Not That Innocent

June 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is Britney Spears more psychologically sophisticated and self-aware than David Brooks? Brooks begins his column today telling us that everything good in the world in the last three-quarters of a century is a result of America’s selfless, altruistic leadership. He then says

Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.

He doesn’t seem to realize that his opening paragraph, praising the US for its pure motives and virtuous actions, is a prime example of a self-righteous sense of innocence.

As a nation, America clings to its sense of innocence, and often with a self-righteousness that makes non-Americans cringe. Five years ago, I quoted Christopher Hitchens on this very topic.

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.

This was in 2000, so add Iraq to the list and maybe our bi-monthly mass shootings. As I said in that post, if we keep losing our innocence so often, we never really lose it. We might be carelessly misplace 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 put it in his song “Political Science,
No one loves us
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 of innocence is a new shock. One immediate reaction is denial. And when the facts become undeniable (Vietnam, Iraq), we react with 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.

This belief in our own purity makes us suckers for an aggressive foreign policy. All you have to do is tell us that some country we don’t like did something bad to us. Since we are innocent and virtuous, their behavior must have been “unprovoked.” Therefore retaliation at any level is justified. So by coincidence, today, while Brooks was proclaiming US virtue on the op-ed page, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was claiming that Iran had launched “unprovoked attacks” on ships in the Gulf of Oman.

Paul Pillar at Lobelog (here) provides some context.

“Unprovoked”? The Trump administration reneged completely over a year ago on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Since then the administration has waged economic warfare on Iran, despite Iran continuing for a whole year to observe its obligations under the JCPOA. The administration has piled sanction upon sanction in a relentless effort to cripple Iran’s economy, make life miserable for Iranians, and weaken Iran in every way possible. It has pressured countries around the world not to do any business with Iran. The administration has accompanied this campaign with unlimited hostility, threats of military attack, and saber-rattling that has included escalating military deployments in Iran’s backyard. If this isn’t provoking Iran, then the term provocation has lost all meaning.

Pompeo could have added act of unprovoked aggression by the Iranians — their decision to locate their country geographically amid dozens of US military bases.



Pompeo will get away with his version just as he will get away with his characterization of Saudi Arabia as “freedom-loving.” He will get away with it because even supposedly well-informed and sophisticated Americans like David Brooks continue to believe in our self-righteousness and innocence.

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

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