For a Guilty Nation, Docu-Satire My Bad Profoundly Scorches

Could it be that the public apology has become the iconic new literary art form of our times? With an aesthetic and a taxonomy and a subtle rhetoric all its own? This is the thought that occurred to me while reading a sneakily profound new book called My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them, by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin.

I say “sneakily” profound because the Slansky/Sorkin opus partakes of the sneaky new satirical art form that Paul Slansky has invented over the years in his “quizzes” about the hard-to-believe, obscure, bizarre and blundering statements of Nixon, Reagan, Bush and other ripe targets among public figures. Coming upon one of Mr. Slansky’s “Quizzes” in The New Yorker and other venues is one of the rare pure comic-satiric pleasures to be found in contemporary periodicals.

Mr. Slansky, who has been called “a documentary satirist,” has made an art out of scouring public, mostly political, utterances for emblematic instances of verbal misdeeds, misspeaks and mystifications, the more bizarre the better, all of which deserve more than their 15 seconds of ridicule. Because such emblematic idiocies, documented with the attentiveness of Mr. Slansky’s deceptively simple quiz form, become compressed verbal embodiments of our misbegotten times.

But Mr. Slansky does more than document; he possesses, like the great satirists, a Swiftian disgust at human folly. He is still capable, one senses, of being outraged at pure stupidity. Long after many inured themselves to Nixon and Poppy Bush’s pronouncements, say, Mr. Slansky, one felt, was constantly slapping his forehead and saying, “Can you fucking believe this guy!”

I remember running into him at a party a while ago and discussing our mutual fascination with Nixon. Where mine had mutated into a “He’s a great representative of the dark side of the American character” mode, Mr. Slansky had preserved the pure flame of righteous wrath at every new White House tape revelation. And I admired him for it.

Another thing about Mr. Slansky: He respects your intelligence. He doesn’t feel he has to spell everything out, connect the dots for you, jab you in the elbow and say, “See the relatedness of it all.” (That’s my job.) He just lets his quotations lie resplendently (in both senses of the word “lie”) on the page and allows the attentive reader to savor their many-layered meretriciousness. (See his books The Clothes Have No Emperor and The George W. Bush Quiz Book.)

Comes now Mr. Slansky (and Ms. Sorkin) to the public apology—a natural progression, in a way. Where once he would make multiple-choice quizzes out of various instances of verbal infamy (the answer to many of his multiple-choice quiz questions was “All of the above”), now he’s focusing on the language we use to apologize for the language we use or the behavior we “regret,” as well as the mendacious way we ask (and grant) forgiveness. And what a big fat lie it all is.

In My Bad, he and Sorkin move beyond satire to the realm of moral philosophy. (Although you could argue great satire is a form of moral philosophy.) Moral philosophy that asks such questions as:

Are there any deeds that are unforgivable? Does a verbal apology—an expression of “heartfelt regret to those I may have hurt,” a formulaic verbal act of contrition to “anyone I might have offended”—wipe the slate clean? Is there any way of judging the “sincerity” of such ritual and convenient and job-saving formulae? How much does it matter if the apology is unforced or forced (only given because caught)? When it comes down to it: Are words enough?

Should shame last beyond the press conference? Do we believe in shame at all, or rather syndromes, diseases, addictions of the sort that rehab rather than real consequences will redress? Does promiscuously granted forgiveness encourage bad behavior if the only consequence suffered is uttering a verbal formula? But what’s the alternative: a return to the public stocks, tarring and feathering?

So every example of the hundreds of public apologies in My Bad poses a question in moral philosophy. Some people evidently need for its subtexts to be spelled out for them, so let me start spelling.

First, just so you get a sense of the book: It takes the form of boldfaced (not just typographically) apologetic statements followed by a description of the offense apologized for.

To take one of the less famous examples of the sort that Mr. Slansky is famous for ferreting out:

“‘The comment was not meant to be a regional slur. To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one, I apologize.’“

“Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor apologizing for referring to potential jurors in the eastern Kentucky mountains as ‘illiterate cave dwellers.’”

It’s an extreme example, but it embodies the shamelessness of public-apology discourse: It doesn’t matter if it’s virtually impossible to believe the veracity or sincerity as long as you use the right words. And the right words these days are the ones that find a way of throwing the blame back at the beholder. Those who “misinterpret.” Those who are over-sensitive. “If I hurt the feelings of anyone … I apologize.” In other words, if you’re a crybaby about stuff, I feel sorry for you, but here’s your apology, wimp.

“‘I wish to again express my apologies to those who have been impacted by my inappropriate conduct.’”

“New Hampshire judge Franklin Jones apologizing in his resignation letter for groping five women at a conference focusing on sexual assault.”

Note the artful rhetorical device: using the passive voice and objectifying the “conduct.” He’s not apologizing to those he himself hurt, but to those who were “impacted” by his conduct (an objectified entity distanced from his self).

Of course, some confessions cannot be saved by artfulness. Any public apology that begins with “Let me say once again, for everyone to hear, I despise Hitler and everything he stood for … ” is really going up against tough odds.

That was, by the way, “Ralph Engelstad, owner of the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, apologizing for conducting two parties celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday …. ”

One revealing reminder in My Bad is the way it documents the persistence of casual racism and bigotry in the supposedly civilized suites of corporate America:

“‘The editors of Focus magazine apologize to our readers and, in particular, to people of color for an illustration that perpetuates racial stereotypes.’“

“AT&T apologizing via e-mail to recipients of the corporation’s in-house magazine, which featured a cartoon showing the world with callers on various continents talking on their phones, all human except for the African caller, depicted as an ape.”

But some of the racial apologies raise interesting questions:

“‘It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil-rights movement. We regret the omission.’”

Yes, it’s unfortunately worded (“It has come to the … attention,” as if the editor only just noticed it). Yet isn’t some apology, however inadequate, some gesture of contrition, at least in some small way better than nothing? I remember a few years ago, when an argument broke out whether the U.S. President and Congress should apologize for slavery and racism, thinking: “If it’s not a substitute for a substantive commitment to justice, how could anyone oppose such a resolution?” So might we cut the good intentions of the Herald-Leader’s editor some slack?

Compare that, for instance, with the one person who has most conspicuously resisted the ritual of public apology recently: Zacarias Moussaoui, who not only refused to apologize, but publicly gloated over 9/11 and the pain he brought to the survivors and his hopes to inflict more death and pain. It’s more “honest,” yes, but that doesn’t place it on a higher moral plane. The public apology can be the hypocritical tribute vice pays to virtue. Or is it the way vice cons virtue yet again? My Bad raises unexpectedly complicated issues.

Mr. Slansky and Ms. Sorkin posit the notion that we’ve gone around the bend, that the ritual of apology has gone from a rite of purification and self-abnegation, to a rite of self-glorification, a suburb of positive thinking.

In their introduction, they indict “the culture’s willingness to grant … speedy pardons.” What is the source of that readiness and willingness? Isn’t it a good thing to forgive, if not forget? But then you read this example of pleading malice down to unintentionality:

“‘Although I didn’t intend to offend anyone, obviously I did. I can only hope my apology has been accepted.’”

“Lawyer Scott Mitchell apologizing for playing a tape—for the amusement of fellow attendees of a Florida bar convention—on which a sexual assault victim described her attack.”

Notice how he’s compounding the offense in his “apology” by subtly putting the burden of doing the right thing on us. If we were to refuse to accept his apology—refuse to accept it as the absolution he seeks—we are the malefactors, it’s our bad, for our lack of belief in the powers of forgiveness.

If our forgiveness must be automatic, doesn’t it guarantee insincere pleas of remorse? It’s all so complex.

Mr. Slansky and Ms. Sorkin speculate about whether something more than an apology, something more than a rote expression of shame, is required for any kind of absolution. They even suggest the reintroduction of “the humiliation that used to provide the penance part of the whole moral exchange” (my italics). Not a scarlet letter exactly—instead, they imagine a TV show in which the apologists are attacked by a panel “confronting the week’s apologists like misbehaving children, and telling them, like their parents should have, ‘Don’t just say it because you got caught. Convince us that you mean it.’”

But what could they do to convince us? Community service? This is going to be tough. The most “penance” for non-criminal embarrassment and spectacular screw-ups inflicted these days on the worst offenders is a season on The Surreal Life. Celebrity and more celebrity (of sorts) is the reward for that brief ceremony of apology. Ask James Frey.

It all may be too late, but you have to admire Mr. Slansky and Ms. Sorkin for still being angry about it.