Oops, We Did It Again

January 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How many times can you lose your innocence?

I was listening to a podcast of an old (June, 2000) episode of the BBC’s “In Our Time.”  It was about America, and on the panel was Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist who had relocated to Washington, DC.  The moderator’s first question was about American idealism, and this is what Hitchens had to say:

Here is a transcript, but you should really listen to the audio clip, if only to catch Hitchens’s tone and to hear him spin out long, perfect sentences with the ease that most of us have for answering questions like “What time is it?”

The one that amuses me the most is the reference that you get about once a year to the American loss of innocence, as if this giant, enormous, powerful, slightly vulgar society ever had any innocence to lose, let alone could regain it and lose it again. I’ve heard the loss of innocence attributed to: the Spanish-American War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of President Kennedy’s brother, the war in Vietnam, the disclosures made at Watergate, through the discovery, which is in Robert Redford’s movie “Quiz Show,” that the quiz shows in the fifties were fixed – that was apparently a great American loss of innocence – and on the front page of the New York Times, when he died, in the obituary of Frank Sinatra, the idea that Frank Sinatra’s songs represented the loss of innocence for America. . . There is . . . a danger of self-regard, of narcissism in that.

That was in 2000, so you could add 9/11, the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the torture report.

If we keep losing our innocence so often, we never really lose it.  We might be temporarily careless with it, but we find it again very quickly and forget that we’d ever lost it. We return to an idealized view of ourselves as a nation whose motives are 100% pure.  As Randy Newman puts it in his song “Political Science,
No one loves
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect,
But Heaven knows we try.
With such a view of ourselves, each revelation of anything that departs from the ideal is a new shock. One immediate reaction is denial.  And when the facts become undeniable, we react wtih something like the disbelief and regret of the morning-after drunk who had blacked out.* “I really did that? Oh, gee, I’m sorry. Killing millions of indigenous people and taking their land? I really did that?  Slavery? Atomic bombs?** We really did that?”  Why not face it: we’re not that innocent.

Forgetting (in Freudian terms, repression) and denial allow us to retain our innocence, at least in our own minds, but with the result that we’re less likely to change. For example, many White Southerners today want to enshrine the Confederate flag, the flag of a country that was based on the enslavement of Blacks and that waged a war that killed a greater proportion of the United States population than did any other war.** “We really did that?”

 As James Baldwin once said, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart.”

* I think Philip Slater may have made this same analogy. If so, maybe his inspiration was the same as mine – Shelly Berman.

**When my brother taught world history in high school, he included this question on a test:

Which is the only country that dropped an atomic bomb on another country?
a.  Russia
b. Germany
c.  Japan
d.  the United States
Only about half the students got it right.

*** In absolute numbers, more US soldiers died in World War II.

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