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September 14, 2011

Theodore Dalrymple explains why political apologies for the past actions of others have become so flourishing a genre - it is precisely because they are so meaningless and useless

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Guilt, it used to be said, was an expression of conscience, but we moderns have found a way of divorcing the one from the other. The avowal of guilt now has nothing to do with conscience, and floats free of anything the person claiming guilt may himself have done or omitted to do.

There was an excellent and typical example of this dissociation in a recent edition of the French newspaper, Libération. It was an article by Louis Michel, a Belgian minister and member of the European parliament, entitled "When Belgium apologised to the Rwandan people". The occasion of the article was the first visit of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, to France which, you may remember, was accused of having supported the genocidal Hutu government up to the last possible moment. Official relations between Rwanda and France have improved because, it seems, both now need each other.

The author begins in an unctuously self-congratulatory way:

On the occasion of the official visit of the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, to France, which seals the normalisation of relations between two friends of Belgium, in which I cannot but rejoice, let me be allowed to testify to the manner in which my country has turned the page in our past relations with Rwanda, in order to look to the future.
In all that follows, there is not a single identifiable individual who is alleged to have done anything wrong, certainly not the author himself.

The nearest he comes to blaming anyone is the following:

We are convinced that at the time of the genocide the Belgian authorities could, and should, have acted differently in order to have prevented it.
What the Belgians could and should have done is not specified for the readers of the newspaper, who can hardly be expected to know, nor is the identity of the people who should have done it specified. Then follows a passage equally remarkable for its moral grandiosity and its racist condescension:
It follows that it is right that Belgium should agree to assume a moral responsibility for the Rwandan drama. Not to recognise or to deny the failure of our authorities leaves the Rwandans to bear the burden of this trauma alone.
Let us remind ourselves briefly what happened. About 800,000 people were massacred in about ten weeks in 1994, mainly with machetes. It seems obvious that the overwhelming moral responsibility for this lies with the people who provoked, ordered, organised and performed the massacres, that is to say with those many Rwandans who did any or all of those things.

For foreigners to assume a significant part of the guilt is both to puff themselves up with moral importance and to deny the agency of those who actually were responsible. For M. Michel, then, the Rwandans are still not fully adult, and therefore not fully capable by themselves of committing evil. Belgium, for him, still stands in loco parentis for all Rwandans. This demonstrates how deeply entrenched colonial attitudes still are, especially in those who so self-consciously reject them.

Then comes a wonderfully subtle piece of dishonesty:

Although the political party of the Prime Minister of the day [when the apology was made] had not been in power at the time of the events, it was fundamental, in the name of the continuity of institutions, that we should assume our part of the responsibility.
In other words, when we say "we", we don't mean "us", we mean "them, our political opponents". And, of course, nothing is easier – or more gratifying - than to apologise for what your ancestors, enemies or political opponents have done or omitted to do. We get the kudos for having apologised, they get the blame for what we apologise for.

Paragraph after paragraph is stuffed with sentiment that makes greeting-card poetry look Shakespearean in its realism and subtlety. I will quote briefly so as not to provoke nausea:

To have recognised the mistakes and injustices of the past, to have affirmed that we share the responsibility for this frightful human waste was, in our view, to open the way to a reunification of the heart and minds of all Rwandans.
Can anyone's thoughts and feelings actually correspond to this sentimental drivel? Let us pinch ourselves to remind us that it comes from the pen of a man who holds office and who remains a member of the European political class.

When people indulge in high-flown nonsense, it is legitimate to ask what end such nonsense serves. I have already pointed out that this particular example allows the writer to assume a position of supposedly disinterested moral grandeur while taking a poke at his political opponents. It allows him, as one of the righteous, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without, however, having to pay an admission fee. And no doubt it allows him to feel a little better about his own peccadilloes, whatever they might be: for what could they possibly be to set against complicity with genocide?

But there is a further advantage. In the very same edition of Libération, there is an article about Kagame's Rwanda, in which we read not only of the understandable democratic deficits of the regime (censorship, constant surveillance of the population etc.), but the following remarkable sentence:

The country, very poor in minerals, has enriched itself with war booty brought back from the Democratic Republic of Congo and with the massive pillage of cobalt mines.
If I remember correctly, it has been estimated by those who follow such matters that the war in the Congo, from which derive the enriching war booty and pillage of the cobalt mines, has so far cost three or four million lives, that is to say four or five times as many as the Rwandan genocide itself.

It is curious that the newspaper article passes over this sentence without commentary. But it is not at all curious that M. Michel should do so; for if he had noticed it, and its rather deep significance, it would have forced him to think that perhaps Mr Kagame was not quite the hero of a morality play, as a result of which he would actually have to think hard about what attitude, if any, Belgium should now take to the situation in the region. And it is always easier to be moral about what other people have done in the past that to be moral about what one has oneself to do in the present. It is for this reason that political apologies for the past actions of others have become so flourishing a genre.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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One of the most startling examples of the phenomenon discussed in this article was when a group of Europeans toured the Middle East a few years ago apologizing to everyone they met for Europe's participation in The Crusades, eight or nine centuiries before! Apparently, they felt that it was morally necessary for these distant descendants of European Crusaders to apologize for their ancestors' violence against the Middle Easterner's distant forbears.

By what stretch of the imagination are you or I responsible for the actions of men dead for many centuries? How are the distant descendants of people who were hurt in such a long ago war owed apologies for things that were done to people who have been dust for nearly a millenium?

We can't undo history. Surely the best we can do is to try to learn from our past mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.

Posted by: Henry Reardon at October 23, 2011 02:47 PM
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