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Our Politics Need a Culture of Atonement
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Culturally informed by Roman Catholicism’s expectation that regret must prompt an apology as well as penance, Western European tradition calls for a rhetorical journey by politicians who claim to have changed course. A chastened leader should explain why and how he came to his previous belief, explain the circumstances that changed his mind and make the case for his new, different policy. He must expend political capital in order to get changes enacted.

Charles de Gaulle, who wanted France to retain control of Algeria, had observed the popularity and ferocity of the Algerian independence movement during his frequent visits to Algiers. In 1960, the French president admitted that he’d long been mistaken. “The Algerians will have the free choice of their destiny,” he informed a nation stunned by his dramatic reversal. Speaking of political capital, some military officers felt so betrayed they tried to assassinate him. But he brought the Algerian crisis in for a soft landing and regained support.

A rare American example occurred in 1987. Then-President Ronald Reagan first denied negotiating with Iranian hostage takers. Then he apologized to the public for Iran-Contra. Taking “full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration,” Reagan said, he then admitted to misleading the public. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he said. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s admission was a low point for his presidency but bolstered his reputation in the long run.

Atonement doesn’t play a frequent role in American politics.

Yet it works. After former President John F. Kennedy accepted responsibility for the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs — he could have schluffed the fiasco off on Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration planned it — his popularity soared.

But it might not have worked for Ike. A study undertaken in 2017 in nine nations including the U.S. found that, especially in the U.S., conservatives are less willing than liberals to apologize, and that they’re less likely to accept an apology.

Conservatives mocked former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for “apology tours” during which they expressed regret over America’s role in the slave trade and Middle East interventionism, respectively. Being Republican means never having to say you’re sorry.

The fertile soil for a culture of atonement occurs on the left.


Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden needs to unify the Democratic Party. He has the center-left Hillary Clinton wing in the bag. He leads in the polls but has an enthusiasm gap in progressives who supported Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Neither the Black Lives Matter movement nor progressives have forgiven the former vice president for supporting the police-group-written 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration. They’re angry that he voted for war against Iraq. A fulsome apology followed by substantial atonement — the way Sanders now says he shouldn’t have voted for the war against Afghanistan — could help Biden with activists.

So far, so tepid.

Biden hasn’t expressed regret, apologized or explained his change of heart, much less promised to do better when contemplating issues of law and order, or wars of choice in the future. Why should the left forgive a man who hasn’t asked for it?

Sen. Kamala Harris is on the short list for the vice presidency. Her prospects are clouded by her history as a pro-cop prosecutor. She might consider that confession is good for the soul as well as the polls — especially among the progressive Democrats Biden needs. Harris could renounce her “lock them up and throw away the key” past as an attorney general. She could urge the release of Kevin Cooper, now on death row for murders that he may not have committed because she opposed DNA testing. Harris said she felt “awful about this.” Never mind the pabulum. Write a check to the Innocence Project.

Empty talk won’t save organizations either.

The NFL is trying to pivot away from its longstanding prohibitions against players expressing opposition to racism and police violence, a policy symbolized by blackballing Colin Kaepernick. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Goodell’s statement “has rightfully been met with skepticism from the masses,” Vincent Frank wrote at Forbes. “But if Kaepernick remains unemployed once the 2020 NFL season starts in September, it will have been proven that Goodell’s words were nothing more than an attempt to appease the masses through a well thought out PR stunt.”

Biden, Harris and the NFL need to atone for their sins. We don’t want their words. We need action.

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  1. TG says:

    I am somewhat confused by this post.

    Who is supposed to atone for what, exactly?

    The rich are strip-mining the economy, looting it like Russia under Yeltsin except we don’t have a Putin to stop it. Rents are unaffordable, medical care is unaffordable, education is unaffordable, people are crushed under lifetime unplayable debt servitude because politician like Joe “Backstabbing”Biden tore up the traditional bankruptcy laws… and I am supposed to “atone” for one white person, out of a population of 340+ million, killed a black person? Well, if one black person kills a white person, shouldn’t all black people everywhere for all of time “atone” for that? Utter rubbish.

    We don’t have a race problem in this country. We have a class war. and my class is losing. We don’t need “atonement.” We need utter corrupt bastards like Joe Biden and Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton and Mitt Romney etc. tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail (metaphorically speaking).

    • Replies: @joe2.5
    , @botazefa
  2. anonymous[245] • Disclaimer says:

    On March 14, Mr. Rall wrote “Joe Biden Obviously Has Dementia and Should Withdraw.”

    And finally, there are the voters. As a citizen, you have no business casting a vote thoughtlessly or less than fully informed. Deliberately casting a vote for someone clearly suffering from dementia, or turning a blind eye to it, or being simply unaware of Biden’s mental state, is inexcusable.

    No one who has been close to someone deteriorating from that disease could fail to see the same signs in Joe Biden.

    In online discussions, Biden apologists sometimes say that a senile Biden is better than an evil Trump. Is this really where we are? Congratulations, Democrats, you literally picked the worst of the bunch.

    This is not about politics. No doubt, Joe Biden’s voting record is monstrous. He opposed school busing, sold out Anita Hill, voted to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, supported NAFTA and bragged about the extrajudicial assassination of Osama bin Laden. And, yes, Hunter Biden’s job in Ukraine is classic corruption. But that’s not the point here.

    Even if his politics were closer to mine — quadrupling the minimum wage; nationalizing major industries; banning all wars of aggression; free health care and college — I would be writing this same column. It doesn’t matter how crappy Donald Trump is. It’s anti-American and unpatriotic to vote for someone suffering from dementia for a position with exclusive control over nuclear launch codes.

    What about Donald Trump? If Joe Biden is the nominee and people don’t vote for him — which I think will be the case anyway — Trump will win a second term. Isn’t it imperative to stop that by any means necessary?

    As I wrote recently, odds are that Trump, like most previous presidents, won’t get much done during his second term. There is always a moral alternative to picking between two terrible options. Vote for another party. Write someone in. Don’t vote.

    But in this column, Mr. Rall says that Mr. Biden can now “atone” for his non-demented conduct, and
    “unify” the Democratic party.

    So if Mr. Biden shows a little Progress, will Mr. Rall vote for him?

    • Replies: @anonymous
  3. El Dato says:

    Sen. Kamala Harris is on the short list for the vice presidency. Her prospects are clouded by her history as a pro-cop prosecutor.

    Her prospects are, however, not clouded by her anti-white racism, hustler opportunism and general room-temperature IQ.

  4. The NFL is trying to pivot away from its longstanding prohibitions against players expressing opposition to racism and police violence, a policy symbolized by blackballing Colin Kaepernick.

    In a piece filled with mistaken conclusions and misstatements, this sentence stands out.

    There is little racism in America unless you count blacks being racist to whites.

    And there is even less police brutality.

    Any player who kneels should be immediately let go. And if the NFL “pivots” they can kiss their audience goodbye. It is despicable to insult your fans with this nonsense.

    Finally, Kaepernick was not blackballed so shove your symbolism where the sun don’t shine. He is a failed quarterback who thought he could negotiate a better contract and then failed to come through when given a chance to showcase himself. He’s a failure as an athlete and a failure as a human being.

    Ted, you really need help. I used to like your comics. What happened to you, man?

    • Agree: BuelahMan
  5. anon[132] • Disclaimer says:

    Atonement. Oh. You mean like every time the US tortures the shit out of wogs or surplus humans of some sort? Like after they tortured the shit out of every Joe Blow in Latin America? And after cops tortured the shit out of half the black guys in Chicago? And after CIA tortured the shit out of a couple thousand wogs to get a fake casus belli out of someone? And after pigs torture the shit out of each new random black lynching victim? And just go right back to doing it whenever they want?

    Fuck that. Fuck atonement. These state criminals eat so much shit for their superiors, they like the taste of shit. They’ll apologize till the cows come home and keep right on doing whatever they want.

    What you need is an end to impunity, cause the grabass will not stop until some assholes go to prison for keeps. Try Kamala Harris for prosecutorial misconduct, murder under color of law as a civil rights violation. Give her the death penalty. The crowds go wild when you fry a jig!

    Then there’s Biden. In universal jurisdiction law Biden has breached the Slavery Convention. Of course there’s nothing illegal in US law about reinstating slavery in correctional concentration camps. So get him with the old spitting-on-the-street trick, lock him up for 5 years per FCPA count. The case of Ukraine is open-and-shut. Pile on charges till it’s a life sentence or two, he’s plenty guilty and he doesn’t know where he is anyway.

    We gonna execute a few of these fuckers, that’s how we gonna atone.

    • Disagree: Nosquat Loquat
  6. joe2.5 says:

    Why only “metaphorically”?

  7. The french man should have simply rethought his opinion on another french mistake a bit earlier, then gone the other way and now maybe Paris would still look like Paris.

  8. polistra says: • Website

    Apologies are meaningless. Doing the right thing is all that counts. I’m dead tired of FORMER generals and RETIRED executives apologizing for what happened when they were in charge. They had the chance to do the right thing. Instead, they continued doing evil. No forgiveness is possible.

  9. botazefa says:

    we also need confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1million, regardless if the source is from capital gain or salary.

    • Replies: @Verymuchalive
  10. In 1960, the French president admitted that he’d long been mistaken. “The Algerians will have the free choice of their destiny…”

    Sounds like an overdue “Good riddance!” to me. Now only if the French could have their own free choice of destiny. That’s what the LePens are for.

  11. Rich says:

    Teddy is a kneeled. I think he needs to get out there and wash more black feet, maybe lick a few boots. Here he is enjoying at least an middle class life, while George Floyd is dead. A good White would give his house and earnings away to the blacks. Teddy needs to do a lot more “atoning” in my opinion.

  12. @botazefa

    What is really needed is an asset tax on the super -rich. A tax of 50% on assets over $10 million, payable in 10 yearly instalments would be very beneficial.

    • Replies: @botazefa
  13. anonymous[245] • Disclaimer says:

    While we’re waiting, here’s an easier question:

    Did Mr. Rall mean “extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki”?

  14. botazefa says:

    Yes, although 50% of Bezos’s ~$80billion is still to high.

    How about 90%?

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