I have often pondered to what extent a nation, or a group of people within a nation, can be held responsible for the actions of previous generations.
And what I also want to know is this: when does it become acceptable to make a joke out of a historic grievance or atrocity? Does it ever?
Our own country has struggled to deal with historical grievances. Very few people would argue that the treatment of Maori in the 19th century wasn’t a disgrace, or that the confiscation of their lands was not an abominable injustice. Some have argued, however, that the current generation owes no duty to Maori, and that the recognition of any duty at all merely perpetuates the “grievance industry”.
That argument overlooks the inconvenient truth that we (and when I say “we” I am talking as a Pakeha) continue to enjoy the fruits of those land confiscations, and so continue to profit from historical wrongs. And that the current appalling Maori crime and health statistics are attributable, at least in part, to the loss of economic viability and social cohesion that arose from Maori land dispossession.
This blog post and discussion thread today on Public Address today got me pondering further. The guest writer, a German, gives her views on the recent controversial German-themed party held by students at Lincoln University. The event is reported here, and if you caught the footage on TV you would have seen a predominance of Nazi uniforms, and numerous tasteless references to the Holocaust. News of the party caused a stir, with opinion in the media, talkback-land and the blogosphere divided over whether the students had done anything wrong.
Being a German means carrying war guilt. Most of us would agree it is right for a nation to renounce the evil ways of the past, but at what point do the crimes of the past stop becoming your responsibility? It is clear that for some people no apology will ever be enough. If an apology is given it is picked over for signs that it might not be sufficiently fulsome or self-abasing. Is compensation being offered? Is it enough? Is the person giving the apology personally sorry, or merely expressing regret for the deeds of a few bad people?
At what point is it okay to stop apologising? And what should a nation be expected to apologise for? Demands are often made for Britain to apologise for its history of slavery. Many of the splendid buildings that adorn London and other English cities were built using money earned from West Indies slave labour. And yet it was so long ago. Is an apology owed? And if so, should reparations be paid? Because surely for an apology to be meaningful it must be followed by reparations. But who would be eligible for compensation?
And how far back in history should we go? To me it seems reasonable, for example, that Russia ought to apologise to Poland for the dreadful things it has done to Poland this century. But it would seem plain silly if the Italian PM were asked to say sorry to France because of the slaughter Julius Caesar inflicted on the Gauls in the first century BC.
I don’t know why one feels right and the other wrong, other than because one event happened long ago. These are not easy questions to answer.
Back to the Lincoln party.
Most people (I think) would agree that attempting to depict a concentration camp inmate in comedic terms is likely to offend. And yet it can work. The Roberto Benigni film Life is Beautiful told the story of a father who hid his son from the Germans inside a concentration camp. It is hilarious in places, while still managing to retain a desperate sadness.
There is also a long history of Jewish comedians (think Mel Brooks of Jack Benny) making jokes about Hitler or the Holocaust.
There is nothing remotely funny, however, about what appeared to go on at Lincoln University. It may be arguable that dressing up in Nazi uniforms is okay, because let’s face it, the Germans did have the coolest uniforms in WWII. The SS, as ghastly and murderous as they were, were natty dressers. And TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes have presented the Germans in WWII as bumbling harmless fools. So it may be that you can get away with a uniform at a party without being grossly offensive. Yet the Swastika is such a powerful symbol for evil that anyone who wears it, no matter why, risks being branded as a racist Nazi anti-Semite. Even though the Swastika has a very different symbolism in India.
If the Swastika is an icon with just too much “baggage”, what other symbols might qualify for such treatment? Most who understand 20th century history would agree Joseph Stalin was at least as awful as Hitler, and that Mao deserves a pedestal in any pantheon of monsters. So why is it “cool” to adorn yourself with badges or icons from those regimes? You have probably seen t-shirts displaying the red star, or the hammer and sickle. And the iconic propaganda posters of the Soviet regime are still popular - and yet what do they represent? The face of a totalitarian regime that was responsible for the murder of millions.
When I was in Berlin several years ago, memories of the Berlin Wall were still fresh. But there was a thriving market supplying Cold War trinkets to tourists, and buying a fragment from the Berlin Wall was de rigueur. The locals didn’t seem traumatised by this dark period in their history, at least outwardly. During my stay in Berlin I acquired a Ukrainian Communist Party banner from a dealer in memorabilia. Here is one side of it.
But I’m hesitant to put the banner up in my house, or on the wall of my office. I certainly can’t bring myself to display the side in which the face of Lenin appears. He was not the monster Stalin was, but nor was he a very nice person. Am I being unnecessarily sensitive worrying about this, particularly when you can see similar things in many Russian-themed bars and clubs?
I really, genuinely, don’t have the answers to many of these questions. My gut usually tells me when something is “wrong”, and yet as a supposedly intelligent person I should be able to rationalise why. Why is it okay to joke to a Scottish friend that it’s a pity his ancestors weren’t all mown down on Culloden Field (and, actually, is it okay?), while any kind of joke about the Holocaust is, rightly, grossly offensive? No doubt it has something to do with the passing of time, but how much time must pass? Must all the survivors of the tragedy/genocide have died? If so, why are calls made for the UK to apologise for its slave past?
Like I said, I don't have the answers to many of these questions.