Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Utah Phillips: The most American thing you can do is to dissent

The state can’t give you freedom, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free…

Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world,

I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can’t live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now.

I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them serious trouble. No, that 50s, 60s, 70s, 90s stuff, that whole idea of decade packaging, things don’t happen that way. The Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975– what’s that got to do with decades? No, that packaging of time is a journalist convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas. I defy that.

Sing your song
Dance your dance
Tell your story
I will Listen and Remember

Frying-Pan Jack and I were in that camp, that’s where he said to me, he’d been tramping since 1927, ‘I told myself in ’27, if I cannot dictate the conditions of my labor, I will henceforth cease to work.’ You don’t have to go to college to figure these things out, no sir. He said, ‘I learned when I was young that the only true life I had was the life of my brain. But if it’s true that the only real life I had was the life of my brain, what sense does it make to hand that brain to someone for eight hours a day, for their particular use, on the presumption that at the end of the day they will give it back in an unmutilated condition? Fat chance!

But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.

The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they ‘re defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time.

I didn’t know what exhausted me emotionally until that moment, and I realized that the experience of being a soldier, with unlimited license for excess, excessive violence, excessive sex, was a blueprint for self-destruction. Because then I began to wake up to the idea that manhood, as passed onto me by my father, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor, my army sergeant, that vision of manhood was a blueprint for self-destruction and a lie, and that was a burden that I was no longer able to carry. It was too difficult for me to be that hard. I said, “OK, Ammon, I will try that.” He said, “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you’re not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.

The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.

Every good educator knows that true teaching is to teach kids how to ask the right questions.

These kids don’t have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don’t have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that.

Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.

Q: What can people do to defend their civil liberties?

Phillips: I’m a pacifist, but the most American thing you can do is to dissent, and the most un-American thing you can do is to stifle dissent. When you feel threatened by the suppression of your liberties, you exercise them to the nth degree, you scream your head off every chance you get. You talk to people you don’t agree with. Really good advice: Every day, talk to at least two people who don’t agree with you. It’s the only way it is going to get done.

Copyright 2016 Utah Phillips. These are quotations drawn from various essays, interviews, and videos compiled in Goodreads.

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