarding schools to become farmhands. These boarding schools weren’t exactly the land of milk and honey – if you want a primer which is easy to take in time-wise, watch all of Kevin Rudd’s speech. The story of the girl separated from her siblings has a concentration-camp ring to it that can’t help but pull the heart-strings.

We also know from the experience of English child migrants that the boarding schools were vicious, sexually abusive and violent places. You can find accounts of this sort of thing online.

We also know that the boarding schools (and the white families) essentially existed to deny these people their own racial heritage, with a key component of that being their isolation from and the destruction of their language. Many Aboriginal languages have been lost, and undoubtedly this policy was key in doing that.

As for Dave and Aaron Whimsy’s questions about assimilation vs. “return to nature”, I don’t see why we can’t give Aborigines 4 (or more!) choices, with one of them being a “return to nature” supported by modern technology. Why a modern Aboriginal hunter gatherer can’t have a gps device, emergency medical support, and the option to return to a high-tech medical centre during their wanderings, is beyond me…? Australia is a rich country, Aborigines only a tiny part of it, and many of us are justifiably proud of their difference. I don’t see why we can’t support a modern version of same.

the choice of “if you don’t assimilate you won’t get any help from us” is a genocidal choice. Plain and simple.


Aaron Baker 02.18.08 at 4:09 am

I was responding to the argument attributed to Gaita, “that any moral position allowing pride in the achievements of our forebears and our community necessarily entails shame in their failings.”

Does it really make sense (given a “modern,” that is, individual notion of responsibility–actually a notion that goes back at least to Ezekiel) to be proud of the achievements of your community and forebears? Forebears aside, how does your community bestow glory on you, unless you’ve taken part in some admirable achievements of same; if not, what do you have to boast about? And if you’re not entitled to pride in those cases, then why feel shame about crimes you haven’t perpetrated? (If you’re an ongoing and willing beneficiary of those crimes, I would agree that you should; but otherwise, why?)

I’ll add (in the hope of not being misunderstood again) that where the perpetrators of the oppressions in question are still alive, their responsibility (and their obligation to atone) are of course unimpaired.

More interesting (though still problematic if guilt and responsibility are indidividual) is the question what position should be taken by a government that’s persisted in substantially the same form since the time when representatives of that government committed the crimes in question. If the wrongdoers are out of office, and their policies no longer in effect, there’s still enough institutional continuity that it makes sense for the current leader to say: what the government did before was wrong, and we’re certainly not doing it now; but should he apologize? I still think that’s an open question.

Part of the emotional satisfaction of such an apology (both to victims and to persons related (however remotely)to the perpetrators) will be the belief (quite mistaken, I think) that those related to the perpetrators are culpable simply by virtue of being related. Is there some more rational basis for such institutional apologies?


Dan S. 02.18.08 at 4:29 am

What is the ‘right’ way to support a culture that never, by itself, moved beyond hunting and gathering?

Like, for example, the traditional Mesolithic cultures of Western Europe, which adopted agriculture, etc. thanks to ideas/tech/people from the Middle East?

Honestly, it’s an classic example of ‘born on third base, think they hit a triple’, just on a global and multimillenial scale . . .


Dave 02.18.08 at 10:56 am

I see no one actually has any answers, then. I did point out the whole technological-society/resource-exhaustion/AGW thing, for people paying attention. I also happen to think that, in a culture capable of producing the racist hate behind the screed quoted above, people are living in cloud-cuckoo-land if they think Aborigines will be given the resources to become GPS-toting wanderers able to access hi-tech healing on demand. [Unless, of course, there’s money in it, some kind of theme-park gig, which would be the ultimate demeaning irony.] It also seems to me that, while the multi-culti anthropology types who stick up for the sustainability of foraging societies have a post facto point about the past, the pressures created by industrialised societies on the fragile resources necessary for such sustainability will render it problematic to return to. Now, in a ‘yah-boo-sucks’ kind of way the multi-cultis can retain their virtue on this point, but when push comes to shove, I suspect people who in their hearts doubt that the Aborigines ever really had a raw deal will vote to do whatever the hell they feel is best for themselves, and goodbye to the bush…


SG 02.18.08 at 11:10 am

dave, you underestimate the goodwill of the majority of Australians, and (like anyone who says “multi-culti”) have no idea what multiculturalism is actually about. So I doubt you have any understanding of what the multiculturalist view of this problem would be. And you don’t seem to have any real appreciation of how much ordinary Australians (as opposed to big-business cotton farmers in Queensland) want to fix the environmental problems which are putting pressure on Aborigines.

So I don’t think you have much to add here.


Dave 02.18.08 at 11:52 am

SG: on your first point, I can only say “I hope so”. On your second, no. I am perfectly well aware of what multiculturalism is about, including the fact that it means radically different things in different countries. Your statement presumes that, if I “knew” about it, I would approve. As it happens, I don’t, but I doubt very much that my disapproval is for the reasons you would assume, judging from your own language.

Anyway, when it all works out splendidly, you can say “I told you so”, and I will happily agree.


John Quiggin 02.18.08 at 12:21 pm

Aaron, I’m interested to know if you think there is any sense in which the notion of “being a member of a community” is relevant if you take the view that the achievements and failings of the community are of no interest to you (except insofar as they involve or affect you personally).

I can’t see one, which seems to lead to the view that you are claiming that community itself is an obsolete concept.


SG 02.18.08 at 1:43 pm

further dave, your comments at 17 belie the faux cynicism of their tone. If you think cultures have made so many different fucked up decisions in their time, how come you are so sure this one is so superior that no sensible Aborigine will go back? In fact I think if we take away the fake cynicism (so obviously fake in a person who uses phrases like “multi-culti”) that screed at 17 starts to show a lot of the hallmarks of the rant katherine posted.

I think I can guess what your objection to multiculturalism is – it’s nothing so sophisticated as a belief that the policy is a good-hearted failure. Maybe you don’t like the thought of living alongside people who have successfully integrated into your society and retained their own culture?


taj 02.18.08 at 2:59 pm

Oh man, looking at the reader comments to the article that JQ posted, clearly there are enough people in Australia who back the Libs on this one. Truly shameful stuff.


richard 02.18.08 at 3:49 pm

It seems like this discussion would be informed by a reading of Anderson and Gellner: that might clear up 2 things: (1) collective pride and shame are necessary to the concept of the nation; (2) lots of people are casual or unexamined nationalists, indeed, fall into nationalism at any moment they are not actively resisting it. Some folks, like Aaron, manage to adopt the individualism of the 18th-19th century without the national identity. Good on you, but you should know that you’re in the minority and that, however flawed it might be, the nation is a basis for broad social cohesion. I happen to hold this position too, but I recognise that it cannot stand up without the deep assumption of social cohesion,and a rather woolly notion of what might constitute good political borders.

Also, sg’s comment about GPS-enabled walkabout is delightful. Perhaps the shortest path would be to find some Aboriginal spokespeople and ask them what they want, and then try to monitor what sort of grumbling their answers produce…


aaron whimsy 02.18.08 at 8:10 pm

I’m not sure how my comment was tuned into a rejection of the notions of community and nationality. (This may suggest that blog comments are a non-ideal form of discussion, but anyway…) This is what I’m saying: 1) Of course we owe indigenous societies vast reparation, but (2) we need to figure out what form that takes. (3) It is hard to figure out, empirically, what indigneous people, as a whole, want, because we cannot rely on individuals to tell us what a whole people, or group of peoples, want, at least not absent some serious democratic vetting. (4) In any event, we, the euro people who bear this obligation, ought to give our own thought to what form the reparation shall take, or at least to how we go about determining what indigineous people want. None of these steps requires us to deem community obsolete, nor (I think) does it require a 19th c. individualism (though I don’t really know what that means). My question does assume that neither the concepts of community and nationality, nor individual instances of either, are self-defining. When, as with this problem, the units we work with are all three– indivduals, communities, and nationalities– there is work to be done in figuring out the boundaries and preferences of each.

Dave keeps shooting right through his own foot and hitting mine, but y’all can reject his bluster and silliness without rejecting the bottom line question: how do we repay this debt?

Look, I’m no kind of political scientist, so if my ideas are internally contradictory in some way, let me know.


John Quiggin 02.18.08 at 8:20 pm

Aaron, I hope no-one is confusing you with dave, who has, I hope, taken his lumps and departed. (There’s still a place for you in the NSW Liberal Party, Dave).

The rest of us are pretty much agreed on (1)-(4), but want to push you on the question of whether you can, in general, avoid pride and shame in the actions of your community while not repudiating your membership of that community (an admittedly ambiguous community).


Aaron Baker 02.19.08 at 3:00 am

I think Prof. Quiggin’s critique was directed at me (I’m not the same person as Aaron Whimsy). I’m not suggesting that membership in a community is meaningless; I’m saying (and of course I could be wrong) that responsibility and culpability only make sense to me as things that apply individually.

To take a concrete example: Germans who’d reached adulthood shortly before and during the Third Reich can be held culpable, each in the degree to which they supported the Third Reich, no more, no less. To say in 1945 that “the Germans are to blame for the War” might be useful rhetorically, or as a handy shorthand for an endless sequence of differently qualified statements, but it couldn’t mean “all Germans, each to the same extent” and be literally true.

In addition to what I think is a shaky logical basis, assertions that people are collectively responsible, or guilty, or what have you also have a pretty nasty history as excuses for mistreatment of others.

(To clear up a possible source of confusion: when we speak of pride in one’s community, nation, culture, we often mean simply a pleasure we take in contemplating that community. The community is good or great in some sense of those words, and in consequence we’re happy to belong to it. (I have no quarrel with that pleasure.) At other times, we mean a pleasure we take in ourselves because we’re members of that community. My being a Roman, a Venetian, an American, somehow imparts some glory to me by virture of membership in the club. I see no merit to this sort of thing; I expected I’d find more agreement on this point here.)


John Quiggin 02.19.08 at 4:20 am

Sorry for yet more confusion, Aaron B.

I think you have the distinction right in para 4, but it doesn’t seem to me support for your position in para 1.

Rather it seems to me to lead to the view that, if you’re happy to belong to a community because of its goodness or greatness, you should feel sorry about actions by that community that are not good or great, and therefore should support an apology from the community for such actions, as well as steps to repair the damage, to which you, as a member of the community should contribute resources and effort if needed.

As you say, none of this implies any personal glory (or disgrace) on your part.

Stepping well outside my competence, I’ll suggest that Bernard Williams’ idea of moral luck may be relevant here. If any philosophically inclined CT-ers are still reading, feel free to set me straight.


libhomo 02.19.08 at 11:54 pm

The Australian government deserves credit for showing this much political and social maturity. I wish the government here in the US would learn from this.


The Local Crank 02.20.08 at 5:57 am

“I wish the government here in the US would learn from this.”

Curiously enough, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas (of all people) has actually introduced a proposed apology to Indians. I doubt it will get anywhere, and many Indians are skeptical of the whole notion (“Hey sorry we stole all your land and tried to exterminate you. We’re not planning on giving it back or anything, but we feel REAL bad about the whole thing”). Frankly, I think most of us would be satisfied if the US government honored even one of its treaties. They could even pick which one and surprise us!

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