December 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

History and forgiveness, Senator Bon Jovi, dirty secrets about those political polls, and other observations…

With a tip of a snowy cap to New York’s legendary man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULD WE APOLOGIZE TODAY FOR THE INJUSTICES COMMITTED BY OUR ANCESTORS? University of Michigan humanities professor Gordon Beauchamp argues in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar (“Apologies All Around“) that the current wave of apologies being issued by political leaders, churches, corporations, and others for the crimes of history aren’t necessarily a good thing.

Beauchamp sees the modern rush to apologize as driven by “a radical sort of ‘presentism’: the belief, in practice, if not fully articulated, that the actions and actors of the past should be evaluated, and usually condemned, by present-day standards.”

Beauchamp raises an intriguing question: can we be so sure that we will not ourselves one day be judged as guilty of crimes by future generations? If, he asks, an absolutist view of animal rights takes hold in the future, will current practices (eating meat, keeping pets, killing rodents) seem criminal? Too unlikely? Will advances in science show that fetal consciousness comes much sooner than currently thought? Will that cast doubt on the morality of, say, Roe v. Wade?

Beauchamp also maintains that history is “overrife with horrors, crimes, and cruelty” and asks: “Except for reasons of political expediency and publicity, how would we cherry-pick from this long and dismal record which enormities merit apology?”

Beauchamp does concede that exposing the abuses of the past remains important, and that it is legitimate to pass some moral judgments on the past. I don’t think that is enough, however, in some cases. Apologies do serve a purpose.

For example, the Catholic Church’s apology for its historical anti-Semitism and mistreatment of Jews represented a necessary step towards reconciliation. The reluctance of the Japanese and Turkish governments to acknowledge and apologize for historical atrocities against, respectively, the Chinese and Armenians, poisons current relations. And why be troubled by “cherry-picking”? Even selective apologies can have value.

Beauchamp points to Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur as examples of how post-Holocaust apologies and promises of “Never Again” have failed; he rightly also notes that slavery still exists in Africa. But he ignores the progress that has been made on human rights and the growing international willingness to intervene in the “internal affairs” of genocidal regimes. (Isn’t Beauchamp guilty of perfectionism, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?)

MY BET: JON BON JOVI WILL NOT RUN for political office in his home state of New Jersey, despite the rumors that he may become a future Democratic Party candidate. The sad truth: the rock star would represent an improvement if he were to take the place of either of the Garden State’s current U.S. Senators. Senator Bon Jovi?

WHY HAVE THE PRESIDENTIAL POLLS IN IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE BEEN SO VOLATILE? Why have polls taken in the same time period by different organizations produced different results? For example, the Des Moines Register Tribune poll shows Sen. Barack Obama with a seven-percentage point lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton among Iowa caucus voters, but a survey by CNN-Opinion Research Corp. finds Clinton leading Obama by two points (well within the 4.5 percent margin of error). How can this be?

The dirty little secret: all of the primary polls, no matter how prestigious the sponsoring organization may be, suffer from several flaws. Here are a few: Iowa and New Hampshire voters are famous for deciding only at the last moment who they will be voting for; most of the polls have small survey sizes, and large margin of errors; and the methodology employed in determining exactly who will show up and vote/caucus is very subjective. (And pollsters will admit privately that voters who only have cell phones are presenting a daunting challenge to survey.)

All told, don’t bet the house on any of these primary election surveys.

REQUIRED READING: A COLUMN BY LEONARD PITTS JR., “MURDER IS THE GREATEST INJUSTICE,” written after the shooting death of Washington Redskins player Sean Taylor in Miami at the age of 24. Pitts begins his column thusly:

And once again, this is how we die.

Fallen, crumpled, bleeding from a bullet’s hole. Woman and child left to wail, left to mourn. Left.

Pitts goes to cite the horrifying statistics about the murder rate of young African Americans, pointing out that roughly half of the 15,000 Americans murdered in 2006 were black and more than 40 percent of them were 24 years old or younger. Pitts adds:

…No government task force convenes to tell us why this is. No rallying cries ring from podiums and pulpits. Crowds do not march as they did in Jena, demanding justice.

But one could argue that murder is the greatest injustice of all. And life the most fundamental of civil rights.

Pitts is right: the dismaying number of young African-American men who die violently every year, most at the hands of other African-Americans, represents an unaddressed challenge to American political leadership, both black and white.

NOTHING SPARKS DEBATE LIKE A CONTRARIAN VIEWPOINT: consider political philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s New York Times essay “Ode to Joy, Followed by Chaos and Despair” which laments the two Europes (one mainstream and the other, Muslim and marginalized) while questioning the European Union’s use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as an official anthem.

While “Ode to Joy” is generally considered Beethoven’s musical tribute to the brotherhood of man, Zizek instead maintains that the fourth movement of Ninth Symphony has become an “empty signifier”— a symbol that can stand for anything. He notes its historical embrace by Adolf Hitler, the white supremacists of Rhodesia, and (bizarrely enough) some Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution.

Zizek’s broader point is that despite the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in December, Europeans are not one big family, with the (not yet admitted to the EU) Turks, and alienated young Muslims in France, Italy and Scandinavia, still on the outside looking in.

FOLK SINGER JAMES TAYLOR CANNOT READ OR WRITE MUSIC! Hard to believe? Taylor’s “limitations” were revealed in an interview of Taylor by PBS host Tavis Smiley, who describes himself as a fanatic for the music of Sweet Baby James. Taylor also said he was surprised how classically-trained musicians (who can read and write music) struggled to improvise, something that is second nature to the North Carolina native now living in Massachusetts.

IF YOU SAW THE GASH IN THE FACE SUFFERED BY WAKE FOREST DEFENDER JULIAN VALENTIN in the NCAA Division One college soccer championship game, you know “the beautiful game” can also be quite violent. Wake Forest defeated Ohio State, 2-1, but Valentin needed 25 stitches to repair the cut caused by an errant kick.

THE FINAL VERSE OF BOB DYLAN’S 1970 SONG “NEW MORNING,” seems a fitting quotation as the year 2008 commences:

So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you.
New morning . . .

Dylan’s country-influenced albums (“John Wesley Hardin,” “Nashville Skyline,”and “New Morning”) never impressed snobbish music critics, but they represent some of his best work.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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One thought on “December 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

  1. Nobody did ask you Jefferson, but don’t you feel as though this “cherry picking” goes too far in some instances? As you mentioned, it is unfair to assess actions that transpired in a different time and place based on our contemporary (Liberal) values. Isn’t the question then who gets to decide which actions warrant apologies and which actions are permissible given the context in which they occurred? Not all examples will be as cut-and-dry as genocide at the turn of the century. For example, there is an ongoing debate in Australia (Western, Liberal nation mind you) over whether or not the government should apologize to the Aborigines for displacing them and taking over their land. Now on the one hand, the government makes the point that they were not directly responsible for what happened to the Aboriginal people. However, the more interesting point that I have heard made is that at the time the British colonized Australia, imperialism was simply the name of the game. Does Australia owe an apology to the Aboriginals for killing them off and taking their land, or was it fair game? Who decides? The UN? The Australian people?

    Love the blog! Happy New Year

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