Americans have lost the art of saying "I am sorry."
Take outgoing Harvard President Larry Summers, who in the past year has apologized repeatedly. His crime? Saying that institutionalized bias might not completely explain the dearth of female scientists and mathematicians on university faculties.
Despite trying to placate campus feminist groups by pledging $50 million "to bring about a set of very important cultural changes," he still lost his job. But now after his resignation, I wonder whether Summers will offer yet another apology to his critics. And if not, why not?
Former President Bill Clinton fine-tuned the art of today's approach to public remorse. His apologies — to Guatemalans, Iranians, Okinawans, Rwandans and dozens of others — were often cosmic in nature; they offered contrition for almost everything America has done or not done, from slavery and the ill treatment of American Indians to the rampages of Gen. Sherman.
Recently in Saudi Arabia, former Vice President Al Gore offered regrets of sorts for the "terrible abuses" of Arabs in the United States. He narrated to nodding sheiks how their brethren in the U.S. had been "indiscriminately rounded up" and "held in conditions that were just unforgivable."
His Saudi hosts, who have a lamentable record on human rights, heard not a word from the humanitarian Gore about the excesses of their own sharia law. There was no mention that 15 Saudis, imbued with Wahhabi extremism, had blown up the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon.
Former President Jimmy Carter lately has become another international scold. While not offering so many literal apologies, he has made it clear to the world that he regrets deeply the transgressions of other Americans — whether for wiretaps or setting up detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. He rarely mentions the Iranian hostage crisis, double-digit inflation and interest rates, Soviet expansionism, or any of the other lapses on his own watch.
With all this public contrition, we risk debasing the once-noble protocols of apology.
First, there is no reason to apologize repeatedly — especially when one has done nothing wrong. Campuses exist for the free exchange of ideas. So what was so terrible with President Summers opening up debate about why one gender excels or does not in a particular discipline? Summers' serial apologies came off not as contrite, but as obsequious — as desperation to keep his job and mollify bullying critics.
Second, don't apologize for the sins of others long past. Clinton in a few words can hardly himself atone for centuries of the tragedy that was slavery. He'd be better off apologizing for things he could have controlled — such as forbidding vulnerable American forces in Somalia to use tanks or ordering missile strikes against a probable pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
Third, money or personal enhancement should not factor into public acts of contrition. Pat Robertson said he was sorry for claiming Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for the Israeli pullouts from Gaza — but only after furious Israel officials threatened the reverend's role in a $50 million Christian tourist center in Israel.
Fourth, it is a bad idea to apologize for one's country while overseas. In today's globally connected media, there is really no need — unless apologizers wish to ingratiate themselves with hosts or find easy resonance with anti-American foreigners.
So if Clinton really wished to apologize for America's past support for the Shah of Iran, he could just as easily have done so at a veterans' convention in Memphis or Salt Lake City. But when proclaimed at the World Economic Forum in chic Davos, Switzerland, Clinton's regret seemed cost-free and aimed at wining applause at the expense of his countrymen back home. And like Gore's one-sided confessional, Clinton's remorse did not mention that the Islamic fascism that followed the Shah was at least as odious — and wholly indigenous.
Fifth, war is the wrong time to start apologizing. Gen. George Marshall did not tell the Germans in 1943 that we were sorry for previously harassing German Americans in 1917. Nor during the Cuban missile crisis did President Kennedy offer Nikita Khrushchev remorse that we tried to subvert the Russian revolution in 1918-20. There is a proper occasion for voicing collective regret, and wartime is not it.
In the old days, apologies — said once, without an agenda and involving one's own sins — revealed character. Now too often they reflect just the opposite.