I know this is cheap bait I do honestly wonder whether cicadas masturbate during those 17 years they’re underground. The news has been buzzing in the last few weeks, that’s a pun you see, because once again the Cicadas, or annual locusts, are emerging from the ground. At least in New England. I’ve never understood news broadcasts taking time to discuss the appearance of these insects since it seems like every year I step out onto my porch to water the plants my wife bought and then decided to not cultivate when I discover a hallowed exoskeleton clinging desperately to the column post at the corner. My mom still makes fun of me to this day for the collection of “cicada shells” I at one time kept for three years. For three years those protein ladened shells rotted in one of my mother’s Tupperware dishes until eventually she confronted me with them and I was forced to take them out back and step on them hoping they would make that marvelous crunching noise.
Alas at that point they were soft, and so my barefoot was left smeared with left-over cicada juice instead. There was an innocence on my part thinking they would remain hard and crunchy and prime for stepping on, though really it was ignorance which leads me into the second lead-in for this essay.
My sister laughs whenever one of us says the statement, “Children are Innocent.” It’s an inside joke that started when my little sister was in eighth grade and she asked me for help editing a paper over Lord of the Flies. It was a great paper, from what I remember of it, but at some point the older literature enthusiast and philosopher took over and we spent the next half hour arguing over whether or not children were “innocent.” My argument was that the word innocence that people use for describing the unique quality that children possess is really false and that children are often referred to as such because people like to idealize children. Ignorance, I argued, is a better word because when we’re kids we’re not innocent of the word, we’re just ignorant of it. As we grow we learn more and more about our reality, our species, our culture, our universe, and intelligence tends to fuck up that ignorant state when we’re able to enjoy life. My sister argued against me as best she could, and eventually left in a huff. We’re cool now, though I occasionally get death threats through the mail written in blood and phone calls where all I hear on the other end is heavy breathing.
This notion of Ignorance is important because recently I’ve begun re-reading Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic for the twelfth or thirteenth time. I’ve lost track really. My borderline obsession with the book is based on more than just my Queerness seeping into another person’s journey of self-discovery (it feels like leeching off it sometimes I swear), but in fact is due more with the intricate complexity of the book. It took Alison Bechdel seven years to actually write and illustrate the graphic novel, and reading her second work Are You My Mother? reveals her emotional and psychological state during this time period, not to mention demonstrating the creative setbacks during the actual composition.
Reading over the graphic novel again I discovered this time around that I focused first on the idea of recognition, for as I wrote in a previous essay I “recognized” Bruce as sharing a similar erotic interest, but I also considered the idea of ignorance, specifically the way Bechdel explores it in the fifth chapter entitled An Ideal Husband. The chapter relates the events of the specific summer in 1973 when Bechdel was thirteen and all at once a series of events coincided that included: the appearance of the annual cicadas, the Watergate Scandal, her first period, her father was arrested for purchasing alcohol for one of his students, and her mother was performing in a local production of The Importance of Being Ernest.
Bechdel herself notes the serendipity of these events and the potential that listing them all in context to one another can be suspect, but in all cases Bechdel indulgence often leads to brilliance:
This page is beautiful not only for the symmetry, for the top of the porch appears almost like a pediment (a triangle structure often adorning Greek monuments) but also for the balance that sets the stage ultimately for the disequilibrium that is going to come in the next weeks. It’s also interesting to note that Bechdel herself follows my little sister’s policy of innocence. She describes America as an Innocent nation, referring to the Watergate affair as the “fall from innocence” that all children, and by extension, nations are supposed to eventually go through. Bechdel would likewise lose her “innocence” during this summer as she discovers not only the joys of masturbation, but also the erotic truth of her father.
It’s fascinating to observe how sex is always the agent of chaos disrupting our lives, particularly our innocent childhood. It may just be because I found one of my father’s Playboys when I was five and thus started on a path of interest in the erotic since, but I’ve never understood why sex has always been portrayed as something corrupting when my own experience with sex and expression of sexuality has done nothing but reaffirm the idea that life is interesting and worth living. Bechdel uses sex in the chapter, referring in the beginning with the cicadas which emerge, like insects do, to breed and then quickly die off. From this she moves to the scandal of Oscar Wilde.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the life of Oscar Wilde he was a Victorian playwright who, on the very night his most successful play The Importance of Being Ernest opened, was accused of sodomy, a charge at that time which could lead to imprisonment and in some instances death. Wilde fought the accusation in court but lost the case. Wilde’s sexuality along with Cicadas along with Bechdel’s own erotic exploration, and finally the glaring act of her father all combine to reaffirm the idea that sex creates a fall from innocence but if the reader pays attention all of these realizations come from learning.
The conflict with referring to lack of knowledge of sexuality as innocence is incoherent. It doesn’t accurately convey the idea that we learn and thus purge ourselves of ignorance. Innocence implies a character trait while ignorance implies simply unknowing. The best rhetorical example of this is the mass narrative of the Garden of Eden. The story that is often peddled in Sunday school classrooms and bad Veggie Tales Cassette tapes, is that when god made Adam and Eve (Not Adam and Steve unfortunately) he made them innocent, but warned them of the tree of knowledge. Eve was tempted by the serpent, who was really Satan, who then convinced Adam to take a bite. Once they bit into the apple they became aware of their nakedness and covered themselves, for this they were banned from the Garden forever. This narrative is one I’m painfully familiar with since I grew up in the Episcopal church and went to a Private Christian school, but something that has always bothered me about the narrative is the word innocence. Adam and Eve learned of nakedness by eating the apple, and by removing the ignorance of their state they were forever altered. I suppose this could just be a tomato/tomato potato/potato semantics argument, but I’ve always felt that Adam and Eve got a bum rap by being labeled innocent rather than ignorant.
Both of these examples is why I’m troubled by the idea of Innocence, particularly when referring to the Watergate scandal.
The reason for this concern is because I’m a Watergate nerd. I own a first edition hardback copy of All the President’s Men, and at least seven thick tomes dedicated either to Nixon, the Press’s reaction to the events, or simply the public reaction to Watergate. It may just be because my parents grew up during the seventies, but there’s something about the time period that has always fascinated me and not just because it Rock’s golden age. Before you cringe remember it gave rise to Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, and Aerosmith along all within a ten year period. Watergate is the political impression left upon that decade, so much so that it permanently added a word to the lexicon. Whenever something is called “X-Gate” it always implies that someone has been caught in a gross action that violates that person’s and by extension organization’s image. It doesn’t help that so many books, films, novels, and essays have been written about the event.
One of the best examples is the film All the President’s Men, which follows Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigate the break-in. The film is dense in its detail but entertaining and has one of the best lines in American cinema:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
While this film captures the moment of the Watergate scandal so well, another excellent program provides a wider cultural perspective. The Seventies is a documentary series I discovered at 1 A.M. while possibly drunk, as so many of my great discoveries tend to go, and one episode in particular entitled The United States Vs Richard Nixon covers the entire scandal from beginning to end.
American politics is an entirely different animal than it was in the 1970s because at the time of the crisis people believed what they heard from the news. Men like Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Howard K. Smith were not just characters on your television set, they were reporters actively engaging and regularly investigating the actions of politicians because otherwise how would people know what was going on in their world. Today’s soft journalism, where character is preferred over quality and bias is the first agenda, could never really tackle an affair like Watergate because the break-in and investigation would be sold as a polarizing media event rather than a legitimate political scandal. My concern here isn’t to criticize contemporary journalism, but rather to observe the larger importance of Watergate as the moment in which America lost its ignorance of its own state as a nation.
History is often misused as a moniker for the past, but in reality history is just the discourse about the facts of the past. It’s important to recognize this distinction as I remind the reader that corruption in politics is as old as human civilization. Nixon was not the first world leader, or even American President, to be caught in a corruption scandal (Look up the illustrious carear of one Ulysses S. Grant) but the news organizations being better able to reach their audience directly thanks to television, the public had no choice but to understand the gravity of the implications. The “Saturday Night Massacre” is probably the best example of this.
On October 20, 1973 Nixon ordered the acting Attorney General to fire Archibald Cox, the lead investigator of the Watergate break-in. Elliot Richardson refuses and reigns immediately. The same night Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus is promoted and ordered to fire Cox. He also refuses and is fired immediately. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork is promoted active Attorney General and fires Cox…in one night. If that sounds like the set-up for a Marx Brothers film I’m sad to disappoint but the reader can actually find news footage from the period and see for themselves that the Saturday Night Massacre was not just the set-up for a wonderful political satire, but in fact was hard truth.
Well so what? says the reader. What does any of this have to do with innocence, ignorance, and Fun Home? More importantly what does the difference between innocence and ignorance have to do with my day to day life?
This is a fair question since the Watergate scandal so rarely appears in the mundane affairs of life. Paying for your gas with a debit or credit card doesn’t make you consider what would have happened if Congress hadn’t subpoenaed the tapes. Nor does having your hair cut make you wonder whether or not the scandal would have reached such a public head had Bernstein and Woodward not been assigned the story at The Washington Post. I would also advise you not to hire Waters Gate, the all drag barber-shop quartet that sings the history of the event set to show tunes.
The larger significance is found within the rhetoric of innocence. America was not an innocent country by the time the Watergate scandal had appeared in the public’s consciousness, for it had its own long blacklist of offenses**, but what kept these corruptions from sinking too deep into the nation’s mentality was most likely the closeness of it. Television brought the scandals of Washington D.C. into their homes and so as Nixon avoided the investigation, and then eventually tried to quash it, Americans began to recognize that they were learning more and more that they’re nation was not perfect. They began to recognize that they could not trust their President, and even America could suffer from corrupt leadership. Most importantly, by losing the ignorance of what Nixon had done, Americans lost something of their idealism. Even Presidents could be crooks.
As for Bechdel’s memoir, Fun Home from the very beginning of the book is about recognizing and learning about her father’s erotic truth and how it helped shape her life. Bruce, near the beginning of the chapter invites one of his students to join him for a beer, and it’s implied that he might have engaged in sex with the young man. Bechdel wouldn’t realize this until some years later, but it’s clear by her using Watergate as a context how she has compartmentalized this reality of her father.
Fathers, like Presidents, are odd creatures that try their best to guide the country and push it into the right directions. The conflict is when we’re young we tend to idealize our fathers, but as we age we learn about their characters and this knowledge tends to kill the perfect image we had of them.
Learning does not always generate happiness because when we learn we alter our original reality. Watergate has forever altered the American landscape by reminding its citizens that every office is open and vulnerable to corruption. Bechdel in The Ideal Husband observes how the summer of 73 left her no longer ignorant of sexuality, both her own as well as her fathers, and while this did leave a lasting negative impression of her father, it did not destroy herself.
Innocence is a character trait that’s unrealistic because as a species we learn and grow from mistakes. America has recovered from the Watergate scandal, just as Bechdel has recovered from her own loss of ignorance. The trick is not to mourn that loss of the former self, but rather to emerge stronger from it.
If I can use an obvious metaphor here, the healthy approach is to leave the exoskeleton behind, and like a cicada, or annual locusts if you prefer, fly off to a new state of being. The problem with clinging to the idea that your former self was innocent is that over time that becomes a corruptive state. If things don’t change it means they’re static, it means they’re dead, and so like my collection of old cicada shells many that try desperately to cling to this state wind up hollowed shells hoping desperately to find that substance which they once held so completely.
They also wind up covered sticky bug-juice which makes it rather difficult to get someone to go out with you to a movie. Just sayin.
I’ve included here a picture I took a year ago. My dog huckleberry had to pee before bed and so I stood out on the back porch while he did his business. I must have been looking around because I turned and spotted a cicada on the wall drying its wings out. Its shell was a few feet below it. It didn’t move as I approached and after taking a few shots I marveled at the brilliant shade of blue-green in its drying wings.
To further the point that America was not an “innocent” nation remember a few events and institutions:
The Salem Witch Trials.
Slavery of African Americans.
The Trail of Tears.
Reconstruction in general.
Henry Kissinger again.
The abuse of Jeannette Pickering Rankin after she was the only person to vote against the declaration of war in 1944.
The systematic abuse of the irish in the 1800s and Hispanic immigrants today.
The CIA making deals with Opium farmers during the Vietnam war
Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment.
The New York Riots.
Henry Kissinger’s face.
Just to name a few.
***Writer’s FINAL Note**
The Seventies is currently aailable for streaming on Netflix. Fun home: A Family Tragicomic is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.