‘A working class hero is something to be.” In June 1970, two monumental critiques of contemporary culture hit the marketplace. Both explored identical themes: the ongoing alienation and class struggle of young adults growing up in the post-industrial world.
Little has changed since that time. More than likely, the situation has deteriorated further.
John Lennon’s Working Class Hero — the cover song in his first post-Beatles solo album and his first collaboration with Yoko Ono — delivered a pounding, sparse and targeted message: we are destroying the souls of our young people.
Charles Reich’s book The Greening of America put teeth in Lennon’s message. Reich outlined these issues in grave detail:
Disorder, corruption, hypocrisy, war.
Poverty, distorted priorities, and lawmaking by private power.
Uncontrolled technology and the destruction of environment.
Decline of democracy and liberty and powerlessness.
The artificiality of work and culture.
Absence of community.
Loss of self.
Today as I think about Lennon and Reich on my morning drive to town, I catch a CBC segment on today’s alienated youth.
A preppy school trustee applauds the latest bit of uncontrolled technology aimed at solving what she calls, “the destructive idleness” of kids hanging out at Canadian schools: the mosquito.
Her school had been repeatedly vandalized by gangs of teenagers gathering after school. The mosquito, a technological ultrahigh-frequency device first designed to break down war criminals, emits an ear piercing sound that only young ears can pick up.
The sound is so deafening the kids quickly move away from the buildings.
I am appalled at this woman’s feeble defense for risking the health of a child’s hearing as an acceptable solution to their loss of self.
I pull over to the side of the road and walk down to a narrow canal along the Columbia River. It is quiet here except for a few songbirds and the gentle sound of moving water. In utter disbelief I mumble, “the mosquito, how (******) crazy.”
What, I ask myself, are we doing to our young people?
Reich believed the solution to the crisis of class struggle, separation and loss of self, hinged on the creation of a “new consciousness,” one that begins by first learning how to live in a new way.
Such a consciousness, “tells us how to make technology and science work for, and not against, the interests of men and women. The new way of life proposes a concept of work in which “quality, dedication, and excellence are preserved.”
Reich sought to build a culture that is non-artificial and non-alienated, a form of community in which love, respect and a mutual search for wisdom replace the competition and separation of the past.
Lennon and Reich were striving to help create a reality, according to Reich, that offers us “the best hope of a life that is both satisfying and beautiful.”
When I read Reich’s work and when I listen to Lennon I cannot help but think how far off-base the school trustee is in her attempt to deal with our alienated children like they were war criminals. But this is where we are today. This is life for children in the 21st century.
Both Reich and Lennon warned us of the consequences of dealing with insane problems by imposing insane solutions; of dealing with conflict by going to war, of dealing with universal poverty by wrapping the few in the gaudiness of wealth.
If there is hope, and I think there is, it just may come from the music our young people are plugged into.
Writer and social critic John O’Donohue spells out the significance of music in his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. In so doing he explains the simple power of a John Lennon.
“Faced with the strangeness and silence of the earth, one of the most beautiful human creations has been music. The creation of exquisite music is one of the glories of the human imagination. Indeed, if we had done little else, music would remain our incredible gift to creation for there is no other sound on earth to compare with the beauty and depth of music.”
Sing it, John, the kids are listening and they hear your message.
“If you want to be a hero, well just follow me…”