Why Won't You Apologize?
by Stephen Cox | Posted June 02, 2011
Apologize! Apologize! Partake in America’s national pastime.
The other day I went on Google News and got 13,803 hits for “apology” and 11,696 for “apologize.”
Apologizing has become the nation’s leading means of social therapy. Are you a professional athlete who, wonder of wonders, used a racist or sexist word? You must apologize. Are you a politician who “betrayed” his mate? You must apologize. Are you a businessman who made a silly personnel decision? Hurry up and apologize.
It’s become a social ritual. There are even websites — many of them — devoted to telling you how to apologize, offering letters you can use to make yourself sound original and sincere.
Apologizing has become another one of those secular occupations that have taken the place of religious rituals. My local greeting card dispenser devotes as much space to apology cards as it does to thank-you and I-miss-you cards, and much more than it gives to Easter, Thanksgiving, confirmation, bar mitzvah, first communion, and sympathy cards, combined.
Apologizing is not a feature of my own religion. My idea is this: If you want to apologize, you should do it as Bette Davis does in Old Acquaintance (1943). She’s finally had enough of her old friend Miriam Hopkins, so she turns, strides across the room, and grabs Hopkins by the neck. She shakes her and throws her down. Then she smiles and says, “Sorry.” Now that’s an apology.
Confession, the proverb says, is good for the soul. But modern American apology is different. It’s not about the harm that the culprit did to his soul, or to any specific other person’s soul; it’s about the grievous harm he is thought to have inflicted on the soulless body politic. The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock (at least one child), he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans, and the inhabitants of any distant planets who can monitor news broadcasts from the earth.
I deny that assumption. Arnold was the governor of my state, but his sex conduct had no moral or emotional effect on me, and my forgiveness, or lack of forgiveness, will have no effect on him, either.
Well, but what about his ludicrous performance as governor? That did indeed affect me. Nevertheless, I have no interest in his apology for that form of bad conduct, even if he were inclined to give it, which he isn’t. If he feels bad about his political career — which I’m sure he doesn’t, but suppose he suddenly read a book and discovered how wrong his ideas about government actually were — I’d appreciate his saying that his course was incorrect, and other politicians shouldn’t follow it. But again, that’s something different from an apology.
The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock, he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans.
An apology is a personal matter. It solicits a personal response. Individual people can accept an apology or reject it. In either case, it’s an attempt to restore a one-on-one relationship. But that’s not what the current swarm of media apologies attempts to do. These statements try to preserve contracts, jobs, political positions, media respect — all things that I, as an individual, am unable to offer a repentant sinner.
One of the bad characteristics I had as a child was the tendency to demand apologies when I felt aggrieved. I remember an episode — in second grade, perhaps — in which another kid (Mike Thomson) borrowed my pencil and broke it, and I kept trying to make him apologize. Reflecting on my childhood conduct on such occasions gives me irresistible reasons for believing in original sin. In adulthood, however, I did my best to reform. Yes, I’ve had relapses, because self-righteousness never sleeps, but I’ve come to associate demands for apology with childishness of the most annoying kind.
And public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them. They are most annoying to me when it is I myself who is alleged to be apologizing. I refer to the increasingly numerous episodes of national and other big-group apologies for historical wrongs. If you are a spokesman for a government or an ethnic group or some religious consortium and feel like apologizing for what the group you claim to represent allegedly did to harm some other group . . . I beg you, do it in your own name solely — and see how you sound. Go tell the American Indians that you apologize because you took their land. Say, “I am sorry. I took your land.” You’ll look pretty funny when they make the obvious response, “So then, give it back.”
Just don’t imagine that you’re apologizing on my behalf, or that of the millions of other people with whom you have illegitimately associated yourself — “Americans” or “Christians” or “white people” or whomever. If you’re apologizing for everyone in such a group . . . well, I suppose you’re apologizing for everyone in the group. But although you may want to include me in the mix, forget it; I wasn’t around. I didn’t take anybody’s land, and I have no intention of apologizing as if I had. Neither do I have any intention of lobbying any group of American Indians to apologize for massacring my family in the Wyoming Valley in the 18th century. The idea of requesting anyone in the 21st century to do such a thing is almost literally insane.
There’s another angle to this. Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying, “Apology is only egotism wrong side out.” Demands for apology let the supposed culprit know that you really care what he says, that you are pining to hear his golden words of self-reproach, that your own spiritual well-being depends upon his repentance or announced repentance. When Jimmy Swaggart wowed his television audience by shrieking hysterically, “I have sinned! I have sinned against thee, my God!”, don’t you suppose that the showman in Swaggart was more gratified than abashed?
Public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them.
In one respect at least, modern Americans are like 19th-century gentlemen: they have a code duello, and a self-dramatizing one. The slightest public slip, insignificant in itself, is thought to demand an apology, which must be instantly delivered to the (non?)injured parties. If an apology is not immediately forthcoming, the offender — now spotlighted in the national media — must fight it out with public opinion. In this combat, he has no more than a 50-50 chance of success. Yet to people whose lives are empty of drama, this too can be a gratifying experience, especially if the accused first delays, then finally succumbs to the warm flow of blather and issues an apology. The more cynical among the accused understand that if you first decline comment, then agree to meet the public at dawn (in some kind of press conference, undoubtedly), you can still fire your pistol apologetically into the air. Then the public will do the same, and you will emerge with your income and reputation not only intact but also, quite possibly, enhanced. In the sub-immortal words of Bill O’Reilly, you will have “stepped up to the plate,” and been richly rewarded for it.
So that’s what the media flacks now advise every prominent sinner to do: whether you think you did anything wrong or not, apologize, and all will be well. That’s why Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assuredly never thought he did anything wrong in his life, promptly issued a public apology for anything and everything having to do with his separation from his wife. That’s why an even dopier egotist, MSNBC’s “political commentator” Ed Schultz, couldn’t rest until he’d told everyone who would listen how wrong he was for calling Laura Ingraham a “rightwing slut”:
"I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for and I recognize the severity of what I said. I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness."
Finally Ingraham “accepted his apology,” whatever the metaphysical status of that concept may be. And so? So nothing. Yes, the remark was outrageous. Yes, it was stupid. Yes, it reflected all sorts of double standards and invidious stereotypes, political and sexual. But really, who cares? The only result of the episode was to provide Ed Schultz, a miserable nonentity, with a slender proof of his existence. Previously, he was unknown to fame. Now he has been noticed. If his appearance in this column prolongs his name recognition in any way, perhaps I should apologize as well.
Nevertheless, I won’t deny that apologies can be entertaining. Everyone has his favorite smarmy, hypocritical apologer. My favorite over the past few months, which have been rich in apologetical remarks, is Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Jackson — a chronic publicity hog, always being nominated by himself for high political office — spent 2010 hiding out. Why? The first problem was accusations of an extra-marital affair. The second problem was the Rod Blagojevich scandal. As an Associated Press story put it – delicately, delicately, as the Wicked Witch used to say – “he [Jackson] has repeatedly denied interview requests since 2008, when Blagojevich was charged with trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.” During the last election campaign, Jackson hardly appeared in his district. Alone among politicians, he didn’t stage an election-night party.
Why? His attempt at apology hadn’t done the job with his media constituents. And why should it? As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times (Sept. 21, 2010), the apology ran as follows:
“I know I have disappointed some supporters and for that I am deeply sorry. But I remain committed to serving my constituents and fighting on their behalf.”
These remarks Jackson combined with statements appearing to deny any political misconduct, labeling all the political charges “not new,” and asking for “privacy” in regard to his relations with his wife and “a social acquaintance.”
But that wasn’t a real apology, so Jackson was more or less booed off the stage. Then, on Christmas Day (when else?), he staged Apology, Part 2. He tried to creep back into the limelight by making an appearance (a double bill with his mountebank father, also in disgrace but still the top bill in the family carnival) at an appropriate location, a prison boot camp. Here JJJ gave what was called a “charismatic” address.
To St. Paul, falling short was a cause of shame. To Jesse Jackson, Jr., it was a reason why you should vote for him.
He spoke (down to) the boot camp convicts on the topic of how “everybody's falling short of the glory of God.” St. Paul said that, or something like that, though to less “charismatic” effect. To the great apostle, falling short was a cause of shame. To Triple J, it was a reason why you should vote for him. The congressman has an habitual inclination, common among our politicians, to use his debts as collateral for new mortgages on power.
"Every one of us,” he said, “has erred in their [sic] personal lives and while I don't claim to be a perfect servant, I'm a public servant. Often times we carry with us the burdens of our personal shortcomings even as we struggle to articulate and clarify a message that helps other people. That [is] what I dedicated my life to."
Ya gotta luv this stuff. Jackson never specified any of his errors. But he roped the rest of us into them: “Everybody’s falling short . . . Every one of us has erred.”
I can’t deny it. But my errors don’t justify my election to Congress. They have precisely nothing to do with any attempt I might make to “articulate and clarify a message.” And the fact that I might have dedicated my life to something (which, by the way, I haven’t, but let’s give the congressman the benefit of the doubt concerning that night, sometime in the distant past, when, according to the picture we are supposed to form in our minds, he knelt in prayer, consecrating his life to the service of various unspecified but assuredly noble aspirations) means absolutely nothing about my success or failure in “serving” that cause.
It’s hard to get more repulsive than Jesse Jackson, Jr.
But look. If you’re caught sinning, you should behave in the old-fashioned way. Either lay it out or brazen it out. Be like Pericles, who when questioned about how he’d spent the people’s money, haughtily replied, “Expended as required.” Or be like John Bunyan (the greatest master of the colloquial English language) who won people’s hearts by writing a confessional entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Meaning himself. But don’t simultaneously apologize and deny. If Bunyan and Pericles are the mountains, Triple J is the swamp, the perfect representative of the Creepy Style in modern American politics.
But now I must revert to the inevitable topic of this month’s column — the apology demanded of “Bible teacher” Harold Camping for his failed prediction that the Judgment and the Rapture would happen on May 21. Liberty readers know that I have been following the Camping story for a long time, so naturally I was interested to see what would happen when the prophecy failed. I was expecting the failure to get some media attention, but I was not prepared for it to become one of the largest news stories of the year. Nor was I fully prepared to see the media’s intense interest in whether Mr. Camping would apologize. “Will he die of shame?” seemed to me a normal question, but that was rarely heard. What we did hear was, “Will he apologize?” — quickly succeeded, as such questions usually are, by, “When will he apologize?”
On May 24, Camping held a peculiar on-air press conference. He began by reciting, at vast and lugubrious length, his peculiar theological conceptions, ideas that very few reporters could make head or tail of. Indeed, it takes some study to do so, but see my article in the December Liberty. But so what? When Camping finally allowed interruptions, the simple demand was, “Will you apologize?” His response was cheerful. “If people want me to apologize, I can apologize. Yes, I didn’t have all that as accurately worked out as I could have. . . . I’m not a genius. . . . Yes, I was wrong; I’ve said that several times tonight. It’s to be understood spiritually, not physically. . . . The world is now under judgment as it wasn’t before May 21. . . . There’s a big difference, though you can’t see it.”
In other words, sure, I’ll play your silly game, so long as you don’t expect me to believe that it matters. I’m tempted to sympathize with Camping on the apology business — though so far I haven’t given in to the temptation.
But having written the above, I need to mention something that you may think I should apologize for. On May 23, I wrote the following: “My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.”
That prophecy of mine was disconfirmed. Despite plentiful evidence that most people at Camping’s org, Family Radio, wish that he would go away, its board of directors has, so far, declined to make him do so. The FR website has been purged of almost all his end-time materials, but he is still on the air, Monday through Friday, proclaiming that what he predicted would happen on May 21 will actually happen on October 21. There is more to this story, which I will explore in detail, as it unfolds. But the fact is, I was wrong.
Do not, however, regard this as an apology. I don’t feel bad at all.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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