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America The Apologetic
Should our leaders say they’re sorry about slavery? About Indians? About their personal behavior? Such questions are hardly new; public contrition has been a national preoccupation for centuries.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Americans are a practical people. What should an apology accomplish? “I say that our need is new life,” declared Chapman in Coatesville, “and that books and resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, hope, virtue which surround us always, to enter into us.” But most people would prefer resolutions to do something concrete. “The question is where shall we go from here,” said Jesse Jackson during the President’s African trip. “Without a plan for building buildings, education,” and other policies, “one will have missed the point.” Politicians will argue about the Reverend Jackson’s to-do list. If it is a good one, then it should be done anyway, with or without accompanying contrition.
Appropriately enough for such a moral topic, there is a question about the morality of blaming. For that is what the corporate apology always involves. The spokesman who delivers it usually implicates—and thus, speaks for—himself. But he also calls all his fellows in wrongdoing to account. Lincoln, surprisingly, remembered this in his Second Inaugural. Both sides in the war “read the same Bible and pray to the same God. . . . It may seem strange,” he went on, “that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Then the quiet kicker. “But let us judge not that we be not judged.” In the most sweeping act of prostration and condemnation in American history, Lincoln embedded the reminder that no man can know everything. Those who humble themselves may have to learn a further lesson in humility.
The main purpose of apologies is moral and religious, and their main beneficiary is the person who makes them. They do not repair the deeds that provoke them, or their effects. They cannot change the past, and they cannot by themselves change the present. They put the apologizer—whether he is the wrongdoer or some remote associate—in a better frame of mind with himself and, if he is a believer, with his Deity. The process runs the risk of moral self-indulgence and smugness. But it can also, by reasserting buried truths, untangle an old life and allow, as Chapman said, a new life, and its new duties, to begin.