Naughty Norman & The Innocent Criminals


Here’s an interesting piece from the Boston Globe.  Actually, symbolic of the entire modern information age, it’s a post about a post, containing an email about a symposium about a book about some paintings.  But that’s neither here nor there.

 I’ve got no view on whether Norman Rockwell’s art contains subtle sexual elements, nor do I much care whether it does or doesn’t.  What I find interesting is the conversation about America’s (and Americans’) obsession with innocence.

I’ve argued — possibly even around here somewhere — that, for instance, the pro-life movement isn’t really pro-life; it’s pro-innocence.  That is, what it values isn’t life, or even human life, but innocence.  The difference can be seen in its adherents’ positions on everything from capital punishment to war to the welfare state.    (The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is genuinely pro-life.  And pro-innocence.)

The same thing can be seen in much of so-called “family values” activism, which isn’t so much about the value of the family unit as it is about parents’ desire to extend their children’s “innocence” — or, more realistically, their own counterfactual perception of their children’s innocence. 

America as a nation-state is also obsessed with its own innocence, or, again, the myth thereof.  No matter what we’ve done or what we’ve gone through as a nation, the story we tell ourselves is always the story of an innocent nation.  We cling to that innocence tenaciously.  The dew is always just freshly off the rose. 

In some ways, I suppose that’s useful.  It seems to me those ways are extremely few, though; especially in comparison to the number of problems our innocence fixation causes.  Given that innocence is just ignorance with a nostalgic name, I frankly don’t know what it is we so value about it in the first place.  Why not happily be rid of it?

 Anyway, I thought the linked article was interesting.  (And apologies to anyone who googled their way here, expecting to find something about Ben Harper’s band.)

12 Responses to “Naughty Norman & The Innocent Criminals”

  1. michaellasley Says:

    Interesting article. I’ve heard a bit of your theory on innocence before, but I’m not sure if it was on here or in person. I could, however, use with some more on the “their own counterfactual perception of their children’s innocence” part.

  2. michaellasley Says:

    Also, I did think of Ben Harper when I read the title. I was hoping he had a new album or something.

  3. odgie Says:

    I understand the desire to romanticize innocence. The world looks better before we understand how nasty it can get out there. However, trite as it sounds, the loss of innocence is the beginning of wisdom. The lessons I have learned at cost to my innocence have actually made me a better person and made for a better life in the long run. But losing my innocence still hurt when it happened.

  4. Capt. Midknight Says:

    I remember one “loss of innocence” incident very well.
    I was maybe 6 or 7 – early ‘50s before we had a TV set – and my favorite radio show was “The Lone Ranger,” which came on around 7:00pm. One day, we were away from home for some reason, and got back about ten after seven. I, of course, raced to the radio and was crushed that they had actually started without me! Welcome to the cruel “real world.”

    Seriously, a very interesting subject, JU. There seems to be a yearning in most of us who have gotten to “a certain age” for earlier times when things seemed simpler and better, and innocence seemed to last longer. Speaking from experience, I can say that, as we get older, we become very good at “selective memory.” Things were usually not as great – or as innocent – as we like to believe.

    I’m not sure how much of the individual experience holds together when we try to extrapolate it to the level of a national phenomena, however. The “selective memory” thing still works, though. It’s what keeps political “spin doctors” on both sides in business. Probably some of the same motives too.

  5. urbino Says:

    I agree with just about everything you said, Odgie. And then there’s this:

    The world looks better before we understand how nasty it can get out there.

    I guess my question is: and when do we not know that, exactly?

    The world of children is a cutthroat place. It’s full of the same betrayals, intrigues, manipulations, jealousy, dishonesty, cruelty, possessiveness, selfishness, pettiness, violence, and general meanness as the adult world. (This came up recently here in a discussion about the Virginia Tech shooter.) Indeed, if not for the ability of adults to impose their moderating will on the shorties to a considerable degree, the world of children would be even a good deal nastier than it is.

    I think Cap’n has the truer story by the tail when he refers to our selective memory. Our minds cling to the good memories from our childhood (even enhance them), and suppress the bad. We remember that world as more innocent than it was. We remember ourselves as more innocent than we were. Then we impute that soft-focus innocence to our children and defend it with irrational, often harmful, ferocity.

    Prior to the Victorian Era, children were viewed basically as adults, only smaller. Living arrangements and economic necessity exposed them to pretty much all the realities of the world at a very young age. With the exception of such things as being sent to work in coal mines at the age of 7, they not only survived it all, they took it all pretty much in stride.

    Modern neuroscience, among other things, has demonstrated that children are not smaller versions of adults. Their brains are organized differently, in ways that put them at a distinct disadvantage in some respects and give them some different mental and emotional needs.

    But if children are not little adults, they also are not little angels. They are not “innocent,” except insofar as they are merely ignorant.

    They are juvenile humans, with all the self-regarding, other-disregarding, pleasure-seeking, consequences-avoiding inclinations of any human. There are ways of acting on those inclinations that they haven’t had time to discover or think up, certainly, but the inclinations are there, and they act on them in the completely direct and obvious ways they have thought of. When those fail (generally through the intervention of an adult), they come up with new and progressively indirect ways of getting what they want and putting the screws to people they don’t like.

    We were all like that. We just tend not to remember it. And we certainly don’t want to think our own children are like that. We need to be able to see them as innocents. And, increasingly, we insist on seeing them that way longer and longer into their development.

    The innocence we protect so ferociously isn’t our children’s; it is our own willful innocence about our children.

    Does that address your question, Mikey?

  6. urbino Says:

    Also, I did think of Ben Harper when I read the title. I was hoping he had a new album or something.

    He does, actually. Well, fairly new, at least. Two or three months ago, maybe?

  7. odgie Says:


    Good point; I agree that children can be nasty little savages, often worse than adults. My point was that the younger we are, the less we know about how the world works. That is where the innocence (or ignorance, if you prefer) or idealism comes in to play. Think about it: is there anyone you know who is actually more idealistic than they were 10 years ago? The more hypocrisy, greed, and apathy we encounter, the more our idealism wears down.

  8. michaellasley Says:

    Indeed it does, JU. Good stuff.

  9. urbino Says:

    I’ll agree with that, odgie. I’m not sure what the point is, though. Idealism is innocence is naivete; all of them are ignorance. I still find myself siding with Graham Greene and Edith Wharton about the danger and destructiveness of all of them.

    I still find myself asking: why is it we prize “innocence” so highly that we cling to its ghost long after it has died a natural death? Is it because ignorance is bliss? While that’s obviously true in some degree, it’s true only for the ignorant person him- or herself; that person’s ignorance is usually nothing but trouble for the people around him or her.

    is there anyone you know who is actually more idealistic than they were 10 years ago?

    Maybe not personally, but there are plenty of them. At least, there are plenty of people who remain as idealistic as ever, despite encounters with reality. As a general rule, the rest of us don’t hold those people in very high regard.

  10. captmidknight Says:

    A little “Tech Support” please.

    I’ve organized a post, gone to the “write” page and entered it. I then pushed save for review. From the FAQ, I see that there is a “Publish” function somewhere that gets a post actually on the Blog, but haven’t found it so far.
    Once a post is written and saved – I can see it as a draft – how do you pull the trigger and get it posted?

  11. urbino Says:

    Hold, please…

  12. urbino Says:

    You should be able to publish, now.

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