One cannot entirely trust one’s childhood memories. Indeed, one’s preschool memories are most often a jumble of decontextualized images, forcing one to rely on the memories of others for a contextualized narrative of one’s early life—true or not—that comes to define one’s identity. In my case, I am told that in the fall of 1976, I ceased smiling, and while it has taken decades of self-reflection to comprehend fully why this occurred, it is the defining moment of my life.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Franz Fanon posits a collective mental illness in the African diaspora caused by the trauma of the individual’s first encounter with racism: “for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason.” Simply put, while the African child’s family may never be perfect, he/she grows up generally in an environment of love, but when the African adult enters the society at large he/she encounters racists who irrationally despise him/her, causing mental illness akin to that caused by childhood trauma. Not to diminish the trauma of racism, I would posit an additional collective mental illness arising from compulsory public education within capitalist societies. September 1976 being the date I started attending school, my six-year-old self was ignorant of Franz Fanon, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, John Holt, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Noam Chomsky, Susan Rosenthal, and Jeff Schmidt, but I intuitively realized that my kindergarten teacher unreasonably despised her students, myself included. Today, I can intellectualize my kindergarten experience, most easily by referencing the research of John Taylor Gatto on how compulsory public education was from its nineteenth-century outset purposefully designed to destroy the child, but this exploration of my original trauma has done little to alleviate the damage done to my mental health—perhaps because, as Susan Rosenthal, MD, discusses in Power and Powerlessness (2006), living within a capitalist society retraumatizes the individual on a daily basis. For example, in a society that defines men by their ability to earn a family wage, structural unemployment and underemployment traumatize men.
In Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (2000), Jeff Schmidt suggests that graduate school students in professional training programs as well as professional employees must adopt the mentality of prisoners of war if they are to have any hope of retaining their critical faculties. Ironically, the only line my university demanded I remove from my 2001 doctoral dissertation was quoting Chomsky on the need for “courses of intellectual self-defense.” Again not to diminish the struggle of professionals, in an age of doublespeak and doublethink, at a time when Chomsky more often than not shills for neoliberal politicians in the Democratic Party and when Lee Camp in rightly criticizing Washington inexplicably defends Beijing, each and every one of us must adopt the mentality of the POW.
Naturally, prisoners of war resisting in concert are stronger than individual prisoners of war resisting alone. Unfortunately, my permanent anger and depression arising from trauma, my string of countless precarious jobs, my blacklisting for maintaining my critical faculties and an independent agenda, and my constant fear of unemployment and the resultant inability to provide economically for loved ones—am I deluding myself as to the cause?—mean I have been unable to feel or to form lasting bonds of solidarity at home or at work. In a roundabout way, this brings me to these songs. As an isolated, metaphorical POW, playing and singing these songs literally keeps me alive in the prisoner of war camp that is the twenty-first century world.
My favorite lines of dialogue from Mark Harman’s Brassed Off (1996), are spoken by the married couple, Harry and Rita.
Harry: All right, love?
Rita: That’s it. You bugger off and blow your bloody trumpet.
Harry: Blimey. A conversation!
Rita: Harry. In a month’s time, when you’re at home all day and there’s nowt but dole coming in, at least I can sit there, too, and know that I did summat. It weren’t much, but it were ’best I could do, and at least it were summat.
Harry: What are you on about?
Rita: Before ’strike you were so…full of fight. Packed full o’ passion you were. Now, you just do nowt. All you do is…blow your bloody trumpet.
Harry: Aye. But at least….
Rita: At least what?
Harry: People listen to us.
Rita: Go on, sod off.
Harry: It’s a bloody euphonium!
However, I am not suggesting that I play and sing these songs to make people listen to me. Before this website was brought down by hackers, it was ranked high in Google searches, and people around the world did contact me frequently; today, Google’s algorithm ranks the website much lower, and I am contacted mostly by spammers seeking money from me. Living in complete emotional and intellectual isolation, while I do hope my work on this website is socially meaningful—providing benefit to others, playing and singing these songs connects my soul with the souls of the millions of human beings who composed and sang these songs as honest expressions of their beliefs, experiences, humanity, and solidarity. Playing and singing these songs reassures me that I am not insane for rejecting capitalism and state capitalism. Playing and singing these songs assures me that I am not insane for embracing anarcho-syndicalism.
We are dying from the moment of birth. Barring an accident, I know I will die relatively soon of diabetes. I also know my child’s life will be much worse than mine, it being too late to act against global warming, environmental pollution, and mass extinctions—particularly because the ruling class values power and wealth over life itself and the ruled class are the victims of the brainwashing, coercive persuasion, menticide, mind control, and thought reform of consumerism, the schools, and the mass and social media—not to mention the persuasive coercion of employers, law enforcement officers, and the judiciary and the military. Thus, playing and singing these songs keeps me from nihilism.
I was fortunate to catch a Chumbawamba show in Philadelphia in 1997, and I remember watching clueless teenagers moshing to a live version of “Tubthumping” in which the band’s vocalists changed the lyrics to “Free Mumia Abu Jamal.”
I was fortunate to play Larry Foreman in a Meiji Gakuin Daigaku student production of Cradle Will Rock in 2008 and to play America in a Jochi Daigaku student production of Ballad for Americans in 2009.
I was fortunate to catch a number of Alistair Hulett’s shows in Australia in 2005 and to become acquainted with him and with Fatima Uygun before his untimely death.
Unfortunately, I was unable to catch a performance by Utah Phillips before his death, which coincidentally occurred on my wedding day, but I have been in email contact with his son.
When our son was born, his mother graciously agreed to name him Utah-Alistair in homage to these singer-songwriters who meant so much to me.
Finally, I wish to acknowledge my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, Anna Mae Getz, garment worker, waitress, and union member: rest in solidarity Nana.
—John Levan Bernhart, PhD