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When to Apologize

The fall 2008 edition of the journal In Character examines the topic of forgiveness. In this edition, Theodore Dairymple writes about what he calls the false apology syndrome: today's public figures apologizing for events that occurred in the long distant past. Examples of the false apology syndrome, according to Mr. Dairymple, are Pope John II apologizing to the Muslims for the Crusades, and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizing to the Irish for the famine. (Note: 2008 is the international year of the potato).

Dairymple argues that apologies issued by individuals who did not commit the injury, and who are long removed from the acts and decisions that caused harm, are a perversion. A real apology, he contends, requires self-examination and evolution by an individual who was actually responsible for an action. He contends that expressing shame for these past acts is the correct and precise sentiment and not guilt, which is associated with apology.

It is an interesting argument. An official apology for starving my ancestors doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy. However, expressing shame for a political culture's crimes is indeed appropriate. In fact, it is a more powerful sentiment than saying 'we're sorry', which is hollow when it doesn't cost the speaker anything to say it - we know the spokesperson didn't actually do the misdeed.

In contrast, stating, or even hinting that you are embarrassed or ashamed of your country's past acts can cost the speaker, as recent dust-ups and misunderstandings in this year's presidential election race have illustrated.

With respect to the Presidential race, the manner in which John McCain is running his campaign - the negative ads, his choice of language, the actions and inactions of his running mate - would make most of us feel ashamed were we the candidate. Apparently, Senator McCain has drifted far, far away from the anchors of dignity, honesty, integrity and reality. And I am wary about how low he will sink during the next few weeks, and how hard he will try to pull Americans down with him.

Fortunately, Senator McCain will have time for personal reflection after the campaign and an opportunity to apologize. Which leads me to recall a piece titled Public Apology written by Steve Martin for the New Yorker some years ago. It starts: "Looking out over the East River from my jail cell and still running for public office, I realize that I have taken several actions in my life for which I owe public apologies." For years I have, on various occasions, pulled this piece out of my saved articles pile and read it for a laugh.

The New Yorker doesn't have Mr. Martin's article on-line, but if you go to this link at Amazon and scroll down through the page for his book Pure Drivel, it is reprinted in full.

Check it out. You won't be sorry.




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