The Loss of American Innocence

After the 2001 Islamic terror attacks, Americans were told that many people in other parts of the world thought it was a good thing for us to be shown that America “isn’t invulnerable.” Like many of the wispy platitudes expressed in our culture today, this one takes the appearance of a reasonable idea in order to bypass our faculty of judgment and penetrate our unconscious. When given the slightest bit of scrutiny it proves absurd – at best. Is being mugged good for the victim because it “teaches” him that…he might be mugged? A bit more scrutiny exposes something more sinister. What friend would say such a thing about another friend? And what kind of person would be so lacking in self-regard as to accept such an ill-willed statement as if it were some kind of deserved, helpful admonishment?

Another phrase repeated after the 2001 attacks was that America had “lost its innocence.” What does this mean? The British writer Peregrine Worsthorne, apparently considered a “conservative” but in a column written shortly after 9/11 sounding indistinguishable from the raving leftwing America-haters at the Guardian, wrote in that same paper:

Compared to the mushroom cloud under the shadow of which the whole world had been living for the last half of the 20th century, this new 21st-century terrorist threat strikes me as relatively trivial. The idea that with the end of the cold war all was henceforth going to be sweetness and light was always too good to be true. And the only thing in the least genuinely surprising and even shocking about the latest outrage is that it has killed bankers and stockbrokers in American tower blocks toppled by maniacs rather than impoverished workers in crumbling third world tower blocks.

And:

For the end of American innocence must not be confused with the end of mankind, and just because the American homeland is scratched for the first time, this does not mean that the rest of the world – which has survived so many worse scratches, is going to bleed to death.

Such statements clearly unpack the hidden meaning of statements about America’s “sense of invulnerability” and “innocence.” The assumption is that throughout our history, from the wars against American Indians to the atom bombings to the present-day campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s successes have been built on murder and exploitation. Despite this, the majority of American people have been unconscious of this fact and hence “innocent,” but also guilty. People who believe such things naturally took satisfaction in America’s being hit in 2001.

It is true that the American character has historically been marked by optimism, goodwill, and a certain innocent trust of outsiders; and it is also true that America has, in the past, wielded its great power with less introspection and seriousness than would seem warranted. For instance, I once saw a picture of American personnel riding in a military vehicle on their way to inspect the damage in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. All were smiling with joy and exuberance. And why not, one might say: the terrible war was over, and America victorious! Still, there was something incongruous in the lightheartedness shown on the faces of these men on their way to see hell on earth. A few hours later, these men would no longer be smiling, but the U.S. public mainly remembered the exuberance, when a more sober attitude would have been better.

Part of our “innocence” has come from the persistence of a belief in traditional morality, abandoned earlier and with more abandon by our European cousins. A moral man has a certain innocence, but is not necessarily weak or naive. If you believe in moral values that apply to all people and hold yourself accountable to those values, you should also be able to sense when other people aren’t following the same code. As the saying goes, “you can’t cheat an honest man.”

And yet clearly Americans are now being cheated and deceived on a vast scale. 9/11 was supposed to wake Americans up to their vulnerability, and there were certainly many signs of life and a will to self-preservation during the months that followed that atrocity, but we have returned to sleepwalking, and it will take much greater horrors to awaken us again. And I wonder – is our liberal attitude of tolerance really innocent?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, while delighting in the comforts of home as I always do, I felt more distressed than in the past by the gulf that separates my thinking from that of most of my relatives. See, we all, liberal and conservative, know that America, and “the world,” are in bad shape. We’re all worried about the future and distressed by the horrors reported in the news. But only some of us have understood that without preserving Western civilization, which means preserving our white-majority, morally Christian societies as such, we have no defense against the horrors and no possibility of securing a better future. I suppose this has become so crystal-clear to me that I imagine even my liberal friends and relatives must be seeing it on some level. But such is not the case. And so, we have less and less to talk about. Conversation keeps returning to sports and pets and the usual family stories. No one would like more than I would to be able to separate politics from family ties and friendships. But the truth is that the conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” today involves deep differences in values, and harmony between people of opposing political persuasions can only be achieved by avoiding the deeper issues.

Anyway, who is more innocent? The “conservative” who sees the links between immigration and terror, race and crime, and sexual morality and the well-being of children, and wants to take measures that will be painful for some in order to preserve the larger society? Or the liberal who places his hopes in wealth redistribution, universal health care, and laws outlawing as “discrimination” the making of the very distinctions that make life and civilization possible?

Nietzsche said somewhere words to the effect that “I allow myself to be deceived, in order to not be on guard against being deceived.” He was expressing his vision of the greathearted man, one who can rise above the petty concerns of ordinary people in order to create his own, new values. There is a certain truth to the idea (when taken in its commonsense meaning), but I fear Americans are not entirely innocent in allowing themselves to be deceived. They are avoiding hard truths and arduous labor in favor of familiar, comfortable ideas of helping “humanity” and “the planet.” But when our society is ruined, we will no longer be able to help anyone else. Better to be “as wise as serpents and harmless (innocent) as doves.”

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2 Responses to The Loss of American Innocence

  1. It is another fine article. I have regrettably never studied Nietzsche, though, and I do not understand his remark or its applicability to the article. Would you elaborate?

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Howard,

    Thanks for commenting. I see I wasn’t making myself very clear. It’s a quote I remember from my college days. I will have to see if I can find the source again.

    I understood it to mean that a Nietzchean “free spirit” and superior man does not concern himself with the petty concerns and plottings of ordinary people. As a result, he might be cheated once in a while, but he is so full of power and vitality that it doesn’t hurt him. It would hurt him more to be on guard, because it would cramp his style. This seemed an apt image for American “niceness” toward everyone, for instance, in tolerance of illegal aliens. Americans are indeed nice, but there is a kind of hubris or arrogance hidden in that attitude – the assumption that one is TOO GOOD to have to protect one’s rights, reputation, money, etc.

    I found the passage here (though not in the best translation): http://www.classicauthors.net/Nietzsche/zarathustra/zarathustra44.html

    He seems actually to be saying something more complicated and different, that as his thought rises high above traditional morality and man, he is in danger of totally losing his bearings, so prefers to remain “tied to man” by putting up with falsity and vanity.

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