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Joseph Kaminski

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October 14, 2019

Professionalizing History 5: Is it Justifiable to Apologize for History?

In the last installment of Professionalizing History, I discussed the war on American history – the nationalistic, patriotic, oftentimes conservative-based ideology that prefers to ignore the dark side of history. We talked about Howard Zinn, a name I’ll oftentimes refer to in later installments, and what he did to contribute to this so-called war against history. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history.

But, rather than commit war against how our governmental established history ignores…can’t we just apologize for what it ignores?

In recent decades, the concept of apologizing for history has leaped into the rhetoric of our society. Whether it be for immense crimes against humanity such as slavery in the United States and the Holocaust of Europe, or dastardly deeds on a local level such as police brutality of the past; it is becoming more and more topical for men and women of authority coming to terms with and accepting the outcome – as negative as such an outcome could be – within the dark stains of history.

As a student of history, you’ve probably already found yourself in such an ethical debacle…being pressured by all forces around you to answer for the past in the present. You’ve probably had an argument – whether it be in the middle of the proverbial hallway or within a typical classroom environment – which involved the idea of apologizing for history. And as a historian, it must be thought of clearly: is it justifiable to apologize for history?

Personally, I believe it is – to such an extent. It is improbable and just unnecessary for every single aspect of human history to be apologized for. Oftentimes, we witness two different prompts for men and women – whether they be in politics, law enforcement, or the field of history – apologizing for the past: either it is an immense crime (those crimes against humanity aforementioned) or it is promoted and prompted by the social norms of the day. Just recently, a Georgia police chief apologized for an unjust and immoral lynching with occurred in 1940. Eight full decades after the incident, a man with authority in the law enforcement branch of our society took “the burden” of the past upon his own shoulders to apologize.

If you identify as a liberal, this sounds like the police chief was doing his job. His department failed Austin Callaway, who was lynched by a group of white men wearing masks and shot to death under their custody. The police never looked further into Callaway’s death, writing it off as a freak accident and not even going as far as looking for the killers. You know that the family of this man can feel what they should have felt two generations ago.

If you identify as a conservative, this might send chills up your spine. You might consider it a waste of valuable time. Why should a police chief…one who wasn’t even alive during the time of the incident at hand…come out and apologize for the acts of his department seventy-five years afterwards? There are criminals on the streets now that need to be dealt with!

You might identify as neither, and thus your opinion might be disconnected from politics entirely. Think of two men in a boat. The first man gets angry at the second man and shoots the bottom of the boat with a pistol. The second man, smugly grinning, announces that he won’t help the first man plug up the hole until he receives an apology for being yelled at. The first man frantically apologizes as he attempts to plug up the hole himself.

This where it becomes difficult to apologize for history! In a world where “special snowflakes” are encouraged to shut the hell up about their emotional causes and moral backgrounds by an increasingly altering right-wing party, apologizing for our past mistakes might seem frugal at best. We also have to ask ourselves: does apologizing for the past in the present allow for a better future?

This is where you, as a historian, have to consider the options. Some “historians” – yes, no matter what your bias is we have to consider people with a Ph.D. in history – will never apologize for history; David Duke, for example. A man filled with such hatred, racial tension, and memories from the KKK isn’t going to openly exclaim that he’s sympathetic or empathetic towards slavery or Jim Crow discrimination in American society. An individual’s bias determines whether or not they feel the need to apologize. Of course, this can swing in either direction.

Governments don’t really like acknowledging history when it’s not some sort of nationalistic nostalgia, but in recent years we’ve seen government submission to social normality. Think of the beef between America and Japan, where we’re just recently witnessing government sympathy for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s kind of funny, honestly. Barack Obama apologized for the brutal usage of the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, and Japan’s Shinzo Abe replied with “we will not apologize for Pearl Harbor.”

For this episode of Professionalizing History, I honestly leave the question open to you – the readers. As history majors, you have an important decision to make when it comes to apologizing for our past. Do you see it as capable of mending social wounds and building stronger bridges into the future? Or do you see it as a waste of time, oftentimes inflicting damage on the apologizers themselves? Do you see it as a chance to give peace to people who inherited the problems of generations’ past? Or do you see it as the aforementioned boat scenario?

How good of a historian you are might just depend on how you deal with this situation…

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