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The “Apologies”: A Note On Usage

Obama intentionally deceives the American public, the politicization of a term, to legitimize and cover over, mass murder. The word “apology” is in the air, this week the CEO of Volkswagen in America used it to hide the falsification of emissions standards, and Mary Barra, CEO of GM, used it earlier in addressing corporate employees, the tenor of her congressional testimony being to the same effect: Forgive us our sins, for we know not what evil we wrought (in this case, mass murder by engineering license, failing for years to blow the whistle on a defective ignition switch). All three cases are related, the moral evasion of capitalism for the victims it creates and/or the laws it has broken.

I should say, interrelated, because the mentality created by capitalism from its earliest formative stages has been self-willed aggrandizement directed, even with collusion present, to all comers. Obama feels no more sorrow for the bombing of the Kunduz hospital than do the others for their illicit deeds—the important thing is not to get caught, lest the whole bloody edifice tumble. Deliberate criminal intent is built-into the DNA of the political-business-military leadership, safely assured that it will be all for one, one for all. The mechanism to ensure that wrongdoing goes unpunished is self-regulation, as opposed to transparent and independent investigation, in which the Pentagon, VW, and GM control the process. Apology = whitewash, criminality somehow twisted into charges against the victim or the whistleblower. How many Americans would love to see Snowden kidnapped from Russia and hung in America, so deep does the obfuscation of moral truth run. Nothing must be allowed to upset the pride in and complacency with the System, now international so that what happens in America affects Germany (and the whole of the EU, and for good measure the ground-rules drawn up for corporate privilege and protection in the Trans-Pacific Partnership). And vice versa.

This is the glory of globalization, one happy family of the Elect to the exclusion of the Adversary, so that ethnocentrism reigns supreme as a political, economic, military principle to be acted on, whether Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, North Africa, Latin America, etc. At every tender point of contact with reality, as in regime change or safeguarding mammoth corporations, the response is the same—apologize when flagrantly caught and move on, hoping a fickle public will ignore the moral turpitude joyously awash in its consumerism, or stand resolute, admit nothing, and obfuscate till the cows come home. In the last analysis be assured the predominant institutions take care of their own, and if needed, commence the search for a scapegoat in the lower ranks.

Apology is a pro forma admission of guilt, if even that, whose sole function is exonerative: the scales of justice have now been righted. They haven’t, the imbalance is even worse, with legal principles and the entire jurisprudential framework for sale to the highest bidder, including USG in its efforts to ward off accusations of war crimes. The military and business alike have a vested interest in legal fabrication to suit their ends, DOJ in a support role itself supplemented by the sheer financial-political power of mega-corporations. Have we reached the stage of irreversible systemic flow?

Let’s turn now to the aforementioned cases. The New York Times, in a Reuters dispatch, “Obama Apologizes for Kunduz Attack, MSF Demands Independent Probe,” (Oct. 7), points up what are irreconcilable differences between the two sides, apology notwithstanding, for “the medical charity pressed its demand for an international commission to investigate what it calls a war crime” (score one for NYT in casting doubt—“what it calls”—a war crime). MSF stated that “an independent commission created under the Geneva Convention in 1991 should be activated for the first time to handle the inquiry.” Obama, a resounding No, the terms of the convention reinforcing his obstruction: parties to an investigation must give their consent, the US flatly refusing to go along. Instead, he phoned MSF international president, Joanne Liu, to apologize, according to Josh Earnest, but then when asked “whether Obama offered some explanation to Liu,” we see the same answer: “Earnest said no.”

How Obama thinks this is acceptable reveals the administration’s hubris and cavalier handling of the truth. Obstruction (i.e., self-regulation) is as far as he would go: “Earnest said Obama told Liu that a U.S. investigation would ‘provide a transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of the incident. [Unprovoked mass murder is an incident.] And that, if necessary, the president would implement changes to make tragedies like this one less likely to occur in the future.’” Liu, holding that MSF would continue its investigation as best it could, had this to say at a briefing in Geneva—words that probably could not crack the rigid psychological/defensive armor of the American mindset: “’If we let this go, as if it was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries who are at war. If we don’t safeguard that medical space for us to do our activities, then it is impossible to work in other contexts like Syria, South Sudan, like Yemen.’”

We learn that the US and Afghanistan “were not signatories to the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC),” to which Jason Cone, executive director of MSF in the US, called on Obama “to consent to the commission.” At a New York news conference, Cone said, “’Doing so will send a powerful signal of the U.S. government’s commitment to and respect for international humanitarian law under rules of war.’” Instead, back on the phone, Obama called Afghan president Ghani “to express his condolences,” labelling the bombing “a mistake,” –a word, next to apology and collateral damage, which sits well with the vanity of empire. Liu, after discussion of the work of the hospital, said, “’Today we say enough, even war has rules.’”

Brian Fung’s article in the Washington Post, “Volkswagen’s U.S. CEO apologizes for emissions cheating scandal,” (Oct. 8), instances another phony mea culpa in the service of corporate rapacity and the prevention of independent investigation and possible prosecution (as of now, blame being assigned to two lower-level engineers acting alone). Michael Horn, head of VW America, stated before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, “’On behalf of our company and my colleagues in Germany, I would like to offer a sincere apology. These events are deeply troubling. I did not think that something like this was possible at the Volkswagen Group.’” That is a big gulp for me, given that 11 million of its cars worldwide (500,00 in the US), Fung writes, “were outfitted with a ‘defeat device’ that allowed it to cheat on emissions tests..’”

Perhaps more interesting is the cloak of corporate deniability thrown around the cheating which took place. The problem was not new. Yet Horn claimed it was only “a 2014 report by West Virginia researchers that initially indicated there was a problem,” and in his case, not until Sept. 3 of this year was he made aware of the report, which “merely indicated an emissions problem … not evidence of cheating.” He stuck to his story, even Republican members of the subcommittee expressing disbelief. EPA is in charge of the investigation, not a reassuring sign of criminal prosecution. Is there a relation between this cheating and climate change, as well as the direct health especially of children? Fung writes: “Volkswagen last month admitted to putting special software in its diesel cars that instructed the vehicles to emit less pollution during testing. On the open roads, however, the cars created up to 40 times the nitrogen oxide allowable by law. Untreated diesel exhaust has been identified as a significant contributor to respiratory illness, particularly among asthma patients, the elderly and children.” Good corporate citizens!

General Motors also must be considered, even more so, for a good corporate citizenship award, Geoff Colvin’s article in Fortune, “How CEO Mary Barra is using the ignition-switch scandal to change GM’s culture,” (Sept. 18), exquisitely turning long-term mass murder into a positive good, the transformation of General Motors into, not a corporate giant, but a caring public service or servant. Colvin casually dispatches the deaths—presumably par for the course in the industry, the fine levied insuring against criminal prosecution: “The agreement by GM to pay a $900-million fine settles criminal charges the U.S. had made against the company for wire fraud and withholding information from regulators about a defective ignition switch that has been blamed for over 100 deaths. The tragic events are not especially surprising in the auto industry. [A cynicism to be expected in Fortune] Mistakes are made, lives are lost, cases are settled. What’s new and worth watching is the way Barra is handling the case.” Yes, apology follows.

“’I never want to put this behind us,’ she told employees at a town hall meeting that stunned many of them.” Apparently GM seldom if ever apologizes. The account continues: “She apologized publicly and profusely, visited the families of victims, and set up a compensation fund for them before any legal liability had been established.” Still, after years of the defective ignition switch causing deaths, Barra can only treat this as a mistake—speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil, dating back years. “’The mistakes that led to the ignition-switch recall should never have happened. We have apologized and we do so again today. I believe our response has been unprecedented in terms of candor, cooperation, transparency, and compassion.’” And well it might be, because it got GM out of a tight hole. Thus, US prosecutor Preet Bharara praised the corporation profusely, “the cooperation by GM executives had been ‘fairly extraordinary …. It’s the reason we’re here after 18 months rather than four years.’”

Apology wards off criticism, mitigates damage, avoids prosecution—a word cheapened in practice to justify criminal behavior and possibly worse, as in bombing hospitals, poisoning the atmosphere, depriving innocent people of their lives. Obama, Horn, Barra, and countless others, on the roller coaster of capitalism where every action—military, economic, political, ideological—is fully justified in preserving the System, its profitability, its ruthlessness, its alienation, no thought need be given to the MSF patients burned to death in their beds in the ICU unit in Kunduz. The world is shrinking, practices becoming uniform and interchangeable, barbarism the rule rather than the exception, as dark war clouds loom on the horizon.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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