BOB GARFIELD: One explanation for the networks' behavior could be scandal fatigue, news executives so inured to government excess and trespass they've themselves lost the capacity for shock. If so, they've succeeded in doing what America as a whole has not - at least, that's the premise of a symposium being held this weekend at New York University.
The meeting of writers and academics is titled "Shock, Shock: Just How Many Times Can a Country Lose its Innocence?" and it explores why we are periodically jolted by events that make us question our national character only to be lulled back into a false sense of purity.
One of the organizers is Johns Hopkins University professor Richard Halpern, who explores the phenomenon through the prism of the famously sentimental American painter Norman Rockwell. It is one of Rockwell's paintings, in fact, that, altered by Photoshop, graces the symposium's poster. RICHARD HALPERN: The discovery is a painting of a young boy - he looks to be about five or six years old - and he's made the momentous discovery that Santa Claus isn't real. And the way he's done that is that he's gone into his parents' bedroom and opened the bottom drawer of their dresser drawers and pulled out a Santa Claus suit. And he's standing with a kind of saucer-eyed, shocked expression, facing out at us. BOB GARFIELD: Got it. And I think we all remember that painting. But it's very different from the [LAUGHING] image on the poster - RICHARD HALPERN: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - which features a very different kind of surprise visitor. RICHARD HALPERN: Right. In place of the Santa Claus suit in the original, he's now holding images of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, naked prisoners piled into pyramids, men forced to wear panties on their heads, men being walked around on a dog's leash and so forth. BOB GARFIELD: It's interesting that you should alight on that example of lost innocence. Because in my lifetime, I've been through a number of these alleged periods of reckoning - the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, especially My Lai, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11.
But the one that actually kind of jolted my world view, in fact, was Abu Ghraib, when I was disabused of the idea that had been drummed into me since I was a child that America is different because of the way it conducts itself in the world, and especially in the way that it conducts itself during wartime.
RICHARD HALPERN: Well, there's certainly a myth of American difference, and it's had an important role to play since the very founding of the country. The idea of leaving the old world for the new carried along with it the notion that you were somehow leaving behind you the burdens of history and the sins of the past and starting over again. America offered a kind of rebaptism for culture.
The fact, though, is that if we're shocked, it's because we haven't done a very good job of learning our history. The use of torture was widespread during the Vietnam War; it was widespread during the wars in Central America and Latin America in the 1980s. So you might say if you were shocked, you shouldn't have been. BOB GARFIELD: So you believe we're just the kid in the Santa suit allowing ourselves to be surprised year after year.
RICHARD HALPERN: Exactly. You know, there's something morally comforting about being shocked because it says, I hold to those ideals and so I'm shocked when they seem to be violated. I couldn't imagine that such a thing could occur. But I think we should be suspicious of that. It may not speak to our finely-honed moral sensibilities. It may speak just to a kind of self-cultivated ignorance. BOB GARFIELD: What surprises me about the phenomenon you're describing is that innocence, you know, like virginity, once lost, by definition, cannot be regained. By what mechanism do we put ourselves in the position of losing innocence, you know, a second, third, fourth, eighth time? RICHARD HALPERN: Well, you can't physically regain your virginity but you can psychologically if you simply manage to somehow put out of your mind things that bother you. And I think that's what innocence is, and I think that's what Rockwell's work is largely about.
I think that Rockwell became bored after a while with the product that he was asked to produce again and again and again and began to ask himself, what is innocence? There are two results of this. On the one hand, Rockwell's work is often a lot darker than we take it to be, often more perverse. There are often disturbing images kind of squirreled away. But he doesn't just do that as a game. He's inviting you to acknowledge these things. And his work, I think, also depicts the way in which we manage not to see things that are right in front of our face. BOB GARFIELD: Your book on him, which you subtitled The Underside of Innocence, reinterprets his paintings and, I would say, elevates his importance. I'm just curious whether the folks at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts throw in with you on that or they reject your view of his oeuvre altogether. RICHARD HALPERN: Well, I wish I could say that they viewed it in the way you describe it. They didn't see it that way. [LAUGHS] They saw it as something that was trying to tar Rockwell's image and they found my interpretations of his work rather outlandish. BOB GARFIELD: There was a specific painting, A Girl at Mirror, which was a bone of contention. Tell me why. RICHARD HALPERN: [LAUGHS] Yes. That's one of Rockwell's better-known images. A young girl, about 12 years old, is sitting up in her dark attic. She's looking into a mirror. On her lap she's holding a magazine from which a photograph of the movie star Jane Russell looks out at her, and she's just applied lipstick. She's trying to judge himself for the first time by standards of adult beauty. So it's a kind of wistful nostalgic look at leaving childhood innocence behind for a more adult state.
One of the most odd details in it is a little doll that's propped up against the mirror, and it's in a rather strange, and, I think, pretty indecent posture. Its skirts are hiked up and its legs are spread open and it's kind of straddling the edge of the gilt mirror frame, and, frankly, it looks like it's pleasuring itself on the mirror. BOB GARFIELD: Jane Russell in the haystack? RICHARD HALPERN: [LAUGHING] Yes, exactly. It's something that actually Rockwell does very often. His dolls are almost always in oddly provocative and sort of sexual postures. It's a little joke he plays, and it's a way of displacing a kind of troubling sexuality from the figure of the young girl onto the even more sort of innocent and even inanimate figure of a doll.
But the head of the Rockwell Museum responded, well, you know, dolls fall in all kinds of positions and so this just seems arbitrary. To me, that overlooks the fact [LAUGHS] that this isn't a real doll. It's a painting. And if a doll is in a particular position, it's because you've chosen to paint it in that position. BOB GARFIELD: So if it's almost as though Rockwell were making a commentary about the eventually-to-be-lost virginity of this young girl, in that way he could have been commenting on, at least if your symposium is right, all of us. RICHARD HALPERN: Right. There's often a kind of loss of innocence that takes place in the paintings themselves, which reflect on a potential loss of innocence on the part of the viewer. I think an interesting example of that is Rockwell's painting called The Art Critic. That's a painting of a young man, a young art student in a museum, who's studying a painting on the wall of a kind of amply-endowed Rubenesque lady. And he's peering at it closely through a magnifying glass, looking at a brooch on the woman's breast. He doesn't notice that he's actually looking at her chest at the same time, but the woman in the painting does notice and leers back at him.
You have a young man, a kind of innocent, who doesn't see what he's looking at, but the painting does see. The painting isn't innocent. And, in a way, that seems to me to spell out the relation between Rockwell's viewers and the paintings themselves. The viewers may be innocent or may be in a state of denial or disavowal but the paintings themselves are very knowing and sophisticated. And they're, they’re looking at us, in a way, more intently than we are at them. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Richard. Thank you very much.
RICHARD HALPERN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Richard Halpern teaches English literature at Johns Hopkins University. This is On the Media from NPR.