Magazine | December 31, 2018, Issue

Apologies to None and All

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2015 (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

A few years back, I began jotting down some of the more curious apologies I ran across in news reports. Though my list was by no means exhaustive, it offered an entertaining sample of some exceptionally unconvincing acts of contrition from around the world.

Only recently I learned of a famous “French DJ” who was forced to publicly apologize “for asking a female soccer star to twerk onstage.” It seemed inauthentic to me. I read that leaders of the Anglican Church of New Zealand had finally said sorry “for a Colonial-era Maori land grab.” I remain unconvinced. According to CNN, organizers at a Christmas event in (what sounds like) the quaint English town of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire, felt impelled to make public apologies after a fire alarm prompted Santa Claus to “burst out of his grotto, rip off his beard, and scream at children to ‘get the f*** out.’”

Let’s be honest, do Cambridgeshire parents really deserve an apology for an event that gives them fodder for every dinner party they’ll ever attend for the rest of their lives? If anything they should be saying thank you.

In any event, while decent people agree that twerking, colonizing, and yelling obscenities at impressionable toddlers is unacceptable behavior, most public atonement has little to do with comforting the slighted or healing historic wounds. Rather, we have been bombarded with acts of counterfeit contrition meant to placate the perpetually offended. In this age of hypersensitivity, everyone is saying sorry for something. And their sorries need plenty of work.

A proper apology, the experts tell us, never includes the word “but.” A proper apology focuses solely on the actions in question and not on the other person’s response. So, for example, “I’m truly sorry that you were insulted by my accurate description of your weird-looking kids” would not be considered appropriate. A proper apology should also never be overdone, lest it seem inauthentic. And a proper apology should always be aimed at the aggrieved and not a bunch of strangers. (That last one is mine.)

These days, apologists are more likely to prostrate themselves for sins against the community than for any personal insult. Take Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, who recently expressed regret for using “crass and offensive” language when accusing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Army veteran and graduate of Harvard Law School, of being a “wannabe dictator’s [insert homophobic slur].”

Now, I will not insert the homophobic slur, because I don’t feel like saying sorry. It’s worth noting, however, that what Brzezinski didn’t do was say sorry to Pompeo. She apologized to the collective “anyone” who might have taken offense at her words — which combines two forms of inauthenticity.

This ritual is, as the kids say, an act of virtue-signaling. After all, why would the collective “anyone” be offended? In fact, it remains somewhat baffling to me why Pompeo — or those who pretend to be slighted on his behalf — would be more distraught by the insinuation that he was gay than by the accusation that he was a pliant fascist. But I guess I’m old-fashioned.

Nothing, though, is more offense to the mob than jokes. When the talented Kevin Hart was recently tapped to host the 2019 Oscars, a USA Today reporter dug up a 2011 tweet wherein the comedian suggested that if he caught his young son playing with a dollhouse he would break the toy over the kid’s head. Initially, Hart refused to apologize, explaining that he was now a 39-year-old man and he had grown and evolved and he would be good. The Academy fired him anyway.

Soon Hart relented, deploying the standard “I’m sorry that I hurt people.” He did not specify which people had been hurt. I hope they feel better now.

As a Jew, I’m constantly collecting apologies from complete strangers. “Valerie Plame Wilson Sorry for Tweet of Anti-Semitic Story,” “Twitter Apologizes for Anti-Semitic Trending Topic,” “Al Jazeera Apologizes for ‘Mistaken’ Anti-Semitic Tweet,” “Internet Star Brother Nature Apologizes after Racist, Anti-Semitic Tweets Resurface,” and “Arizona Senator Apologizes for Teen Son’s Racist, Homophobic, and Anti-Semitic Facebook, Twitter Posts” are just some of the recent examples.

When TV personality Marc Lamont Hill dropped a Hamas-inspired quote in front of the world’s leading anti-Semitic organization, the United Nations, he lost his job at CNN. His subsequent apology column, which harangued the reader for failing to understand Hill’s enlightened view, was a master class of bogus apologetics. After reading it, I felt like I should apologize for finding terrorist slogans repulsive.

In truth, I don’t accept any of their apologies. I’m not really hurt. They’re just not that important in my life. Their apology offers no solace. My acceptance shows no real empathy.

A recent social-science study (that I choose to believe even though it almost surely can’t be replicated) says that forcing apologies from naughty children is a waste of time. Researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development found that spontaneous and prompted but willing apologies made the environment better but coerced ones didn’t make any difference — in fact, they created more bad will.

In America, the public apology is vacuous. It is theater. A performance with a predetermined outcome. It starts with a demand for contrition but seeks no closure, offers no healing, and brings people no closer to mutual understanding. We are merely the audience (or, God forbid, the participants) in a mildly painful self-flagellation.

So, if you like, you can send me a personal apology in the mail. If not, then, as George Costanza might say, “stuff your sorries in a sack.”

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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