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October 11, 2001

Loss of innocence redux
Posted by Teresa at 10:00 AM *

I note with disapprobation that that wench Columbia has lost her innocence yet again, putting me strongly in mind of a young woman I used to know who had the Worst Experience of Her Life at least once a year. Our national version of that is to declare we’ve Lost Our Innocence every time some unpleasant event creates a major psychic upheaval. Yesterday I got three pieces of e-mail in a row that referred to the WTC bombing as our National Loss of Innocence. The Web is similarly oversupplied with this insight: [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

We love her, but let’s face it: America is a chronic drama queen. To quote Dan Victor,

Loss of Innocence is the theme of every major American event, including assassinations. It’s an American staple. The Vietnam War: The end of our Innocence! The Kennedy Assassination: The end of our Innocence! Watergate: The end of our Innocence! The Clinton Impeachment: The end of our Innocence! Now, the Columbine killings, the Innocence of the American High School lost! As a society we love to entertain this view of ourselves.
Indeed we do. We consider ourselves to have lost our innocence at First Manassas, the battle of Shiloh, and Antietam. The wound created by this national orgy of bloodletting was a long time healing, but we were in shape to lose our innocence again in 1919, which a striking number of commentators reckon was The Big One.

That was the year the soldiers came back and started telling the folks at home what the War to End All Wars had really been like. In no particular order, it was also a year of severe inflation, a killing flu epidemic, race riots, lynchings, bombs in the mail, an unprecedented wave of strikes (including the Boston police strike), the harsh repression of same, the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids, Congressional rejection of the League of Nations, the post-war continuation of the Allies’ blockade on foodstuffs going into Germany, President Wilson’s incapacitating stroke, the mass deportation of foreign-born citizens, espionage laws, sedition laws, the expulsion of duly elected officials from their positions solely on account of their political beliefs, the beginning of Prohibition, and the Black Sox baseball scandal.

We lost our innocence again because the Japanese took us by surprise when they jumped us at Pearl Harbor. Then we surprised them at the end of the war with the first atomic explosion and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Naturally, this represented a loss of innocence on our part.

After that it sort of got to be a habit with us. Over the next decade we lost our innocence to the Korean War, the Quiz Show scandal, and the Dodgers’ move to LA, and lost it once more on general principles when the Fifties ended. Then John F. Kennedy came along, and we really lost our innocence over him. (Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, too.) We were picking up speed. We lost it over the My Lai Massacre in particular and the Vietnam War in general. We lost it to everything ever mentioned in “American Pie”, and to some unspecified thing that happened to Don Henley in 1969.

We were getting indiscriminate.Yes, we lost our innocence over the Watergate scandal and the AIDS epidemic ; but we also lost it when Studio 54 closed, the 70s ended, and Charles and Diana got divorced. More recently, we’ve lost it to the Oklahoma City bombing, the deportation of Elian Gonzalez, the Columbine High School shootings, and of course the Big Awful.

Perhaps it’s time to stop protesting our innocence, and behave ourselves like grownups instead. To know next to nothing about the world — and as a nation, that’s been our preferred state of affairs — is the innocence of a small child. But we’re not small children; and in an adult that same lack of knowledge is willful ignorance. To have power, to act in the world without knowing the consequences, is dangerous negligence. Even our friends and allies find us maddening that way.

Yes, we mean well. They do give us points for that. But it’s not enough to mean well.

Historically, we’ve cherished the comfortable belief that the rest of the world is a game we can opt out of. There are two problems with that idea. The first is that we’ve never opted out. We’ve just officially ignored other countries’ surface politics. In the meantime, American business has engaged in all kinds of amazing skulduggery, some of it on a level that should have been a matter for openly discussed national policy. (See also: William Walker, Standard Oil, United Fruit Company, etc. etc. etc.) We can’t honestly blame other countries for seeing these as American activities.

I’ll put the other problem in New York terms: the richest neighborhoods and the poorest are all on the same subway lines. Distance isn’t insulation. One day’s travel from where you’re sitting right now, there are people who are still personally pissed off about what went down during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. One of them incited the terrorists who broke our city. You might want to look into that. 1919 is a good place to start.

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