Formula for Forgiving

How Americans measure how long it takes to forgive racist comments.

So, what is the statute of limitations on stupid, insensitive comments?

I don’t ask this as a legal question so much as a practical one. In the past week, Americans have yet again proven their opposing inclinations to punish politicians for politically incorrect remarks and—almost as readily—to forgive them. It’s widely accepted that Virginia’s soon-to-be former senator, George Allen, derailed not only his re-election bid but also his status as 2008 GOP presidential front-runner, with a single seemingly racist macaca moment last August. Yet this week also saw the GOP senators proudly hand the position of minority whip over to the same Trent Lott they only recently renounced for his remarkable 2002 statement that America would be a better place had it only elected Strom Thurmond—the famously segregationist Dixiecrat—in the 1948 presidential contest.

So, what’s going on here? Are slurs against East Indians somehow worse than slurs against African-Americans? Are GOP senators more tone-deaf than the American electorate? Or are we just so in love with the idea of second acts in American life that we will forgive any comment with the passage of time?

I heard my fair share of radio call-in shows last month in which callers and guests opined on whether George Allen’s alleged racism was counterbalanced by the alleged sexism of his opponent, Jim Webb. After much careful analysis, I can only suggest that the unit of measurement they all utilized was some diffuse algorithm of outrage in which the status of the minority demeaned is multiplied by the unit of public repentance expressed by the speaker, divided by the time elapsed since the incident, all divided then again by some inchoate unit of “redemption” experienced by the speaker.

How else can we explain an American polity horrified when Rush Limbaugh mocked Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J. Fox last month, yet willing to look past a Senate ad campaign that cast black Democrat Harold Ford as a masher who preys on white women? How else can we parse the linguistic soup of redemption, forgiveness, and time elapsed ladled out this week by Trent Lott’s GOP supporters: “He paid a pretty high price for the statement he made,” said Sen. John McCain, adding, “We all believe in redemption. … Thank God.” Sen. Olympia Snowe offered a variation on that same theme: “He apologized, and he paid a serious price for it.”

Initially, the redemption-comes-with-time explanation sounds like the best one: It assumes that the quick judgments of the American people are tempered by a longer-term optimism, a sunny willingness to believe the best of everyone in the end. But history suggests otherwise: In 2004 John Kerry was, after all “Swift-boated” for alleged conduct occurring decades earlier. Many Virginians were persuaded of Jim Webb’s alleged sexism—by a 1979 magazine article he’d penned titled “Women Can’t Fight.”

Time clearly does not heal all wounds. The American voters’ judgments seem to be anchored in some subtler calculation about “character.” Allen’s ship wasn’t so much sunk by the macaca comment as it was doomed by the mountain of other evidence it exposed: the Confederate flag; the inexplicable noose; the testimony of former college friends; the inability to talk about his Jewishness in a positive way: At some point Allen, unlike Lott, started to look less like a one-time malaprop than a bigot. And unlike Mel Gibson—who was somehow able to claim that the alcohol made him do it—Allen didn’t have the time to establish himself as a credible victim of anything.

Certainly, he tried. Allen made a halfhearted, last-ditch effort to claim that he was the victim of liberal media bias. But no one seemed to buy it this time. They may in 2008. Indeed, it seems it’s not that time heals all wounds, but that time affords a speaker an opportunity to cast himself as the wounded. By this token, Allen may well be redeemed in two years. And by the same token, Lott achieved his own redemption this week, at least in part, by casting himself as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. In his book, published last year, Herding Cats: A Life in Politics, Lott explained that he was the victim in the Strom Thurmond birthday incident; a mere “slip of the tongue” led to his betrayal by the Bush administration, an opportunistic Bill Frist, and his Senate colleagues: “I’d been knifed in the back,” he wrote, and four years later, his colleagues seem to agree he has suffered enough. As a nation we appear to believe that paying any consequences at all for our hurtful comments suffices for redemption.

Last weekend, New York Times columnist Frank Rich characterized these recent elections as a triumph for civility in American discourse: “a decisive no to the politics of ‘macaca’ and a “stake in … the heart of our political darkness.” I wish I could share his optimism. I don’t believe our current politics reflects a great surge of public support for victims of hateful speech—the immigrants, homosexuals, or racial minorities who are still fair game in some political circles. I think we are engaged, instead, in a more subtle, and more insidious, collective sifting and sorting of which victims merit our support and which perpetrators-turned-victims now warrant our forgiveness. Trent Lott is to be forgiven, George Allen is not (yet). John Kerry is perhaps forgiven for the Swift boats but not yet the “botched joke.”

Public opinion today turns on which of our leaders makes the best case for having been persecuted, which has most effectively used the words “I’ve suffered” as a substitute for “I’m sorry.”

Perhaps this great national game of pin-the-tail-on-the-victim is the best we can do in assessing the “characters” of our leaders. In an era in which every gaffe and blunder is captured forever on YouTube, who among us is really fit to judge whether Trent Lott or George Allen is a racist? And which of us can decide whether former racists have genuinely been reformed and redeemed? Still, I can’t help but wonder if we could at least agree that part of a person’s character should be measured by his ability to say, “I am sorry I hurt you” as opposed to “I am sorry you victimized me.”

A version of this article also appears in the Washington Post Outlook section.