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Mahatma Gandhi, asked what he thought of European civilization, replied, “I think it’s a very good idea.”

Between 1910 and 1970, 100,000 Australian aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed into white foster homes. The goal was to wipe out the 40,000 year old aboriginal culture through detribalization: assimilating the children into European civilization while the adults died out. The result was dispossession, dislocation and devastation of Australia’s first inhabitants.

The official inquiry into the “stolen generation,” chaired by judge Sir Ronald Wilson, president of the Human Rights Commission, listened to the stories of 535 Aborigines and received written submissions from another 1,000. “Bringing Them Home” (1997) the 689-page report into the sorry saga, used a U.N. definition — the extermination of a culture of one group through the forcible transfer of its children to another group — to conclude that the policy was one of genocide.

The report is compelling, painful, even harrowing. Many children were used as free labor or sex objects by those responsible for rescuing them from their primitive culture. Rape, child abuse, beatings and mental breakdowns were commonplace. One family engaged in ritual grieving over its stolen child every sunrise for 32 years. Opposition leader Kim Beazley broke down and wept in Parliament at the memory of the case studies.

The collective pain inflicted on two generations of Aborigines adds to the distress over their current plight. Their life expectancy is 15-20 years less than that of other Australians; their infant mortality is four times higher; they are grossly over-represented in the prisons; too many die in custody.

The report provoked shame and controversy. It avoided assigning guilt, preferring healing to retribution. The government reacted angrily to the emotive charge of genocide and rejected the recommendations for an official apology, reparation and an annual “sorry day.”

The margins of racial tolerance had narrowed by the late 1990s in a backlash to perceived excesses of previous policies when liberalism was seen to have become nothing more than a series of continuing compromises on European values.

Activists are accused of purveying the “black armband” view of history which does violence to the record of European settlers. The liberal guilt, in its intolerance of any challenge to multiculturalism, can be a stumbling block to race relations. The European may not criticize other cultures, but the other has no corresponding restraint of reticence. Feeding on the pervasive, all-enveloping sense of European guilt, the “indigenous” cultures begin to claim ever-expanding spheres of privilege while nursing real grievances and inventing new ones. Privilege and grievance become habits of mind.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s combative rejection of a formal apology was in sharp contrast to the gracious apology delivered by Bill Clinton, also in 1997, for the 1932-72 Tuskegee experiment on syphilis victims — the disease was left untreated among blacks for research purposes. Conceding that the harm could not be undone, Clinton declared: “We can stop turning our heads away, we can look you in the eye, and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the U.S. government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

The refusal to apologize has nursed the Aborigines’ sense of grievance, where an official apology would have softened it. Being able to say sorry is a sign of maturity and self-confidence; admitting to past wrongdoing allows us to move forward. The past may or may not explain the present; the present illuminates the past. The collective unconscious of Germans has been freed of past demons by confronting Nazi wrongs and communicating remorse over them.

Unapologetic Australians are disingenuous in branding the Wilson report as judging yesterday’s conduct by today’s values. This is not history; it is within the living memory of most adults. An apology is due to the victims themselves, not to their descendants.

An apology is as important for white Australians’ self-identity as for healing the rift with Aborigines. It would be an affirmation of standards of decency and behavior. White Australians will be at peace neither with themselves nor with aborigines until the apology.

The recommendation for reparation is well-intentioned but doubly flawed. In principle, the wrong done was such that no price can be put on it. Dollar values would demean and trivialize the horror. In practice, attempts to establish dollar amounts would provoke bickering and a backlash. It would aggravate, not heal, the racial divide. On Aug. 11, Australia’s federal court ruled against two members of the stolen generation seeking compensation from the Australian government. Sentiment is no substitute for judicial standards of evidence.

Attempts to right historical wrongs are complex. Force was often the arbiter of the fate of individuals and tribes in the past. Why should the winners of earlier wars give up their fruits of victory today? If this principle were to be applied worldwide, we would face massive upheaval, dispossession and injustice.

The oppressors and oppressed are all dead. How can transfers between groups of living people atone for ill-gotten benefits by one from another group of dead people? Are guilt and benefits collective and inheritable? (The Zimbabwe land dispute is similarly vexed.) The modern-day Robin Hoods sometimes want to take from those who caused no harm and give to those who suffered none.

The idea of a national sorry day is also ill-conceived. It would instantly become a focus of grievance, divisiveness and polarization, breed simmering resentment and animosity, and be transformed into an instrument of sectarian strife rather than reconciliation.

While populists pander to the worst prejudices in society, the test of leadership is to bring out the best in people. True leaders set standards of decency, explain why values matter and inspire citizens to higher planes of collective behavior. By the refusal to apologize for stealing a generation of aboriginal children from their families, generosity of spirit was suffocated with petty meanness. Being small-minded on the apology and stridently defensive about the record of white settlers debases the debate and diminishes the nation.

An unqualified, sincere and gracious apology would help the wounds to heal, soften the hurt and deflect the calls for compensation.

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