“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence,” wrote Italian radical Antonio Gramsci, “an optimist because of will.” No intelligent observer can deny that these are tough times for optimists. Global warming; environmental degradation; a widening chasm between the very rich and everyone else; continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Tibet; corruption of the mighty; AIDS; contempt for human rights — Why should we not despair? A willful optimist, Paul Loeb brings a message of hope when he speaks at Our Lady of the Lake University’s annual Literary Festival on April 4.
In five books and countless articles, blogs, and talks, Loeb has insisted on the power and responsibility of each member of the community to effect social change. His last book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, collects 49 essays and poems by contributors including Vaclav Havel, Alice Walker, Sherman Alexie, Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, and Pablo Neruda that testify to unlikely triumphs over entrenched injustice. Loeb affirmed his own belief in the power of positive action in a 1999 volume titled Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. His 1994 book Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus studied whether Generation X deserved the “slacker” stigma. Two 1986 titles — Hope in Hard Times: America’s Peace Movement and the Reagan Era and Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World’s Largest Atomic Complex — examined the anti-war movement and the nation’s largest nuclear-weapons complex, respectively.
Loeb spoke with me by phone from Seattle, where he is an associate scholar at the Center for Ethical Leadership. Our conversation occurred at about the same time that Eric G. Wilson was publishing Against Happiness, a broadside against the glib Pollyanna spirit suffusing American culture. It insists that skepticism and melancholy are ingredients necessary to a meaningful life. However, Loeb’s faith in the efficacy of individual acts of conscience differs from the smiley-face boosterism of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Warren G. Harding.
Faced with the litany of contemporary horrors, Loeb conceded: “It’s reasonable to think, ‘I’m just going to hide under the covers.’” However, he noted, “Time and again, ordinary people have been able to effect change.” He pointed to Czechoslovakia, where a rock band morphed into the democracy movement Charter 77: “All of a sudden you’re taking down this dictatorship.” Quoting Nelson Mandela’s phrase “the multiplication of courage,” Loeb contended, “Even if you lose the particular battle, you could be bringing others into other battles. We never know where an action will lead.”
After supporting John Edwards’ failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Loeb is now an ardent advocate for Barack Obama, whom he credits with inspiring many neophytes to become politically engaged. Since two of Loeb’s own books include “hope” in their titles, might he feel either vindication or envy that Obama has made “the audacity of hope” into a bestselling book and a successful political campaign? “Maybe he got it from me,” Loeb quipped, before pointing out, “The real parallel is that he, too, is very consciously telling people to be part of a stream of involvement, to see involvement as part of a long lineage of change. If the newcomers Obama has attracted stick with the struggle for progressive change, they will be a very powerful force.”
Loeb speaks frequently to student groups, and, when asked his assessment of the current college generation, he replied: “At one stage, it expressed itself mostly in volunteerism — soup kitchens, Big Brother, etc. Many felt daunted by ‘the perfect standard’ — they couldn’t take the leap of faith to think, ‘What I do can matter on a large scale.’” However, according to Loeb, “Global warming motivated many to step it up. And in the 2006 election, young voters were a pivotal force. The younger generation is the one most unequivocally opposed to the path George W. Bush has led the country down. If they stay involved, they will be a force throughout their lives. There is potential for a serious broadening of the movement. Even Texas could be back in play.”
Despite his admiration for Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of a Montgomery bus, and Virginia Ramirez, an eighth-grade dropout who went on to lead San Antonio’s COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), Loeb rejected what he called “the myth of the lone activist,” insisting that their courageous actions were rooted in traditions and networks of dissidence. Above all, he insisted on “the leap of faith necessary to believe that our actions matter.” Loeb — whose website is theimpossible.org — justified his infectious optimism by quoting progressive evangelical Jim Wallis: “Hope is acting in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.” •
Paul Loeb on Hope for the Long Haul
7pm, Apr 4
Our Lady of the Lake University
411 S.W. 24th St.