Interview with Paul Loeb: Activist

Grapevine Interview

PART I

Brian Davis: So you have a new book out and you are doing the City Club in Cleveland. The name of the book is “SOUL OF THE CITIZEN: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time.” Talk to me about the cynical time that we live in. What are some of your impressions?

Paul Loeb: To me the defining characteristic of our political culture is that it tells people that they can’t do anything to change things. And it does that in so many subtle ways, by saying “you don’t have a voice” and “we’re not going to listen to you, no one cares what you think”. It does that by damaging the stories of people looking for change, present and past. So it banishes successful examples. I can tell people about this amazing campaign finance reform that I wrote about in “SOUL OF THE CITIZEN” that passed in May based on five-dollars contributions for within people’s district. Taxes on lobbyists to pay for public financing and then they want a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

    And people’s jaws dropped because here’s an area that touches the corruption of politics by money, it touches everything because, basically, it says that the people with the money get to shape the politics in their interests and the heck with everybody else. So people feel so powerless in response to it and yet, here’s an example that suggests that maybe there is some way of changing it. And that people would respond but they don’t know about it and they aren’t told. And therefore they don’t have that strand of hope that will be gained by knowing that story. And that happens again and again.

    When I look at something like the student Anti-Apartheid movement that was the pivotal force in pushing through sanctions on South Africa. And Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said to one of the students I interviewed, “I want to thank you for what you American students did; we might not have our freedom without it.”

    But I can go on campus today in 1999, and this movement was only about five years ago, and students won’t know about it. We are not told the stories that might inspire us; that is part of the cynicism. And then we are also not told the stories from the past, and when we do not know them we know them in versions that don’t do justice to them.

    But I can go to a campus today in 1999 and this movement was only about five years ago and students won’t know about it. We are not told the stories that might inspire us; that is part of the cynicism. And then we are also not told the stories from the past, and when we are also not told the stories from the past and when we do know then, we know them in versions that don’t do justice to them. So we don’t really know about the history of the abolitionist movement, or the women’s suffrage movement or any of the great democratic movements that changed this society. For most of us they are just, “Oh yeah, we heard they existed vaguely but be don’t have a sense of what it really took for people to get a National debate around slavery”. What did it take to get women to vote? So we are denied these inspiring examples that would help us in trying to make change in our time.

    Even when the media does tell them, they tell them in ways that don’t really do justice to them. I give the example of being on CNN and having them interview Rosa Parks, which of course was wonderful that they did the Montgomery bus boycott. But what they said was; one day she’s riding on a bus and she was asked to move to the back of the bus and that helped start the Civil Right Movement. And that’s just nonsense, because it started long before that. She started a dozen years before with other ordinary people. She started a dozen years before with other ordinary people.

    The guy who’s the head of the NAACP local is a sleeping car porter who takes jags on the train, these are just ordinary people who are working and they are trying. Some things work, and some things don’t work. And it seems that they are trying to move an immovable object and they do training sessions at a labor and civil rights center called Highlander. They are acting consciously in common, figuring out ways to keep on persevering. And then finally one of the many things that they do is Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus and the boycott, and the organizing indeed takes off, gets national attention and lights a fire. But when I look at that version which is the one that most people have, it is so stripped of meaning. It’s like some impossibly heroic person acts from nowhere and you know we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing that.

So the absence of models makes us cynical.

BD: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing Society in the next five years?

Paul Loeb: To me the challenge is to be able to draw the truths from the stories of people’s lives. With the people that I’m writing about and interviewing, I think that’s where the movements succeed. They’re able to do that by saying, “Don’t abstract us”.

    With the Latino women I write about, Virginia Ramirez in San Antonio, who was one of the strengths, organizes poor people, not homeless, so they at least had a more stable base. But it definitely was a very poor base largely. And what got Virginia Ramirez involved was this old woman whose house was so run down, she would freeze every winter and just get sicker and sicker. And eventually she just died. And so Virginia, who herself is poor, is inspired by this other woman to whom this injustice is done. And then she starts telling the story of her community and obviously combining that with political organizing, so they develop some clout because there are a lot of poor people in San Antonio. By pressuring the elected officials and the corporate structure of the city, they were able to bring investment into that community that never was there before.

    And I think that it’s hard, very, in a movement that feeds on itself. I don’t know if the callousness is the twin to the cynicism, but it is certainly allied with it. That says these people are not like us, we don’t have to really deal with them.

    So there is this sort of divide between the class of people who define the images and realities for so many of them, and I think that it is much worse nationally than in any given local city. But maybe some of that happens in the local city as well.

Then there are people who are bearing the brunt of the choices of our society. Of course the challenge is, somehow, instead of making the people invisible, to be able to say, ‘Look. These are the lives, these are the choices and these are the circumstances that land someone in this situation.’ And in fact there are things that we can do about this but we choose not to do it. The problem is not that we don’t have the money. In this society there is plenty of money.

    But we choose not to give everybody health care, being the only industrialized country in the world that chooses not to give adequate education to children if they happen to live in a poor community. We choose not top house people, and I’m quite sure that’s affordable. And it’s sort of the erosion of accountability that, I think, allows that to happen.

BD: In reading the stories, I came home with the sense that over the last thirty years the actions, the activities and the movements have been really just to tread water, to be able to in name only claim democracy. Like the Professor and Ramirez, those people were just so they could live in their communities doing things. While the large movements that changed the course of history, those things just aren’t….

Paul Loeb: Well it’s tricky because it sort of depends on how you define it. In some areas, obviously, we have gone backwards. Our average real wages are below that they were in 1973, so we’ve gone backwards in that area. But there is definitely more environmental awareness and concern and even accountability. Unlike years ago, there are things that corporations just can not get away with today, for all that they do get away with, that they just wouldn’t have gotten away with thirty years ago.

    The shift in women’s role over the past thirty years is profound, and so you have this very uneven picture where on some levels there have been, I would say, real advances for justice, and then on some other levels there haven’t been. On some levels it has been treading water, or local victories and gains, and then at the same time some significant erosions nationally.

    This tied in with the declining voting rates, particularly among poorer people. How does a Voinovich get elected? Part of it is by the people who don’t turn out to vote.

    And whose interest is not being served by the policies made, but are just not paid heed to by the people who feel they don’t have to worry about them. You know it’s a hard challenge. I think that part of the challenge is instead of that person who is struggling, you know the average workweek is now up to 49 hours a week for a full-time job, struggling to get by and survive and then stigmatize the homeless person. To scapegoat them and then see them as a threat. To basically make some kind of alliance that says all of us, except for that very, very elite golden sector echelon at the top, are really getting hurt by these choices. And if the top 1% has more than the bottom 94%, which is now the case in terms of wealth, then you’ve got a significant body of the people, which has a common interest in seeing some different choices made. That’s a hard thing to do, certainly, but it’s not an impossible task. And it seems to me that that’s part of the task that has to be done.

BD: In Cleveland, Atlanta and Miami, the cities had policies of picking up homeless people, kidnapping them off the street and dumping them wherever. And in Atlanta and Cleveland those were Democrats in office who forwarded that agenda for the business community. They were caught and they had to settle with the brave people who stepped forward, but there wasn’t a huge public outcry. They just showed it on the news that they were moving people out of Atlanta for the Olympics, and it was pretty accepted that that might have been necessary, and in the community’s best interest that they move people out of downtown.

Paul Loeb: I know it’s hard, and I think the challenge is to reinvent that type of human solidarity that says you are a fellow child of God, it is wrong to do this to a fellow human being, and you are not fundamentally different than I am. And again the stigmatizing and the demonizing says they are indeed a different breed of person, and we don’t have to look at them seriously as human beings. And again that callous type of statement has been in the national debate, and on the other hand I stress a lot taking a long-term perspective because to me that’s where hope does lie. I look at Mandela in jail for 27 years, and he was probably acting for his grandchildren, and had no sense that in South Africa he would be free. And you could say that the consolation of forces were lined up so South Africa had to yield to the pressure, but it sure didn’t look like that for a long, long time.

    So part of the challenge is that when we are in a difficult and frustrating situation, to have that patience to say we are going to keep at it and we don’t know how long it is going to take because you never do.

BD: I think there are amazing things going on around the world, such as Indonesia. In the United States we don’t have an enemy, but the media and television images play a very important role in distorting the view of the world, and the country that we live in.

Paul Loeb: And making those at the bottom almost the enemy of our society. It’s odd that for all the boosterism about the good time and the stock market I think most people in our society are pretty anxious these days and feel that the ground has just been jerked from under their feet. And not knowing where to move next so that it won’t be jerked away further.

    I think that the fear is part of what has been used politically in scapegoating people. At the same time I think that it is an unease that can be spoken to potentially, to say lets have some accountability about the real causes about the insecurity that we feel. That it is not that the person on the street, but it is the fear that it may be ourselves sleeping on the street. So the line that has been drawn between the homeless and the people on welfare and everyone else is a convenient line because it allows people to focus downward in their fear, and in their anger and in their frustration. To me the line that has to be drawn is the line between those who are doing spectacularly well and making the decisions that make the lives of us so precarious. Whether it be the HMOs that make our medical care more uncertain or the regressive tax cuts that supposedly relieve the middle- class burden, but give most of the proceeds to those in the top 5%.

    Or the kinds of disinvestments in public education, all of those kinds of things just make it harder for most people. And, again, one of the tremendously valuable things that a newspaper like this does, is that it’s a vehicle to remind people that the sources that they are taught to scapegoat are not themselves to blame, but in fact they have more in common with them than they are told by much of the media. And that seems to be a very important task.

To be continued in Grapevine Issue 38.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #37, August-September 1999