by Paul Rogat Loeb (editor)
(Basic Books) $15.95
In keeping with its title, taken from a Billie Holiday lyric, many of the essays in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by local activist leader Paul Rogat Loeb, emphasize the long view in regard to social justice. These 49 pieces reflect upon American and international activists' hard experiences and moments of bleakness, and the book is, in part, a prescription to soothe the illness and ache from our current political situation, reminding us that failure often comes before success. Hope is Loeb's territory. One of his previous books, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, was about the cultural aloofness that undermines committed activism.
This is Loeb's fifth book, and it has received notable mentions from the Sierra Club, the History Channel, and other groups. Many of the writings here are impressive; some are old school touchy-feely. One gratifying vignette describes, in flat, descriptive language, how an 18-year-old in Bulgaria incited thousands to come out and protest in 1997, stopping the construction of a nuclear power plant. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and an essay by Vaclav Havel, about the nature of hope, are classics. With a general introduction, nine sections (each with its own introduction), hefty author bios, and an index, this is a sprawling cornucopia of activist tales. The book also apparently functions as a bulletin board, as made evident by one contributor's appeal for a teaching job tacked at the end of her biographical note. The fact that the collection sort of spills out of itself seems perfectly okay, though, and in character--there's no reason why it should be reined in; after all, no one's reining in the Right.
Included are writings by Marian Wright Edelman, Jonathan Kozol, Adrienne Rich, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Eduardo Galeano. The best essays here convey the contagious public passion that bursts out when justice happens in public view. Mostly, it's a book of ethics intended to sustain the American Left at this juncture in history, and to remind us that, though the Republican machine has cleverly found a way to make the word "liberal" sound absolutely filthy and disgusting, real justice can't be muddied even by Karl Rovian spin.
One of the entries, "The Sukkah of Shalom," by Boston Rabbi Arthur Waksow, discusses the little hut that's the centerpiece of the Jewish fall harvest celebration. Waksow describes the walls of the sukkah as deliberately half-built and weak in order to stand as a metaphor for the dwellers' vulnerabilities. "To live in the sukkah for a week, as Jewish tradition teaches, would be to leave behind not only the rigid walls and towers of our cities, but also our rigidified ideas, our assumptions," he writes. Then he posits a fantasy in which the U.S. president, after 9/11, takes no actions, but instead urges Americans and the rest of the world to gather and do what Jews do in a sukkah, that is, to reflect about the interconnectedness of our lives.
This idea, which Waksow acknowledges has no place in the geopolitical world we know, is terribly delicate and compelling, a little glass unicorn that is, at all moments, about to break. Here's the classic schism between the liberal peace movement and the world, with the side for peace clearly the less-dominant party. So this fragile hut of which Waksow speaks is also the bewildered, autistic Left itself--the collection of citizens and leaders who have no sure, ruthless delivery system for their humanist intentions and passionate ideas.
A conservative reading The Impossible would cackle at an essay like Waksow's, or at another piece by Parker Palmer that counsels us to stay grounded in our intentions by keenly heeding the four seasons of the year (the fact is, some of these essays will appear silly to many readers, Right or Left). However, all the works in this collection, whether embarrassingly mushy or powerful and classic, remind us most of all that the Left's convictions present staggeringly fewer ethical and moral problems than do those of the Right. They also illustrate that what the Left needs now are firm, clear sound bites to counter the Right's seemingly unshakable constructs of morality, values, and freedom. How about, "Poverty kills"?
It's not easy to get one's mind around the Republicans' powerful, tentacular grip on our culture. This thrumming, sprawling book stirs it all up, and sitting down in the company of its contributors feels like the most moral place to be.