CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
C.S. Lewis and False Apology Syndrome
, February 5, 2011
Last year's final issue of News Weekly (December 25) contained Bill Muehlenberg's review of the film version of C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and John Ballantyne's introduction to Lewis's science fiction trilogy. In the same issue, Mervyn F. Bendle reviewed Pascal Bruckner's The Tyranny of Guilt, which deals with pressures from within and without for the West to repent of its very existence.
The relationship between the first two pieces is obvious, but they are also connected with the third.
A couple of years ago, the British doctor and writer Theodore Dalrymple analysed the burgeoning pathology of False Apology Syndrome.
His article rationally distinguishes pride from responsibility, and shame from guilt.
It is appropriate, for example, to feel pride in the accomplishments of Australia's soldiers or athletes, but not to take credit for them. Likewise, it is fitting that we feel shame over the genuine cases of settler atrocities against Australia's indigenous people, but not guilt.
Dalrymple shows that those who wallow in self-abasing apologies, under the sophistical rationale of their superior "compassion" are, paradoxically, asserting their moral vanity: "I feel very guilty, therefore I must be very important."
He illustrates his case using current examples of the misuse of history, and in the process dismembers the muddled thinking from which they grow.
American blacks demand apologies and reparations from Western nations which centuries ago were involved in the slave trade.
There is no acknowledgement of the involvement of Africans and Arabs in the Dark Continent's flourishing traffic in human beings, which had existed long before Europeans bought into it, and without which the trans-Atlantic slave trade could not have functioned.
(The consideration that they don't have the remotest hope of getting a cent from any except Western nations would not, of course, figure in their moral calculations).
Another example is the gratuitous apologies which have been offered to Muslims from various churches for Christianity's participation in the Crusades.
Certainly there was never any theological or scriptural justification for the Crusades, but they were an entirely understandable reaction to four and a half preceding centuries of Muslim aggression.
Apologising for them seven centuries after they ended merely reinforces present-day Islamist arrogance, self-righteousness and paranoia.
Some might regard False Apology Syndrome as a recent phenomenon, no more than a decade or two old. The mentality underlying it, however, can be found as early as 1940, when it was dissected by C.S. Lewis.
On March 15 of that year, his Dangers of National Repentance
appeared in The Guardian
The article's contemporary resonance lies not just in its critique of contrived contrition, but also in the issue that prompted this 70-year-old adumbration of False Apology Syndrome - that of alleged Allied responsibility for the Second World War.
Until recently, there has been a consensus that World War II was "the good war", and only the occasional Holocaust-denier, or doctrinaire pacifist, ever questioned its necessity.
Now, however, books such as Nicholas Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilisation
, and Patrick J. Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World
, have suddenly discovered that World War II was an avoidable and irresponsible adventure, culpably embarked upon by the liberal democracies for the basest of motives.
It seems that the global conflict 1939-45 was all the fault of Allied intransigence, with that prince of darkness, Winston Churchill (any man who bequeathed John Howard his middle name has to be an object of automatic suspicion), skulking at the centre of Britain's perfidious machinations.
Apparently, there would have been no war, and no Holocaust, if only the democracies had responded to Germany and Japan with Gandhian overtures of goodwill and non-violence. Instead of liquidating the Jews, the Nazis would have simply resettled them in Madagascar (or Alaska).
It is not clear what would have happened to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Chinese slaughtered by the Japanese imperial forces years before the war broke out, but no doubt they too would have been peacefully dealt with, but for Churchill et al.
Perhaps they would have been resettled in Australia.
These assertions don't seem to have been as plausible to Lewis at the time as they are to commentators today.
Even in 1940, there had long been a tendency among some British intellectuals to blame the rise of Nazism on the Versailles Treaty, with its supposedly unjust reparations and war-guilt clause, but Lewis was not interested in providing excuses for Hitler.
His most recent biographer, Alan Jacobs, writes that "he and [his friend, J.R.R.] Tolkien alike were horrified at what had already been revealed about Nazi policy toward Germany's Jews".
The Final Solution might have only become official with the Wannsee conference of January 1942, but for those with eyes to see, such as Lewis, it had been latent and inevitable in Nazi anti-Semitism from the beginning.
As a young subaltern during the First World War, Lewis had fought and been wounded in the trenches of the Western Front, so he had experienced armed combat at first hand, and learned to hate it. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy
, he recalled "the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles".
At the same time, he recognised that war was sometimes the only honourable alternative to appeasement.
During 1940, the year in which he wrote Dangers of National Repentance
, he also read a paper titled Why I Am Not A Pacifist
to an Oxford anti-war society.
In it, he contended that "war is a very great evil". He said: "The question is whether war is the greatest evil in the world, so that any state of affairs which might result from submission is certainly preferable. And I do not see any really cogent argument for that view."
And in a premature refutation to perhaps the most inane pop song ever written (which is saying a great deal!), the frequently cited "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!", he pointed out that criticising a just war because it does not produce a perfect world, is like telling a man who has just successfully defended himself against a man-eating tiger: "It's no good, old chap. This hasn't really cured your rheumatism."
What, then, are the criticisms contained in his Dangers of National Repentance
, and how are they relevant to today's apology mania?
Lewis's first point is that the "last year undergraduates and first year curates" calling for England to repent of its responsibility for World War II are actually too young to have played any part in the events which are claimed to have caused the outbreak of hostilities.
In other words, they are demanding repentance not for their own shortcomings, but for those of others.
"The first and fatal charm of national repentance, therefore, is the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing - but, first, of denouncing - the conduct of others."
In an insidious semantic sleight of hand, the pinchbeck prophets are careful to refer to the alleged perpetrators of injustice against Germany not as "they', but as "we".
"And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a government which is called 'we' is ipso facto
placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel at the same time you are practising contrition."
Under the guise of humble identification with his erring country, the caller for repentance, according to Lewis, is in fact indulging not only his hatred of businessmen and politicians, but his "contempt for the manners, pleasures and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen".
In asserting that "we" have a duty to "forgive the Germans and Russians [Lewis was writing when the Hitler-Stalin Pact was still in operation] and to open [our] eyes to the sins of England", the young moralist pretends to be agonising over his nation's corporate guilt, but is in reality revelling in doing what he loves best - blaming "them".
It should, because it is similar to the moral pea and thimble trick manufactured and marketed by the modern apology industry.
In both cases, groups assume guilt for their countries' real or imagined transgressions and then exploit their putative remorse as an opportunity to condemn the Western, liberal, pluralist democracies to which they belong, while exonerating from all blame the West's mediaeval, theocratic, dictatorial and totalitarian, opponents, whether they be Islamofascists, communists or just old-fashioned thugs, crooks and savages.
Furthermore, movements which go around demanding apologies for centuries-old offences, caused by long-dead perpetrators, would come across as a trifle more sincere if their members were prepared to admit their own personal faults and misjudgements.
For example, there are thousands of Australians who once supported murderous dictators such as Stalin, Mao, Castro and Ho Chi Minh.
Some of them (perhaps including a number of those who today unctuously condemn Australia over its treatment of Middle Eastern refugees) vilified the wretched, traumatised Indochinese asylum-seekers who arrived on our shores back in the seventies.
Many of them today occupy prominent positions in public life or academia.
How many of them have ever apologised?
Some indication of regret for their own past callousness, insensitivity and moral duplicity might make their current enthusiasm for apologies from others a little more worthy of consideration.Bill James is a Melbourne writer.