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JOEL STEIN

Pre-apology? Sorry, no

December 05, 2006|JOEL STEIN

EVENTUALLY, I'M going to write something horribly offensive. And when I do, it might be several tense hours before I can get Jesse Jackson on the phone in order to apologize to him. So I figured I'd call him now and pre-apologize.

In addition to Michael Richards telling Jackson that he was sorry for his racist tirade at the Laugh Factory, Jackson has accepted apologies from Mexican President Vicente Fox (for saying Mexican immigrants will do jobs that "not even blacks want to do"), the producers of "Barbershop" (for a Rosa Parks joke in the film) and himself (for calling New York "Hymietown").

Needless to say, the new Seinfeld DVD is selling swiftly, Fox served his full term, "Barbershop" had a sequel and New York is still chock full of Jews. A Jackson pardon never fails.

So after putting in a request that I thought Jackson's staff wouldn't take seriously, I was startled when my phone rang two hours later and the reverend was on the other end. I would be absolved, I thought, in two or three minutes.

I was very wrong. When I explained my request, it became clear that this hypothetical offensive thing I might do someday was instead happening right now.

"Why should you be offensive?" Jackson asked, annoyed. "I don't know why you would do that."

Luckily, as I was stammering a response, Jackson smoothly segued into reciting his own agenda. I was not surprised to hear him tell me about America's lack of concern about Katrina victims, the media ignoring Trent Lott's return to party leadership and the dearth of black actors on television ("all day, all night, all white"). I was, however, surprised that it took him nearly four minutes before he mentioned that he worked with Martin Luther King Jr.

A smarter man would have thanked Jackson for his time and gotten off the phone. But as I predicted in the very premise of this project, I am not a smarter man. I asked again if he could slip me an indulgence.

"I don't know why you would insist on continuing to bring this up," he said. Oddly, I was thinking the exact same thing.

I explained that I was interested in finding out how a single person can play judge for damage done to an entire group, and why society needs a figurehead to represent its pain. Then I hoped and prayed that sounded smart.

Jackson said that when Richards called him, "I made it clear that I am not the arbiter of apologies." In fact, he said, "I'm more likely to be called upon to get someone out of a foreign jail than to accept an apology." Between the foreign arrests and the apologies for racist slurs, being a civil rights leader seems a lot like being a parent to rich children.

Then Jackson pointed out that listening to confessions is pretty common for someone in his line of work. "When people are distressed, when people are injured, when people need their cases argued, they tend to call a minister," he explained. "People tend to call someone to give them a listening ear. That's all. At the end of the day, it's about providing a service: to alleviate misery."

My future misery, however, was currently unalleviable. "It would be inappropriate," he finally told me. I am the first person in history to have an apology turned down by Jesse Jackson.

But as ridiculous as it seems to have people apologize to Jackson for things they didn't do to him, and for him to demand apologies for events he wasn't involved in (Outkast for dressing in Native American outfits; the U.S. for crashing a jet in China) -- the theatrics do serve a purpose.

Confrontation is a necessary part of contrition. Apologizing in a press release to anyone offended makes sense in theory, but it has no stakes. We need to see human emotions expressed by real humans; our catharsis has to come from leaders playing our parts on stage.

And though Jay Leno, Barbara Walters and Dr. Phil may try, Jackson performs that role best. I know that after I finally got off the phone, my sweaty palms and aching stomach felt like they were taught a moral lesson.

I just hope that people don't find this column so offensive that I'll have to really apologize. Because I'm not sure Jackson would take my call after this. Oh, who am I kidding? Of course he will.

*

jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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