“This was a wag-the-dog hit,” one religious activist told Newsweek, referring to last week’s news that Jesse Jackson had fathered a “love child.” Though it was hardly news to his associates, this scandal lay dormant until Jackson decided to tackle a fundamental injustice in American life: the disenfranchisement of black voters. As Inauguration Day neared, the story broke. Though there are indications that the source was someone in Jackson’s fold, conservatives lost no time in profiting from the timely revelation. There were calls for other black leaders (say, Republican ones) to step forward, while on the left, Al Sharpton hovered in the wings. Yet in the end, Jackson dodged this bullet by doing what all good Americans are expected to do when they have sinned: He apologized.
It’s been a banner month for atonement. Giants quarterback Kerry Collins expressed regret yet again for his alcohol problem, and the Big Creep himself copped a plea. As for Jackson, he’s no stranger to contrition, having spent more time than the pope apologizing to Jews—with less reason. As a practiced penitent, Jackson had no trouble advising Bill Clinton that the best way to put his sins behind him was to tender an apology. By stiffing the public, Clinton added immeasurably to his problems, but once he begged forgiveness his popularity soared. Like countless politicians, celebrities, and champions who have paraded their penance before the cameras, Clinton learned to play his part in the great American repentance rite.
In this land of milk and media, the fall from grace has become a genre. Call it the sit-sin. In the first segment, you do the dirty deed. Then, after the commercials, you get caught. But just before the credits roll, you offer it up to some higher power. If you keep a humble mien, chances are very good that you’ll be back next week.
Of course, some sins are beyond repair. Jimmy Swaggart never benefited from his confession, but one suspects that the excessiveness of his apology had something to do with it. Downcast eyes are one thing, a flood of tears quite another; the idea is to provide a spectacle of humiliation, not a discomforting display of pain. You could argue that the Kennedys’ crimes are too heinous to qualify for forgiveness, but it’s also true that liberals have more trouble transcending their transgressions than conservatives do. Scandals are a major weapon of the right, yet these same folks tend to forgive their own. Witness the easy ride Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr, Henry Hyde, and Helen Chenoweth (to mention just a few Republican adulterers) have had. Deposed House speaker Bob Livingston is doing quite nicely as a lobbyist. And Representative Dan Burton, who sired a love child, got reelected.
As for celebrities, we’re willing to forgive an errant blowjob if it makes for a good punch line. Hugh Grant repented on no fewer than five TV shows, regaling his audience with double entendres. (George Michael never got to joke about his toilet bust, but then, there’s nothing funny about a man who would rather give than receive in oral sex.) Pee-Wee Herman lost his gig as a kiddie icon after wanking at the movies, but he went on to appear in more than a dozen films. The oft indicted Robert Downey Jr. won a Golden Globe award. And athletes can get away with pretty much anything as long as they apologize—though they might have to sacrifice a sneaker endorsement along the way. Even Marv Albert has returned, proving that no sin short of bad hair is too mortal for a comeback.
When a 17th-century diplomat, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, called hypocrisy “the homage vice pays to virtue,” he never imagined the current American spin. We’ve learned to use repentance as an instrument of freedom. It’s not just the (ultimately sadistic) pleasure of the apology that we savor; it’s the good news that we can sin and still maintain our virtue. In a culture where virginity is regained at the signing of a pledge to screw no more, penance allows us to do as we please in the near certainty that, by making amends for our trespasses, we can keep the hymen of respectability intact.
Churches once had repentance stools for sinners to sit on, and the custom we inherited from the Scots was for penitents to appear barefoot in a white smock, carrying a white wand. But as America becomes the land of second chances, the white wand has been desubstantiated into a shot at 15 minutes of rue. These days, the sinner simply enters the studio at a propitious moment in the news cycle, repents, and is reborn.
As a mediator of morality, this ritual is perfect. It preserves the ideal while allowing for considerable departure. You can have your cake—or coke—and repent of it, too. Nothing suits this synthesis of hedonism and hypocrisy like adultery, an act practiced by between 25 and 50 percent of married American men (depending on whether you believe Kinsey or more recent surveys) and half as many married women. Yet 80 percent of us believe adultery is wrong. One way to make this disjunction disappear is to create a system that allows for infidelity as long as it’s processed. It’s only when an adulterer defends that choice—or denies any guilt despite proof to the contrary—that the fragile foundation of this edifice begins to crumble. And God help the Republic when the unrepentant bounder is the president.
In fact, America has always been a nation of extremely diverse sexual mores. The Mormons, the Indians, the emancipated slaves, all practiced something other than marital monogamy. There was a broad tradition of sexual radicalism among early feminists, free lovers, and communards like the Oneida colonists in upstate New York. These experiments were crushed—often by force—but in the age of latter-day sinners, the old order cannot be enforced by lash or law. Most of us live in something other than a two-parent, divorce-free, heterosexual household, and sexual practices once deemed unspeakable are now the stuff of merchandising. The economy has flourished from this shift, which is why it will probably survive the current upchuck from the right. But we do need some way to pretend we are living in a world where virginity until marriage and monogamy thereafter are the norm. And so we expect our public figures to apologize.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was right to call America a nation of “promiscuous puritans.” As he understood, there’s something essentially moral about wearing the scarlet letter rather than repenting for an act you don’t regard as sinful. So let’s hear it for Harvey Milk, the gay politico who once answered an opponent’s charge that homosexuals had thousands of partners by snickering, “If only!” One cheer for Rudy Giuliani, who refused to apologize for his extramarital life. And if Al Sharpton is ever caught in a compromising situation, let’s hope he has the courage to stick with the rule he applied to Tawana Brawley: Never apologize—unless you mean it.
Research: Michael Corwin
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2001