"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 October 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Who's Sorry Now?


[frequently asked question: what would you do if you won the lottery?]

What's the shelf life of an



When a 9-year-old mea culpa,

scribbled in a moment of

self-doubt by the free world's

most renowned milquetoast,

becomes an event worthy of the

rapt attention of journalists,

biographers, and historians

alike, one begins to wonder. Our

own recent brush with penitence

aside, it seems as if the longer

one waits to eat crow these

days, the tastier one's Q-rating

is likely to become.


Even a short list of the recent

belatedly sorry includes the

French, the Catholics, the French

Catholics, South Africans,

the Japanese, the Germans,

and the British.

It seems like every

major power is sorry for

something - except maybe the

Canadians, who are just plain



Not that the trend has gone

unnoticed. Walter Shapiro, John Leo,

and the National Review, to name but a

few, have all recently bestowed

upon us dozens of glib aphorisms

about atonement. In denouncing

contrition chic, however, what

their dim-bulb elucidations

leave out is that apologies are

not, first and foremost, about

being sorry.


Instead, apologies are fictions,

fairytales, self-validating

narratives addressed to others

regarding our identity and

relationships. The Apology, for

example, was no apology at all,

but rather merely the transcript

of Socrates' closing arguments.

This text, in turn, became the

model for religious apologetic

literature, testimonies of faith

and belief cunningly voiced in

the language of rational

argument. Though occasionally

penned in response to negative

criticism (cf. Josephus, Moses

Mendelssohn), religious

apologetics are mostly useful

for enforcing orthodoxy among

the faithful (cf. TV Guide, the

editorial page of The Wall

Street Journal).


[my twist: what would you do the very next day, just that itty bitty 24hours?]

All of which is in perfect

accord with the work of

contemporary sociologists and

linguists, who believe apologies

are mostly about restoring

social order and policing

membership within moral

communities. Think about it -

when was the last time you

personally refused an apology?

Probably never: In a 1994 study

published in the Journal of

Social Psychology, it was

determined that "the likelihood

that an apology will be rejected

is remarkably small, even when

there is considerable

provocation ... and even [when]

the typical social consequences

of rejecting an apology are



In an era when 51 of the 100

largest economies are

multinational conglomerates,

it's interesting that

communications theorists have

turned their attention to the

corporate apology as well.

Scholars have found that

rhetorical strategies used in

apologies made by corporations

(Dow Chemical, Exxon, DuPont -

you know, the usual gang of

idiots) were almost exclusively

intended as part of a larger,

never-ending campaign of

image-making. Plus, as Keith M.

Hearit has noted, corporations

almost always couch their

apologies in the language of

"technological restoration" and

"managerial rationality," two

myths at the very foundation of

business culture's legitimacy.


[it's okay, be selfish, buy yourself that shadow black corvette, call the caterer to arrange a tasting for your party - yes, that night!]

And it's not just apologies that

can give one good odor. Almost

any kind of post-event

candidness can turn slimelight

into limelight. Witness the

tobacco titans: By settling

class action suits right and

left in the US, they indemnify

themselves and can thereby

concentrate on foreign markets.

Likewise the gun manufacturers,

who, by getting out in front of

a problem they could have solved

years ago with a few bucks worth

of plastic, get applauded by

President Clinton in the Rose



Lest we forget, the element of

egregious delay is important,

too, since there develops over

time an almost erotic tension

between offender and offended.

When the Pope, for example,

apologized for the Spanish

Inquisition after 500 years, he

was hailed as a peacemaker. He

also gets to bask in the

knowledge that, by driving a

certain Sephardic Jew named

Christopher Columbus out of the

country, he gave rise to the

greatest bunch of alibi addicts

the world has ever known. Give

the Church another 500 years,

and maybe they'll apologize for

that, too.


Delaying one's beg-your-pardons

doesn't work in all cases - only

the most appalling ones. In

fact, the more ghastly the

crime, the better. If a certain

lugubrious TV critic, for

example, were to come forward

and say, "I'm sorry I ever

thought Alien Nation was a good

show," we would surely be

relieved, but also largely

unmoved. If Pauly Shore, on the

other hand, were to apologize

for Bio-Dome, he'd be swimming

in guest shots and movie cameos

for the rest of his life.


[it's a good thing to be prepared for this kind of miracle, so take the next 10 minutes and make a list. if you really do this, i'd love to see what other greedy people out there would do with all their millions...heh heh heh!]

In a September New York Times

Magazine piece intended to hype

his quasi-historical novel

Underworld, Don DeLillo wrote,

"The novel is the dream release,

the suspension of reality that

history needs to escape its own

brutal confinements." Can anyone

except a novelist believe this

anymore? History is not brutally

confined at all. Far from it:

Historical truth is now

eternally on the lam from a

nation of apologists, spin

doctors, and data massagers.


Like Reagan - that modern master

of post-event candidness who is

now both the same, yet also

different, from the forgetful

man he was in office - we

sleepwalk through history and

let others tell us how it was

later, or rather how it wasn't.

Fifty years hence, the

newspapers we read today will be

worthless, merely dumpsters full

of apologies for historical

truths they are now failing to



As for our position in the

matter, we're hardly blameless.

In fact, we're sorry we even

brought it up.

courtesy of LeTeXan

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