Paul Loeb, author, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time
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PAUL LOEB: People can take stands that are very, very powerful and take them out of deep-felt belief and make a powerful difference.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, an interview with author Paul Loeb.
LOEB: That change is possible. So often we’re told it isn’t. So often we’re told “there’s just nothing you can do. Don’t even try.” I reject that. I’ve seen too often something bloom from human courage.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Cynicism is all too commonplace in American politics. But author Paul Loeb remains optimistic about the future. Loeb has spent 30 years researching what empowers some people to get involved with social causes, while others simply abstain. In his latest book, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, Loeb details his vision of how individuals can engage themselves in their communities and take responsibility for their future.
LOEB: The book ties together 30 years of work that I’ve done on citizen involvement. And asking a basic question, “What is it that gets people involved in larger public issues, be they local or global? What keeps them involved, what burns them out? How do you live a life of conviction?” Not an easy thing to do in this particular time. And many people end up feeling like it’s an impossible task. I disagree. I think that in fact people can take stands that are very, very powerful and take them out of deep-felt belief and make a powerful difference. But we’re often told that that’s not the case.
MC HUGH: Why do people get involved?
LOEB: People get involved from a sense of human connection. Invariably. I think of one woman in Long Island, New York, where she was not very political. She was a teacher, taught her school, Catholic woman, involved a bit in her church. And then one day she saw a video of, about the sweatshops in El Salvador. And she looked at it and she looked at this, the eyes of this young girl, these brown eyes, and she thought, “You know, this could be my kids. This could be my kids forced to work 15 hours a day, unable to go to high school let alone college, barely able to feed yourself let alone buy the clothes that you make. And this is wrong.”
And so it hit her on a very direct human-to-human visceral level. She then became involved in the campaign around sweatshops and politically focused on picketing the GAP store in her local community. And she was out there with her husband and people were like, this is a sort of respectable suburban community where people didn’t do these kinds of things. And what are they doing picketing at the mall? And people are calling them names and the store manager is trying to get the cops to chase them off. And miracle of miracle, they win. They, I mean GAP has sort of hedged and reneged and these things are always, they always take more time than you think they will at first. But nonetheless, the GAP sat down with human rights organizations and religious organizations, labor organizations, and hammered out an agreement that now they can be held accountable to.
And that was an amazing victory. She said she was so stunned. She had no sense that they would win. She just felt like she had to do it. But I see this again and again. I write about it in Soul of a Citizen, this sense of you act because of very direct pull. You put in abeyance the question of “Are you certain of victory?” You obviously try and do things wisely and tactically and intelligently. But the real question is, “Are you responding to this human pull?” or “are you responding to the pull of the Earth?” if it’s an environmental issue—a forest, a watershed, a—it’s even a large international and global issue of the ozone layer or the green house effect. You’re responding to an image of what will be destroyed or damaged, not to the abstractions.
MC HUGH: In the `60s activism was very centered on topics that were very global, like environmentalism and….
MC HUGH: Do you think that that’s still the case today?
LOEB: It ricochets. People go back and forth and back and forth between the local and the global. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they’re continually trying to draw the links. I would say that in this particular time there’s a pressure for people to be very, very localized—maybe too localized. And the sense is, “This world is out of control. The global economy in particular makes things so hard to challenge. What can we really do? But here’s a kid and I can tutor the kid.” So there’s a pressure even among people who are involved in their communities to define their involvement in the narrowest terms. And I don’t want to, I don’t want to in any way denigrate the tutoring of a kid because it comes from the—a) it’s useful, it’s important; and b) it’s the exact same impulse as will lead the exact same person to take on a larger issue.
But there’s a pressure to not deal with the social roots. And to not deal with the sort of larger geopolitical, economic roots. And I think we have to resist that and we have to say, “I’m doing this in this part of my work as a citizen and I’m also doing something else where I’m trying to link that immediate, I’m trying to bear witness to it and talk about the larger ramifications.” Because that’s how citizens debate politics in a democracy. And it’s also, if you only have the sort of large, again, abstractions, what happens is the issues become stripped of their meaning and their emotional power. And their power to pull our hearts. And so what I’m focusing on is how individuals really do get their hearts stirred in a way that will keep them in it.
MC HUGH: Now you talk about in your book the fact that you really think now is the turning point and that the country really needs to get involved in being involved in issues, being active and voicing their opinions. And that if we don’t that that could, that could start some sort of decay in our society. Or has that decay already started?
LOEB: I would say—one of the themes of Soul of A Citizen is not to say—there’s always a tendency to say, “This is the exact moment that everything is more critical than any other.” I almost prefer not to look at that because I see this as a lifetime struggle. So what I see is a tremendous tendency toward cynicism. I tell the story of reading an issue of Harper’s, picking it up and seeing an ad for the magazine Slate, the on-line magazine that Microsoft publishes, edited by Michael Kinsley, formerly of CNN. And so the ad says, “Slate is politics and people and culture” and all these things that magazines say. And Michael Kinsley. And then it says, “It’s this certain insouciant smirk that so many thinking people find compelling these days.”
And I looked at that and I just, I was furious. Because I looked it up in the dictionary and insouciant is sort of, carefree, kind of like Laura Ashley dresses or something. I suppose that’s okay. But smirk is condescension. Smirk is looking down. It’s an ethic of contempt. And what it really says is, “If you want to cross the divide and be with the people who look down on everybody else you can read our magazine.” And so I think of this ethic, it’s like you turn on the Washington talk shows, it’s pervasive. What it says to ordinary people is “Your view doesn’t count. Don’t kid yourself. Nothing you do is gonna matter. Of course it’s not.”
And people take this in, subtly. And in many different ways they end up convinced that what they do cannot make a difference in the world. And that’s deadly.
MC HUGH: Is it the media’s fault that there is so much cynicism?
LOEB: I think it’s the media fault significantly. Because it feeds it and you do not hear the stories, the kinds of stories I tell in Soul of A Citizen. They’re not rare. They are stories that are replicated all over the world daily. But you don’t hear them very much. Particularly when they are—can actually challenge entrenched power or raising difficult questions. You just don’t really hear them. And so it makes you feel like, “Well, all there are, there’s the problems. But what is there beyond the problems?”
So that’s part of it. But at the same time I have to say that in our culture we don’t teach social involvement. I talk about the students and when I—I make my living speaking, lecturing at colleges. And one thing that really disturbs me that I discovered this year—I write about the student anti-apartheid movement. Very, very powerful movement. And students in the US played a critical role in the ending of apartheid. They jumped into it, again, as one always does, uncertain whether it would work. Students had tried this before. But in the mid-`80s to early `90s, students started taking on this issue again, in part spurred by the events in Soweto—and it reached a critical mass, took off all across the country and was from every observer the pivotal force in pushing through US sanctions on South Africa for the first time ever, in terms of real sanctions.
And I have a student who one of his friends married a black South African woman who’s father was an official in the Mandela government, went there, met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Tutu said to this now 25-year-old young man, “I want to thank you for what you American students did. We might not have our freedom without it.”
Now, on the one hand, what a powerful testament to what we can do when we act. And students everywhere ought to take that as some kind of tremendous inspiration. Cause it isn’t the Vietnam Era, it’s just four, five years ago.
But, when I go travel around to the campuses—and I, this last year I probably visited a dozen different states—and I asked the first time I noticed the blank look when I mentioned that, I said, “Well, you do know about the student anti-apartheid movement don’t you?” No. They didn’t. So something that could give them hope and courage has been banished down George Orwell’s memory hole by our culture. And that’s the media again. But it’s also the teachers, it’s also when they talk about the great social movements of America, would be the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement or the union movements or the populist movements—or any of them—the suffrage movements—as one student said, “Well, maybe they teach us the conclusions; Lincoln freed the slaves, some unions were organized, the populists had some rallies—we don’t know anything about the process by which society changed. And I can look a picture of 100,000 or 200,000 people at a Vietnam anti-war rally and they will maybe have that picture in my history textbook; I will have no notion of what got those people to motivate themselves to go to DC for that rally because no one has taught me that.”
MC HUGH: You talk about “learned helplessness” in your book.
MC HUGH: Describe that.
LOEB: It’s, well, it’s a psychological term that, it has to do with a state of being in general where you convince yourself that you’re powerless to act on the world in any way. And that you’re just kind of the subject of fate and whatever happens will happen and there’s just nothing you can do about it. I took the concept and extended it into public life. Because I see many people who in their private lives may feel perfectly competent—may have good jobs, successful marriages, whatever—but in public life suddenly that wave of helplessness hits. And they feel like there’s just nothing they can do about it. They can do something about their career, they can do something about their private relationships with their family, but a larger public issue, local or global, is just beyond them. And I argue that that’s a learned phenomenon. As the name suggests. It’s not something that’s an innate response.
MC HUGH: If this is a, maybe an issue of perception, and it kind of sounds like it is, when you look at stereotypes how would you define activism then today in the `90s versus activism in the `60s? Is it any different?
LOEB: Well it is different in the `90s. It’s—the `60s really were focused on a couple of key issues. They were focused on the Vietnam War and they focused on civil rights. And that—other issues existed but those provided a centerpiece. And now people, you know, they’re turning their heads from global warming to Yugoslavia to homelessness to illiteracy; there are just a lot of issues that are around. And that itself sometimes makes it difficult. Because people feel so overwhelmed. And like, which one do you start with? My advice is you start with something you care about and you learn from there and you try and connect it with other issues. And you find out as you go. But the mere, the very proliferation of issues makes it difficult.
I also think that the, there was a, during, the `60s was certainly a multi-generational movement by the end. But initially, because of McCarthyism there was a significant part of our previous generation that just, of activists that just got wiped out. Retreated so far under that pressure. And of course to be honest the betrayals of Stalinism and that kind of thing, the disillusionment that came from there. It meant that it focused more dramatically on youth. I think the activism now is much more multi-generational. And that’s a good thing. And, because no single generation can ever make social change. And it’s a trap to believe that that’s true.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Our conversation with author Paul Loeb continues.
MC HUGH: Would you say that this is a problem that is purely unique to the United States? I mean, does France have a problem with cynicism?
LOEB: I think it’s perhaps more acute here. But I, my sense when I talk to my European friends or my Canadian friends, is that it is a common issue. And let me describe the roots. Part of the cynicism comes from, throughout the Twentieth Century there were these sorts of two contesting models for how to run a society. And there was the capitalist model and there was the communist-bloc model. And many, many people who had profound criticisms of just the ruthlessness, the soullessness, the destructiveness of that communist model, and then some of the socialists roots from where it sprang, nonetheless felt like maybe it could turn itself into something else. It could reform itself, there would be something else that would be hopeful.
And that collapsed so dramatically that it’s hard for those of us who feel like we don’t want a world perpetually ruled by Microsoft and Mitsubishi, to look beyond that and say, “Well, what is the model?” And the answer is, “We don’t really know.” And again, obviously the sort-of socialist, Social Democratic model is now in power in most of Europe. So plenty of people are responding and saying, Okay, people went so far down the road of getting the government absolutely power in people’s lives; it was terribly destructive. But there are other ways to do it and you can talk about it and you can have a mixed economy and you can work for a broader common good and still be competitive on a global market. So that I think the Europeans recognized that maybe more than we do.
At the same time everybody is in a little bit of quandary if they reject the notion that the market is the sole solution, as to what lies beyond it. So one of the things that I argue, and it’s a very important point, of Soul of a Citizen, is that I see many people who took on a lot of issues, particularly global issues—say Central American politics—and were very, very active opposing the Reagan-era wars in Central America and trying to both fight just for the human dignity of those people and their right to be left alone, and also maybe for this glimmer of hope of some kind of alternative society, which maybe they thought Nicaragua briefly represented. And who knows, I mean you can’t separate it from the battering that it took from our society. So you don’t know if it could have turned out to be something hopeful or not. But at one point they felt a hope and then they just saw it decimated. And many of them have dropped out of politics and dropped out of even the most basic things like, there’s an election, there’s two candidates, one is clearly better than the other, and they’re not even—they may vote but they’re not gonna go down and volunteer and do the get out the vote things that in a one percent election like my state tends to have, are gonna make the difference.
And, this dismays me. And when I convene sort of focus groups about, “Well, what are, what’s the roots of your withdrawal?”, the roots were, somebody put it eloquently. He said, “I feel like there’s not magnetic North anymore. I feel like I’m not quite sure what I’m steering to in my ultimate vision of a good and just society locally and globally. Therefore I don’t know what to fight for short of that.” And it struck me that that’s a real trap because there are always choices that present themselves in public life and they’re gonna make the situation or worse. I mean, they’re gonna open up new opportunities or they’re gonna close it. And we have a kind of responsibility to do that. But even beyond the responsibility when we take that on new possibilities do open up. And we do see avenues that we can work in. But we don’t when we’re hanging back sort of solemnly watching from the sidelines.
MC HUGH: If an American is going to take the risks, stand up, speak out, is that person more likely to focus on a domestic issue or an international issue?
LOEB: It depends on the time, the context, what they see. I mean, I go to the campuses and suddenly there’s been a wave of solidarity on sweatshop issues. And school after school, demanding that their, their sort of official T-shirts, sweat shirts, hats, and emblems—their paraphernalia—not be produced by slave, starvation or slave labor. Reasonable thing to do. But nobody just, suddenly the idea came: “Well, we could do this. This can exercise leverage on this large global problem.” I think that people in general would like to address these problems but they’re hard and they’re often daunting. And so there’s a tendency to localize. But when people see a way to do it they take them on.
And sometimes you alternate. Adam Werbach is this wonderful young activist, who at 23 became the national president of the Sierra Club. And in two years increased it in money, in members, dropped the average age ten years—not by an exit on the upper end but by bringing in an influx of new and younger members—I mean, wonderful, wonderful activist. And I write about him. And one of the things he says is he likes the balance of the small and the large. And he’ll go from helping to negotiate pressure on the Kyoto Accords on global warming to counting marble merlets?? in a forest near where he lives to see if they’ve come back from some of the ecological devastation. And it’s a kind of balance between the two that he thinks grounds him and keeps him sane.
MC HUGH: How do you prevent burnout?
LOEB: Burnout is a serious issue. It grinds people down. What happens I think in those who burn out are two things. One is they feel like they need immediate results and they don’t get it. And the results happen to their own way. And they feel like, “Well, I worked, I tried, it didn’t make any difference. What can I do?” And so they end up abandoning their values—or not necessarily abandoning them completely but becoming what I call “inner immigrants”—that is watching, disliking what’s going on, wanting to do something, but not knowing how to get involved. And the problem is that their time frame is too short.
Because in any kind of movement, I mean, you look at Mandela in jail for 27 years in South Africa. You look at Vlacev Havel in Czechoslovakia and the other Eastern European dissidents, people like Sakharov—I mean they were not saying, “Gotta be tomorrow.” I mean, my gut sense on Mandela is he assumed, would have assumed it was his grandchildren. How could you assume otherwise? And no sense that he’d ever be President of South Africa. So you have to have that long-term patience. If you don’t have it, it’s devastating.
And coupled with that you have to be open to uncertainty. You have to be opening to say, “I’m gonna try this. Then I’ll try something else.” I mean the notion that Gandhi used the phrase, “experiments in truth.” I like that phrase. It’s experiments. We don’t know what’s gonna happen.
On the other hand, we don’t really know what’s gonna happen in the world if we sit passively, but we can pretty much guess that the powers that represent the huge economic interests are certainly going to be shaping policies, because it’s in their interests to do that. And the huge political interests are going to do that. And is there a force that can balance that out? Well, yes, there are. I mean, the, all the rise of nongovernmental organizations in the last 30, 40 years is astounding. But only if they’re active. And only people participate, because otherwise they become paper organizations.
MC HUGH: Does everybody have the ability to be an activist?
LOEB: I think so. We act in different ways. We, some people take on causes and they’re the dramatic speakers. Some people find their voice. They don’t think that they—I was talking about one woman who worked on campaign finance reform. Which, you know, ultimately feeds everything, every issue, domestic and global alike. And she said she didn’t want her children to inherit a cynical world. She was, didn’t have a college education. She got involved first in environmental issues and then proceeded from there because she saw the way that they were corrupted and deformed. And she said, “Well, I don’t know everything about the subject. But I do know we have in this case”—in Maine they had a plan based on $5 contributions from within people’s districts, paid for by a tax on lobbyists, which I thought was elegant—and she said, “Well, I’m just gonna talk about what drove me into this.”
That’s the key. She doesn’t have to talk about everything from every person’s political aspect. She has to say, “I care about the future of my children. It’s being totally corrupted by the cynicism of money and politics. There is a better way to do it and we can do it.” And it passed with a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents; every county but one in the state. Massachusetts and Arizona followed suit this last election. It’s, as far as I’m concerned it’s the model for the entire country that could be followed. And it didn’t take being a certain kind of expert, privileged person. All it took was her saying, “Okay. I’m gonna try my best.” And I think we forget that too often. We say you have to be able to have all the credentials in the world. And you don’t.
MC HUGH: Do you have hope? That the times will be less cynical in the future?
LOEB: I always have hope. Do I predict it for sure? I don’t know. I like the way that one of my characters, this wonderful African American woman from Atlanta puts it. She says, “Well, I always to myself, ‘Sonna, you have to pick your team. And there are two teams. There’s the team of the cynics. And they say, ‘look, people are brutal and nasty; look at the world; look what a mess it’s in.’” She says, “Yeah, there’s some reason to be able to say that that’s valid. They’re not completely conjuring it out of thin air. Sometimes things are difficult.” “On the other hand,” she says, “There’s the other team of those who are hopeful. And they’re the Alice Walkers and the Howard Zinn’s and the Martin Luther Kings and the people who fought for justice over the years and the people I know who are trying to work for a more just and peaceful world. And if you look at what they accomplish over the years they accomplish a lot. So how can I deny their hope? How can I deny what they’re arguing?” And she says “Ultimately you have to make a choice. And for me, if I go with the team of the cynics, who wants to live with way anyway? I don’t. But if I wanted to go with the people who are have hope, that gives me hope, that gives a sense of possibility.”
I agree with her. You don’t know for sure. I can’t predict the world. But what I can say is that again and again in human history actions of courage matter. I know that. And miracles of hope occur, whether they be South Africa or the be 1989, 1990 in Eastern Europe, or the be the flowering of the civil rights movement or the environmental movement; you can’t predict it. But you can say that if you act and you act with courage and you act with persistence you can indeed begin to change the world. And then you look back, like my 101-year-old friend, the environmental activist. And you say, “Well, I’ve done what I can. I can look myself in the mirror and feel like I’ve done enough to be proud of trying.”
MC HUGH: I’m curious. Maybe our listeners might be curious as well. What types of issues have you been actively involved with?
LOEB: Most of what I do is trying to give people hope. So I will talk about the stories from people from a whole variety of different issues because I take heart from all of them. And if they’re working for social justice, if they’re working for a more peaceful world, if they’re working to treat the Earth with respect, that gives me hope. So that’s the bulk of what I do. I’ll also do some very basic things just in my own community. If there’s an election I’ll be there canvassing. We took our ten-year-old along to hang door hangers and, in a city council race, and low and behold the guy won this by being massively outspent. I said to Will, “Look you should be really proud of this. You helped this guy win.” You know, I take him to a Jewish peace rally when there’s a teleconference with Netanyahu in town. And it doesn’t, it doesn’t always get huge results. But to be part of that is important. And that’s what I do. I’ll write letters in the local papers because it’s an accessible form and I’ll just talk about the issues that are going on. Large and small. And it feels part and parcel of telling those stories and trying to give people a sense that change is possible. So often we’re told it isn’t. So often we’re told “there’s just nothing you can do. Don’t even try.” I reject that. I’ve seen too often something bloom from human courage.
MC HUGH: That is author Paul Loeb. His latest book is titled, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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