The Year of the Apology
"Albert Avoids Jail Sentence With an Apology." So the headlines screamed after sportscaster Marv Albert's courtroom "I'm sorry" led prosecutors to drop sodomy charges which could have brought five years in prison.Hello, sports fans! This is the year of the apology. White southern Baptists apologized to black southern Baptists for past racism.President Clinton apologized to black men who were infected with syphilis as part of a government experiment.The young Kennedys apologized again for acting like the young Kennedys. There is even serious talk of the nation apologizing to African Americans for slavery. Clearly taking advantage of this mood, Los Angeles city councilman Mike Hernandez recently stood on the steps of City Hall and made a public apology for using cocaine.Inherent in all these verbal olive branches is the belief that the words "I'm sorry" hold some healing power because they come from wrongdoers who have some power. This is especially the case in the political arena -- shrugged shoulders, embarrassed confessions, statements of remorse are supposed to wash away all stains.At the same time, the apologies of the poor and powerless are seen as insignificant. The message is clear -- we don't believe the dispossessed can change.This message rings loudest in the prison system which has become a warehouse for poor people. The idea that correctional facilities exist as agencies to reform people, to "correct" their behavior has so little validity that there is talk of removing references to rehabilitation from prison legislation. Instead, in state after state, we see ever-harsher sentencing rules and ever-larger prison-building programs.This "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach is indicative of the pervasive lack of faith in the human potential for change. It's neo-nihilism is surpassed only by capital punishment. We execute poor people -- the ultimate sign of a lack of faith in the human potential for change.However, the rules change dramatically for those with power. We not only accept apologies from political figures, we seem to believe they can actually change. One of the most startling political comebacks in recent memory saw Washington, DC. mayor Marion Barry Berry returned to office after a crack cocaine conviction -- and a hearty apology. LA councilman Hernandez apparently thinks he can do the same.He said, "While I have expressed my regrets to many of you privately, I wish to openly express my regrets and seek the forgiveness of those who I have harmed because of my illness."Think about it. How many convicted, impoverished cocaine users would be walking the streets if all they had to do was apologize to the judge and their families -- while defining their drug use as an "illness?""I'm sorry" would be the most popular phrase in the legal system after "not guilty."The growth of public apology can be traced to the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode a wave of unprecedented popularity crafted much more by what he said and how he said it than on what he did.His political legacy can be found in public officials who have literally talked their way into office. Communication style in front of the glass eye and hot lights has become the key to political viability -- and that is why political apology has so much power. If well-placed words can usher politicians into office, it should come as no surprise that a well placed "I'm sorry" can keep them in.At a deeper level, the apology trend is simply another reminder of inequity. Few things are more frustrating than seeing examples of people being treated better because of their office or income tax bracket. It breeds the kind of distrust and division that leads to civil unrest.The Mike Hernandez case should be a wake-up call. The councilman should be held to the same standard as the man flipping burgers at MacDonald's. If he can't say "I'm sorry," and return to the Golden Arches, then a cocaine-snorting city councilman can't apologize and return to serve the people. Sorry, Mike. You have to go.Datcher is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and co-editor of Tough Love: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur."