The New Age of Innocence

A rash of new books is urging a rebirth of humility and decorum. No one woulddeny that our culture has become crass and vulgar, but these books have another, more insidious message: they equate innocence with ignorance.

KEEPING WATCH OVER YOUR KIDS' innocence is no easy task. Just ask Michael and Diane Medved, authors of Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children From the National Assault on Innocence (Harper Collins, 1998). It's not enough to ban television from your home, as the Medveds have, to limit videos to six G-rated hours a week, to carefully screen prospective playmates. Threats to your children's blissful ignorance can still sneak past: a Girl Scout manual contains references to sex. A Judy Blume novel, recommended by a kindly librarian, mentions menstruation. Classmates let slip the names of the Spice Girls.

Fortunately for the Medveds, their offspring have joined in the effort to preserve their naivete. Should the news come on during the family's Sunday drives, the proud parents recount, "our children immediately beg us to turn off the radio, lest they hear something" that "spoils their contentment." And when a haunting song from the soundtrack of Showboat! plays on the stereo, their daughters scream "Fast forward! Fast forward!" because "they wouldn't even consider hearing lyrics that predict sadness or trouble on the horizon."

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The Medveds' efforts to safeguard their children's tender sensibilities border on the fanatical (they have forbidden their eldest daughter to read any books published after 1960). But it's hard not to sympathize with their concerns. If innocence is not quite under assault, it has been treated none too gently by the late twentieth century, with its bruising rounds of sex and violence, cynicism and corruption. Our appalled fascination with schoolboy murderers and tiny beauty queens has its source in the fear that childhood's magic has faded, replaced by something harder and harsher.

But beneath our worries about a younger generation lies an unspoken uneasiness about our own. Perilous as the modern age is for children, it has been every bit as unsparing of the illusions of adults. Grown-up fairy tales--that marriage will last forever, that sex produces only pleasure, that loyalty to an institution will be returned, that elected leaders are benevolent and wise--have taken a darker turn, shading into stories of divorce and AIDS and single motherhood, mergers and layoffs and low-wage workers, Watergate and Iran-Contra and now, impeachment.

THE LAST FEW DECADES HAVE BEEN specially unkind to the illusions of women. Wendy Shalit, a young neo-conservative writer, bitterly laments the passing of an era when daughters belonged to their fathers ("what is really so terrible about `belonging' to someone who loves you?" she asks), when girls waited for their one true love, when sex was an enchanting mystery. Writes the 23-year-old Shalit in A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (Free Press, 1999), "Our mothers tell us we shouldn't want to give up all the hard-won `gains' they have bequeathed us, and we think: What gains? Sexual harassment, date rape, stalking, eating disorders, all these dreary hook-ups? Or perhaps it's the great gain of divorce you had in mind?"

Her caustic appraisal of modern adulthood is echoed by the Medveds, who insist that "the secrets of adulthood are harsh, morbid, oppressive, and seamy," bringing nothing but "obligations, troubles, burdens and the potential for depression and gloom." Already spoiled by such secrets, they can only enjoy the vicarious pleasure of postponing their children's inevitable disillusionment.

But Shalit sees another way. Believing that most young women's problems--from depression to eating disorders to unsatisfying relationships--follow from our culture's corruption of their natural modesty and purity, she urges them to reclaim their innocence, to "take it all back." Another voice in this chores, UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, goes further: he writes in A Return to Innocence: Philosophical Guidance in an Age of Cynicism (Harper Collins, 1998) that every adult ought to aspire to innocence, as it is "the highest of human accomplishments" and "the defining mark of those who have achieved genuine victory in facing life's innumerable challenges."

INNOCENCE WASN'T ALWAYS SO ELUSIVE, these authors argue. America was once a veritable Garden of Eden, a place where "women enjoyed being home for the kids" and "peers came over for basketball in the driveway and homemade lemonade," say the Medveds; where "men respected all women as ladies," according to Shalit, and mothers devoted themselves to "the family, volunteer work, religion, shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation."

Then the country took its first fateful bite of the apple, initiating what Schwartz calls the "orgy of self-gratification" that was the 1960s. "As a result of the destructive behavior unleashed by a mindless belief in bad ideas, we live in a society that has lost its innocence," he writes, "and that is no longer able...to protect the innocence of its young."

While the serpent in the garden assumes a variety of wily disguises in these books, he sounds like the same creature: for Schwartz, it's the "intellectual/power elite"; for the Medveds, the "Hollywood elite"; and for Shalit, the "elite white feminists." Artfully seducing the public with promises of effortless pleasure and fulfillment, these evil spirits have held America in their thrall ever since--and only innocence can lift the spell.

SCHWARTZ SETS OUT TO RECOVER our lost innocence with an eclectic--not to say eccentric--combination of Buddhist spirituality, ancient philosophy, Biblical allegory and modern-day neuroscience. In a series of letters to a friend's 16-year-old son, he describes in dramatic and even apocalyptic terms the dangers of our drug-addled, sex-obsessed, morally lax and spiritually bankrupt society. The only escape from this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, says Schwartz, is through a return to innocence--which, he reminds us, originally meant "not harming." In a culture as sick as ours, he suggests, not harming may be the best we can do.

Radio talk-show host Michael Medved and his wife Diane, a psychologist, present an equally grim picture of American society (so grim, in fact, that they've surely prohibited their children from reading it). Music and the movies, television and the Internet, sex ed in the schools and oral sex in the news all conspire to deprive American youth of a "classically carefree childhood." Their response is to raise their daughters and son in a bubble, sealed off from the culture's contaminants. Though the Medveds' concern for their children is clearly genuine, such overprotectiveness Seems also to satisfy some need of their own: they're making their children monuments to the innocence they've lost.

Second-hand innocence isn't good enough for Shalit. She wants the real thing, for herself and for other young women who feel compromised by our coarsened culture. Drawing on personal anecdotes and pop culture references, Shalit deplores modern indignities both small and large, from co-ed bathrooms to sexual harassment, and tells us that "modesty is our way out." She has the odd notion that if we close our eyes and wish hard, we can will our innocence back into being, forget what we know, undo what's been done. She wants a second sexual revolution that will reverse the results of the first.

Those who remember the 1994 film Forrest Gump and its phenomenal success will not be surprised to find innocence's reputation as pristine as ever. The movie charmed audiences with its story of a simple-minded but sweet man who stumbled innocently (and very, very luckily) through life. Then as now, we find the notion of an adult unversed in the ways of the world deeply appealing. But why? Why celebrate what is effectively a lack--in the case of children, a lovely and delightful lack, but an absence all the same?

Because, its proponents might say, it's an absence that affords breathing space, a lack that leaves room to think. Innocence offers an escape from the insistent pressures of the information age and all its unwelcome news. Twenty-four-hour cable on 200 stations, the ever-expanding Internet, reporting that revels in scandal, one movie more explicit than the last: our time's tree of knowledge is so heavy with apples that we've grown sick of tasting them.

NOW THAT WE have no choice but to know about war in Bosnia, famine in the Sudan, hurricanes in Honduras, it's no wonder that we envy the infant who knows only his blanket, his own foot, his mother's breast. Now that we're adrift in the ether of signs and symbols, it's no wonder that we cling to the confines of the nursery. In our alarmed houses, in our gated communities, the only thing Americans can't keep out is information. V-chips and Internet filters are fig leaves that can't cover our new nakedness, our vulnerability to the ubiquity of electronic media.

And so, innocence has come to tempt us more than knowledge. But it's a dangerous seduction, and one we should resist. Intentional innocence is a renunciation of the chief responsibility--and the chief pleasure--of adult life: to know, to experience, to apprehend the world in all its glory and its horror. Knowledge is potent stuff; that's why we keep it away from small children. And it's why we must keep some of it for ourselves. In careless or unscrupulous hands, knowledge is dangerous, and the innocent are powerless to oppose it.

Women are especially wary of innocence, or ought to be. When Wendy Shalit traces higher rates of rape to the cultural moment "when we decided to let it all hang out," she mistakes the acknowledgment of rape for its occurrence, and chooses the illusory security of ignorance over the equivocal rewards of reality. Women who reject the innocence that has often been expected of their sex will forfeit the right, as Clarence Darrow told the jury in the Scopes "monkey trial," "to retreat behind their powder puffs." But they will gain a field of vision free from the modern equivalents of powder puffs and parasols and downcast lashes.

Perhaps the best argument against a willful innocence is that it won't work, anyway. The steady seep of electronic information will not stop. Hollywood will not bring back chaste kisses and twin beds. Reporters will not withhold the fact that a President has polio, or affairs. Knowledge, often of an unsavory or unsettling sort, will be our constant companion in the next century, and we had better begin to get acquainted.

Our first task is to teach it its place. It's an adult art, knowing how to place one fact next to another, draw connections and comparisons, attend to this reality and not that one, cast a skeptical eye on some claims to truth while embracing others with whole-hearted faith. What we call wisdom is just this intelligent and discriminating relationship to knowledge, a relationship that has its profound joys as well as its occasional burdens. Children taught this truth may come to regard adulthood not with anxiety, but with eager anticipation--to which we can say, wisely: wait 'til you're older.

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