Do recantations matter?

People who have done bad things sometimes try to make amends; to offer apologies – often partial or grudging – or to try to undo some of the effects of their past actions. It might be a sign of genuine remorse, or it might be something more pragmatic. Two striking examples this week: an individual and an institution.

The first is Colin Powell, who died on Monday after a glittering career in the United States military and politics. He is remembered most, however, for his role in promoting the invasion of Iraq while secretary of state to George Bush Jr: an invasion that he clearly knew to be unjustified but for which he provided a veneer of respectability.

There are a few very good obituaries that make this point. Here’s Bernard Keane in Crikey; here’s Fred Kaplan in Slate; and here’s Spencer Ackerman at Forever Wars. Kaplan’s words serve as a nice summary:

Powell later openly regretted his role in the U.N. speech and denounced those who’d manipulated him at Langley. Too late. If he had resigned in protest before the invasion, he might have stopped the war from happening; if he had spoken out after leaving office, he might have affected its future course. But this wasn’t his way. He was, at heart, a team player, a ‘good soldier.’

Powell recanted when it was too late; he acknowledged that he had been wrong, although he never really spelt out the extent to which he knew at the time that it was wrong. More generally, he denounced the crazed thing that the Republican Party had become, and although a Republican himself since the 1990s he endorsed Democrat candidates in the last four presidential elections.

The second case is News Corp, and its striking reversal of front on climate change – lovingly documented this week by Paul Barry on Media Watch. For decades, News Corp outlets have been at the forefront of the campaign to deny the reality of global warming; now, without admitting to any change of heart, its Australian tabloids are publicising the importance of the issue and calling for policies to address it.

Powell and News Corp have been met with similar responses. In each case their recantation has been attributed to self-interested motives – to concern with reputation, and in News Corp’s case to commercial realities – rather than genuine regret. And we’re told, rightly, that we shouldn’t allow the evil caused by their previous actions to be forgotten.

But it seems to me that it’s possible to go too far the other way. However partial or insincere they might be, recantations of past wrongs are valuable; they can do practical good as well as reinforcing moral norms. If we cynically ignore them, we send the message that repentance is pointless, and we will get less of it as a result. Even the most hardened offenders (of which News Corp is surely one) deserve some credit for doing the right thing, however long it might have taken them.

So by all means remember Powell as a war criminal, but as one who, unlike his principals, went some way towards admitting his guilt. And by all means treat News Corp as an international criminal conspiracy, but also celebrate the fact (as Guy Rundle suggests the other day) that at least sometimes it can be pushed into doing the right thing, in the hope that others may follow suit.


2 thoughts on “Do recantations matter?

  1. I could go on at length expressing attitudes very similar to yours but in my own words; but I’ll limit myself to observing that I am largely in agreement with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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