TOPICS > Arts

America’s Innocence

April 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: We close tonight with some thoughts from essayist Roger Rosenblatt about the state of America’s innocence.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: People said that we were shocked by the attacks of September 11 because we’re an innocent country. But except in the narrowest definition of innocence, being taken by surprise by an aerial attack, there has never been anything innocent about us. What’s more, we know it.

We consistently and justifiably beat ourselves up over a history of Indian slaughter, slavery, the crushing of workers, the abandonment of the poor, child labor, blacklists, poll taxes, segregation, the harassment of homosexuals, anti-everyone behavior, the internment camps, the suppression of women, Mai Lai– shall I go on?

A nation with a history that includes such events only regards itself as innocent as a bit of convenient folklore. But we use the word, nonetheless, to reestablish the vision of the ideal state, like the untrammeled virginal American landscape that allows us to think of ourselves as a better people than some of our history might indicate. This, in fact, is a very good idea. Out of a yearning for a moral Eden, the forward motion of other, brighter history is born.

Recall “Brown vs. the Board of Education.” In the early 1950s, Linda Brown, an African American fifth grader in Topeka, Kansas, was denied admission to a white elementary school. The case was ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1954. The ruling, simply and clearly, was that the “separate but equal” clause in “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” 1896, which sanctioned segregated schools, violated the children’s 14th Amendment rights. And with that decision, bad law was made good.

“Brown” did not simply right a wrong law; it exposed and thus held up to contempt a widespread assumption that blacks were an inferior people. This had been a guilty not so secret American secret. It did not arise out of innocence, but neither could it have been obliterated by innocence.

Only because the country was made aware of its lack on innocence could it at last do the right thing. There is a different route that nations can take when they want to make up for guilty episodes. They can make public apologies.

NEWSREEL SPOKESMAN: The world bowed its head in sorrow over France’s desecration.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: France did that when it owned up to its collaboration with the Nazis against its Jewish citizens. The Vatican, too, though cagily, has acknowledged its history of anti-Semitism. Japan has apologized, sort of, for its treatment of Koreans and Chinese. All of which is very nice and commendable, but also a little silly and wholly without effect.

The most effective apology for something in the past is to correct something in the present, thus “Brown”; thus Title IX, which gave women a level playing field; thus the laws concerning the handicapped; thus “Miranda” and the notification of the suspect’s rights. None of these corrections would have been necessary in a truly innocent nation, but what nation can possibly be innocent?

I do not mean to dwell on “Brown” as an example of our being cleansed on the spot and instantly reborn, but rather the opposite. After “Brown,” there was Selma, there was Birmingham, there were church bombings and civil rights workers murdered and children clubbed in the streets. 40 years after “Brown,” the country has a very long way to go in race relations.

But the impulse to clean up our act could never derive from a state of innocence. America has been through the mill, often one of our own manufacture. Innocence is a preposterous and useless condition: First, because it makes a people vulnerable; second, because no improvement can come of it. The test of a civilization is not that it struggles against poverty and need. The test of a civilization is that it struggles against itself– its guilty, sinful, human self. The balance of powers created by the Constitution was a clear statement of low expectations. We have frequently lived up to them, which is how we exceed them.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.