On Tuesday the government of Poland called on President Obama to apologize for mis-speaking in his praise of a Polish resistance fighter who informed the U.S. on death camps — he was one of the first to do so — early in the rise of Nazism as WWII was getting underway. In his comments, the president made reference to “Polish” death camps, the reference being to the location of the camps, not the people who built and ran them. Among the most notorious was Auschwitz. The Polish government contends that the remarks nevertheless give the impression that the camps were actually the work of Poles. Not true, of course, as even the lamest of historians can attest. So now what? The Poles want the president to apologize.
There’s an important issue here, and one that should be addressed: For the most part, apologies are pointless, groundless and have a tendency to amplify matters that should simply should be put to rest with as little fuss as possible. You run over your neighbor’s hedge backing your car out of the garage and you fess up and try to make repairs as quickly as possible. Easy. A done deal is a done deal, and you move on.
I really don’t know where this fad of forcing one person into contrition came from, hat-in-hand, for honest mistakes, but it is there in our time, with something of a vengeance. And it can be terribly mean-spirited. Certainly on the political front it now amounts to an eagerly used — indeed sought after — tool to embarrass and humiliate. (Whatever happened to “he made a mistake, he knows it, regrets it, won’t make it again, and it is not a reflection of who and what he is?” Gone.) They’re out there and they’re waiting.
One of the most famous public apologies in history was made by President Reagan to the Japanese-Americans who were interred in U.S. camps during WWII. The written apology was supplemented with more than one billion dollars in reparations to survivors and their relatives — more than a generation later. I’m sure the money was appreciated, but did the apology even put a dent in the wrong that was done to the victims? And more importantly, was it helpful in clearing the air? Do we now feel better about ourselves with this painful reminder?
And then there’s the silly business of Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, being required to make an apology simply for saying that she thought Ann Romney “had never worked a day in her life.” Crime of the century? Hardly.
Demands for an apology, a public apology, can be one of the most hurtful actions a person can impose upon another, and it always plays to the glee of the person demanding it. What can have a beneficial result is if the apology is offered by the offender (?) with sincerity and promptness. Otherwise, no deal. Because who we are concerned with is the object of the slight or careless action, and retribution should never be the final goal.
We are most certainly responsible for our own actions and the repercussions that might result, but this whole business of having to render public punishment in the aftermath begins to stretch civility and is wrong. And in the end it’s ineffectual, because the offended is typically left with singed feelings — still — and the offender is left with singed feelings of his own, believing he has over-paid.
So in regard to the president and the Poles, it would be oh so nice if he could just send a quick note in the diplomatic pouch that says, simply, “Get over it!”