I was lucky enough to see Utah Phillips tonight, he was at the Lewiston-Auburn branch of USM. Utah is part historian, part storyteller, part folksinger, part anarchist, part peace activist, part wobbly organizer, part elder; in short, Utah is the modern-day embodiment of the bard.
He is, by his own admission, Socratic in his methodology through-and-through, as he puts it, “I love books, but I keep them in their proper place.” He’s more about storytelling and listeners than the written word. My first exposure to Utah was through a collaboration with Ani DiFranco called The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, which still ranks among my favorite albums of all time. I remember my daughter, barely old enough to speak, walking around the house singing “you’ve got to mess with people, day and night, you’ve got to mess with people”; one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from Utah.
It is also from Utah that I learned to think about politics from two perspectives: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down perspective is the dominant one in our culture, and is hugely depressing for those of us who pay attention. How can one be optimistic about the state of power politics, empire-building, and militarism/nationalism dominant in the US?
But from a bottom-up perspective, we are surrounded by optimism, hope, and goodwill. People come together despite differences, live and learn together, form communities, and all that other goodwill-hippie stuff.
So tonight, there was a small room, with perhaps 75-100 people listening to his stories. There were several nuggets there — including a beautiful moment where he pretty much voiced an opinion I’ve held for a long time, the essence of which is that most Christians aren’t very Christian — that caused probably a dozen people to get up and walk out of the room. Heh.
But the one quote that resonated most strongly with me is in the title of this entry. And it got me thinking about my pessimism regarding people coming together in our divided society. The problem is, Americans are by and large still far too comfortable in their ignorant, wageslaving existence to think about alternatives. But as things continue to worsen — and I don’t feel I’m pessimistic to believe that Things(tm) will continue to get worse before they get better — more and more people will share in this sense of human degradation, providing a powerful motivation to come together and organize, to move from a state of passive acceptance to direct action, which for Utah is the only way to make a difference in bottom-up politics.
So when Things(tm) get bad, they in a sense will really only start to get good, because that will be the switch when people finally are able to let go of the paradigm of dominance, of exploitation, of competition, of systematic violence and oppression, and of nationalism, and will finally be able to embrace cooperation, and community, and justice, and equality. So without attachment to the current dominant paradigm, one can very much have hope for a better future when the paradigm crashes and burns. I just hope that there are enough of us who survive this crashing and burning.
So yeah. Due to various health problems, Utah isn’t travelling as much as he used to, but if you ever get a chance to see him for yourself, I highly recommend it.