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A sorry state of affairs

It was in 1976 that Elton John sang, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. Now, nearly 36 years later, sorry seems to be the hardest word to avoid in America, as recent headlines are all about people offering their regrets. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:56 IST

It was in 1976 that Elton John sang, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. Now, nearly 36 years later, sorry seems to be the hardest word to avoid in America, as recent headlines are all about people offering their regrets.


The sorry storm starts at the top. US president Barack Obama recently apologised to Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai after it was discovered that Qurans were accidentally burned at an American base. Obama explained the apology was meant as a pre-emptive strike, unlike the barrage of Hellfire apologies fired by unmanned drones across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border after civilian casualties.

It obviously didn’t work. Within days, four American military personnel were killed by Afghans, though Karzai didn’t consider that worthy of remorse.

Just as that sorry state of affairs had peaked, a conservative talk radio host draped himself in a nine-yard sorry. That would be Rush Limbaugh, who told his listeners that a Georgetown Law School student was a “slut”. That slut talk resulted from the student, Sandra Fluke (pronounced like ‘yuck’ though Limbaugh may prefer another rhyme) telling a US Congress panel that the government needed to hand out free birth control pills. Fluke argued, “Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school.” Unkind critics calculated if she purchased contraceptives at the local WalMart, she may have to spend over a decade in law school to reach the $3,000 figure. But Limbaugh stepped in and injected a touch of the vile into his retort to Fluke: “Well, what would you call someone who wants us to pay for her to have sex?” And then, unfortunately, answered his own question.

His language was ugly. Limbaugh offered his sincere apologies, but Fluke thumbed her nose at him. President Obama inserted himself into another apology drama, calling Fluke. Meanwhile, there’s also liberal television host Bill Maher, who famously used slang terms for female sexual organs to describe Republican women like Sarah Palin. No word yet on whether Obama has apologised for a group supporting his campaign accepting $1 million in donations from Maher. American society appears to have developed an entirely new degree of sensitivity. If fairy tales were being written in this decade (outside of political speeches), the most appropriate would be ‘The Princess and The Pea Brain’.

It’s a time for runaway regrets. A simple Google search using the keywords ‘demand’ and ‘apology’ throws up over 35 million results, mostly news items from America.

Meanwhile, conservatives want Huffington Post publisher Arianna Huffington to apologise after that website featured an article on Republican presidential pretender Rick Santorum, his Catholic faith and described church as “the tactical arm of the North American Man-Boy Love Association.”

And elsewhere, the campaign manager for Obama’s re-election effort earned the ire of more Republicans for tweeting a line from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank that read, “‘The chimichanga? It may be the only thing Republicans have left to offer Latinos” as being offensive to Latinos. Milbank responded to the furore over the deep-friend burrito by countering that his critics “end this sorry episode by apologising for demanding apologies.”

Since apologies are so big in America, it’s somewhat surprising that the favourite to secure the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney, actually has an autobiography out that is titled No Apology. His son Matt may have skipped it, for he had to do the routine, after responding to calls for his father to release his tax returns with this tweeted alleged joke: “I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as president Obama releases his grades and birth certificate and sort of a long list of things, then maybe he’d do it.” Soon, he was going “My bad.”

‘My bad’ is always good these days. It’s like the entire nation has been put on hold and a robotic voice keeps repeating, ‘We apologise for the inconvenience.’

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years.

The views expressed by the author are personal.