Friday, 14 September 2012

Jesus H. Zeitgeist

With the weight of the new evidence in this report, it is right for me today as Prime Minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years.
David Cameron's statement about the Hillsborough tragedy, delivered this week

Acknowledging a past wrong 23 years later is all very well, but it's a bit late. How about doing it a century and a half later? This was Tony Blair speaking about the Irish Potato Famine in June 1997:
The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.

Jeremy Paxman was unimpressed:
You should apologise for things that you have done, that you recognise that perhaps you shouldn’t have done or regret. But apologising for things that your great, great, great, great-grandfather or grandmother did, seems to me a complete exercise in moral vacuousness.
Paxman got it right here, but he also got it spectacularly wrong. He was right, I think, to point out that a meaningful apology has to come from the person who did it and nobody else (I'll get to what he got wrong later). Even a Very Important Person can't shoulder the burden of somebody else's sins. The fact that we even entertain this idea is probably due to the reactionary fashion for "respecting" and indulging deeply held beliefs, however bizarre and irrational, with special reference to the odd, but rarely-challenged, notion that a very special individual can atone for the past sins of others:

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. 
1 John 2:2 (KJV)

Or, in the more up-to-the-minute language of the New International Version,  'He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.' For centuries, clerics have persuaded millions of people to believe in a magic man who was sacrificed to make amends for the sins of millions of other people he'd never even met, including the long dead and the yet unborn.

It's a useful belief system for a hierarchical society built on obedient subjects, as opposed to a free society built on the rights of thinking citizens. People's responsibility to account for their own actions and their right to forgive the actions of others is taken away and judgement is placed into the hands of the mythical chief executive who sits at the apex of a of a pyramidal religious hierarchy. Only the supreme authority figure has the authority to forgive (almost) every sin.* Only the supreme authority figure can dispense ultimate justice (which you may have to hang on until the afterlife to actually experience). Subjects don't even have sufficient agency to make a free choice between sinning and not sinning. Thanks to the doctrine of original sin, the option of avoiding sin is unavailable. You're born naughty and only your loving father in heaven can forgive you.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51:5 (KJV)

Wow, thanks, mum! And, thanks too, for infant baptism, which means you don't even get to choose whether or not you're in the club. You're initiated as a powerless, unquestioning child with no capacity for reason, then encouraged to carry on accepting that adult authority lies with others for the rest of your life.

As for the sins you can help committing, well the scriptural advice doesn't seem to have been written for grown-ups:

My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

1 John 2:1 (KJV)

When I read this passage, the voice I hear in my head sounds like Joyce Grenfell's nursery teacher:**

Children... pay attention, please. Free time is over, so put away your things and we are going to tell our nice story, so come over here and make a circle on the floor all around me, and we'll tell the story together... Hurry up everybody. Don't push - there's lots of room for us all ... Edgar, let go of Timmy's ear and settle down ... George! Don't do that...

Thanks to a few centuries of exceptional people standing up to unreasoning authority, thinking things through for themselves, accepting the evidence of their eyes and ears rather than what authority figures tell them to believe and questioning why things are the way they are, (heroic version), or the sheer weight of  evidence (prosaic version), many people have left this sort of learned infantalisation behind.

I agree with Paxman that it's morally stupid to think you can trade quotas of guilt, so that one person is able to atone for somebody else's actions. If you've done something wrong, nobody else can shoulder your burden of blame (and, conversely, nobody except the victim has the right to forgive a wrong - sorry, Jesus). In the case of Hillsborough, an apology from David Cameron means nothing. However long it is in coming, sincere remorse from Kelvin MacKenzie, or any of the people responsible for making the grounds safe at the time, or for conducting the policing of the match, or for organising the ambulance service response - in short, anybody personally responsible for the negligence and malice that occurred  - would be a start.

I also mentioned that Paxman got something spectacularly wrong about Blair and the Potato Famine. Paxo seems to have been responding to headlines, rather than to the content of Tony Blair's statement. The headlines went something like this; "Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine". But, if you read the text of his "apology" it becomes clear that he wasn't actually apologising, just acknowledging that something terrible and indefensible had happened in the past. Given Blair's messianic, holier-than-thou persona, it's understandable that Paxman seems to have looked no further than the headlines and assumed that the Blessed Tony really was morphing into the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. To Blair's credit, he wasn't doing any such thing (at least in this case).

Normally I'd be uneasy with politicians giving the impression that they're apologising, whilst using carefully-chosen words to avoid actually letting any blame attach to themselves, but in this case, the tone is perfectly right. There was absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that the British authorities of the day callously turned a natural disaster into a far worse man-made catastrophe, but Blair was clearly not in a position to accept responsibility for events that happened 150 years before and he, rightly, didn't attempt to shoulder the guilt, or to offer an apology.

In an Irish context, it would have been not only been morally vacuous to offer an apology, but positively dangerous. The idea that Brits alive today carry the guilt for the negligence and malice of British administrations in the past is precisely what made anyone who happened to have been born in Britain a "legitimate target" in the minds of hard-line Irish Republican bomb-makers.

I guess Blair could have complained that the headlines didn't reflect his statement, but failing to correct misleading headlines about an "apology" for events a century and a half in the past is no biggie. Unlike, say, failing to correct misleading headlines suggesting that the country needed to go to war to avoid the imminent danger of attack by a hostile power ("Brits 45 mins from doom","Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War", etc). That's something that incontestably happened on Blair's watch, although I'm not expecting the apology that he might legitimately offer for that one any time soon.

*Except for blasphemy (i.e. questioning the authority of the system) which, at least according to Mark, Chapter 3, is the ultimate, unforgivable, sin.

**Normally the voice of the King James Version thunders in my mind with the stark gravitas of a Richard Burton, although the sillier bits are voiced by a tweedy, fussily earnest Alan Bennett-style Anglican clergyman with worn leather elbow patches and bicycle clips, a species sadly now on the endangered list.