Doni Whitsett, Ph.D., LCSW
Clinical Associate Professor
University of Southern California
School of Social Work
From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era
Stephen A. Kent, Ph.D. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001, 243 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0-8156-2923-0. Stephen A. Kent, Ph.D. softcover ISBN 0-8156-2948-6
“One night in 1974, I watched in disbelief as men and women of my generation paid homage to an unimpressive guru who equated spiritual knowledge with increasingly large sizes of airplanes.”
Thus begins the preface of From Slogans to Mantras, a sociological treatise by Dr. Steven Kent. As Benjamin Zablocki notes in the forward, Kent offers a “detailed analysis of the transformation of political radicals into religious revolutionaries” during the ‘60s and early ‘70s. With the “perspective of time,” Zablocki notes, and also perhaps with the advantage of geographical distance, the American-born author, a professor of sociology at the University of Edmonton in Canada, provides a unique understanding of the macro forces in play during the historical period when young people were “tuning in, turning off, and dropping out.” This was an era of national “identity crisis,” when the country was torn by ideological tensions, disillusionments with political leaders who could orchestrate a Watergate, and disappointments with efforts to realize democratic ideals epitomized in the War on Poverty. This identity confusion resulted in a “cultural transition of American youth from radical politics to mystical religion.” (p. 1) As Kent points out, “When thousands of youth went from chanting political slogans to chanting meditational mantras or prayers, this transition reflected the social and political frustrations and disappointments of a generation in despair.” (p. 2)
Kent acknowledges other interpretations of this sociopolitical era and offers a “complementary” version of understanding. Rather than viewing the shift from politics to religion as “a crisis of meaning,” as other scholars have done, Kent views it as a “crisis of means.” Disappointed with tradition and mainstream culture, youth embraced the non-traditional (at least for Westerners) religions of the East, following gurus to India (as did the Beatles), and chanting in foreign tongues, believing that “the answers” to solving the ills of the world now lay within these religious doctrines. And while Kent does not focus on other types of groups per se in this particular work, his thesis of a “crisis of means” provides another explanation for the appeal of other radical groups. In other words, seekers of The Truth and The Ideal not only looked to Eastern gurus but found themselves in political and psychotherapeutic groups as well, groups that offered the means to world peace (e.g., The Unification Church), the eradication of world hunger (e.g., Hunger Project, EST), and perfect mental health (e.g., The Center for Feeling Therapy). In support of his thesis, Kent draws upon the biographical accounts of such well-known personages as Eldridge Cleaver, Allen Ginsberg, and certainly the Beatles, particularly George Harrison’s devotion to Maharishi Mehesh Yogi.
The book’s strength lies not only in its informative content, but also in its easy readability, free from the sociological jargon that might be cumbersome for non-sociologist readers. Through nostalgic photographs and in-depth interviews, Kent brings to life this important sociopolitical-historical era and the people who made the shift from slogans to mantras. With amazing personal detail, he chronicles the paths of those who made the journey: ex-members who recall what drew them to a particular beacon of light in the darkness of disillusionment, what drew them to a particular “means to an end.”
It should perhaps be pointed out, however, that many protesters did not go this route; many opted to join “the establishment” after their time of political protest. It might be interesting to examine the variables that distinguished those who “dropped back in” from those who made the shift of which Kent writes. Was it just a matter of “being in the wrong place at the right time,” or were there other individual and/or contexual forces in play? And then, again, some political advocates remained in that arena (e.g., civil rights, SDS activist Tom Hayden, who went on to a political career in California), as Kent himself points outs.
My only quasi-criticism of the book lies in Dr. Kent’s comment that
While “trying to save the world, the early converts … lost much of themselves, and … forgot a basic lesson from the decade of the ‘60s” … What they forgot was the importance of questioning authority — of holding people in positions of power accountable for their decisions and of ensuring that those decisions were not exploitative . . . .” (p. 187)
I don’t believe that anyone forgot the lesson of questioning authority. I think the more likely explanation for this curious loss of memory lies in understanding the dynamics of “mind control.” Caught up in powerful group dynamics and forces that “unduly influence[d],” the former belief systems of these converts to new religious movements (including lessons learned earlier) would have been disavowed and suppressed. Certainly in the more totalistic groups, aka “cults,” any doubts stemming from old belief systems that might have surfaced would have been ridiculed as “negative thoughts,” (i.e., the work of Satan, selfishness, or insanity). In fact, Kent’s next comment would seem to confirm this view:
As former political radicals and activists sat at the feet of gurus, swamis, and self-proclaimed enlightened masters, the new lessons that they learned . . . obscured what the 1960s had taught about the importance of doubting . . . As disciples . . . [they] sat passively as their new leaders initiated them into hierarchical social structures that were patriarchal, elitist, authoritarian, and often abusive [italics added]. (p. 188)
Nevertheless, the author gives us an important paradigm to help in our understanding of this important era in American history, a time when the seeds of the counterculture found fertile soil, took root, and spread their influence throughout society, even today.
Most poignantly, the author’s final paragraph seems eerily prophetic in light of the events of September 11:
Perhaps somewhere in these failed religious attempts at social transformation through personal purity lies a new lesson. In the social and political context of extraordinary frustration at a seemingly intransigent political system . . . widespread conversion to apocalyptic religions . . . was understandable…The religious path, however, is fraught with dangers that can harm if not destroy participants, their loved ones, and the communities in which they live. As my generation experienced, political frustration can make people desperate, and religions that feed upon people’s desperation can blind their faithful followers” [italics added]. (p. 188)
For those of us who lived the journey of which Dr. Kent so eloquently writes, the journey from Vietnam protests and Civil Rights marches to chanting mantras and parroting canned group rhetoric, Slogans to Mantras normalizes our experience by placing it in its psychohistorical, sociopolitical context. For people who were either too young to participate, or who watched primarily from the sidelines, this book will bring to life an important era in American history that expands our understanding of attraction, indoctrination, and loyalty to new religious movements and totalistic groups.