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Clamoring for a show of insincerity

Have sociologists lately noted the growing lust for insincerity that is now rampant in the English-speaking world? We are at this very moment, all over the United States, awash in political advertising, those floods of insincerity that pass for political discourse in America.

The broadcast air teems with actors pretending to be real people in shock about the foul behavior of this or that office-seeker. Actors with pear-shaped tones and amazing knowledge of legislative politics oil their way through make-believe neighborly chats.

Everybody down to the dimmest 3-year-old recognizes these commercials as brazen nonsense. Still, political technicians know it is nonsense that works.

This is why they seldom let a genuine candidate appear in the commercials. When shooting for insincerity, hire somebody schooled to weep with equal conviction for Hecuba, fallen Achilles or the suffering American taxpayer.

Hunger for insincerity put the final comic touch on the Marv Albert case last week. Having pleaded guilty to charges involving unorthodox sexual conduct, the celebrated TV personality faced the sentencing judge with all of New York holding its breath.

There were minute-by-minute television bulletins from the sentencing site in Virginia. Would there be jail time for this famous describer of basketball games? Would he appear at court in sackcloth and ashes and full of confessions of self-loathing?

The answer to both questions was "No." The tabloids were disgusted. In the opinion of courthouse connoisseurs, he had refused to show true penitence and didn't deserve to be let off with a mere "slap on the wrist"; to wit, a suspended sentence. In other words, Albert had failed his obligation to gratify public appetite for a show of insincerity.

For close students of this gaudy case it was obvious that Albert believed himself far less depraved than the sex monster portrayed by his partner in passion.

Did any close student of this tale doubt that while his real feelings might range from embarrassment to acute vexation, profound contrition was not among them?

The public demand for insincerity is not to be lightly refused, however, as the queen of England discovered after Princess Diana's death. Royals mourning privately at Balmoral Castle offended many Britishers. They insisted on a public display of sorrow, and the queen bowed by giving one.

This amounted to a royal apology for having treated the princess badly, as many thought. Never mind that the apology was extracted by brute force. Never mind that there are sound reasons to believe the queen may have felt badly treated by Diana.

The queen was not asked for sincerity, but only for pretense. After she acceded to demand, public passion about her majesty was said to have blown swiftly from cold to warm.

The queen was behaving in accord with Britain's ancient "neck verse" tradition. Several centuries ago when English law required hanging so many people that it was embarrassing, various ways were contrived to moderate the toll.

One was to grant "benefit of clergy." It worked like this: Traditionally, ordained clergymen could not be tried in secular courts. At a time when few people could read, ordained clergymen had to be literate. So literacy became the court test of whether a defendant was clergy and had to be set free.

Eventually, the courts' literacy test became ability to read the first verse of the 51st Psalm ("Have mercy upon me, O God. . . ."). Criminals who couldn't read their own names escaped hanging by memorizing the verse so they could recite it by heart. Thus "the neck verse."

Paula Jones, accusing Bill Clinton of making an indecent proposal when he was governor of Arkansas, now demands he apologize. He denies everything and declines.

But if he agreed, would anyone, including Mrs. Jones, believe he meant it? Her story has made him the butt of a thousand toilet jokes. A man subjected to this type of ridicule is unlikely to find himself in the apologizing vein. An apology would be absurdly insincere.

That doesn't matter. The rule now is: Always be insincere, and you'll never have to mean it when you say you're sorry.

New York Times News Service