Monday, March 5, 2012

Sorry seems to be the hardest word ...

OK. Let's get in the mood for this, with two of the more melodramatic songs of apology ever written ... first, there's this ... and then there's this.

You know, there's a place in this world for a good, old-fashioned apology, but not when it's depicted like it is here ... in these two songs ... full of bathos to the point where it reeks of self-serving inauthenticity.

I bring this up today, of course, because Rush Limbaugh had to do the old mea culpa number over the weekend in response to the growing outcry over his ill-chosen words directed to Sandra Fluke, the 30-year-old Georgetown student who testified before Congress on the issues of contraceptives.

Poor Rush. He did something typically Rush. He went off on her, called her a slut, and even suggested that she should provide videos of her sexual exploits.

Before we go on, let's talk about Rush. John Henry, who owns the Boston Red Sox, once had a great line about the late George Steinbrenner. He said that being insulted by George Steinbrenner was a little like being by Don Rickles. You almost feel as if you've made it in this world.

If I were a liberal pundit, in other words, and I didn't feel the sting of a Rush Limbaugh rant every so often, I'd be insulted. I'd feel as if my efforts weren't being taken seriously. I'd feel like a neutered bull. I'd feel as if I'm a threat to nobody.

So Sandra, as crude as Rush's comments might have been, you have this to take to the bank: You're in wonderful company. Some of the most respected people in the world have been taken to task by Rush Limbaugh. Most of the time, the laugh's on him. And the fact that he doesn't know it yet makes it even funnier.

Rush jumped the shark a long, long time ago -- in my humble opinion at least -- and his influence beyond his narrow sphere of like-minded bullies and bigots is nil. At this stage of his career, he has to be satisfied with flinging red meat at perpetually angry people who possess none of the analytical, introspective gifts that would qualify them as intelligent.

Of course, there are plenty of them in the country ... enough so that Rush can still make a pretty good living being the point man for the ridiculous right (it's not as cleverly alliterative as the "loony left," but it's going to have to do).

But wait ... Eight of Rush's sponsors have flown the coop over his latest rantings about Sandra Fluke. Maybe that's temporary. Maybe when the heat dies down and everybody "gets past this," as we seem to love to do in this country, those sponsors will fly back to the nest. After all, Rush still gets ratings, even if he'll never broaden his horizons when it comes to influence. It's just that at the moment, the spotlight's on him ... and not because of anything good.

The issue itself? It's a bonafide wedge issue, defined here as any issue that, as soon as it's brought up in the public domain, is sure to cause predictable knee-jerk reactions among all the major players in government. And that's a huge part of what goes into legislative gridlock. ALL of today's major issues can be defined that way, and in every case, you can predict how everyone's going to react the minute anyone tries to discuss them. You might as well script and choreograph these discussions, because rarely do they deviate from predictable patterns.

Into this breach went Sandra Fluke last week, testifying before Congress that insurance companies should cover contraception. Well all right. It's a hot-button issue, and although I support this side of the argument, it's not without being cognizant of some very reasoned opinions from the other side.

And that's as it should be. If we can't, in this country, listen to reasoned arguments both pro and con on the important issues of the day, then what good are we? So it's no sin to admit that some of the answers we seek today are damn hard to come by, and that we need to listen to people, and take them seriously, if we're ever to arrive at them.

Now, Rush claims to be a serious spokesman for conservatives in America. My question is how? How can you be taken seriously if your answer to someone who's demonstrated the courage to get up and testify on a hot-button issue -- thereby setting herself up for a whole lot of grief and anxiety she could have avoided if she'd just shut up and gone about her life like most of the rest of us -- is to crudely ridicule and bully her?

Rush is a big boy. He understands backlash. And he certainly understands that you own what you say the minute it comes out of your mouth, and that no amount of explaining can erase them ... or change anybody's opinion about them.

That goes double if practically half the country thinks you're a buffoon because, lately, you're nothing more than a cardboard caricature of yourself anyway.

Yes, Rush is an easy target, but before anyone feels too sorry for him, let's also acknowledge that he makes himself an easy target ... the same way anyone who stakes out controversial, bellicose stands on issues becomes a magnet for backlash. Jon Stewart probably gets his share of hate mail too, as do Bill Mahar, Rachel Maddow and all the rest. It goes with the territory.

These are people in the business of provoking. And most of them do it quite well, Rush included. But once in a while, in provoking, you go too far. And it happens across the board. Mahar's gotten himself into trouble with ill-timed and crude remarks about Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. Don Imus practically got run off radio a while back when he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."

But while it's a good thing to cut people as much slack as you can whenever possible, it's also true that once you cross the line into bad taste or out-and-out misogyny (in the case of Rush), it's useless to try to retrace your steps. You can't do it.

And this brings us back to the original premise. Apologizing. Sadly, it's a lost art, and I think it's that way because -- frankly -- I don't think people quite know how to do it. We've been in an "anything goes" mode in this country for so long that it just doesn't occur to many people that what they say and do can be hurtful.

But we do. All of us. And apologies can be very cathartic ... as long as they're genuine and free of bathos and drama.

First of all, and perhaps most important, apologies don't guarantee forgiveness. If you go through the trouble of trying to manipulate people into feeling sorry for you -- the offender -- by concocting this melodramatic apology you're going to be disappointed. Nine times out of ten, that doesn't work. And if it does, consider yourself lucky.

That doesn't mean we can't say we're sorry. Of course we should. We owe it to the people we offend, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to at least let them know we feel badly for whatever pain and anguish we've caused them and that we do regret having done, or said, hurtful things. After that, it's out of our hands.

Rush's apology to Sandra Fluke is a blueprint of what not to do. First, he tried to justify it by tying his comments in with his personal agenda. Bad. That's about as insincere as it gets. Geez Louise, man, take the ego out of it would you? Separate your politics from your actions and focus on what matters in this instance.

Second, he pulled the old "I was trying to be funny" routine. Ugh. Is there anything more phony than that? How often have you heard that? "I didn't mean it. It was only a joke."

I don't think so.

Finally, "my choice of words was not the best." I'll say.

Look, to cut him some slack, apologizing is a hard thing to do. Most of the time, you're apologizing to people who are already either angry with you, or offended by you, and you're wading into crocodile-infested waters. Even with the best of intentions, a heartfelt apology can be received by deaf ears. It's quite possible that someday, in its own way, whatever rift you've caused by your actions can be healed, but it's probably 50-50 that a simple apology will turn the tide that dramatically.

So why do it? If you're genuine, you do it because regardless of what anyone else thinks, YOU know when you've messed up. And YOU know, instinctively, that YOU'RE not going to start to feel better about it until YOU'VE at least acknowledged that yes, you've done or said something hurtful.

And this is where I think Rush showed his true colors. His apology was not sincere. He managed to restate his political position on the issue, tried to pass off his crudity as an attempt at humor, and then -- today, on his show, -- acted like the wounded warrior because Sandra Fluke dared to be unimpressed with his "apology."

That's par for the course. This isn't television, where you have to say you're sorry, and kiss and make up, between endless commercials and within the half-hour, or hour, time span. It's real life, and it can take a long, long time to undo the damage we do.

It's fair to ask whether Rush would have felt the need to apologize at all if the backlash wasn't so intense, or if advertisers weren't pulling out. Once your misdeeds start hitting you in the wallet, it's a whole new ballgame.

Anyway, to those who feel the need to issue the odd mea culpa over some transgression, remember: it's best to take all the pride out of it, focus on what you did, express whatever sorrow or regret you feel you can, and then -- as they say -- put it in God's hands. It may not get you what you want (at least not right away) but at least you can look at yourself in the mirror and say you did the best you could to atone for something you probably wish had never happened in the first place.

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