"I'm sick of apologies!"
That was the late night lament of a woman I knew who had the misfortune of being married to an old friend of mine. My old friend was an incorrigible drunk. He made his wife's life miserable.
Lately those words have haunted me: I'm sick of apologies.
Sick, that is, of the reeling drunk our society seems to have become. Recently, in the space of a few days, we were subject to public apologies for various forms of egregious behavior by a congressman, an athlete and an entertainer. The fact that none of these individuals seemed truly contrite, only compounded their offenses.
I just wanted them to shut up.
But such apologies have become rituals. Whether sincere or not, we expect them. Public relations handlers everywhere will urge their wayward clients to say they are sorry for whatever they've done quickly and plainly. If need be, these flacks will write the words for their clients to recite -- that's why flacks make the big bucks.
Like a wire fence that's strung up in a blizzard to hold back drifting snow, the public apology seems to be the last line of defense for what people with a penchant for wearing bowties like to call our "civil society." Others scoff at this, claiming that our wild west roots have always made American public life a kind of brawl. As far as they're concerned, packing heat to a presidential appearance is just another way of saying freedom of speech.
But our apology rituals appear to have less to do with being sorry than with spin.
Congressman Joe Wilson quickly complied when his Republican betters told him to apologize to President Obama for yelling out "You lie!" during Obama's health care speech before a joint session of Congress. But Wilson rejected a demand to apologize on the floor of the House. He didn't want his contrition to appear too sincere, given that his outburst netted him over a million dollars in contributions for his next campaign.
The MTV Awards have all the artistic relevance of a hot dog eating contest. But Kanye West managed to make this celebrity event newsworthy by acting like the cousin who forgets to take his meds, jumps up on the table at Thanksgiving dinner and proclaims that pilgrims were turkey murderers when he stomped on Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, declaring that Beyonce should have gotten the prize. Jay Leno must have been thrilled. West would make his most visible apology on Leno's primetime debut the following night, thereby setting himself up as leading contender to be his generation's Sammy Davis, Jr.
Tennis star Serena Williams lost her U.S. Open Singles match when, upon being called for a foot fault, she threatened to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge. Serena was pissed. She was still pissed when, through clenched teeth, she delivered the first of what turned out to be at least three apologies. But like Michael Phelps earlier this year, whose transgression involved not anger, but its opposite he being photographed in the act of inhaling a bongful of THC-laden smoke Serena was surely reminded that the real name of the game in sports is endorsements. Keeping those lucrative contracts means always having to say you're sorry.
It used to be that our public figures waited until much later in life to deliver their mea culpas. They did their dirty deeds and went on about their business until they were too old to hate and it was too late to do anything about what they'd done. Robert McNamara comes to mind. There he was, decades after the fact, saying Vietnam was a (big) mistake. Admiral Hyman Rickover was the architect of America's nuclear-powered Navy and one of this country's greatest advocates for the use of nuclear energy. But, toward the end of his life, he told Jimmy Carter that he would have foresworn nuclear energy altogether if that would have allowed us to live without nuclear weapons. Now you tell us!
I think our current practice of ritual apology is something I can live without. If Joe Wilson or Kanye West or Serena Williams behave like jerks, let them be themselves. As Allen Ginsberg used to say, "first thought, best thought." If, for people like Wilson, West and Williams, the first thought rings a bell on the moronometer, that's not necessarily a bad thing. When President H.W. Bush referred to some of his grandchildren as "brown ones," he was forced to publicly apologize. But we also learned something about the man that we didn't know before. Why run the risk of inhibiting such boneheadedness, er, candor?
For those who long for a more civil society, one thing should be clear: Ritualistic apologies have not only failed to prevent bad behavior, by prolonging the news cycles that cling to such incidents like deer ticks to a warm haunch, they may actually encourage it.
Sick of his apologies, my friend's wife finally walked out on him, never to return. We all had to admit it was the smartest thing she ever did.