Sticking it to The Man

Mick Jagger’s recent septuagenarian tour was a reminder that rock ’n’ roll can be embarrassing when sung by old-timers. While “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care” is an oldie that doesn’t get all that much more embarrassing when sung by an oldie, “what a drag it is getting old” seems downright stupid when sung by Mick 50 years after it was written.

I can only wince at the thought of Roger Daltry adjusting his bifocals to sing, “I hope I die before I get old.”

There were so many blithe assumptions made back in the “Age of Aquarius” about the imminent perfectibility of just about everything if only The Man would get out of the way.

It is a bitter recent revelation that Charles Manson, the dark dementor of the Woodstock generation, was an avid devotee of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” That such an establishment best-seller was used by this dark soul to seduce others into unspeakable crimes suggests the weird yin to the Aquarian yang that was the 1960s.

In this strange bell jar of idealism and sinfulness, one other trait was the kind of exhilarating paranoia that dark forces were busily trying to thwart the New Age. Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover and all sorts of militaristic establishment types were the focus of great suspicion, and there was a rampant anti-institutionalism that typified much of the counterculture.

But time trucks on, and most of those souls worried about The Man have become The Man, or at least donned ties and got jobs and ignored the man with the gun over there telling us we had to beware.

Which is what makes the current anti-establishment ethos so strangely retro. The suspicion of the nefarious plotting of government, corporations, banks too big to fail and international organizations, all the stuff that we used to worry about back in the 1960s, have come back. Only now the rhetoric is coming from the right side of the spectrum instead of the left. It is a weird kind of reverse-image déjà vu, where the folks who once were the critics (and the community organizers) are explaining why we need to have NSA surveillance of all our emails, while yesterday’s establishment — particularly the white male part of the establishment — explain why no one in power can be trusted.

This is all part of a larger American predisposition to distrust authority and be suspicious of government. King George tried to impose a tea tax, and we’ve all been members of some sort of tea party ever since.

Most of this I can chalk up to the perennial cycles in American politics — yesterday the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and today the National Rifle Association — but it gets strange when it infiltrates the Church. I now get emails from a variety of groups — ranging from anti-abortion to women’s ordination — that seem to have a similar anti-(Church) establishment tone. Often the same arguments are used — most popular: look at how the bishops tolerated sex abuse — to justify wildly different causes. What seems to unite all of these finger pointers is a willingness to believe that people who have given their lives in service to the Church are in fact some sort of demonic fifth column, hoping to bring it all down on our heads. Cue “Sympathy for the Devil.”

The politics of paranoia has infiltrated the Church, but such divisions are not all that new, as even the letters of St. Paul testify. This climate of suspicion and blame does add to the challenge that Pope Francis faces as he tries to turn us from an inward-looking Church to one that once again boldly engages society. Before bridging the world’s divisions, he first has to bridge our own. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.