Tag: Mistake

The Rightness of Being Wrong

Last week, Politifact tackled the assertion of Mitt Romney (among others) that Barack Obama went on an “apology tour” criticizing America. I’ve already addressed the bullshit that Obama said he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. But the apology tour is nonsense as well.

Here, we’re checking Romney’s statement that Obama “has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision” and a host of other reasons. If you think American presidents should never admit to any sort of error at any time, you might find yourself in philosophical agreement with Romney’s criticisms. We set out to discover whether Obama really had apologized in his speeches, and what he was apologizing for. But in our review of his words, we came up short. Yes, there is criticism in some of his speeches, but it’s typically leavened by praise for the United States and its ideals, and often he mentions other countries and how they have erred as well. There’s not a full-throated, sincere apology in the bunch. And so we rate Romney’s statement False.

The thing about the apology tour is that, if you read Obama’s speeches, he hasn’t been apologizing for America. He’s been acknowledging what he sees as mis-steps in language far less apologetic than that used by Bush or Clinton or Reagan. What pisses off his critics is that he’s been publicly refuting the policies of last Administration. But rather than address this head on or acknowledge that the last Administration screwed the pooch, they simply say he’s “apologizing for America”. It’s this season’s “not supporting the troops”. And it’s nonsense. Every single speech has been built around a vigorous defense and laudation of America’s virtues. To be frank, the Republicans’ recent tendency to side with Israel against the Administration is more of an “apology tour” than anything Obama has done.

So why do I bring this up? Who give a shit? Well, something about the whole “apology tour” nonsense has bothered me since it slithered into talk radio and then GOP talking points. And I think the trivial events of the last week — Weiner’s wiener and Sarah Palin’s muffing of the Paul Revere story — have helped me finally put my finger on what bothers me so much about it. Easterbrook:

These are merely the last week’s examples of a troubling tendency among public figures — refusal to admit being wrong. Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself.

All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania. The sort of person who huffs and puffs and refuses to admit a mistake does not belong in a leadership position.

In the era of YouTube and Twitter, it’s often easy to obtain the evidence of public error. That makes it all the more creepy when politicians stare into the camera and deny that they’ve made a mistake.

Yet we’re surrounded by politicians who deny their mistakes. In recent history, presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton denied significant personal errors: one lost the White House as a result, the other nearly did. (I will skip the many instances in which public leaders would not admit to mistakes because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that refusal was in the national interest.)

Anthony Weiner could have made most of his problems go away by simply admitting that he’d done something dumb. Sarah Palin could have just said she was tired and flustered by the media pestering her in a line instead of doubling down with more historical inaccuracy. And the same applies to every other politician — from Tony Blair to Chris Christie — who tries to pretend that he hasn’t fucked up.

And that’s what bothers me about the apology tour meme. It’s an encapsulation of our national refusal to acknowledge mistakes — personal, party or national. It’s so rare that a politician owns up to stupidity that it’s notable when it happens. In the first GOP debate, one of the more remarkable moments was Pawlenty’s mea culpa on cap and trade.

This Orwellian mentality — of never admitting mistakes, never acknowledging errors, always saying you were really right even when you were clearly wrong is not just annoying — it’s dangerous. One of the biggest obstacles to fixing our political system is the refusal to admit that a policy has failed. We make bad decisions and then we compound our mistakes with a ridiculous stubbornness — a belief that sticking to bad decisions somehow proves our manliness and stepping back from them is a sign of weakness.

During the early 90’s, when welfare reform was being debated, a huge obstacle to fixing the system was the absolute refusal of liberals to believe that giving people money can’t erase poverty. Welfare had to be underfunded or undermined by evil Republicans — they simply couldn’t admit that it had been a bad idea. The biggest problem with our public schools is a stubborn refusal to admit that a politically-run, union-controlled education system is fundamentally dysfunctional. Our War on Drugs continues because of the refusal of the drug warriors to admit that you can’t get people off the shit by tossing them in jail. The War in Iraq almost reeled out of control because of the Administration’s refusal — until they lost an election — to admit that we didn’t have enough boots on the ground. Our attempts to fix Medicare and Social Security are running aground on the ridiculous belief that we can’t change a system simply because we’ve had it around for 75 years.

This mentality has been enhanced by the “us against them” media cycle. Admitting to mistakes also means admitting that your evil evil opponents were right about something and then hearing them crow about it on MSNBC and the blogosphere for the next week. Anything but that!

Admitting errors is not a sign of weakness; it’s refusing to do so that’s a sign of weakness. Totalitarian regimes are constantly revising history, flushing old policies down the memory hole and editing pictures to show that they have always been right, they have never erred, they have always been at war with Oceania and Trotsky never existed. It is a fundamental strength of our Republic that we don’t flush failed policies away, we don’t pretend the past never happened, that we don’t pretend we’re perfect and always have been. We admit that slavery was mistake, that the massacre of Native Americans was terrible, that Jim Crowe was crime and that the welfare state was a failure.

One of the key moments that ended our disastrous experiment in prohibition was a letter from John Rockefeller acknowledging that the policy he had fought so hard for was a mistake. The turning point of the Civil War happened because Lincoln abandoned the generals who’d failed him. The Iraq War turned because Bush finally admitted we needed more troops. Reagan began tackling the deficit by admitting he’d lowered taxes too much. American history has been defined by people acknowledging mistakes and changing course.

I would have thought more of Weiner if he’d immediately copped to the pictures and admitted it was a stupid thing to do. I would have thought more of Palin if she’d just admitted she flubbed the Revere story and shrugged it off. This is what serious people do when confronted with their mistakes, especially mistakes so trivial. If they can’t acknowledge such trivial errors, what are they going to do when faced with massive multi-trillion dollar mistakes like Obamacare?

I disagreed with some of what Obama said on the “apology tour” but because I thought he was wrong, not because I thought it was unmanly to admit to failed policy. Had he apologized for dropping the atomic bomb, as was once rumored, I would have been furious, not because of the apology but because I think dropping the bomb was absolutely the right thing to do.

Apologies don’t hurt us. It’s bad policy that hurts us. And it’s bad policy compounded by a stubborn refusal to admit it that is ruining us. I’ll take all the apology tours Obama’s teleprompter can cope with if it means we start undoing some of the dumb idiotic policies we’ve been pursuing for decades.