Our Leaders Show They’re a Sorry Lot

I’m sorry to say this, but I’ve had it with meaningless public apologies.

The latest, as you may have read (forgive me if I’m telling you something you already know), comes from Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper, the Hartford Courant . The Courant has apologized for running advertisements offering a $5 reward for the return of escaped slaves. The ad ran in 1810.

These kinds of apologies are very au courant these days. (Sorry about the play on words.) The pope has apologized for the sins committed in the name of Christianity. Tony Blair has apologized to the Irish for Britain’s let-them-eat-grass policy during the potato failures from 1845 to 1851. And, like the Italian regiments in North Africa who sought high and low to find somebody to accept their surrender, Bill Clinton has scoured the landscape in search of aggrieved parties to whom he might apologize on behalf of the nation. (The reference to the Italian soldiers who surrendered in record numbers to the Allies in 1943 should not be construed as an attack on the courage of any or all Italians, or Italian-Americans, or transethnic Italians. I’m sorry if the reference has offended any readers.)

Following the example of such luminaries as the Holy Father and the King’s first minister and America’s chief executive, other politicians and institutions are getting on their knees to beg forgiveness. Last winter, 100,000 residents of Washington, D.C., received a taped message of apology from their mayor, Anthony Williams, who said he was sorry for the district’s rotten snow-removal and sanitation services. There’s a Web site soliciting apologies from white South Africans willing to say they’re sorry about apartheid. And more apologies may be on the way: In a case of apology envy, some white South Africans are asking the sorrowful Mr. Blair to apologize for British outrages committed during the Boer War. And one does not need to be an earnest, mushy-hearted New Laborite or New Democrat to believe that history means having to say you’re sorry. Some months ago, hardheaded Pat Buchanan demanded that the United States apologize to Russia for its support for NATO expansion into Central Europe.

Apologies may well soothe the resentful breast, and some may even help in what some folks call the “closure” process. (Most of the acts for which governments and their leaders apologize defy such psychobabble. There cannot and should never be “closure” for such monstrous crimes as slavery and the Holocaust-they are cases in human cruelty that ought to be forever open, so that new generations may examine them.) Germany’s apology for the slaughter of European Jews was welcome not because it made survivors and relatives feel better about their loss (how could it?), but because it acknowledged the country’s guilt. The pope’s apology was important because it was unprecedented, shattering the church’s long silence on the evils, large and small, carried out under the guise of faith.

But an apology for a nearly 200-year-old classified ad, however loathsome the content, does seem to take the culture of sorrow to the point of unintended parody. One wonders where this might lead. Will the current proprietors of Harper’s Magazine , descended from Harper’s Weekly , apologize for the bigoted, anti-immigrant drawings of the unjustifiably celebrated Thomas Nast? Will today’s tabloids, in some as-yet-unimaginable future when testosterone is declared a controlled substance, have to apologize for those lusty ads in their sports pages-you know, the ones featuring the likes of the legendary lap dancer Dixie Deecup? Will all the newspapers that advocated American neutrality while Britain battled the Nazis in 1940 apologize for their terrible judgment? Will conservative periodicals express their sorrow for encouraging Joseph McCarthy? Will those on the left apologize for not condemning Stalin?

As any parent knows, apologies mean nothing if they are unaccompanied by deeds. Bill Clinton apologized for America’s role in overthrowing Hawaii’s last monarch-does that mean an end to American meddling in the internal affairs of foreign nations? Tony Blair may indeed be sorry about how the Irish were treated in 1850-but how is New Labor Britain treating its own poor and hungry today? The West collectively is sorry about what happened to European Jewry during World War II-but genocide remains a growth industry.

If politicians and entire nations are going to continue to issue periodic apologies, let them at least feel sorry about wrongs that have not yet been righted, lest it be said that the latest refuge of the scoundrel is personal sorrow. New York owes a generation of foster children an apology for its egregious handling of its most fragile young citizens. The administrators of justice should apologize to the innocents who have wasted away in prison while politicians preened about their toughness.

And, with any luck, one of these days City Hall will issue a public apology to the family of Patrick Dorismond.

Our Leaders Show They’re a Sorry Lot