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reparations

September 11, 2009

today i read that the british government formally apologized to alan turing, a code-breaker and computer scientist whom TIME named of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. turing was also gay, and was persecuted and prosecuted by the british government until he killed himself. i think the apology is rather lovely:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

however, i also think that while it’s commendable, it shows the limits of words, and even of actions. we might be sorry, we might be appalled, but we cannot change the past. we can only face it, admit to our mistakes, and try to move forward having learned from them. i think brown here has done a good job of admitting, simply and without equivocation, to the poor treatment turing and others received. it makes me wonder why such things are so much more difficult here in the U.S.

congress formally apologized to Native Americans for centuries of mistreatment in a rider to a 2008 Indian Health Bill. there was no formal announcement. even the apology’s sponsor didn’t make much of it. i pay attention to native issues and i had to go searching the internet because while i remembered something about an apology suggested in congress, i couldn’t remember whether it had happened.

even more telling than the lack of publicity is this quote from the reznet article i linked to above: 

While the Indian leaders and senators rejoiced the [health] act’s passage Tuesday, the Senate’s passage of a resolution attached to the act calling for a formal apology to Native people elicited about as much celebration as every other promise made to Indian people.

Only a formal Indian apology uttered by a sitting president, something this president never would do, and then followed by immediate action to improve Indian communities, could ever begin to repair the federal government’s fractured relationship with tribes.

That’s not something this resolution — slipped under the door like a “Dear John” note — could ever hope to do.

a half-assed apology–particularly when accompanied by no attempts to actually change bad behavior–is nearly as bad as no apology at all. why are we so afraid, as a culture, to admit that we fucked up? is it simply that we are so committed to the notion of america as a city on a hill, as the land of freedom and democracy, that the idea of admitting we built this country on theft and oppression and brutality is simply too damaging to our national ego? is this something that will change in time? if, like the british, we eventually lose our global position and are forced to reevaluate, will it be easier to admit to the mistakes of the past? or will we continue being belligerent and bombastic in our commitment to our glorious national myths?

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