There's a thread tying together the events, large and small, that make for a narrative of the world I was born into almost 51 years ago. It can be expressed in a single word -- delegitimization.
The only world I know is one in which the center has not held. Our institutions are bankrupt. Our heroes have clay feet. Our legal, economic and political systems, we find, comprise a gigantic craps game, and the swells are shooting loaded dice.
We no longer can depend on jobs that will support our families. The family itself is less an societal cornerstone than a demographic moving target. Equal justice under the law is just another Ponzi scheme. Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted have, in these times, become sure signs of a communist plot.
And judging by the corruption and decay surrounding -- indeed, engulfing -- us, you have to wonder whether singer-songwriter Don McLean was onto something in "American Pie" when he wrote, "the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast."
As we sit here, more than a decade into the new millennium, let me ask you something. Whom do you trust? Really and truly.
Really and truly, what do you trust?
Are you sure about that?
WHAT institution in your life -- in our lives -- do you really trust? Would you trust it with your life?
Do you really trust your government? Do you really trust you'll get a fair shake under the law? Do you really trust you're not going to get screwed by your bank . . . by the free market . . . out of a job?
Do you really trust the church with your soul anymore? Do you trust the church with your kid? Would you let Junior go on a youth camping trip organized by Father Dan?
Would you let your prep-star son go play football for Penn State? Would you let your junior-high kid go to a Penn State summer sports camp? Do you think that local group of do-gooders is there to help your at-risk child . . . or do you suspect some of those do-gooders are just helping themselves to your at-risk child?
If you can't trust Joe Paterno to call the cops when an ex-assistant is allegedly raping 10-year-old boys in the football shower room, whom the hell can you trust?
When you can't believe in college football -- and that was about the last thing we Americans did believe in -- what's left but the abyss?
Deviance, destruction, dysfunction and distrust are the four horsemen of legitimacy's apocalypse. And legitimacy's apocalypse will become our own soon enough. When every institution we used to trust -- in which we used to believe -- has been bulldozed by corruption, what fortress (or offensive lineman) will stand between us and the devil himself, once he rounds on us?
JUST SINCE 2001, Americans have found that they were manipulated into a pointless, devastating war in Iraq. That the one in Afghanistan has, by negligence and hubris, quickly become just as pointless. We have found that we learned nothing from the pointless Vietnam travesty, four decades earlier.
Likewise, you can't even depend upon entire swaths of the Catholic Church to evidence belief in a righteous God, much less fear Him. Or bet that many Protestants are any better in that respect.
You can't even trust conventional wisdom -- that if we let priests marry, they wouldn't be having sex with kids. Too many married clerical and non-clerical perverts have been getting on the molestation merry-go-round for that one to fly.
Also in the last decade, we have learned that you can't trust a sure thing . . . or your too-big-to-fail bank. Or Wall Street. Especially Wall Street. We've learned the hard way that if you keep your nose clean and play by the rules, all you're likely to get is poorer -- and, ultimately, the shaft.
Oh, and there we were all in one placeALL MY LIFE I have watched the pillars of society crumble. The lesson seems to be this: If you believe in something, if you put faith in a person or an institution, you will live to regret it. You ultimately will feel like a chump.
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan's spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
Amid the wreckage of institutions and society, our "Do Not Trust" list has expanded to encompass God and country. Amid the general carnage of the last decade, and amid the particular carnage within the Catholic Church, I battle despair to agree -- still -- that McLean's lyric, "the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast," remains among the most cynical words written in the king's English.
Yonder lies nihilism, after all. The ongoing collapse -- the onward march of institutional decay -- catechizes us in unbelief and alienation. Such is the nature, and the toll, of delegitimization.
The end result of corruption is also the mechanism of corruption -- a feedback loop of alienation and atomized commonweal . . . a disordered sense of radical self-interest.
When an athletic department like Penn State's can receive allegations that prepubescent children had been anally raped on university property by a former coach and -- allegedly -- decide that suppressing a scandal was a greater priority than stopping a predator, you have just witnessed the death of the common good. You have just witnessed the return of tribalism.
The ethic holds that outsiders -- for example, little at-risk children -- are of no concern relative to defending the PSU Athletic Department tribe's status quo . . . and financial bottom line. Ditto the robber barons of Wall Street. Ditto the sort of clericalism that hushed up sex abuse in the Catholic Church at the expense of the faithful's children.
It sucks not to be One of Us. There's no "I" in "team," but there's no "you" in it, either. The center will not hold, and any expansive sense of society cannot long endure.
This was supposed to be a post about the sex-abuse scandal engulfing not only Penn State football, but the university itself. But this latest horror show is just an old story told in a new context. It's just one more institution brought low by the individual and collective wretchedness of this (and every) age.
Scandal-ridden Penn State is just another brick knocked out of the wall. The real story is that, lacking many bricks, the wall slumps precariously.