AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
We live in a time of regret. Political and humanitarian leaders perform acts of atonement for historical atrocities, seek reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of violence and pursue some measure of justice, whether moral or legal, for the crimes of history in order to cultivate stronger, more inclusive communal bonds among various sociopolitical groups. Emblematic examples of such efforts include the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, perpetual German self-scrutiny regarding Nazi atrocities, and official apologies for slavery ratified by former Confederate state legislatures as well as both houses of the U.S. Congress (among a tidal wave of other recent official apologies and symbolic gestures of state contrition). (1) "How are we to explain," sociologists Barry Schwartz and Horst-Alfred Heinrich ask, "the spreading contamination of the past, the discovery in every nook and crevice of the memory landscape a new atrocity to be regretted, a new wrong to be set right?" (2) Scholars of rhetoric have analyzed discrete expressions of regret concerning these and other historical episodes according to formal procedures of apologia, atonement, reconciliation, and the like. (3) Their scholarship comports with interdisciplinary research into how state institutions promote human rights, transitional justice and liberal democracy by officially acknowledging and renouncing programs of violence and injustice once perpetrated in their name. (4)
Regret constitutes not only a characteristic tonal feature of modern public memory but also a proliferating source of political legitimacy. State authorities have long invoked the wisdom of the past to justify policies in the present. Yet the current principle of regret, Jeffrey Olick posits, distinguishes modern forms of politically motivated remembrance from previous incarnations: "Political legitimation depends just as much on collective memory as it ever has, but this collective memory is now often one disgusted with itself, a matter of 'learning the lessons' of history more than of fulfilling its promise or remaining faithful to its legacy." Olick perceives in "a variety of practices with which many contemporary societies confront toxic legacies of the past," such as "apology, reparation, and criminal prosecution," not merely "distinct genres of retrospective practice" but "a new principle of legitimation," which he labels "the politics of regret." (5) National and international leaders now consolidate public support for policy initiatives by professing regret over the violent and unjust policies of their institutional predecessors.
The rhetorical and political work of regret assumes many forms, including "apology, reparation, and criminal prosecution," (6) as well as atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation. Statements of mere regret, meaning expressions of regret as apparent ends unto themselves, have not received dedicated scholarly attention (despite Olick's description of related genres under that rubric). Scholars have analyzed international efforts to address the most regrettable eras of the past when scrutinizing genres of political negotiation and conflict resolution defined by external goals or objective measures. (7) Officials often profess regret for past atrocities, however, independently of such goals and measures in the interest of patently uncertain ends. Audiences know when an official apology has been issued--a formal declaration achieves its envisioned institutional goal and public responses offer indices of its rhetorical efficacy--but one may offer sentiments of regret for past wrongs without explicitly apologizing for them. Efforts to achieve formal reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of violence utilize benchmarks agreed upon by negotiating parties in order to declare political amity; but state representatives can voice regret for past injustices without seeking institutionally binding and measurable results.
Addressing the easily overlooked rhetoric and politics of regret qua regret enhances our understanding of the isolated ceremonial (and not only extended procedural) ways in which state representatives derive political legitimacy from appeals to historical injustice, human rights and liberal-democratic values. Statements of mere regret may constitute a relatively indistinct genre of historical lamentation compared to formal procedures of apology, reconciliation, amnesty and the like. They address the public nonetheless in a sympathetic language of universal rights, liberal-democratic ideals and moral justice instead of intricate policy statements or bureaucratic documents. The rhetoric of regret seeks to educate the public in putative lessons of history and entreats listeners to perpetuate, in classic epideictic (or ceremonial) fashion, the civic and humanitarian principles they validate. (8) Commonplace tropes of ceremonial regret may not secure transitional democracy or reparations, but they significantly influence public perceptions of historical justice, moral wisdom and democratic virtue. This language, which state representatives routinely employ in all manner of contemporary public ceremonies, promises to teach ordinary citizens why they should mourn salient aspects of their national heritage and how they can derive proper moral and political guidance by committing them to memory. The merely regretful nature of such rhetoric signifies not a lesser quality of state-sponsored recollection and accountability (because of its situational and self-referential nature) but an increasingly normative medium of public remembrance and moral instruction concerning the crimes of history.
President George W. Bush's historic address of July 3, 2003, on U.S. participation in the transatlantic slave trade offers an excellent case study in the aforementioned rhetoric of regret. Bush, the first sitting Republican president to visit Africa, somberly condemned the evils of slavery, praised those who worked to abolish it and anticipated burgeoning political and economic alliances between Africa and the U.S. in a speech on Goree Island, Senegal, the location of a former African slave port and current UNESCO World Heritage site. Martin Medhurst aptly describes standard patterns of regret as a feature of contemporary state commemoration when he concludes that Bush successfully placed "American slavery into historical, political, and theological perspective in such a way as to simultaneously confess our national sin and begin to make restitution for it." (9) The president's address at this once-fateful terminus warrants analysis because it was internationally received, despite these worthy goals, as a statement of mere regret that fell conspicuously short of a formal apology for past U.S. support of slavery. (10) Prior to the widely publicized speech, a variety of groups and individuals (journalists, civil rights leaders, human rights officials and state representatives) expressed keen interest in whether Bush would formally apologize for the institution. (11) Surprise, even anger, at his failure to do so characterized global reception of the speech, leading commentators to wonder what Bush's statements of mere regret were intended to accomplish. (12) Concrete legal and political consequences would have accompanied a formal apology, conceivably exposing the federal government to additional lawsuits and claims for reparations. (13) "International law"--specifically, the UN International Law Commission's Draft Articles on Responsibility for Internationally Wrongful Acts--"recognizes apology as a formal remedy for violations of international law." (14) Without such an apology, however, Bush's regretful epideictic discourse levied ceremonial blame for the crimes of the slave trade and praised those who labored to abolish it, merely for the apparent sake of doing so.
The speech also warrants scholarly attention for its unusually elaborate ceremonial expression of mere regret. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton offered brief and unscripted sentiments of regret during their administrations for the U.S. role in commercial slavery; but George W. Bush's remarks on Goree Island are, to date, the only scripted statements on the subject by a sitting U.S. president, delivered in the form of an elaborately staged and internationally anticipated ceremony. (15) Standard epideictic appeals to human rights, liberal-democratic values and moral justice that national and international leaders habitually employ on similar occasions (namely, those divorced from formal procedures of apology, reconciliation or amnesty) composed the content of his speech. Bush's address illustrates not an individual ceremonial statement but an emergent language of somber yet respectfully unapologetic official regret. This rhetoric seeks to enhance the legitimacy of state representatives or institutions by lamenting past culpability in historical atrocities while refusing to officially apologize for them so as to avoid the possible present-day legal or political consequences of such a formally binding act.
Systematic analysis of Bush's address yields insight into how state officials rhetorically avoid critical paradoxes intrinsic to the contemporary work of publicly atoning for past injustices that formal apologies directly confront (however successfully or not). The rhetoric of mere regret exhorts citizens to dutifully remember the lessons of historical atrocities as a paramount civic duty while eschewing the question of how affected citizens might be empowered to pursue practical entailments of those lessons through sustained political activity. Such epideictic performances, which Bush's remarks on Goree Island vividly exemplify, paradoxically urge national and international audiences to fulfill this civic duty by embracing a series of ideal moral responses to historical injustice without conveying how citizens may pragmatically perform them. These ideal responses involve bearing witness to past injustices, achieving moral recompense for those crimes in the present and communicating their lessons to future generations of humanity. The rhetoric of regret fails, by these measures, to establish an "authentic" relation to past atrocities as per the highly specialized way that Michel-Rolph Trouillot defines the term: "Authenticity," he writes, "engages us both as actors and narrators.... Thus, even in relation to The Past our authenticity resides in the struggles of the present." (16) Analyzing a strikingly representative example of how state officials encourage citizens to recall past atrocities in a spirit of ceremonial narration more than civic action allows one to isolate key linguistic devices with which state-sponsored displays of regret generally blur, despite situational differences, vital distinctions between their own rhetorical forms and functions and those of programmatic efforts to enlist "actors" in the "struggles of the present." Such displays warrant closer scrutiny because the paradox that defines them--the inherent divide between solemn remembrance of past wrongs and practical political activities that would set them aright--shapes state officials' increasingly prevalent use of ceremonial lamentations over an unjust past in pursuit of geopolitical legitimacy and universal human rights alike.
POLITICAL AND CEREMONIAL CONTEXT
Proper consideration of the relevant context for Bush's speech includes not only immediate geopolitical exigencies but also the ceremonial rhetoric of historical memory, human rights and liberal-democratic values espoused by many Western governmental and nongovernmental agents. The Bush administration's military incursion in Iraq fueled political controversy both at home and abroad. Its policies in Africa, however, comprised a praiseworthy and far less controversial chapter in its efforts to influence geopolitical events. Bush authorized dramatic increases in humanitarian aid to Africa during his presidency, most notably pledging $15 billion to combat AIDS/ HIV on the continent. (17) The administration also supported initiatives to promote democratic governance and free market reforms among African nation-states, sought to bolster relations with strategic allies like Senegal and negotiated contributing U.S. troops to a UN peacekeeping force in nearby Liberia. (18) This multifaceted involvement in Africa, administration supporters claimed, proved "that the war in Iraq hasn't diminished Bush's desire to be seen as a compassionate conservative." (19) Substantial increases in humanitarian aid and enthusiastic support for democratic reforms offered laudable counterpoints to common critiques of the Bush presidency's allegedly illiberal domestic and foreign policies.
Bush's Goree Island speech was intended to elaborately symbolize the administration's larger message of …