The controversy over the jokes told by Michelle Wolf at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the latest skirmish in the Apology War that has been fought in the field of public opinion for decades. A person or institution does something that is taken as objectionable — whether out of bigotry, clumsiness, or attention-seeking is anyone’s guess — and after the swarms of the offended gather, an attempt at walking back the original comment or action is done.
I phrase things there in the passive voice to illustrate the standard formulation of these apologies. Mistakes were made; offense was given; the words were misinterpreted. And then comes the jarring note of action when the regretful party states, “I take responsibility.” Or “I take full responsibility,” on the supposition that modified groveling is the better approach.
What does not get explained is the meaning of responsibility. Perhaps what professional apologizers mean is the original sense of the word, namely responding to something. The stimulus so often is the damage done by valid criticism against a politician or celebrity, and in an attempt to wrap pearls of wisdom around the irritant, the embarrassed person must react. (I must avoid jokes about pearls and swine; I must avoid jokes about pearls and swine…) But the idea of being “accountable for one’s actions” has been in the English language since the 1640s, and that meaning should not be ignored.
This feels too easy, but I am going to use Hillary Clinton as an illustration. Time after time after time, she has uttered the formula, but to what effect? Did she resign immediately? Did she step aside for candidates who were more representative of the best of the Democratic Party? Has she evolved in any way that was not a delayed reaction — or response to, if that is the sense she always means — the winds of polls?
No. The act of public contrition is supposed to be enough. No consequences are to follow, other than allowing her to carry on with the status quo. At least she never tried the Kevin Spacey dodge of publicly identifying with an oppressed group for the first time in the hopes that the country would forget the allegations against him. Though Clinton’s inability to realize that for many of us, it was not that she belongs to the group, women, but the fact that she is the particular woman she is, comes close.
To the detriment of the nation, she was punished. She lost, and the Democratic Party is doing everything possible to avoid acknowledging why. In that, they are behaving in the same manner that the many other famous people who feel the need to display an apology and leave things at that. What is wrong here is the sense of entitlement, the belief that the public owes the celebrity attention.
But then, working on the public stage does depend on the eyes and ears — though too often not the minds — of the public. With that in mind, taking responsibility should be a genuine act, not the equivalent of Muzak, drivel that fills the air to prevent us from thinking about what we are buying.
Consider the mealy-mouthed response of the White House Correspondents’ Association organization to the criticism of Michelle Wolf. “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting [sic for no Oxford comma] and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Because, of course, a roast should never hurt anyone’s feelings. That might be taken as good advice, if the speculation is true that Trump ran for president as a means of lashing out against the jokes at his expense in the 2011 dinner, but one of the key functions of humor is to deflate pompous windbags. Not that it always works — Lysistrata did not bring the Peloponnesian War to an end, but it has become the favorite play of peace activists these days.
Accepting that jokes do not always have transformative power, and acknowledging that the giving of offense at times goes agley, is there an argument to be made for a different approach from the one so far described?
It should be obvious that my answer is in the affirmative. In other words, hell, yes! An ancient Greek play did not end an ancient Greek war, but it became a part of the culture, one voice in the choir — or the cacophony — of human history that has led to our least violent period being in the present. Lysistrata and countless other acts of expression that have offended those who are tender of mind have been a necessary part of the debate, pushing back against the static assumption that the way things are is how they ought to be.
With that in mind, if you meant to strike a blow against the popular or the powerful — one in the same, as things go — stand by it. A key difference between Kathy Griffin and Hillary Clinton is that the comedian punched up on behalf of all of us, while the politician always flailed about in desperation to save herself. And regardless of the degree of nobility of the inciting incident, a phony apology will elicit nothing but disgust. Among the reasons that Trump won the presidency is his lack of regret for anything. He could murder someone on Fifth Avenue without losing his supporters because they are tired of wimps.
General Patton — who had to offer genuine sorrow himself at times — explained this to his soldiers before the invasion of continental Europe. “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time.” We have gone through much social transformation since 1944, but his point is supported today by the revulsion we show against apologies being used as a means of shifting the sails so as to blow where the wind goes.
Explorers and conquerors learn to tack against the wind. They are the ones who shape our cultural world. And they leave the wreckage of punctured bullies like Trump in their wakes.