The Orwellian Ruse of the Political Apology

Mistakes, impropriety, and the minimization of vice

Benjamin Cain
Jan 3 · 9 min read
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Image by Nathan Denette, AP

ntario Finance Minister Rod Phillips resigned on January 31, 2020 for having twice ignored the Covid-19 lockdown for the Canadian province and taken vacations, the second one being a two-week getaway to St. Barts in December. He preprogrammed his social media posts, which had the effect of hiding his whereabouts from the Canadian public.

What should be especially galling, though, is that when he returned, faced the media firing squad, and was asked whether he’d felt he was above the lockdown rules, Phillips resorted to the political cliché of admitting only that he’d made a “dumb mistake” (see 3:23 minutes into the video).

Whether it’s in the aftermath of having been caught in an affair with an underling, of misusing tax dollars by throwing lavish parties, or even of waging a disastrous war, the politician can be expected to apologize only or at least primarily for “mistakes” or “errors in judgment,” not for being the kind of amoral or vainglorious person you’d expect to have gone into politics in the first place.

McNamara Establishes the Pattern

Perhaps the pattern in post-WWII American politics was set by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara apologized for his involvement in overseeing the Vietnam War, in his 1995 book In Retrospect.

There he wrote (with my emphases throughout), infamously,

We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values….

Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.

I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities…I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them.

There’s that M word again, at the end. And notice how McNamara drew a distinction between values and errors. The American government’s heart was in the right place, he insisted, and the administrations had reason to apologize only for their means of achieving their goals, not for those goals or for being run by the type of people who would have chosen to pursue them.

As critics of his memoir pointed out,

what McNamara concludes was terribly wrong had mostly to do with military tactics and political strategy. Little is said about the morality of waging a Cold War battle based on public lies and private conspiracies…Immoral or merely mistaken, the war left about two million human casualties — 58,000 of them American dead.

The New York Times helped McNamara out by accepting his framing of the matter. In discussing a documentary about McNamara and a NY Times interview with him, the interviewer writes,

In fact, Mr. McNamara is one of very few senior American government officials ever to admit major error without being forced to do so. In an interview last month, I asked him why. “People don’t want to admit they made mistakes,” he said. “This is true of the Catholic Church, it’s true of companies, it’s true of nongovernmental organizations and it’s certainly true of political bodies.”

So there’s McNamara again abusing the M word. But he’s helped along by the interviewer who had apparently asked him why politicians don’t like to admit to having made a “major error.” Evidently, the idea was to thank McNamara for the interview by building him up as a hero who was bucking the trend of spinelessness in the halls of power. See how brave McNamara was in coming clean?

The interviewer goes on to say about McNamara, “But he has broken with house rules by expressing regret for mistaken policy choices.”

The M word again!

And the interviewer ends by noting the similarity between McNamara’s apology and Donald Rumsfeld’s, Rumsfeld being Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush. Soon after 2000, Rumsfeld “took the unusual step of circulating a handout that distilled his 40 years of service.” Those circulated words of wisdom included, “Visit with your predecessors from previous administrations…Try to make original mistakes, rather than needlessly repeating theirs.”

The M word!

Mistakes and Absentmindedness

Let’s pause to reflect on the meaning of the M word, “mistake.” What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that word? For me, a mistake is when you wake up in the morning and put your pants on backward, when you use salt instead of sugar in baking a cake, or when you’re trying to solve a math problem and you write a three instead of an eight.

A mistake is an error in action, calculation, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, or a misunderstanding. Mistakes, then, are morally neutral since they can be attributed to innocent absentmindedness.

Thus, it’s convenient for a guilty politician to minimize his or her wrongdoing by conceding to have made only mistakes or errors, because you’re not really to blame when you’ve been absentminded. Your mind goes elsewhere and in that automated frame of mind, you happen to get something wrong. You’re half asleep at the time, you’re overworked, or your mind is dwelling on a personal tragedy and you just happen to forget your car keys, send the wrong email, or bring the customer a red wine when they’d ordered a white one.

In politics, this is a human equivalent of turtling up, of denying responsibility by insinuating that you were mentally elsewhere when the wrongdoing occurred: you point out that you’d withdrawn your mind at the time and your body was running on autopilot. That’s when the mere mistake was made, so you, the apologetic person that’s now back in full control of your actions can hardly be blamed.

It’s akin to the drug company’s passive voice in its advertisements, used to admit to side effects of the drug while denying legal culpability. Thus, the ad might say, awkwardly, that vomiting, diarrhea, suicidal thoughts and the like “happened” in the drug trials, not that the drug company caused those problems or takes down astronomical profits in a consumer society in which normal aspects of life are routinely medicalized in an ongoing conspiracy to infantilize the population. No, these side effects were more like acts of God that couldn’t be helped.

Was the Vietnam War a mistake? Was Richard Nixon’s megalomaniacal prolongation of the doomed war efforts a mistake, like putting the wrong type of garbage in the recycling box? Was McNamara’s pride in being unwilling for decades to admit publicly to the doubts about the war he’d had in the 1960s just an error, like missing a stop sign when driving on a foggy evening? Of course not.

Let’s drive this point home with the most extreme example. Suppose Adolph Hitler hadn’t shot himself in the bunker and he was captured and tried at Nuremberg. Suppose he apologized for his plan for world domination and for the Holocaust, by saying he’d made a grave error in judgment, a mistake he’s come to regret. Would that use of language be less than grotesque and absurd? I think not.

An Orwellian Coverup

Yet seldom do the media or the viewers scoff at these bogus political apologies specifically by calling attention to the pretense that the worst a politician can do is to make an innocent mistake. Is this due to a comparable mistake on our part, to our absentmindedness and mindless consumption of the news? Do we merely forget the difference between, say, the inattentiveness of leaving your wallet at home and being a politician?

Choosing to be a politician in a relatively rich, technologically developed country is based on vice, not on any mistake or lapse of judgment.

You go into the corrupt, dysfunctional American political system, for example, not because you want to help the nation but because you want the spotlight, to have power over others, and to exploit the budding plutocracy and the revolving door that leads to a sinecure. You smile, shake all those hands, and repeat hundreds of platitudes and lies a day because you’re pompous, vain, cynical, mendacious, and hollow inside, like Selina Meyer from Veep.

But we and our sanctimonious courtiers in political journalism forget these elementary facts. Thus, we seek absurd apologies as if a more or less inhuman figure could meaningfully ask for pardon for being what he or she fundamentally is.

Have a look, for example, at this CBC opinion column, written by an ex-Canadian politician named Graham Steele. The article is supposed to be addressing the problem at hand, about the emptiness of political apologies, as indicated by the article’s subtitle, “Almost all apologies are so hedged with qualifications they’re meaningless, says Steele.” But revealingly, the article is entitled, “Why politicians don’t like admitting mistakes.”

We’re familiar now with the M word ploy, and indeed the short article goes on to refer to mere “mistakes” eight times, and to “errors” a further seven. Thus, the article’s subtext is, in part, that Steele is still beholden to the McNamara style of minimization. Perhaps Steele still labours under the same severe lack of self-awareness as that of the vain, sociopathic types that think they deserve to be powerful and to make their mark on history by exploiting a democracy that’s been rendered dysfunctional by rabid capitalism.

Either way, the underlying message is that even when he’s out of politics, Steele can’t help but continue the coverup and pretend that powerful people can commit only morally neutral mistakes and errors, that there’s no such thing as vice, inhumanity, or depravity in politics even though we know, deep down, that concentrated power over others can only corrupt the empowered person. We know that because we realize it would corrupt us, you and me, without question — and most of us aren’t even interested in going into politics.

If as Ontario Finance Minister you had the means of going to the Caribbean for the holidays and of covering your tracks, when everyone else was on lockdown, wouldn’t you go? Wouldn’t you have to be the kind of conniving, selfish person to leave everyone in the lurch in that fashion, to have acquired that job in the first place? After all, as Finance Minister in a conservative party, you’d have to subscribe to economic policies that are effectively Darwinian in their freeing up the marketplace to leave in the dust the many inevitable losers in the capitalist struggle for private gains.

Amorality and Appropriateness

Indeed, after witnessing the anti-presidency of Donald Trump, is it still possible not to laugh at the notion that the worst a politician can do is to make a mistake?

And aren’t abuses of power normal, because “good use of power” is an oxymoron? This is evident from another Orwellian phrase that’s common in political reportage. Have you ever noticed how often politicians and pundits characterize this or that political decision as “appropriate” or “proper” (or at worst, as “inappropriate” or “improper”)?

Politicians aren’t heroic statesmen anymore. They just follow orders and calculate the most efficient way of achieving some pre-selected or inevitable goals, by way of being instrumentally rational. That’s what the A word, “appropriate” is all about, doing what’s suitable for a particular purpose or occasion. The context of the goal or of the political environment is taken for granted, so all that matters are the Machiavellian maneuvers.

If Ron Phillips hadn’t gone on vacation, he might have said his adherence to the lockdown rules was only “appropriate,” even though to have followed them he’d have had to act against his selfish and vain political nature, which might have been heroic or virtuous.

But no, neither morality nor immorality is expected of politicians, because despite all our patriotic rhetoric, we know our governments are staffed by technocrats and functionaries, not, of course, by sacred kings and aristocrats. The true powers in our republics and parliamentary democracies are the unelected heads of transnational corporations, along with the genes and the mental conditioning that predetermine our corruptibility and gullibility.

Canadians, for example, pride themselves on being punctilious do-gooders. Speaking as a Canadian, we like to think we don’t stand for the least offense from our elected leaders. Our image abroad is that of a polite, nice, boring country. Perhaps that’s who we are superficially, but of course we participate in the same existential failing that characterizes all developed countries, that of our overconsumption of natural resources in the Anthropocene.

That’s where our shared Luciferian vices lie, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, Americans or Canadians. And we avoid recognizing what we really are, by these rhetorical tricks, by the clichéd use of these M and A words. Once in a while, an insolent philosophical writer like me will pop up and cry foul, and that will be lost in a sea of disposable content on the internet. That’s technological progress, the freedom of everyone in the developed world to create and to share information (and to reduce art, philosophy, and prophecy to data points).

Is the sixth mass extinction a mere mistake? Have we consumers acted only inappropriately? Will some statesman step forward to do what’s only proper and reverse the course of civilized humanity? Or is there something we’re all missing, something we forget when we’re absorbed in our routine of consuming the daily news? I think we’ve forgotten that from nature’s point of view, as it were, human progress is diabolical.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Benjamin Cain

Written by

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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