Endless apologies

Public confessions and apologies are a bad habit imported from undemocratic countries. Ian Buruma says they should stop
June 19, 1998

Apologies are all the rage. President Clinton apologised for the slave trade. Tony Blair apologised for the potato famine. The list goes on. Why this rash of apologies? Is it a good thing?

A month ago I was in Tokyo working on a television documentary about Japanese war apologies (or the lack of them). One of my tasks was to interview a former Japanese war criminal. He had been an army doctor, who had taken part in medical experiments in China. Budgets were tight and time was short. My brief was made clear by the director. "We want two things," he said. "We want him to tell us exactly what crimes he committed, and we want him to cry. You have 20 minutes."

The elderly doctor was used to this. He had been interviewed many times before. He was one of the repentant Japanese. He had been around schools, warning children about the horrors of war, and gone to China, to apologise. He knew what was required. The details of his crimes were duly revealed, and his eyes moistened in time.

Apologies and confessions can be useful. They restore normal relations between people, and nations. Without apologies we would have vendettas and civilised life would become impossible. Yet I felt uneasy about my interview with the former war criminal. His performance was disturbing. I had a sense that he was at least as eager to make his confession as I was to hear it, perhaps more so. It was as though he were a penitent and I a television priest. I can understand why some people want to unburden their guilt. But why are the rest of us so eager to witness these confessions?

One possible reason is that it makes us all - penitents and priests - feel virtuous. It also fits into a fashion for therapy. Everything - political conflicts, human relationships - can be "healed" by public shows of sincerity. This fashion is linked to the illusion that people do bad things because they have bad characters. It is assumed that public confessions of guilt, followed by apologies, diminish those character flaws. It would stand to reason, then, that if most people in a given nation have good characters, they won't do bad things and will not need to apologise. Many people in Britain believe that the persecution of Jews "could never have happened here," because the British are too "decent." This isn't just smug. It is wrong. Today's decent people can be tomorrow's murderers. Character is too fluid a concept to explain political calamities.

There are political systems based on the idea of human virtue, instead of the law. They tend not to be democratic. The right to rule in such systems is not based on popular consent, but on the superior virtue of the rulers. Chinese, Japanese and Korean politics have followed variations of a Confucian tradition which emphasised the superior virtue of government officials. To some extent, they still do. China is ruled by men, not by laws. In ancient China the superior men were Confucian scholar-officials. Under Mao, they were "good communists."

In theory, Confucian scholars had the right to criticise the emperor, if he failed to be a virtuous ruler. In practice, critics were punished for lacking the virtue of obedience to higher authority. Their bad characters had to be rectified. The use of public confessions and self-criticism in Mao's China was in this tradition.

The great barbarisms of the 20th century occurred in places ruled by men, not laws. It is a mark of despotism that rulers stand above the law. Unbound by law, they exercise their power arbitrarily. And when power is arbitrary, people behave badly. This is not a matter of character; it is systemic. It is another mark of despotism that rulers are always judged by their characters. You have good emperors and wicked emperors. When a dissident is released from a Chinese jail, the communist government is praised for its generosity. In the absence of civil rights, you can only rely on the kindness of rulers.

What matters in a democracy is that our political institutions stop leaders from abusing power. The same principle applies when we judge countries with a murderous past. It is not a serious question whether Germans or Japanese or Russians are good or bad people. It is not even a serious question whether their political leaders have good or bad characters. The only question that matters is whether their institutions now ensure open government and the rule of law.

To insist on endless apologies for past atrocities, and to question the sincerity of those apologies once they are given, is to act in the undemocratic tradition of rule by men. Alas, we live in sentimental times, when even democratic leaders are judged more by their characters than by their politics. The fashion for making apologies is a way for them to demonstrate what fine people they are. It is a trend to be resisted. Of course we should insist that politicians should be aware of history. But apologising for historical sins can too easily become a sentimental and largely ceremonial substitute for understanding what went wrong.