Thursday, June 23, 2005
Connections and Apologies
Thursday guest post by John McGowan
Since I’m leaving town for a few days, I wrote this post yesterday—before I had read Michael’s response to the Durbin apology. So it is not so much a comment on Michael’s post as a thinking along parallel tracks.
I’ve been binging on novels lately, including my first encounters with the fascinating head-case Nicholas Mosley (thanks to Allen Dunn and Robert Caserio for alerting ignorant me to Mosley’s work). And the binge was meant to carry me away from politics for a while. In his book about the Ali-Frazier fight, Norman Mailer walks along a high ledge in his hotel in Zaire because he’s convinced himself that he must risk something in order for Ali to win. I find myself entrapped in a similar superstition: unless I keep paying close attention, the nation will go completely off the rails. Obviously, it’s not working.
So I thought I’d give myself a vacation—and then I’d have some neat novels and some utterly new thoughts to offer this blog’s readers. Get us all out of the box. Remind me and you that there are things that interest, entertain, delight, terrify, and sustain us besides the country’s ongoing determination to undo itself.
I was especially going to think/write about the novel and connections. “Only connect,” E. M. Foster exhorted us all in Howards End. In my recent reading, it struck me how dedicated novels are to connecting, how novels, unlike so much academic work, aspire to place all sorts of random things in relation to one another. And this is not just true of ambitious novels like those of Richard Powers and Madison Smartt Bell, but even of what seem relentlessly “personal” novels written by John Cheever or Ann Beattie. There’s a will to inclusiveness, to getting the whole field and the whole feel of a life down on paper, more to place it on record than to offer some sort of explanation. The connections are often just collisions, not causes or reasons or necessities. But those connections register what it is like to be bound to this world, bound to the project of one’s own life and the consequences of one’s own past actions; bound also to the others for whom one cares, and to the settings and networks and institutions within which one acts, and to the larger communities (like the country) about which one worries.
Then apologies came into the news—and they made me think about just how dangerous connections are, about how much work goes into preventing connections from being made. If people begin making connections, just think what might result. Start with the Senate’s apology for its long inaction in the matter of lynching. You would think that an apology would be a privileged form of connection. An apology places me in relation to a deed that hurt you; I take responsibility and say, “I won’t insult you by pretending that the damage can be undone, but I admit my fault, and undertake to stand in better relations to you in the future.” An apology is about repairing a torn social fabric and establishing a new connection that can underwrite our future relations with one another. It involves, then, both continuity and discontinuity—it connects me to a past that I also now will reinterpret as harmful and as a bad precedent for future action.
The Senate’s apology did some of that repair work, but it was also (this being the Senate after all) salted with lots of self-congratulation, lots of self-assurance that this bad past was not our fault, but that of our benighted predecessors. It was an apology, but no senator understood him- or herself as apologizing for personal actions. And even that was too much for over twelve Republicans, who chose to absent themselves, and were saved by Bill Frist from having to actually vote against the apology. [From ABC News: “To the surprise and outrage of the resolution’s supporters, more than a dozen senators declined to sign on as co-sponsors. Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., did not require a roll-call vote on the resolution and scheduled debate to begin after normal working hours.”]
Now let’s move to Philadelphia Mississippi, where Rita Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner (killed by the Klan in the summer of 1964), did—in her NPR interview—draw a connection between the manslaughter verdict just passed on her husband’s killer and the failure of both of Mississippi’s senators to endorse the lynching apology. How did we ever evolve a set of journalistic ethics that renders drawing such connections outside the purview of a reporter? If it does not happen today or is not uttered by someone being interviewed today, then it cannot be brought into a new story. We have condemned ourselves to a perpetual present, shorn of all connections, in the way we report our daily news. Thus, no one mentioned that Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 Presidential campaign by making his first appearance after accepting the Republican nomination in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Did Reagan make a connection to the 1964 slaying of the three civil rights workers that day in 1980? Only by pointedly not referring to the event at all. Isn’t Reagan’s visit—and the subsequent politics of the party he led to victory—relevant to the discussions of “racial healing” that are surrounding today’s reports of the manslaughter verdict?
One more apology is in the news: Dick Durbin’s. Why is Durbin apologizing? For making a connection. He asked his audience in the Senate to play an associational game. Take this description of certain behavior and then connect it to the regime that you think most likely allowed, even encouraged, that behavior to happen. Durbin was roasted because he thus insulted our valiant and worthy soldiers.
The administration has a very clear no apology rule. It was manifested in the contrast between Richard Clarke’s moving apology to the families of the 9-11 victims as contrasted to the administration’s stone-walling. It was manifested in the presidential debate in which Bush would not admit to a single mistake. And apology avoidance has become a fine art in the ongoing scandal (which it heartens me to see will simply not go away) of our illegal detention and criminal treatment of various prisoners. Durbin must apologize because he impugns the integrity of the American soldier, who is doing a tough job and faithfully does what he is told. How can you compare the GI to a storm trooper? Oh, then the connection must be made to the higher-ups who give that soldier his commands? You know how that one has been played: not at all, we (the higher-ups) have nothing to apologize for, nothing for which we are responsible. It’s a few bad soldiers.