Writing this week in The Guardian, Canadian poet Linda Besner described the refrain “I’m sorry” as Canada’s “second national anthem”. She was referring to the tendency of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologise for all manner of perceived misdeeds by Canadians that occurred well before he was born.
It turns out that Besner considers herself as an “apology apologist”, in that she sees the need for apologies, where necessary, by the living to the living.
However, she regards Trudeau’s penchant for repentance as a particularly Canadian form of self-aggrandisement by “humble-bragging about how bad you feel”.
To Besner, “Congratulating ourselves for feeling guilty makes us feel good again, and the praise we lavish on ourselves for our honesty is warmly received — by us.” In these “I’m sorry” times, Trudeau stands out as the star performer. He seems to have a longer apologia list than other Western leaders and can turn on the tears at will.
The move to apologise for the past reflects, in part at least, the decline of Christianity in the West.
In times gone by, many Christians believed they were born with stain, hence the need for the sacrament of baptism. The concept of the fall, or the notion of original sin, led to acceptance of the belief that this world was about the vale of tears and that true happiness could be achieved only in the next world. In short, to most Christians, we were all sinners and, consequently, imperfect. The sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, taught that sin could be forgiven provided a penitent expressed remorse along with an intention not to sin again. But perfection was regarded as impossible to achieve.
The contemporary drive to demand perfection from the dead, if not the living, has reached Australia. This is evident in the campaign to stop the Australian Electoral Commission from naming Bean as the new House of Representatives seat in the ACT.
Journalist and writer Charles Bean (1879-1968) is best known as the editor of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This was a work of 12 volumes, of which Bean wrote the first six. On any analysis, this was a monumental achievement.
Bean also played an important role in the establishment of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Along with Parliament House, the war memorial is the best known attraction in the ACT.
Also, Bean lived in Tuggeranong (near Canberra) for several years in the aftermath of World War I until, on medical advice, he moved to Sydney to live in a warmer climate.
On any reasonable analysis, Bean achieved much for Australia in general and the ACT in particular. Yet a campaign is under way to bring about a situation whereby the name Bean does not grace any federal electorate in the ACT. It is led by Mike Kelly, the Labor Party member for Eden-Monaro in southeast NSW. He has written a formal objection to the proposal.
Kelly’s complaint has nothing to do with Bean’s work as an official historian or his role with respect to the war memorial. According to Kelly, “While contributing greatly to the preservation of our national story, Bean had a clear record of racism throughout his life and most particularly was stridently anti-Semitic.”
Now it is true that Bean, who was born in Bathurst, NSW, towards the end of the 19th century to what historian Ken Inglis described as an “imperial family”, was imbued with the anti-Semitism that was prevalent at the time. As Ross Coulthart documents in his book Charles Bean (HarperCollins, 2014), Bean opposed General John Monash’s promotion to head the Australian Army Corps towards the end of World War I.
Put simply, Bean believed that Monash was a self-promoter. Fair enough, since such a mindset invariably is equated with success. But Bean’s rationale was troubling. He wrote in his diary: “We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of their ability, natural and in-born in Jews, to push themselves.”
Without question, that’s an anti-Semitic comment. But it’s a testimony to Australia’s acceptance as a country that Monash, a Jew with a Prussian background, got to lead the Australian Army Corps on the Western Front. And it’s a testimony to Bean’s character that he came to acknowledge that he was wrong about Monash.
In his 1945 book War Aims of a Plain Australian, Bean supported a proposal that Jews fleeing the applied anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler’s regime and the Nazis should be settled in the Kimberley area of Western Australia. He argued that these “courageous” Jewish people should be given the opportunity to “have a go” and become “good Australians”. So, clearly, Bean was not an anti-Semite at the end of World War II.
As to Kelly’s claim that Bean had a clear record of racism throughout his life, this is plainly wrong. Sure, in his early years, Bean was an Anglophile and had little time for what were frequently called foreigners — and especially Asians.
But by the late 1940s he was an opponent of the White Australia policy and argued that Australia should take immigrants from Asia. This was almost two decades before the Labor Party dropped its advocacy of White Australia.
In short, Bean changed his attitude to adjust to changing times.
The same cannot be said of one-time Labor Party leader Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) or one-time NSW free-trade politician Henry Parkes (1815-96). Both men have federal electorates named after them. Calwell went to his death bed as an unrepentant advocate for White Australia while Parkes was a lifelong anti-Catholic sectarian.
Even so, it would be unwise to change the name of either electorate since, like the rest of us, both Calwell and Parkes were afflicted by the consequences of the fall — and they had achievements as well as failures to their names.
It’s proper to criticise aspects of the careers of Bean, Calwell and Parkes. It makes no sense to apologise today for their past faults.