The genre has been taxed to breaking point in recent days.
The “reckoning” has provided a rich harvest of phony acts of contrition, introducing a few novelties into the art of the non-apology apology. Public figures used to like the amorphous formula “mistakes were made,” as if assaulting a woman was on the same level as losing your car keys. But that has fallen out of favor and now crisis management teams craft more ambitious apologies. They, of course, prove just as empty and craven upon closer inspection.
A glaze of therapeutic babble and high-sounding subjectivism, the apologies have followed the same basic pattern: deny the accuracy of the victim’s “experience,” then profess great respect for the denied experience while throwing in a few grand-sounding points about the vast enlightenment the supposedly false charges have occasioned.
The presumption of the apologies is perhaps their most inadvertently amusing aspect. Take MSNBC pundit Mark Halperin’s let’s-solve-this-problem-together tone in his apology: “I hope not only will women going forward be more confident in speaking up, but also that we as an industry and society can create an atmosphere that no longer tolerates this kind of behavior.” Ever the know-it-all, Halperin couldn’t resist lecturing others on how to remedy a problem he helped create.
Al Franken, whose line of accusers keeps lengthening, says that we all have a lot to learn from all the stuff he says that he didn’t do. In a ludicrous attempt at a kind of retroactive chivalry, Franken insinuated that he was not challenging the charges vigorously, lest that retard society’s deepening respect for women: “And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories.” Wow, how noble of him. What a gentleman. The charges are unfair, he implies, but he is going to endure them as the price one must pay for a more enlightened society.
Franken may have borrowed this touch from Halperin’s note. In a credit-seeking aside, Halperin informed his victims that he had “not read these accounts looking for discrepancies or inconsistencies,” as if that was very generous of him, and that “some of the allegations that have been made are not true” but that is a “small point in the scheme of things.” How big of him.
Rap mogul Russell Simmons, who is stepping down from his business even as he denies a rape charge, is also casting his passivity as a noble gesture — burned incense, as it were, to the gods of feminism. “While her memory of that evening is very different from mine, it is now clear to me that her feelings of fear and intimidation are real,” he said, explaining his resignation. “This is a time of great transition. The voices of the voiceless, those who have been hurt or shamed, deserve and need to be heard. As the corridors of power inevitably make way for a new generation, I don’t want to be a distraction so I am removing myself from the businesses that I founded.”
After feminism killed off the male chauvinist pig, it gave birth to the male feminist pig who can’t stop pontificating even after he is caught. Comedian Louis CK’s apology note started off with a brief and brisk acceptance of the charges — “These stories are true” — but then got very chatty, as if his aberrant behavior contained lessons for one and all.
Even compared to the vague and evasive character of the other notes, Matt Lauer’s apology is notable for its thinness. It is less an apology to his victims than to his public, family, and colleagues. His victims are hastily lumped in with everyone else he has “hurt.” He is “truly sorry” about the charges, then casts doubt on them: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.” At least he refrains from a State of the Union-style address, though that will probably come later, maybe in an Oprah interview in which he can elaborate on “power differentials.”
NBC is home not only to fake news but also to fake apologies. It was Lauer who interviewed Brian Williams after he got caught out in his fable of stolen valor. It was a worthless interview. Williams never once acknowledged that he lied: “I told stories that were wrong. It was not from a place where I was trying to use my job and title to mislead.” He didn’t lie, but “he got it wrong.”
The key to the non-apology apology is to leave people wondering what you are apologizing for. It combines bold language with utter dishonesty. As Brian Williams put it, he was “owning up” to a lie that he never told, a baffling inaccuracy that he would dedicate himself to figuring out “how it happened.” With this fresh lie, Andy Lack sent him back on the air, albeit on one of MSNBC’s farm teams.
Here, too, Bill Clinton showed his generation the way. In 1992, the press corps knew perfectly well that he was a hopeless womanizer, but they played along with his denial of the Gennifer Flowers affair. She had phone tapes to prove the affair, the authenticity of which reporters pretended to question. On one of the tapes, Bill Clinton said that Mario Cuomo “acted” like a Mafioso, which caused Cuomo great offense. Under pressure to mollify Cuomo, Clinton decided to apologize. But for what? His campaign was claiming that the tapes were inauthentic. From such moments came today’s mess, where a lying denial and an apology have become one and the same.