NPR’s Apology: I’m Sorry That You’re Wrong

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe early on reflects on the profound ignorance of the earliest conquerors of Britain, the Romans: “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” He is talking about himself and modern colonialism, of course, in an ambiguous way (and this ambiguity is at the heart of the novel), but the key observation, for me, is his sense that the best way to navigate in the dark is with your eyes closed. After all, if you’re in the dark, what difference does it make if your eyes are open?On the other hand, what if it’s only dark because you’ve closed your eyes? Drew sent me this article, confirming that my sleep-deprived brain hadn’t merely invented the “dark continent” reference of a few weeks ago (though I mistakenly thought it was Renee Montaigne). Apparently Jean Cochran apologized for referring to Bush’s trip to the “Dark Continent,” but the classic “mistakes were made”/”I apologize if anyone was offended” odor about her performance makes it worth reproducing in full:

“I had no idea the term would be found offensive,” said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. “I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was ‘racist and irredeemable,’ as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don’t know how that could be since I didn’t know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It’s a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term.”

As the article goes on to note, Cochran’s non-apology is factually quite wrong. If you were going to oversimplify the continent according to one type of geography, you would choose the wide-open (and very bright) savannah, since, in a very literal sense, there just isn’t very much rain forest in Africa. But when she insistently clings to the term, she produces an excellent performance of the term’s true meaning: to be unknown by the West is what makes a thing “dark.” What a thing is is irrelevant; the only real truth is what Westerners think of it.

Observe the logic here: the fact that she is literally ignorant of what she is talking about, by her account, is what saves her from being deemed “insensitive.” After all, in a very basic sense, her non-apology is itself the height of insensitivity, an insulting refusal to be sensitive to why the term produced such vehement protests in the first place. Instead, she parades her ignorance, transforming it into a virtue. Phrases like “I had no idea,” “I was unaware,” “I was floored,” “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know” (as well as other rhetorical expressions of uncertainty followed by assertions that are later in the article shown to be incorrect) indicate that being wrong or ignorant is not the problem; to be “insensitive,” she asserts, is not to be “unaware” of the connotations of her words (which she manifestly was, is, and goes to great lengths to establish) but, perversely, to speak with an intent to harm. In other words, she defends herself as if this was a libel case, as if her intent was remotely relevant. To be insensitive, in that context, actually requires that one be sensible of what one is saying (and of the damage done), so the fact that she does not have a clue turns out to be the very proof of her innocence. “I can’t be racist!” she argues, “I just don’t know what I’m talking about!”

As I hope is clear, this is both a stupid and an unflattering defense for Ms. Cochran to adopt. An apology would distinguish the act from the person, saying, in essence, “I did something bad, but I’m not a bad person.” She has no interest in such an approach, and in refusing to distance herself from the bad thing she did, she can only blame herself if she’s taken for a bad person. I’m not actually that interested in blaming her; frankly, who cares whether she personally is a racist person or not? That’s her problem. But when she not only looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but, under direct questioning, does not deny being a duck, well, she should not be surprised if she’s taken for a species of avian waterfowl.

I do, however, find it deeply revealing that instead of honestly addressing the problem of being a duck, she instead wants to blame reality: the problem, if there is a problem, is that some people think Africa actually isn’t a dark continent, that some people apparently disagree with mass media representations of the place as one giant nest of disease-violence-ignorance-primitivism. Not that all journalists can be tarred with the same brush, of course, but her use of that term, like it or not, aligns her with the large portion of the news media that make a living by promoting exactly this kind of view. And by defending her use of it, moreover, she establishes even more clearly that she finds it to be an apt description. When she pretends that the chorus of protests lack validity by shutting her eyes to them, she shows her true colors. She chooses to tackle a darkness by first closing her eyes, since the truth about Africa is determined by what people (by which she means, Western people) think is true. And the comments to the ombudsman’s article illustrate, no one will ever go broke underestimating the knowledge of the American people about Africa.

As I said, this is not personal; whether Jean Cochran is a racist person is irrelevent and draws attention away from the real issue, the fact that it is possible to say racist things about Africa and receive a chorus of approval. In that regard, one shouldn’t be fooled by the apology, or the ombudsman’s article in general: they are scraps thrown to people who find the use of that characterization to be both stupid and racist, and they are thrown because racism, believe it or not, is still technically not the official state religion of the United States, the Washington Redskins notwithstanding. But not having an established church hasn’t impaired American religiosity, and by the same token, we should note that these halfhearted gestures of remorse only allows NPR to play the martyr, as if ravening hordes were demanding Jean Cochran’s head on a stick. “Should NPR have apologized?” becomes the question, as if anyone but conservatives bent on overturning the tyranny of political correctness even remotely cares; the real question is whether NPR should be allowed to promote racist counterfactuals on public airwaves. Is ignorance in defense of racism a vice or not? And by apologizing for reality’s failure to accord with the untruths they believe to be true, by faulting reality for not according with white mythology, Cochran and company indicate which side they’re on.