December 13, 2010

Last year British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pardoned computer-science pioneer and WWII hero Alan Turing for a 1952 “€œgross indecency”€ conviction arising from Turing’s admission to police that he was a homosexual. Rather than serve prison time for his conviction, Turing had chosen to receive hormone injections that caused him to grow breasts. In 1954 he was found dead, allegedly from eating an apple he”€™d laced with arsenic. Atheist Richard Dawkins, suspending his skepticism about whether the deceased are able to hear you and can be affected by your actions, signed a petition that helped lead to Turing’s pardon. In his speech, Gordon Brown directly addressed Turing: “€œI am very proud to say: we”€™re sorry, you deserved so much better.”€ It’s to be assumed that Mr. Turing’s breasts were also pardoned and likewise accepted the apology.

But not all of these posthumous pardons can be blamed on Western cultural self-flagellation. Sometimes the self-serving public displays of historical remorse go the other way, too. In a rare turn of events, Papua New Guinean tribesmen recently apologized for killing, cooking, and eating four Methodist missionaries in 1878. This whole apologizing-to-the-dead thing stubbornly transcends time, geography, and culture.

I”€™ve always doubted the value of apologies, believing that they benefit the apologizer far more than the aggrieved. And only a loony bird would argue that the dead benefit from them. It’s almost a second injustice, or at the very least a cheap insult. It’s a risk-free way for the apologizer to say, “€œOops! My bad.”€ Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson Andrew dubbed the Church of England’s recent apology to his famous forebear “€œpointless”€ and added: “€œWhen an apology is made after 200 years, it’s not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organization making the apology feel better.”€ Testify, my descended-from-apes brother!

The next time some official wants to waste everyone’s time in a public voodoo ritual of apologizing to the dead, they should be forced to dig up the corpse and express contrition to it live on camera for the entire nation’s psychological benefit. But of course they wouldn”€™t do that. It would be…crazy.

What’s noteworthy about these recent apologies is that at the time authorities were committing these past persecutory “€œsins,”€ they were all perfectly legal. The Church’s recent apology recipients had all been guilty of heresy, at least as the Church defined it. Every governmental entity that is now apologizing for slavery also legally sanctioned slavery when it was in full bloom. Jim Morrison and Lenny Bruce were, at the time, doing things in public that authorities and community standards deemed obscene and indecent. Not many performers back then were flashing their Schwanzes at the audience. I don”€™t remember Vic Damone or Jerry Vale doing it. Even Alan Turing’s consensual fellatio was, at the time, a criminal offense in England.

But times change, as do the laws. What once were heretics are now heroes. We don”€™t persecute homosexuals anymore, we persecute those who persecute them. As a society, we”€™ve come to embrace the idea that guys who suck dick, expose their penis, and say “€œfuck”€ a lot are innately moral, while anyone who”€™d oppose them are the true evildoers”€”the “€œhaters”€ who must be punished. Nowadays, it’s a frickin”€™ career move when a celebrity exposes their genitals.

Until we master time travel, I”€™d say it’s wise to lay off the posthumous apologies and specious revisionism. Posthumous apologies are a futile attempt to squeeze the past into a contemporary Jell-O mold, to rewrite yesterday so it marches in lockstep with today, to rehabilitate ancient devils into modern angels. Switzerland recently pardoned a female witch it had beheaded over 220 years ago, and the State of Virginia apologized to a reputed female witch on the 300th anniversary of what is now regarded as her false criminal conviction.

Almost without fail, politicians never apologize to the living, and even then, only after being caught and convicted. They”€™re always saying they”€™re sorry for something in the safe, distant past. They”€™ll attack their forebears for blindly adhering to some long-gone era’s orthodoxies, yet they bow to all modern icons. If politicians should apologize for anything, it’s for always apologizing too late.

Pardon me for thinking that on that night in 1969, Jim Morrison was little more than a belligerent drunken asshole and probably shouldn”€™t have been arrested.

But if you choose to pardon me, at least have the decency to do it while I”€™m alive.


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