Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ammon Hennacy or Force is the Weapon of the Weak

By Utah Phillips

I learned in Korea that I would never again, in my life, abdicate to somebody else, my right, and my ability to decide who the enemy is.

Got back from Korea; I was so mad at what I'd seen and done I wasn't sure I could ever live in the country again. I got on the freight trains up in Everett, north of Seattle, and kind of cruised the country for two years, makin' up songs, but I was drunk most of the time and forgot most of those.

I'd heard that there was a house in Salt Lake City by the roper yards ... where there was a clothing barrel and free food. So I got off the train there. I was headed for Salt Lake anyway.

I found that house right where they said it was, but most of all I found this, this wiry old man, sixty-nine years old. Tougher'n nails, heart of gold, fella by the name of Ammon Hennacy. Anybody know that name? Ammon Hennacy? One of Dorothy Day's people, the Catholic workers, during the Thirties they started houses of hospitality all over the country; there're about eighty of 'em now.

Ammon Hennacy was one of those; he'd come west to start this house I'd found called The Joe Hill House of Hospitality. Ammon Hennacy was a Catholic anarchist, pacifist, draft-dodger of two World Wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America - I think that about covers it.

First thing he said, after he got to know me, he said: "You know you love the country. You love it. You come in and out of town on those trains singin' songs about different places and beautiful people. You know you love the country; you just can't stand the government. Get it straight." He quoted Mark Twain to me: "Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the government when it deserves it." Get it straight -It was an essential distinction I had been neglecting.

And then he had to reach out and grapple with the violence, but he did that with all the people around him. These second World War vets, you know, on medical disabilities and all drunked up; the house was filled with violence, which Ammon, as a pacifist, dealt with - every moment, every day of his life. He said, "You got to be a pacifist." I said, "Why?" He said, "It'll save your life." And my behavior was very violent then.

I said, "What is it?" And he said, "Well I can't give you a book by Gandhi - you wouldn't understand it. I can't give you a list of rules that if you sign it you're a pacifist." He said, "You look at it like booze. You know, alcoholism will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' And then you can begin to deal with the behavior, you see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you've destroyed."

He said, "It's the same with violence. You know, an alcoholic, they can be dry for twenty years; they're never gonna sit in that circle and put their hand up and say, 'Well, I'm not alcoholic anymore' - no, they're still gonna put their hand up and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' It's the same with violence. You gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behavior, and have the people whose lives you messed with define that behavior for you, you see. And it's not gonna go away - you're gonna be dealing with it every moment in every situation for the rest of your life."

I said, "Okay, I'll try that," and Ammon said "It's not enough!"

I said: "Oh."

He said, "You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it's not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that."

That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I'm still at it. But I figure if there's a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that's probably the one. Think about it.

I'd always wanted to write a song for that old man. He never wanted one about him - he's that way - but something mulched up out of his thought, his anarchist thought. Anarchist in the best sense of the word.

Oh so many times he stood up in front of Federal District Judge Ritter, that old fart, and he'd be picked up for picketing illegally, and he'd never plead innocent or guilty - he'd plead anarchy.

And Ritter'd say, "What's an anarchist, Hennacy?" and Ammon would say, "Why an anarchist is anybody who doesn't need a cop to tell him what to do." Kind of a fundamentalist anarchist, huh?

And Ritter'd say, "But Ammon, you broke the law, what about that?" and Ammon'd say, "Oh, Judge, your damn laws -the good people don't need 'em and the bad people don't obey 'em so what use are they?"

Well I lived there for eight years, and I watched him, really watched him, and I discovered watching him that anarchy is not a noun, but an adjective. It describes the tension between moral autonomy and political authority, especially in the area of combinations, whether they're going to be voluntary or coercive. The most destructive, coercive combinations are arrived at through force.

Like Ammon said, "Force is the weapon of the weak."

Link to Original Transcripts