Welcome back for the second half of my interview with author and social activist, Paul Rogat Loeb. What do you hope to accomplish with this new edition of Soul of A Citizen, Paul?
I think the book really can be a major antidote to the despair and political paralysis that so many people are feeling these days. At this point that's my prime goal. To get people past their cynicism, their purist detachment, and their dashed hopes, and to get them acting again for social change, in the muddy, messy world that we face--and then working to make that world more humane. Not easy, but we can tap into a long lineage of voices for change, and that can give us strength.
Soul of a Citizen's original edition has also been assigned on hundreds of college campuses, in every conceivable discipline, and it's gotten great responses. So I'm hoping the new one will be assigned even more, because if there's any group that has such huge potential for social change involvement but could use a sense of perspective and context, it's those just coming of age, many of whom helped carry Obama to the presidency.
You're an author and lecturer as well as a social activist. You've been doing this for a long time and from the outside, it looks easy for you. Can you tell our readers how you got published in the first place?
first book was pretty easy to get published, but things actually got more
difficult from there. I'd written a long magazine piece on workers at the
largest nuclear weapons complex in the world, and although the piece got
orphaned when the magazine folded its US edition, a friend circulated the
article and got a publisher interested. But then it ended up in some fairly
ghastly legal fights, and I had something like 50 rejections on my next book,
on grassroots peace activists, and maybe 70 on my book on the values of college
Finally, Soul came out and took off by word of mouth, and my political hope book ,The Impossible Will Take a Little While, did quite well--it was on the bestseller list of the American Book Association, the association of independent bookstores, for twelve weeks. But it's still always a challenge to get books into the stores.
Tell our readers exactly how Soul of a Citizen overcame oblivion and made it by word of mouth. That's a great story.
My publisher only got 3,000 copies in the stores the first round, so they were totally buried at the back. But people started reading it and telling their friends. Also a lot of college faculty started assigning it and it turned out the students loved it. I used my own funds to do several large mailings where I paid for the mailings, the publisher gave away free academic exam copies to profs in the relevant disciplines, and I made the money back from my college lectures. The first edition is now over 100,000 copies and students seem to love it even in very conservative places. I think it really does call them to a sense of higher self.
Why is the growing economic inequity in our country such a bad and dangerous trend?
dangerous because it's brutal at the bottom. In one of the richest countries in
the world, people go hungry, are homeless, lack health care--although for all
its flaws, it looks like the health care reform bill will finally begin to
solve the latter. I read recently that our social mobility--the ability of
people to start out poor and become middle class or more, now significantly
lags [behind] the other developed countries. It's also deadly for those at the
top, because they end up so insulated and so frightened of losing what they
have that most don't know those who live lives very different and far more
desperate than their own.
The nineteen fifties were far from perfect, but they were one of our highest periods of sustained growth and because of the New Deal legacy, and strong unions, inequality was decreasing. The past thirty years have seen most of the wealthy have more and more money, more and more power, and less and less loyalty to the rest of us, much less the planet.
It's hard to let go of comfortable myths, to realize that the American dream exists only in our collective memory, and in other countries. I read Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal recently and he really spells out the historical factors leading to the growing gap between haves and have-nots that you're talking about.
A few years back, I went through a period of burnout. Rob Kall at OpEdNews recommended The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Boy, did that cure what ailed me. I really connected with all those ordinary citizens over space and time who had simply refused to give up. You'll recall that after reading the book, I contacted you and we began to correspond. I also contacted a number of the people who wrote chapters in your book. And many of them were remarkably accessible. It was an important lesson to me. And it brought me out of the doldrums and back onto the playing field. Thank you for that. Have you gotten many such reports over the years?
I've actually heard from thousands of people who've said that both Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While changed their lives, allowed them to take the risks of involvement, and opened up new worlds. It's also helped keep them going when political times get tough, which they seem to be these days. It's always hard to be objective about your own work, but I've literally gotten thousands of letters, and I've begun to believe that the stories I've pulled together can inspire people.
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