Naive? What Does That Mean?


When I was young, in early the 1950s, I would say boyish things, like: “I love to go to the moon or to Mars.” Often adults would say, “That’s silly. Don’t believe in fairy tales.”

When I was young I thought my little black friend was neat and just as capable as I was at most things, better at others. The only difference I could figure out was our skin color. Adults often said, “Black people aren’t as good as we are.” They told me I would grow up and see that.

When I was a teenager, in the early 1960s, a teacher asked my high school class what we thought was the most under-utilized natural resource in the U.S. He was thinking of coal or water, but I said “women.” The teacher and some of the class laughed. The smart girls didn’t, but the rest thought I had another silly notion.

When I worked at a super market chain in high school there was an attempt to unionize the workers. People told me, “Don’t vote for that union. Everyone will get fired and you’ll be paid less. Owners got a right to do what they want and if you don’t like it; start your own business. That’s America.” I voted for the union and saw my wages go up by thirty percent. No one got fired. The business prospered and eventually sold to a larger chain and the owners got very rich.

When I was in the Army in the mid 60s I thought it would be a good idea if the Vietnamese decided what should happen in Viet Nam, not the U.S., the Soviet Union or China. The colonels and the cold warriors told me I didn’t understand how the real world worked.

I became a journalist, another idealistic, naïve choice. I did it because I thought, in some small ways, I could make a difference. “Why don’t you become an engineer or a doctor?” friends and relatives said. “Journalists are just gossips.” I learned it did make a difference, whether I was alerting people about the coming flood, revealing the market that sold illegally graded beef, or reporting on the fraudulent business that was cheating investors.

People told me I was naïve and idealistic and that I’d grow out of it. Sometimes I believed they were right.

But this is not really about me. It’s about how the world works. It’s about those who believe in “free market” capitalism and think those who would regulate business don’t understand and are naïve. It’s about “liberals” who believe government is usually the answer. It’s about what the U.S. does at home and about what we attempt over seas. Many of these people, conservatives, Libertarians and Christian Right believers, with whom I’ve spoken, interviewed, or read, often refer to those who think in moderate or liberal ways as naïve. They are convinced they have a corner on how the world really works. Some who profess to be progressive also wear blinders.

Let me mention several issues as examples:

Abortion. The anti-abortion true believers seem to think that if you make abortion illegal it will go away. Of course, there have been abortions for hundreds of years and for much of that time abortion was illegal. Why didn’t it go away?

Sex. If you prevent people from knowing about their bodies, eliminate funding for sex research, ban birth control methods and preach abstinence you will stop people from having sex outside of monogamous marriage. That’s never worked in history has it?

Welfare. If you “eliminate welfare as we know it” poverty will disappear because if people are forced to work they will find jobs. I see. Then why are there still so many poor people in my neighborhood and filling up homeless shelters?

Finding a job. “Anybody who wants to work and is willing to work hard can find a job.” Really? Even the physically or mentally disabled, the mothers with kids at home and no child care? What about the workers whose factories have closed and the jobs went away? I suppose all of these folks will realize the “American Dream.”

The American Dream. “Anyone who wants to can realize the “American Dream.” Which means what? Be a Donald Trump or a Bill Gates? Call me naïve, but I don’t think so.

Free Market Capitalism. “Take the shackles off business and the country/world will prosper.” What if it doesn’t? What if people are fired, laid off or their jobs move to another place? What if one business or a few control so much of a market they run out all significant competition? Won’t they raise prices and if you don’t like it, you have a choice of not buying or getting along without? And if that market is energy, health care, or food, things everyone needs to survive, what then? And if you put your Social Security money in stocks and the market crashes…?

Greed: Greed is good because it’s a great motivator that keeps the marketplace running. Those who take this on faith are true believers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making lots of money but when greed is the prime factor is leads to cutting corners; on the safety of products, on decisions about whether to pollute the air or water, on fair wages, on whether to bribe officials, or how much to give to which governmental committee’s chair for a re-election campaign.

Spin. Always tell your side of the story as if it’s the only option and refuse to acknowledge value in any other idea. This has become the sine qua non of modern partisan politics. Of course, if you suggest that the strategy might end up preventing good ideas to surface or thoughtful compromises for the public good to emerge, you are labeled naïve and of course you “don’t understand how the world works.”

Power: “Use it or lose it.” Okay, at almost any level of power the one with it has to use it, whether it’s a janitor who controls the keys, a teacher in a classroom or a president with his pen. But what’s missing from the proverb is how you use power. If you use it to denigrate, intimidate, cheat or kill without cause, perhaps it’s, pardon the expression, “immoral.”

The U.S. will bring democracy and liberty to all the world. Former President George W. Bush said that in an inaugural speech and we hear it repeated by those on the left and the right. Okay. How? At what cost? Can you impose democracy at the barrel of a gun?

The dictionary defines naïve as “foolishly simple, childlike, artless, unsophisticated”…”it connotes an almost foolish lack of worldly wisdom.”

Why is it I just don’t feel naïve any longer?