Several years back I was riding in a cab and talking about the troubles of New York Knicks’ broadcaster Marv Albert, who had been fired after being charged with sexual assault. The cabbie, a passionate Knicks fan and Albert supporter, protested when I said that NBC, Albert’s employer, had no choice but to fire him.
“What about his right to a second chance?” the cabbie asked, indignant. “I thought everybody in this country gets a second chance.” As if to prove him right, Albert got his job back less than a year later.
I remembered that conversation this past weekend, as I watched news reports of Martha Stewart’s release from prison and listened to one commentator after another intoning some variation of the idea that everyone deserves a second chance in America. “We’re a nation of second chances!” one of them gushed.
I’d be interested to see a poll of how many Americans believe that a second chance is guaranteed by the Constitution, and I’m surprised, given decades of judicial activism, that such a right has not yet been found by one of our Supreme Court justices, perhaps Anthony Kennedy. He’s already decreed that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe,” so enshrining second chances in some similar fashion wouldn’t be much of a leap.
Somewhere along the way, the idea changed from America itself as the second chance — a place to come to and start over — to life in America being a nearly limitless series of second chances. That’s a big difference, like trading in Home of the Brave for Home of the Mulligan.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in second chances as much as I believe that punishments should fit the crimes. Now that Martha Stewart has served her sentence, she is free to pursue her business again. Whether she is successful or not will be determined by changes in the market, increased competition, shifting public taste, and other factors. She won’t fail, however, because of any stain from her past indiscretions. That would be a violation of her quasi-mystical right to a second chance.
In an earlier time, she still would have gotten a second chance, but in addition to the business challenge she would also have faced the challenge of surmounting a stigma as an ex-con. She would be trying to sell goods to people who had no particular belief that she had a “right” to a second chance. On the contrary, they would probably consider her very lucky to be getting one.
You don’t hear the word luck too often when someone like Martha Stewart emerges from her travails and bounces effortlessly into a new TV hosting gig. You don’t hear sorry, either. You don’t hear them say, My, what a country, that I could be found guilty of what I did and be welcomed back. You don’t hear them say how sobering it is to realize that one mistake in Iraq means the end of all second chances for our troops over there, but over here, a mistake a day is good for the soul so long as one never admits the mistake.
Some chalk up such arrogance to the prerogatives of a rich and powerful woman, but I can’t help but think that Martha’s posture is not too far from our own, an indication of how deeply we have all absorbed this new understanding of second chances — not the measly second chance to be able to walk the streets again, but a grand second chance to be restored exactly to what we were before. The second chance not so much as a way to overcome the past as to obliterate it.
Wasn’t that what the American Revolution was about? I’ll bet if you asked Martha Stewart that, and phrased the question just a bit more subtly, she’d say yes.
What our contemporary notion of second chances lacks is the concept of reciprocity, that the offender do something to earn his second chance, or at least atone for his mistakes. Lost, too, is the understanding that the second chance is granted by others, not inalienable, not bequeathed by the creator.
But those ideas are out of fashion, if not offensive, almost as offensive as the idea that we are the sum of our deeds.