Daily Archives: July 19, 2009

Against Naivete

naivete_is_not_the_answer_bumper_sticker-p128095221857341748tmn6_210Also known as “innocence” or “prolonged ignorance”, it is often encased in infantilism.

Shortly after the First World War, John Dos Passos declared in his seminal novel 1919 “the death of  innocence in America”. It became a catchphrase, the summation of America’s sudden blasted knowledge of a world – Europe – from which it had always considered itself safely distant. The world had shrunk, Dos Passos was saying, and the USA had finally been drawn into it. We were part of a global reality whether we liked it or not. American men, after all, had died fighting a war that had started in Europe over European beligerences.

Needless to say, Dos Passos’ declaration of the death was premature and greatly exaggerated. It may have been clear to him and to the rest of that post-war generation of writers and political thinkers that the nation could no longer afford the luxury of the isolationism we had practiced with relief since the War of 1812, but as a people it turned out we had no intention of religuishing the useless but comforting ignorance that allowed us to escape responsibility for anything that happened on the world stage.

“Innocence”, either the loss of or the retaining of, became a major theme of the Roaring 20’s. Rather than embrace our new knowledge, we turned our backs on it and…played. From the self-involved if indistinct longing of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby for easy pickings and no regrets to the open admiration of Capone and the Wild West he made of the Chicago streets as if the consequences could be shrugged off as easily as a viewing of a Hollywood gangster film, we clung to our native “innocence” as if it were armor plating against adulthood. We shrugged off responsibility, if anything, much more casually than our attachment to films and their stars. We shut our eyes and turned up our noses whenever “serious people” warned that Wall Street was having us on and the whole thing was going to come crashing down. When it finally did, we felt hurt, betrayed, as if a parental promise of an endless playtime had been reneged on without reason. We pouted.

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