Monday, June 13, 2016
June 13, 2016: ApologyStudying: Lessons from Canada
[Inspired by two recent events about which I’ll write on Monday, a series on the complex question of whether and how America should apologize for historic wrongs. Leading up to a special weekend post where I’ll share some broader thoughts and for which I’m not at all sorry to ask for your contributions as well!]
On a key difference between the U.S. and our northern neighbor, and what we could learn from it.
Last month, Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau gave a speech in the House of Commons in which he directly and without qualification apologized for one of his nation’s darkest historical moments. “Today I rise in this House to offer an apology,” he began his remarks, “on behalf of the government of Canada, for our role in the Komagata Maru incident.” As detailed at length in the wonderful website available at the latter hyperlink, that 1914 Komagata Maru incident offers a concise illustration of the early 20th century, longstanding, exclusionary and bigoted policies of both Canada and the United States toward Asian arrivals and communities. In this excellent piece for The Nation, historian and public scholar Deepa Iyer explicitly frames Trudeau’s speech and apology as a potential teachable moment for the United States, an opportunity for us to contemplate whether and how we could better make amends for our own historic wrongs.
As Iyer notes in her piece, and as my next few posts in this series will analyze, the U.S. has at times in recent decades offered official apologies for such wrongs. Yet those apologies have tended to come in the form of cautiously worded Congressional edicts, rather than overt statements by the chief executive along the lines of Trudeau’s blunt remarks; and I believe the difference reflects collective American narratives and fears of appearing weak or conciliatory on a global stage. Later in May we saw precisely those narratives re-emerge once more, this time on the occasion of President Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima. Ahead of his remarks in that city, Obama and his team went out of their way to clarify that, even though his speech would call for a world without nuclear weapons, he would not be offering an apology for America’s 1945 nuclear bombing of the city (nor the subsequent and even more controversial bombing of Nagasaki). Given Mitt Romney’s 2012 critiques of Obama as a president who had too often “apologized for America,” this current emphasis can be read as a political strategy—but it’s nonetheless also in keeping with these broader national fears of a conciliatory chief executive.
Hiroshima and its contexts are quite distinct from those surrounding the Komagata Maru, to be sure. Yet there is an American incident that’s strikingly similar to Canada’s, and one for which we have certainly never offered a formal apology: the 1939 voyage of the German steamship St. Louis. That Holocaust Museum piece describes in great detail just how fully the U.S. government (and the American people more broadly) met that community of Jewish refugees with indifference and inaction, and the results of those responses: most horrifically, the subsequent deaths in the Holocaust of 254 of the ship’s 937 passengers. Were Obama, or any American president, to stand up and offer a blunt and unqualified apology for this historic wrong, it wouldn’t change those horrific results in the slightest—but it would represent a step toward both better remembering this history and considering its echoes in the present. Given the contrast between Canada’s and America’s responses to Syrian refugees, that’s one more lesson we could stand to learn from our northern neighbor.
Next ApologyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this topic and/or broader thoughts on American apologies for the weekend post are very welcome!