Also 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.
The Great Depression should have taught us a critical lesson about closing our eyes to realities we didn’t care for but it never had the chance. Before we knew it, WWII was upon us with a sneak attack from the East and a declaration of war from the West. We were in it up to our necks and we didn’t even know how to spell Dusseldorf or have much idea where Germany was exactly in relation to say, London. We lost over 400,000 men in battle (and after, of wounds received) and when it was over we plunged into the restricted and oppressive 50’s determined to forget everything we had seen, felt, learned. The Greatest Generation went into the Greatest Denial to that point in American History, greater even than the Southern denial that the Civil War had anything whatever to do with slavery.
You cannot maintain the ignorance of innocence unless you evade knowledge. The more you know, the less innocent you are. You cannot take the responsibility for enslaving other men if you forever remain ignorant of the slavery perpetrated in your name. We managed to do just that despite everything the feverish 20th century tried to do to us. We even managed to wax nostalgic about the starvation of the 30’s and the utter brutality of a mechanized war. The demands of reality and the rest of the planet be damned. We wanted to remain innocent, naive children who couldn’t be blamed for anything because we didn’t know anything, and so we did.
We have now prolonged our national childhood well past any conceivable excuse for it. We have never been as innocent as we pretend. Ask Gen Smedley Butler, who after risking his life for 20 years to make the world safe for United Fruit and US Steel and the DuPonts, made a speech all over the country in the 30’s called “War Is A Racket“.
I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
He knew it. He said it. Few of us listened. Few of us were prepared to believe that America had taken the same path taken by the European countries we abhorred and mocked. Acknowledging something that upsetting might have required us to do something about it. Change our approach, admit our mistakes. We decided to pretend that there was nothing to fix. We, as did the European nations we belittled for doing the very same thing, turned instead to a nationalism of our own. In the turbulent 60’s when some of us wanted to bring the country closer to its stated goals, the response to our idealism was expressed in five simple words: “Love it or leave it”.
Since the proto-optimism of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution, Americans have been hiding their heads in the sand and pretending that everything was just fine. So ironclad has our denial become that in the past 30 years we have been told that the govt takes in more money if it takes in less – and believed it, that deregulating predatory industries will make them nicer – and believed it, that Iraq was going to send nuclear warheads against us in planes made of balsa wood – and believed it, that the invasion of a country with the 2nd largest oil fields in the world had nothing, NOTHING! to do with oil – and believed it, and that we could own a house with no money down and payments we could afford on minimum wage – and believed that, too.
Our forced naivete over the past four decades has been staggering. We so badly want to believe blindly and uncritically that our leaders are the best, the brightest, the most honorable in the land that we have successfuly ignored giant Red Flags that they were no such thing, never had been and never would be, and elected a series of would-be dictators, incompetent hacks, and know-nothing frat-boys who bragged that they never read books. Or newspapers or magazines or anything heavier than the latest Batman comic. We have elected corrupt judges, racist representatives, and politicians whose perversions are so thick on the ground you can’t walk three steps without tripping over them. And we have done all this in the very teeth of mountains of evidence that they were all these things months before we punched out the chad next to their names.
There are no legitimate excuses for us to have elected Nixon, Reagan, or Bush* for the second time. Or indeed for the first time. Reagan’s record as Gov of California was appalling; Nixon’s entire 20-yr record in govt showed him to be a paranoid autocrat with a power fixation and revenge fantasies who was utterly uninterested in the people who’d elected him (he turned domestic policy completely over to John Erlichman in Term 2); and Bush was nothing but a name. What background he had was riven with business and personal failures Poppy had to bail him out of. While the press could certainly have done a better job on Bush, no one was hiding Reagan’s or Nixon’s backgrounds their initial times out and we ignored what we knew to elect them anyway in the naive belief that the office of the Presidency of the US would somehow make them better men than they had been before.
Fictional accounts aside, this does not happen in real life. In John Dean’s account of his time at the Nixon WH and his involvement in the Watergate mess, Blind Ambition, the same theme comes back time and again: everyone wanted to believe that either the President didn’t know anything about the criminal activities of members of his WH staff or that they weren’t actually illegal because the President would never break the law, an attitude that led to the Cheney’s development of the Unitary President Theory: that nothing he ordered could be illegal because anything the president ordered was legal simply because he ordered it.
Dean admits that this view was dangerously naive but it was shared by almost everyone around him. Even Herb Kleindienst, the AG after John Mitchell resigned to run Nixon’s re-election campaign, at first assumed that if the president had ordered the break-in it must be legal. The romance of power may be expected to bear such strange fruit in those directly connected to the powerful, I suppose, but that doesn’t excuse our starry-eyed blindness toward blatantly awful leaders.
For eight straight years the information about George W Bush was out there for the getting. Alright, we had to actually look for it rather than sit in front of our tv screens and have it spoon-fed to us by good-looking anchors and even then we had to wade through a mass news media that featured way too many “reporters” who were willing to act as administration stenographers if turning belly up and panting like a puppy dawg would maintain their access to the center of power. But the fact remains that the information was there if you looked for it and that few of us looked very hard – or indeed, at all.
Our collective ignorance may be allowing us to blush prettily and look appropriately shocked as the ugly truth is finally if reluctantly acknowledged by a mainstream media that has been left little choice in the matter but maintaining our “innocence” has cost the nation half the Bill of Rights, turned a once-vibrant economy into a pile of dogshit, and earned us the condemnation of the rest of the world. That’s an awfully high price to pay for naivete. Much too high. Amen?
* OK, we probably didn’t elect him the second time but with all the incompetence, lying, stonewalling, and thievery of the first four years, it never should have been close enough to steal.