I invariably glance up at the person who said it, but she (or sometimes he) is already striding past, satisfied that all has been made right in the world by the two syllable utterance. I am left standing (or more accurately, briskly walking) there with my thought process shattered, the potential cure for cancer that might have been discovered by extensive reflection on Julianne Moore's crotch lost forever, and a single question left emblazoned on my consciousness. "Sorry for what?"
We almost collided, it is true, but I think that the key word there is 'almost,' not 'collided.' Since when does almost doing something require an apology? Perhaps from time to time when the act almost commited is malicious, like "I'm sorry I almost snuck into your house and bashed your head in with a baseball bat because I thought you were sleeping with my wife when in fact you were only planning a surprise party for me" but then you're apologising for the malice, not for the act itself, which after all was never committed. I suppose from time to time it happens in near traffic accidents, but then you are apologising for poor driving that almost had potentially tragic consequences. Running a yield sign or taking a turn without signaling is not comparable to the offense in the walking example, which is what exactly? Walking around a corner without first using a periscope? Failure to be omniscient? Forgetting to take your X-ray glasses with you while out for a stroll? Existing?
Sometimes I worry that it might be a proactive apology, then I worry what the person plans to do next. I half expect to turn and see the business end of a baseball bat hurtling towards my skull at barely subsonic speeds. Or maybe these people are planning something even more nefarious. They could be terrorists who feel extreme guilt over the actions they are planning and the 'sorry's could be Freudian slips that I should attend to if I want to prevent a disaster. If I'm so worried about curing cancer why am I not concerned about saving lives threatened by these sidewalk terrorists?
Of course we all know that these people aren't apologising for not carrying periscopes around or for future terrorists actions. They aren't really apologising for anything. They're just symptomatic of society's degraded politeness. See the real problem with our culture these days isn't that people aren't trying to be polite anymore. They're just bad at it. They don't know that the appropriate social lubricant for a minor faux pas like almost running into someone on the street is 'excuse me,' not 'sorry.' This is understandable in the case of 'excuse me' since it's one of those English phrases that nobody knows how to use, like 'whom.' It's an apology, it's a demand, it's a sarcastic statement of self-righteousness, it's a plane. 'Excuse me' is a deeply confused phrase. It may even have The Gay. It is, however, not the only politeness phrase that's routinely being abused these days. Does anyone have any idea how to use sir or ma'am anymore? In a military situation with a superior officer it's a pretty safe bet that you should go with 'sir.' Beyond that it's anyone's guess. I've heard that some female officers like the term 'sir' to be applied to them. In the Marines the women officers are considered gentlemen. Okay dokay. Of course if you use that in the wrong context you'll end up in the brig so fast that you'll think you're in a French New Wave film. Outside the military it's even more complicated. Some older people think that it's classy for youths to speak to them with some level of respect and decorum. Some just think that you're calling them old (you are.) It's a crapshoot.
A lot of this polite(ness) confusion is due to positive social changes. In the bad old days you knew to call the rich white guy "sir" or "massa," the black guy "boy" and to say "excuse me" when you somehow inconvenienced a member of the oligarchy. It was neat, clean, and totally unfair. Now the world is messy and complicated, you need an ettiquette degree to know how to behave properly, and people without white skin and protestant last names actually have a shot at doing something with their lives. It's a trade off.
Anyway I've been thinking that this societywide problem of politeness being hard is partially to blame for the complete breakdown of politeness in our political discourse. Once again it's not that there aren't expectations of politeness in our political conversations, it's that they're horribly misplaced.
Personal attacks are inappropriate and should be looked down upon in the political arena. When Rush Limbaugh stated that Chelsea Clinton was the White House dog he was crossing a line. We SHOULD be impolite about policy however. Very impolite. What's going on these days is atrocious. In this month's Harper's magazine there are two articles about the breakdown of our political system. One is about how fucked up the U.S. military is these days. How little congressional oversight there is and how Donald Rumsfeld doesn't give a damn about the soldiers. They were asked to go into Iraq firezones without proper body or vehicle armor. People died. During the congressional meeting on this a congressman who knew that our government had sent underequipped soldiers to their deaths suggested that if something wasn't done about this people might die. As if it was a hypothetical. As if it was in question.
It happened, in real life. Insurgents took aim at underarmored vehicles with auotmatic weapons. Triggers were pulled. Bullets broke through glass and canvas, through uniform and skin, into organs muscle and bone. Teeth were smashed down throats, brains blew out the back of heads, arteries popped under the pressure of the impact and young men choked to death on their own blood while trying to scream. It's not theory, it's not hypothetical, it's history.
It was preventable. It was not prevented. The military, despite a budget that's much larger than the GNPs of most of the nations on this earth, did not bother to equip its young men with the things they needed to have the minimal possible chance of having their lungs fill with blood and their lives snuffed out in pursuit of phantom WMDs. Wayne Biddle, author of the Harper's article in question, does not leave us in suspense as to how this could have happeend. He brings up some of the more interesting funding projects in the military budget. $4.7 billion for the F-22 "raptor" jet fighter, a plane the promises to allow our air support to be even more superior to the competition than it is today. How many planes have we lost in Iraq? How many lives have we lost because our air force wasn't up to the task? How many pilots have died? That money would have been enough to fix the armor problem for troops in dangerous areas. That money could have saved lives. On the plus side at least it isn't the $1.75 billion that we spent on the Osprey air-craft, throwing bad money after bad money on a project that has actually helped kill numerous test crews. At least that $4.7 billion wasn't spent killing our own boys. In Rumsfeld's army that's a step in the right direction.
Pork and corruption riddle the defense department. It costs lives, dozens of them. That blood is on the hands of our politicians and the pathetic excuses for human refuse that they hire to administrate various programs and departments. That blood is on the voters who allow this to happen. We don't talk about this a lot, we don't talk about the fact that even if you accept that Iraq was justified, even if you don't want to call Bush and his evil masters war criminals for the Iraqis they've killed, they are still directly responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans. They are mass murderers of American citizens, trading young people's lives for political expediency and influence. "Oh, Militech contributed $100,000 to Republican campaigns this year? We should definitely reward that kind of loyalty with a contract. We can take that money out of benefits and healthcare to veterans. What's that? Army Spc. James E. Powell II, 26, of Columbus Ohio was killed when his Bradley armored vehicle struck a land mine? The Bradley 'armored' vehicles, a debacle from their conception, can't handle a land mine? So what, it's just one dead soldier. Won't affect campaign contributions or voting, unless he had a big family. Let's get back to what we can do to funnel taxpayer money to Militech."
This is an example of something that should not be a polite issue. Yet when Doonesbury tries to print a strip about a fictional soldier who loses his leg in a battle in Iraq newspapers censor it because the term "son of a bitch" is used. That's not missing the forest for the trees it's missing the continent for the grain of sand.
Of course corruption in the military is just one example of a system gone haywire. The other article in Harper's talks about how the unbalanced nature of the American senate causes money to flow from big states into small ones. How this unbalanced system helps our country achieve tyranny of the minority, not even the majority. How it is based not on a 'great' compromise but rather a bit of political chicanery where something like 1/3 of the population was in support of the current status quo back when it was voted on.
The people in these smaller states (or more accurately their politicians.) are stealing by force of government from those of us who live in large prosperous states like New York or California. They hide the thievery in things like block grants to states of even sizes or pork. 18% of the population controls 50% of the senate. Nobody really talks about the depths of the problem or if they do then they talk about it as intractible. Maybe it is, I've said so myself in the past, but it's not something worth being polite about. When someone comes into your home and takes some of your belongings for his benefit you don't respond politely. It's time for the senators and congressmen from the big states to get VERY impolite about this issue. It's time for them to throw some curse words around.
That's nice Ben, you might be saying at this point if you haven't surfed on to greener webpages (damn my color scheme!) but what does it have to do with Julianne Moore's pubic hair? Well I'll tell you, see the very fact that some woman who comes close to bumping into me on the street feels the need to apologise while the fat-cats who gorge themselves on the public trough and the administration that sends our boys off to die in foreign lands on a magic carpet of lies and manipulation does not-well it defines much of what's wrong with our society these days. We complain about Janet Jackson's breasts on TV, about steroids in our sports, about John Kerry's botox. We don't talk about the true depths to which our society has sunk, the rot throughout the system that will soon bring it all crashing down. We push aside the murderers who we elect, the houses of we deciet that we erect, and all the dots that don't connect.
Fuck fiddling while Rome burns, we're playing the Kazoo during the climax of Dr. Strangelove.
Don't apologise if you nearly bump into me on the street, or even if you collide with me full on. Apologise when you vote for the next Yale educated Skull and Bones member who will ride our country closer to ruin. Apologise when you turn a blind eye to the fact that your state is stealing from mine. Apologise when your politicians vote to put corporate welfare ahead of the safety of our soldiers.
Save your sorries for the big things.