Friday, November 03, 2006

Big Mistake

Recently Senator Kerry made headline news by apologizing for something he said. (Actually he apologized for saying something that was misconstrued, but no matter.) I find it peculiar that this is considered a big story.

Among the most disturbing type of person encountered in discussions of any kind is the person who never admits that he or she could be mistaken. In personal relationships, we find the same type of person never admitting wrong, and never apologizing.

It’s impossible to have meaningful discussions with such people, just as it is extremely difficult to have good relationships with them. Human beings are limited and fallible—no one would deny this. It can, however, be quite difficult to admit that I (as distinct from human beings in general) am mistaken or wrong. Self-centered pride is deeply ingrained, and we avoid feelings of humiliation if we can. The history of this is too complicated to explore here. Let’s just say that it’s unfortunate.

However, despite our pride, in real life—in ordinary day-to-day life, that is—most of us admit that we could be mistaken, and most of us apologize at some point. It’s an unavoidable part of living. I’ve met a few people who don’t, and I have to say that they seemed to me to be mentally ill, although they may have appeared quite functional on the outside. To never admit even the possibility of being wrong is an untenable position. It is, in effect, to claim perfection and infallibility. And that way, as they say, lies madness.

In politics, on the other hand, it is customary not to admit mistakes, and not to apologize. Apparently to do so is to appear weak, which is supposedly a deadly flaw in a politician. Never mind that we are weak. Never mind that awareness of one’s weakness is a sure foundation for wisdom, and that unawareness leads to the most foolhardy decisions imaginable. The image that politicians wish to project is one of strength, and for some reason that means never admitting mistakes or apologizing.

So when John Edwards said that his vote for the Iraq war was a mistake, it was considered news. You may recall Dick Durbin apologizing for his remarks about Guantanamo (something for which I don't think he had a good reason to be sorry). Some Democrats apparently retain a faint, flickering belief in human fallibility, and Republicans take advantage of this by demanding that they apologize for saying certain things. This is seen as humiliating. Republicans usually don’t apologize unless they face indictment, although not always even in that case (e.g. Tom DeLay). Right-wingers make outrageous, morally repugnant statements on a daily basis and never apologize for them.

In ordinary life, then, admitting mistakes and apologizing when wrong is a sign of mental health. In politics, it is a sign of weakness. We have witnessed, then, the elevation of mental illness to the standard of political wisdom. I suppose the public bears some responsibility for this. I suppose that polls have shown that people feel safer with leaders who are infallible. I find such leaders the least safe of all, but perhaps that’s a minority view.

We have now attained the perfect outcome of this approach with the current U.S. administration, and by a firmer logic than we normally witness in affairs of state. The president doesn’t admit mistakes, or doubt. Certainly he never apologizes. The apparatus surrounding him is also invulnerable to human limitation.

And yet, curiously enough, we notice that the president is always mistaken—he is wrong with a consistency that is rare even in the history of the Republican Party. He need only open his mouth to speak, and a stream of untruth is emitted, undiluted by facts. His policies are uniformly wrong and destructive. His administration has broken everything it touches. There is not a single policy success that it can legitimately claim.

I would argue, in fact, that the premise, the very idea of not admitting mistakes, leads inevitably to this result. By considering the admission of mistakes to be political weakness, by covering with shame the normal human need for apology, we have ended up with the weakest, most foolish, most mendacious, and most dangerous White House in our history.

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