The Case Against Apology
Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2011 at 1:31pm
We're into an orgy of sin and confession right now that brings to mind the old Stalinist show trials of the 1930s and the culture of confession practiced by the Chinese government since the days of Mao Tse-tung.
The dance is formal and almost totally devoid of its purported purpose and meaning. In private life, an apology is offered, in the words of dictionary.com, as "a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another." The apology is then accepted in most cases. Only in the most diseased of relationships, or in certain well-established religions, is there a repetitive ceremony of sin, apology and retribution. But even God accepts those forms of apology.
We don't. In virtually every case, the form of apology required of errant public figures is not accepted, is, in fact, punished, much in the same way that Uncle Joe Stalin or Chairman Mao -- or that other Joe, McCarthy -- dealt with those who were hauled up before the bench and brought to their knees. Your apology is noted. You are not forgiven. Your admission is the first step, but certainly not the last, of your punishment.
Yesterday's news brought us two highly public apologies. The first, of course, was from Anthony Weiner, who is front page news on all three major New York dailies this morning and the Wall Street Journal as well. The Times has him above the fold, taking up about 25% of that space. Naturally, he is weeping. The Post has another funny-punny headline. The Daily News calls him a "schmuck." The WSJ has a series of crying Weiner pics. USA Today has him front and center as well. Do you know why he is on all these papers? Why they have the grist to feed their mill?
Because he publicly apologized, and did so at a stupid press conference. Who is this guy listening to? He not only gave the machine what it needed to write about -- he gave it visuals as well! Tasty, emotional pictures, with tears yet. In short, he provided the centerpiece for the ongoing ritual. Now there will be an investigation. He will be found guilty of something. And he will be executed, just the way that miscreants were disposed of in Stalinist Russia, Communist China or paranoid 1950s America.
At the same time, a lesser apology plus a clarification emitted from Sarah Palin's busy rectification machine. Ms. Palin 1) apologized for hogging the limelight that was due to Mitt Romney when he announced his candidacy and 2) clarified her weird interpretation of Paul Revere's ride, which seemed to imply that our greatest patriot was sort of a spy for the British, informing them that the colonists knew of their activities. I know one thing. Nobody who has formed a definitive perception of Ms. Palin -- positive or negative -- cares about her apology or her clarification. Her supporters are already trying to hijack Wikipedia to change the entry on Mr. Revere. And her detractors? They don't need any more information. But Palin, like Weiner, went on the air, apologized, clarified, abased themselves, did the dance around the tribal fire. And now if you Google either, all the top hits you get, and will get for years to come, focus on that.
If either or both had, contrariwise, refused to take part? Issued a simple statement? Appeared calmly in public afterwards with a quiet, "asked and answered, ladies and gentlemen, let's move on"? There would be no dramatic pictures. The parade would be moving on to the next gaffe, the next cultural criminal, the next horny dude with a rocket in his pocket, the next poor drunken famous slob pulled over by the California Highway Patrol.
So hey. I'm talking to you. You famous person now going about your business being stupid or venal or immoral or injudicious or criminal, even. When you get caught and the big, voracious media death star starts howling for your apology... stop. Think. Consider the alternatives, ones that might just throw a wrench into the workings of the machine. Because no matter how sincere, how dramatic, or how small or personal your slight -- your apology will not be accepted, and will only provide the preamble to your ongoing destruction.
That's the way it is, I'm afraid. I wish I could say I was sorry.