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Life Arts    H2'ed 4/7/10

Paul Rogat Loeb Soars with New Edition of "Soul of a Citizen"

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Joan Brunwasser
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My guest today is author and social activist, Paul Rogat Loeb. Welcome to OpEdNews, Paul. The new edition of Soul of a Citizen just came out last week, so the timing for this interview couldn't be better. Please tell our readers about the conditions that caused you to write the original and what made you update it now.

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I wrote the original in 1999 at the tail end of the Clinton period. I'd been traveling throughout the country lecturing on my earlier books, Nuclear Culture looked at the world of nuclear weapons workers. Hope in Hard Times followed grassroots peace activists. And Generation at the Crossroads looked at political engagement and resistance to engagement on campuses. As I traveled around the country, people would ask me about what got people involved and what didn't and how they could get involved. A friend really liked the answers I gave and suggested I pull their lessons together in a book. I did, and to my delight, Soul's initial edition ended up with over 100,000 copies in print.

I revised it for a couple of reasons. A huge amount had changed in the world. We'd seen economic collapse and the emergence of global climate change as a critical visible issue. We'd seen Bush's two terms and the election of Barack Obama. We'd seen a huge influx of people into social change involvement. People continued to love Soul's original edition, but it just seemed time for an update, to bring it into the present moment.

Many have dealt with the depressing realities of modern life by turning inward. They've built a wall between themselves and the outside world. You point out that choosing to disengage isn't really a solution. Why not? It's awfully tempting. What is is the "cost of silence" you refer to?

It is tempting to withdraw. But as singer Bruce Cockburn says, "the trouble with normal is it always gets worse." If we withdraw, we really do turn the world over to Exxon, Peabody Coal and United Health. That's an ugly future and we can do better. We also lose that part of ourselves which gains strength from common action, and loses it when we cut ourselves off from our deepest convictions.

It's not as if those who have chosen to engage necessarily thought they would accomplish great things. They just wanted to be able to look at themselves in the mirror.

That was a phrase so many people repeated. "I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror." It wasn't about vanity, whether or not they had a good or bad hair day. It was about whether they could look at themselves and said they'd tried in their modest way to make the world better. Because when we do join together our efforts add up. I'm not saying we can solve our problems with volunteerism, getting cats out of trees, but when enough of us do take small steps, the impact of our actions are magnified.

I remember in 2004 knocking on doors for my Washington State governor's race. I got three people to vote--one forgot it was election day, another didn't know what to do with an absentee ballot, a third needed a ride to the polls. The candidate I supported ended up winning by 133 votes after three recounts, which means if I and 50 other volunteers had stayed home, she would have lost. She's been a pretty decent governor and her opponent would have been awful. But we don't always recognize how our actions matter.

That's true. There are other benefits of working for change; some of them have to do with our children. Explain this, please.

Our children don't always follow our lead as we wish. But they are watching us, and we teach them lessons of engagement or withdrawal, cynicism or hope. They pick up on what we say, what we do, how we conduct ourselves in the world. A friend in Minneapolis remembers complaining about why the garbage wasn't being picked up right when his four or five-year-old piped up and said, "Well, why don't you call the city council?" She'd learned what to do in a way that most people ten times her age never do. So that's another reason to act--giving them those models.

Your work rests heavily upon the stories of ordinary individuals, working for change. What is so special about stories that transcends facts and statistics?

Facts and statistics matter. We want to get them right. But they don't move people's hearts in the way that a story about a person and a situation can move people. Way too often, we abstract our conclusions so people can't respond to them, while the right throws them evocative stories, even if they often are false. We need to do far better and embodying the issues we care about in the stories we tell.

Besides for historical amnesia, we have been operating under certain misconceptions, which have made our heroes seem larger than life. Why has that been so debilitating?

I use the example of Rosa Parks and how far too many people think she stepped onto a bus in Montgomery one day and took her first action ever for change. In fact, she'd been part of the NAACP for 12 years, was the secretary and youth section advisor, and had taken training sessions the summer before at the labor and civil rights school, the Highlander Center. She had a whole community of other people she worked with. So it wasn't a lone action, it was a very conscious effort at change, and for Parks to get to that point required persevering over 12 years of actions that didn't always seem to bear immediate fruits. We need to take the lessons of common action, intentional action and perseverance to heart in our own efforts. If we don't know the stories of people who've made chance in the past, it's far harder.

Is this where the "good enough activist" comes in?

We often box ourselves in with what I call "the perfect standard," where we feel we need to know every single fact, figure, seventeenth decimal point statistic to be able to take a stand. Not to mention being as eloquent as King and saintly as Gandhi, and completely certain of every issue we take on. But real activists aren't like that. They get involved step by step, learning as they go. Psychologists have learned to talk about "good enough parents" to remind parents that presence and caring are more important than perfection. The same is true with social activism.

Also, even our great social change heroes started small. There's a great story Gandhi's grandson tells about how Gandhi's family mortgaged everything they had to send him to law school, went totally into debt. Then he graduated and was so shy and literally tongue-tied that he couldn't get a single sentence out in court. Consequently, he lost all his cases. It was only after his family didn't know what to do and shipped him off to South Africa that he literally and metaphorically found his voice and gave voice to so many others as well.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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