Thursday, April 07, 2011

(Almost) No Apologies Necessary

Whether the US is a "confessional" society might make for a good debate. The term refers usually to a nation's being organized around religion, and on that point one could argue both for the prominence of religion in the expressions of our social life, including its politics, and on the other hand for its secular nature and the strong wall usually existing between state and formal religious groups.

In the terms of the classic dilemma for those about to get involved in transgressive behavior, America, compared to most countries, is much more a "beg forgiveness" country than an "ask permission" one. This is really one of our great strengths, a key source of our history of innovation, and one of the clearest expressions of the sense of liberty that Americans feel in their daily lives.

The "confessional" is that little closet where believers go to confess their sins in the Catholic church and in some of the others. A "confessional society" contains a paradox: beliefs fundamentally revolving around those private, secret admissions emerge into direct influence on public policy. American society is confessional in a different way: it is the public confessional which is important. In our legal system, the degree of punishment is very much affected if the guilty admit to their crimes; so it is in our trials of public opinion of the famous. It is not enough that our celebrity face up to his/her sins privately, in the confessional, the A.A. group meeting, or face-to-face with those wronged--we expect a public apology as the first step in rehabilitation.

There are countless examples, from Tiger Woods to Eliot Spitzer to Larry Craig. If the mea culpa is deemed sufficiently sincere, the American people will forgive almost anything; if not, they will punish endlessly and ostracize ruthlessly. Think of O.J. Simpson, of Roman Polanski.

Still, there are those whose behavior is publicly criticized who, I would argue, have no need to apologize. For example, Charlie Sheen may be wrong about his level of talent, the demand for it, and his popularity--I would say probably he is wrong--but he is not wrong in his "arrogant" posture that he does not owe the public an apology. His show, "Two and a Half Men", may have been simple-minded entertainment, but it was entertaining, and his lifestyle probably contributed to its success (by adding authenticity to his portrayal of an amoral, womanizing rake) more than it detracted from it. He certainly does not need to apologize for it, in the face of dozens of shows of much more embarrassing quality.

The Libya Thing
I don't see that President Obama has anything to apologize for in the case of the US' involvement in establishing--by force--the "no fly zone". Neither to us, nor to Congress, nor to the world community. Regardless of what he said while campaigning, prior approval for hostilities is not required by US law. There are dozens of precedents, including several in recent decades. I would argue that Obama should get Congressional approval before putting any troops, or military advisers, on the ground in Libya (and I think he will not choose to take that further step, anyway).

In terms of lack of clarity on objectives, exit strategy, and all those other criticisms, those reflect a desire to over-simplify a complex situation, rather than a defect on strategy or execution. Obama's decisions were careful to go up to the line of what the U.N. resolution authorized, but not beyond. Once the no-fly zone had been established, he moved quickly to end US direction and leadership of military action, passing the responsibility to NATO, which was more eager for the role than our own military chiefs.

Will the mission succeed? This is very much in doubt, though the immediate aims of the U.N. resolution and US military action--protecting civilian populations in the east of the country from being overrun by Qadhafi forces, and the expected reprisals--were largely accomplished. Eastern Libya is still not out of danger, though, Qadhafi lives and continues to repress Libyans in most of the west of the country, and it is unclear whether the emerging stalemate will cost more innocent lives than a cathartic bloodletting would. Probably not, but the preferred outcome remains Qadhafi dead, his sons disinherited and exiled, and letting Libya be governed--for good or ill--by different Libyans. Obama has been clear enough about this (except for the part about Qadhafi's mortal expiration), and again has no reason to apologize.

Perhaps I need to apologize, though, for calling for the bad Colonel's assassination by willing agents of the Libyans. After all, the one major American political figure who I've seen espouse "my" policy is John Bolton, the never-confirmed former US Ambassador to the U.N. Generally, one can count on Bolton's undiplomatic pronouncements to be 100% in error. In this case, he's no more than 5% off, though; I would differ with him only in that the assassination should not be a product of US policy, but something done by Libyans, with private encouragement as necessary (OK, maybe a little "persuasion" in the form of attacks on Qadhafi's hometown base). The fact Qadhafi still breathes is not a deficiency of the Obama Administration's policy, then, just an incomplete development of events to date.

Anyway, to whom would I apologize? Colonel Qaddafi? No way.

Talking about the Men's NCAA Tournament
Next on the list of criticized entities that need no apologies are the four teams of the Final Four. Though the semifinal and championship games may not have met the artistic standards some desired (particularly in offensive execution), these teams reached their stations in the traditional way, winning at least five games in a row in single elimination.

Yes, they had some dicey moments: Butler's win over Pittsburgh came after two highly improbable mental error fouls, but the highly-favored Panthers had their chance and failed. Kentucky needed a last-second basket to beat Princeton in the first round; Butler should have lost to Florida, and VCU to Florida State, had those teams executed their offenses properly in their final offensive plays in regulation time. This was a tournament of close games and fateful accidents, but also of some surprising one-sided defeats of higher-seeded teams, like VCU's destruction of regional #2 and #1 seeds Notre Dame and Kansas.

Certainly the Connecticut Huskies have nothing for which to apologize. They followed up a fantastic series of wins in the Big East conference tourney with similar successes all the way through the NCAA tourney. The only thing to wonder about is what happened in the regular-season conference play, when they could only win half their games, but they came from nowhere early in the season to establish their credentials, then put it together again "when it counted" at the end.

VCU's run troubled me, though: this was a team which did very little to earn its bid in the tournament. They did not win their conference, or their conference tourney, or beat any powerful teams in non-conference games, or even put up an impressive overall won-lost record (19-11 going into the tournament, I believe). Their selection was justifiably highly criticized, but they had the last laugh; they were strong enough to win through to the semis, including a decisive win against the team considered second-best in the country going into the tournament (if not the best), Kansas. What all this means is some demeaning of the importance of quality of performance in the regular season: just do enough to get in, don't show your methods of competing against the best, and prep your athletes for a surprise run. Of course, it isn't that simple, but the game is already too close to a semi-pro league, and coasting through the regular season to get into "the playoffs" is not the behavior the college game needs.

Finally, my picks: neither the dream Kentucky-Louisville final nor the chalky varieties of Kansas and Ohio State made it to the final, so I didn't win any money. I did have one of my ESPN picks with Connecticut winning the tourney (and some other good picks along the way; I had only one of the Final Four, but I had all four of the regional finalist losers making it that far), and that one made it above 99 percent of entries. So, no need to apologize for lack of prognostication excellence.

I do have to apologize to my wife, though: I meant to make one of my ESPN entries (they allow 10, I did eight) be her picks, but I made a key mistake or two in entering them, which caused her some de-motivation in watching the games. Sorry, dear!

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