Inspiration for Activists, from Paul Rogat
Loeb, Author of "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide
to Hope in a Time of Fear"
not the time to give up on change, as author and lecturer Paul Rogat
Loeb reminds us with his well-timed anthology of encouragement, The
Impossible Will Take a Little While. Anyone who looks around
at the world can see that activism is more necessary than ever. Progressives
must engage and do battle with a cartel that is motivated by greed
and cronyism, supported by corporate wealth, unincumbered by conscience
but justified by misguided, and in some cases insincere, religiosity.
Between now and November 2, 2004, and for the foreseeable future,
we must rally. In Loeb's The Impossible..., the moral leaders
of our times provide us the inspiration to do so.
a time when people who believe in a secular democracy are witnessing
a Republican Party that uses deception and imagery to trump truth,
don't you concede that it is difficult to believe that integrity and
honor pay off in the end? The impossible will take a little while,
but how about just holding off a one-party Soviet style system? Isn't
it panic alarm time?
Paul Rogat Loeb: This feels like the most important election
of my 52 years, precisely because the Republican Party is so ruthless.
lust for power has no bounds, and they have no shame about destroying our
democracy to consolidate their rule. So for all John Kerry’s many
limitations, we need to act in every way we possibly can to elect him to
office and defeat Bush. This means not losing heart, whatever the polls,
because this election will still be decided as much by turnout as by convincing
the swing undecided.
We can’t control how Kerry campaigns, but we can do whatever is possible
to raise the key issues to those on the fence or those not sure whether they’ll
vote, from Bush’s deceptions in Iraq, to the vastly regressive tax policies
and environmental depredations. It also means an issue out of the politics
of bullying and deception spearheaded by men like Karl Rove -- who we should
remember got his start by destroying the reputation of a fellow contender to
head the national Young Republicans, and who helped Bush first take office
by spreading false rumors that then-Texas governor Ann Richards was a lesbian.
So efforts like the Swift Boat liars are completely consistent.
Because the situation is urgent, we need to be as dedicated and creative as
we can between now and the election to do everything possible to defeat Bush.
This means traveling to swing states, joining the MoveOn swing state phone
banks, helping support people who can travel to volunteer, and reaching out
to anyone who we might have a chance to convince.
But we also have to know that the struggle for justice is long-term, and
that we’ll keep at it no matter who is elected in November. If we do our electoral
work well, we’ll be expanding the base of those engaged, and not just
repeating 30-second sound bites, which means we’ll also be building for
the future. One of the key lessons of the book is that we never know when our
seemingly small action will make all the difference in a critical campaign.
Or when someone we help take their first difficult stand will play a key role
in advancing human dignity down the line.
BuzzFlash: Your book is subtitled "A Citizen's Guide to Hope
in a time of Fear." Why did you create this book at this time and why
did you choose the topics you did?
Paul Rogat Loeb: For twenty years, I’ve been lecturing on
community involvement throughout the United States. I’ve never seen
people wrestle so much with despair as in the last few years. They look
at the economy, the environment, the Iraqi quagmire, at the success of
many of Bush’s lies and they ask me, “Is there any hope? Can
our actions really make a difference?”
These people care, and they want to take action. But they’re genuinely
uncertain whether their efforts matter -- or if a culture of greed and fear
is so firmly entrenched that there’s nothing we can do to challenge it,
much less tackle genuinely daunting global problems. In the last few years
we’ve seen huge numbers of ordinary people get involved in politics for
the first time, like those who marched against the Iraq war. But it’s
easy to feel demoralized when our actions don’t bring results any time
soon. And even among many who’ve been active for years, I’m seeing
exhaustion and gloom.
I wanted to give people something to keep them going, or help them get involved
if they never have before. I wanted to create a book that acknowledges all
that we’re up against in trying to create a more humane world, yet gives
a sense of why it’s worth persisting. I wanted to give people the strength
to keep on.
As a result, the book’s essays, poems and stories all share a core theme—they
talk about how people continue in the difficult times: Nelson Mandela surviving
27 years in a South African prison, Vaclav Havel challenging the Czech dictatorship,
Jonathan Kozol finding hope in the lives of the children he works with in one
of the poorest neighborhoods of the South Bronx. Whatever our situation, these
are stories that can inspire us all.
BuzzFlash: As compared to the tremendously successful Soul
of a Citizen, which was written by you, The
Impossible Will Take a Little While is an anthology, even though you write the introduction to each
section. Why did you choose to reach out to other writers?
Paul Rogat Loeb: I began by thinking about stories that have given
me hope, from the wonderful writers who’ve helped me keep going over
the years. It always feels like a gift when someone passes on a book that
lifts your heart and soul. So I began pulling together the stories and
visions of people who’ve inspired me most -- people like Mandela,
Havel, Maya Angelou, Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, Jonathan Kozol, Marian
Wright Edelman, Terry Tempest Williams, Cornel West, Tony Kushner, Howard
The Impossible isn’t just famous names, though. I have a 10,000-name
email list of people who receive my regular articles, and I asked them
about their favorite essays and stories by writers who keep them going
in their efforts at change.
As I should have expected, I got swamped with responses. After I dug my
way out, I ended up with some wonderful material that I’d never have
otherwise seen. So the book really is the product of a community, which
is totally appropriate.
Some essays came in from people I planned to contact -- but hadn’t yet.
I had a letter written to Chilean playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman when
a section from a memoir he wrote arrived in my mailbox from him. I was thinking
about approaching the poet and essayist Susan Griffin when she emailed me a
wonderful piece on imagination and hope. The same thing happened with a powerful
essay on letting go of expectations, by leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley.
I hadn’t been directly in touch with any of them, but people on my list
forwarded my call.
But I also found great pieces by people whose work I’d never heard
of. An Indiana activist with a paralyzing physical disability sent an essay
overcoming political immobilization, drawing on her history working with the
Peace Corps and Mother Teresa. A Minneapolis man led me to his eloquent Unitarian
minister, who wrote of how we need to “plant ourselves at the gates of
hope,”because “with our lives we make our answers all the time,
to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world."
BuzzFlash: You repeat some of the same themes in both books, particularly
the importance of interacting with others to make positive change in the world.
Paul Rogat Loeb: We have to learn to see this
as a contingent world, not an inevitable one. Howard Zinn has a great essay
in The Impossible called “The
Optimism of Uncertainty,” where he looks at all the unexpected turnings
of history, most of them fueled by human courage. It’s so easy to read
the newspapers or turn on the TV and feel like the future is out of our hands.
But if we stand back -- or give up -- we turn history over to the Enrons
and Haliburtons and Exxons. And to men like Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft.
We know how destructive their vision can be, but we forget that we have to
power to challenge them.
Of course, as Alice Walker writes, “There might be years during which
our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope.”We’re not
always going to win, and sometimes the costs of defeat can be tremendous. But
to give up, as these pieces stress again and again, is to lose our core humanity.
To act is to have a chance to redeem it. And even in the darkest moments, we
never know when history will turn.
BuzzFlash: With the right wing so bitter and hateful, how do we avoid
the same fate as progressives?
Paul Rogat Loeb: What’s interesting is how people who’ve
confronted the most difficult situations often have the most delightful
spirits. I open the book with a story about seeing Desmond Tutu speak at
a Los Angeles benefit for a South African project. He has certainly witnessed
human evil at its most destructive -- he had friends imprisoned, tortured,
and killed by that apartheid regime, and he’s been courageous in
challenging Bush’s interventions.
But he also has an amazing lightness of being, which I think is intertwined
with his radical prophetic voice. And he takes delight in the gifts of the
When I saw him at the benefit, he’d been fighting prostate cancer and
was tired that evening. But he gave an animated talk, and after a few other
people spoke, a band from East L.A. took the stage. People started dancing.
Suddenly I noticed Tutu, boogying away in the middle of the crowd. I’d
never seen a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still less one with a potentially fatal
disease, move like that -- with such joy and abandonment. Again, this is someone
who spent much of his life challenging one of the most brutally exploitive
regimes that humans have devised. But if you meet Tutu, not only isn’t
he grim, he’s amazingly lighthearted -- laughing, joking, dancing, savoring
every human moment that he can.
I wanted to convey that spirit in this book. That’s why I’ve included
stories like Tutu’s and poets of powerful imagination, like Antonio Machado,
Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, and Seamus Heaney. That’s why I’ve
included an amazing Sherman Alexie story about grief, despair, sexuality, and
wild hope that transcends any parties or platforms. I love how theologian Walter
Wink reinterprets hallowed phrases like “turn the other cheek”and “go
the extra mile”as instructions for in-your-face nonviolent resistance,
not passive stoicism. These writers acknowledge the bad news, because the alternative
is denial. I’m not into complacency or sentimentality. But mostly they
talk about what stirs their passion, expands their vision, renews their hope
BuzzFlash: How did you come up with the title?
Paul Rogat Loeb: It comes from one of my favorites
of the songs Billie Holiday sang: “Crazy, He Calls Me.” The actual
phrase she sings is “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible
will take a little while.”It seemed a great reminder that, with enough
leaps of courage and faith, what seems impossible today can be possible tomorrow.
I mentioned this to my father, who pointed out that it was also the motto
of the World War II Army Corps of Engineers. I like that juxtaposition.
Holiday sang songs like “Strange Fruit,”about lynching, she tapped
into an American dissenting tradition that’s given us our most powerful
victories for human dignity. And the Army Corps is as straight-arrow as they
come, and we think of them mostly in terms of some of their destructive environmental
actions. But if you think about what those engineers were doing in World War
II, they embodied courage, initiative, and all the qualities necessary for
a better world. And in fact, one of the songwriters, Carl Sigman, got the line
from a sign in his World War II barracks. So I think the two sources mesh wonderfully.
BuzzFlash: Your title implies that we should take joy in what we can
accomplish in alliances with other activists, even if it is a small step
toward healing the world. Just how does that play out when you feel an anti-democracy
hurricane is about to pounce on you?
Paul Rogat Loeb: Community becomes even more essential when we’re
trying to resist profoundly anti-democratic regimes. The challenge is to draw
on our community for support, because by ourselves we’ll break. John
Lewis, the former SNCC head turned progressive Congressman from Georgia, has
a wonderful story that has inspired him all his life, about being with his
cousins in a raging storm that threatened to literally blow their tiny house
into the sky -- and how their aunt had the children move from corner to corner
to keep the house from blowing off its moorings. He said it got him through
the bleakest moments of the Civil Rights movement, because it was about joining
together and not letting go.
But we also can’t afford to become ingrown. One of the reasons we don’t
have more power is that we haven’t learned enough to reach out to those
who don’t necessarily share all our assumptions, or our lifestyle, but
still might be persuadable on others. That means reaching out in situations
where we might feel vulnerable or uncomfortable -- talking to our neighbors,
talking to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, opening up dialogues with more conservative
churches and church members, finding common ground where we can, and then asking
the larger harder questions. Men like Cheney, Bush, DeLay, and Ashcroft are
probably irredeemably mean-spirited and power-hungry, but we can’t afford
to write off the ordinary citizens who are too often taken in by their lies.
I think of my closest friend, a fisherman I write about in my earlier Soul
of a Citizen book. For years, he’s been working with the community
of small fishermen to get them to stand up against the giant processors and
to fight for the natural environment whose health in interwined with the health
of the salmon. This community started out very individualistic, very Republican.
Over the years, he has dramatically changed their politics. It’s
hard work and doesn’t instantly negate the manipulations and lies, but
it’s the kind of long-term work we’re going to need to do if we’re
gong to change this country around.
Sometimes what keeps us going is learning buried stories of human courage.
I write about this in my own essays, but the theme recurs in story after story.
In “The Dark Years,” Mandela describes his Robben Island imprisonment,
and how he and his fellow prisoners maintained their quest for justice, even
when told they’d never be released. Despite this bleak prospect, Mandela
and his compatriots figured out small ways to resist, smuggling messages and
newspaper headlines cell-to-cell on scraps of toilet paper, singing or whistling
freedom songs to raise their morale, and keeping their dignity until even some
of the guards began to respect them.
Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall tell an amazing story of how nonviolent protests
in Berlin managed to save over 2,000 Jewish men from the Nazi death camps,
when their non-Jewish wives gathered on the main street and demanded that their
loved ones be released. Václav Havel writes, three years before the
Czechoslovakian dictatorship fell, of how seemingly futile efforts, like defending
a rock band, Plastic People of the Universe, whose Frank Zappa-influenced music
the authorities said had a “negative social impact,” had created
a community of resistance that turned out to be unstoppable. A story from a
nonviolent Zambian uprising describes how an organizer brought hundreds of
large naked women to mob the British administrator at the airport, until he
turned around and fled.
Examples like these can’t help but get you inspired, but we also need
new ways of seeing. In a memoir of working at a suicide hotline, Diane Ackerman
writes about helping people envision new windows and doors in what seems an
endless tunnel of bleakness. Susan Griffin describes how surrealist poet Robert
Desnos read palms in a World War II concentration camp, telling people he saw
long lives and many children, until even the guards became convinced. Parker
Palmer compares nature’s seasons to those of our personal and political
lives, showing how seeds sown in seemingly barren ground can bring unexpected
BuzzFlash: What role has technology played in alienating us from our
communities? Image seems to trump substance in the post-television age.
Paul Rogat Loeb: Technology can be a valuable tool. It allows us
to do this interview and for people all across America to read it. It allows
MoveOn to coordinate national actions reaching into practically every precinct
in the country. But it also allows people to sit back in front of their
TV’s and let the most critical issues of our time be defined in ways
that strips them of their meaning. We can define our prime challenge in
terms of pulling people away from the TV and back to reality -- which we
have to do through personal conversations. And also of transforming our
virtual communities into face to face ones, so we build the networks we
need to support each other through hard times.
BuzzFlash: The right wing has a perverted
sense of faith that is exclusionary and air-tight. It disallows the human
value of people who
don't believe as they do. How do you define an inclusive faith in a secular
Paul Rogot Loeb: Inclusive faith respects the stories of all in
the human community, and makes those stories the ground of our politics.
It recognizes our profound interconnections, so that if we deny someone
justice or damage the earth halfway around the globe, our actions may
come back to haunt us at home, as occurred in 911, or with global warming.
Inclusive faith also recognizes that courage is contagious and that the
actions of people in one community may light a spark in another -- the
way the US anti-nuclear
movement influenced people in the Soviet Union who modeled their actions
on our Nevada test site protests, or the way that rebellious American
influenced the Czech rock band,that helped spearhead their democracy movement.
Inclusive faith reminds us that, as activist minister Jim Wallis writes
in The Impossible, "hope is believing in spite of the evidence and
then watching the evidence change."
BuzzFlash: If the impossible will take a
little while, what is possible now?
Paul Rogat Loeb: We never really know
when tides might turn. In the early 1960s, my friend Lisa, now a retired
MIT professor, took two
of her kids to a Washington, DC, vigil in front of the White House,
protesting nuclear testing. The demonstration was small, a hundred
women at most. Rain poured down. The women felt frustrated and powerless.
A few years later, the movement against testing had grown dramatically,
and Lisa attended a major march. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby
doctor, spoke. He described how he’d come to take a stand,
which because of his stature had already influenced thousands, and
would reach far more when he challenged the Vietnam War. Spock talked
briefly about the issues, then mentioned being in DC a few years
before and seeing a small group of women huddled, with their kids,
in the rain. It was Lisa’s group. “I thought that if
those women were out there,” he said, “their cause must
be really important.”
So the richest fruits of our actions may be unanticipated. At the
same time, there are no guarantees. As a wonderful young African
American activist Sonya
Tinsley says in the book, maybe we’ll lose. You look at the forces of
greed and fear these days, and they’re strong. They may end up taking
the whole planet down in their wake. But we don’t know this for sure.
As Sonya says, we won’t know the outcome until the end of history, and
none of us is likely to be around that long. So she chooses to join what she
calls the “team of hope,”those who act on the assumption that their
efforts can make a difference.
We can never be sure. But we can keep on doing the work that matters. And
paradoxically we can draw strength from acknowledging our uncertainty, grief
and doubt. Psychologist
Joanna Macy offers a powerful memoir of working with a community downwind from
the Chernobyl nuclear accident, where people at first dealt with their ghastly
situation by denying it. But this didn’t help. It just drove them further
into numbness. And when they finally began to speak about how their children
were riddled with cancers and how it would be generations before they could
safely walk in the nearby forests, their spirits actually began to lift. Sometimes
you have to come to grips with despair to go forward.
When I ask the people who’ve persisted the longest, they don’t
disdain results, because the stakes are often immense. But they talk of concentrating
on the journey as much as the destination. They act because to stay silent
violates the core of their being. And because speaking out connects them, in
the words of an 87-year-old friend of mine who’s been active since he
fought in the Spanish Civil War, “with the best part of who I am.” We
don’t have to be heroes to do this. We just have to keep on.
I think this book can make an impact in helping people do this. I keep getting
emails and letters from people all over the country who described how my last
book, Soul of a Citizen, had changed their lives by helping them to
act on what they believed. College presidents and provosts said it had galvanized
them to create new civic involvement programs. Ministers said it helped them
take risks from their pulpits. People who’d never before taken public
stands described powerful new community programs they’d helped launch.
I’m hoping The Impossible Will Take a Little
While will continue
this process. And from the initial responses, it seems like this is happening.
Verna Avery Brown, a wonderful veteran reporter and interviewer for national
Pacifica News, said she’s been reading a section of the book every day,
just to keep her spirits up, given everything she has to deal with in the news.
I like that approach. I think this book can really replenish the wellsprings
of people’s spirits in a time when, God knows, we need it. It can help
people make that critical hundredth phone call or knock on that critical hundredth
door at the time they feel they can go no further. Or to help them begin the
journey of working for change, when they wonder whether it’s worthwhile.
I believe it will be a book they pass on to friends to keep them going when
times get tough. If it can make the difference between people dropping out
from engagement and keeping on to do powerful work, who knows how important
that could be?
you for gathering together these essays of inspiration for activists.
Paul Rogat Loeb: Thank you, too.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW