Even as the rest of Washington debated why the grave robbers of AIG should continue to profit from the carnage they helped cause, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, tended to the mob: He’d feel a little better, he said, if AIG’s executives would “follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide.” Grassley’s spokesman later clarified that he was just “speaking rhetorically” as far as the suicide part went.
I’d settle for a pageant of public shaming, in which the scoundrels must beg forgiveness and make amends; we’d claw back those bonuses, foreclose on their castles, auction their toys, watch the once mighty prowl a grocery aisle calculating whether they can afford the big box of cereal that is a better deal but ties up more capital. It might appease our restless animal spirits for a time; biologists have found that receiving an apology affects blood chemistry, slows the heart rate and calms our breathing all much needed at a moment of national fibrillation. Chimpanzees apologize, or at least perform “reconciliation protocols.” How hard can this be
Plenty hard, it seems, since somewhere in the course of our fin de siècle excess, we corrupted the culture of contrition as well. Public apologies now play like vaudeville: the extravagant remorse of disgraced televangelists, the snarled “I’m sorry” of celebrities who exude regret at being caught rather than being wrong, the artful admissions of politicians who want credit for their confessions without any actual cost. We’ve learned to peel them apart with tweezers, find the insincerity and self-interest: If I caused any offense , I regret it. And so apologies are drained of their healing powers.
“A stiff apology is a second insult,” G.K. Chesterton argued, and a coerced one already trades at a discount, repentance offered only in exchange for immunity from further prosecution. This winter we got to watch A-Rod explain his doping and Michael Phelps explain that bong and various presidential appointees account for their tax returns and Republican Party chair Michael Steele beg Rush Limbaugh’s forgiveness for telling the truth. Even the Pope, who forgives people for a living, has been having trouble: he had to apologize for ever accepting the lame nonapology of an excommunicated bishop who declared that “there was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers it was all lies, lies, lies.” The bishop was entirely willing to regret that people were offended by his arguments, just not that he had made them.
See pictures of the stock market crash of 1929.