In a Time of War and Fear, Seattle Writer Paul Loeb's New Anthology Discovers Hope for the Future in the Dissident Voices of Yesterday and Today

On a fall day in 1998, a group of people gathered for a conference on spirituality and ecology in a church basement in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. They spent had part of a day sharing stories, ideas, and opinions on how they had and could live more meaningful lives as activists and environmentalists. But when one young woman voiced her frustration at her sense of powerlessness, complaining that the world was in such bad shape she couldn't believe there was anything she could do that would make a real difference, a voice in the room rose in protest.

It was the voice of Danusha Veronica Goska, a graduate student at the University of Indiana and a contributor to a new anthology, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Keeping Hope Alive in a Time of Fear (Basic Books, 2004), edited by Paul Loeb. As she recounts, Goska was then suffering from a debilitating medical condition known as Perilymph Fistula, a vestibular disorder that can produce symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis. As is often the case with a chronic illness, Goska had good days and bad days. On the really bad days, she could not walk or stand or leave the house. There was nausea and faltering vision.

But the challenge of illness had taught her something about power and powerlessness, as Goska shared with the conference participants. After years of living in the realm where morning might bring a day of relatively normal health, or a day of paralysis, she had become highly attuned to the profound difference the small, unadorned gestures of human solidarity could mean in a person's life. Like the action of the neighbor driving in his car who once saw her wobbling down the road in a snowstorm. She was on her way home when symptoms of the disease had suddenly flared. While car after car drove by, this man stopped his to give her a ride. They had never spoken before. In her years living in the neighborhood, no one else had ever stopped. Of course, the man's actions were just a ride home. They didn't change her life. But it was the difference for one day between despair or hope, isolation or a sense of belonging. He had the power to help her, he did, and it made a difference.

Goska's remarks to the conference participants were astute. Going through times in life when you can no longer take for granted what others routinely take for granted, like coordination or the stamina of leg muscles, does tend to sensitize a person to where strength in their life (physical or emotional) comes from. It is a different level of awareness. But dark times in the life of a people or a nation also tends to clarify. The aspirations now of millions of Americans now for a better life, for peace and prosperity, have also been, shall we say, a bit weak in the legs in recent years. The terror of September 11 blew apart not only buildings and bodies but our culture's sense of separation from a world already long battered by terrorism. Then came a floundering economy on top of an already grotesquely unequal economy, and a war inspired by a President's deceptions that now inspires only more threats of global conflict. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians die in Iraq by hundreds and thousands, while our great American democracy claims the right to imprison some individuals without the right to counsel or due process. As we enter a national election period, the cultural psyche of much of the nation stands frayed, angry, and bitterly divided. There are deep-set fears for our future, but few hopes for "endless peace."

Confronting Despair, War, and George W. Bush So, what about hope? Is there any good reason in this age of Bush and Bin Laden, of war and terror, to have any? Wisely, The Impossible Will Take a Little While explores our larger political hopes from a historical perspective that goes beyond the invariably more fleeting infomercial-style "hope" sold at the political conventions, which usually has a post-election shelf-life of about two months. In the voices of such contributors as Diane Ackerman, Eduardo Galeano, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Kozol, Tony Kushner, Nelson Mandela, Arundhati Roy, Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and many others, The Impossible Will Take a Little While reminds us beautifully of the hope that comes from the capacity of human beings to resist and persevere against not only personal hardship, but the most far-reaching social injustice and adversity.

This is not Pollyanna stuff. These are the stories of the heralded and unheralded, of the weak and the strong, but mostly of those who have hitched their personal fate to the cause of justice in life. Here are the Uruguayan political prisoners whose banned voices devise an ingenious, underground finger alphabet to communicate their solidarity and spirit of resistance to dictatorship. Here are a group of women whose small, early '60s White House protests against nuclear proliferation, unbeknownst to them, influenced Dr. Benjamin Spock toward peace activism. Here are the survivors of Chernobyl, confronting the grief and cruel fate of their land as they search for and discover new hope for themselves and their children. Here are many stories of ordinary people of uncommon spirit and dedication to the cause of humanity.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While also recalls some larger than life stories, such as Nelson Mandela's account of surviving 27 years in the sparse and brutal conditions of apartheid imprisonment, years of darkness that in the end revealed not only the corrupted mission of his captors, but the radiance of one man's faith. Reading Mandela's story is a humbling testament to the depths of his personal fortitude. But the South African leader's personal strength also came from the power of ideas, and of the way he and his fellow political prisoners developed their own surreptitious culture, one rooted in the justice of their cause and a common solidarity no guard or official could ever touch.

Reading Mandela it is tempting to contrast the man's moral courage with that of a certain Vice President of the United States. In Congress, Dick Cheney, once as ardent a youthful supporter of the Vietnam war as he was equally ardent in opposing his own participation in that war, long opposed Mandela's release from prison. Cheney believed Mandela was leader of a "terrorist" organization. It is especially heartening to be reminded of the courage and dignity of Mandela's story and voice now, at a time when our own media circus of a political culture appears so crass and dispirited, so littered with aspiring hacks and pundits and enlistees in what Loeb calls "the fraternity of the cynical and the contemptuous."

Admittedly, it can be very disheartening to encounter, day after day, the effects of the relentless propaganda of a largely conservative, pro-war media. On the road recently in Chicago, I happened to pull up at an intersection behind a car with a provocative bumper sticker. It read: "'When it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight," followed by a logo for the U.S. Marines. As I sat at the light for a minute staring at this driver's roadway ugliness, my first reaction was irritation. But the feeling quickly notched up a level to disgust and anger. For a moment, I pondered pulling up to the fellow at the next light, motioning for him to roll down his window, and then offering my own dissenting opinion to his crass, mindless homage to militarism and violence.

I didn't. But the moment was symptomatic of life in 2004 America. A dark, toxic cloud of xenophobia and right-wing extremism has since 9/11 slowly swept across our beautiful land. A vitriolic atmosphere toward dissenters exists, at such a pitch now that even former high-level colleagues of the President find themselves quickly ground up by the meat grinder of patriotic Republican intolerance, lest they dare suggest that the President is not—gasp!—infallible. Equally, a glorification bordering on mythology of military might as the ultimate determiner (or is it Terminator?) of global conflicts now pervades sizeable sectors of mainstream American thought, media, and the public. Lies abound. War abounds. Dying abounds. We have George W. Bush as President. The only candidate with a chance to replace him talks like a man who prefers to forget his own antiwar history.

"Among those who would seek or want social change, despair is endemic now," acknowledges Susan Griffin, author of A Chorus of Stones, in a contribution that examines the nature of hope in the lives and art of such figures as poet Robert Desnos and photographer Tina Modotti. But in Modotti's decades-old photographs of defiant Mexican campesinos, Griffin is reminded of a level of existence beneath theory or politics, where ordinary human beings of every generation have always yearned and hoped for a better life, willing to struggle and dream and defy the odds. Or those who would mistreat or oppress them. In the hard faces of men who lived lives much different from her own, Griffin nonetheless recognizes the familiar face of hope. It's like some timeless hurricane force in the human heart, out of whose storms have come such civilizing ideals as justice and solidarity, dignity and democracy.

Griffin also rightly reminds us that to imagine a radically different future from our own bloodied, war-weary world is by very nature of the act more than an idler's daydream. Because seeing what could be is impossible without the willingness to gaze unflinching at what currently is. But I suspect we don't go far enough with the latter. In the alternative and progressive media, there is certainly a great deal of Bush-bashing, justified as it is, but not nearly enough discussion of the root causes of war, inequality, and violence. That's the kind of discussion that goes beyond the outcome this way or that of the next Presidential election.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Power The Impossible Will Take a Little While is motivated by the wisdom that acknowledging our despair is the first step toward challenging it. That car with its belligerent bumper sticker angered me but frankly it mostly saddened me, throwing another small match on an already smoldering sense of alienation I'm harboring that this country I know so well is slowly becoming an ugly, unrecognizable place. I suspect it's not an uncommon feeling. I suspect also the wild enthusiasm for Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 suggests the depths of the almost desperate desire now existing among millions of Americans for some decisively alternative political vision to rally around. There is no doubt a strong undercurrent, long-brewing in this country, of disgust and disillusionment with the endless, seamy, wealthy corruptions of American politics. Unfortunately, it's a level of disenchantment the current Presidential campaign mostly glosses over.

As I read the many stories and perspectives expressed by the contributors to The Impossible Will Take a Little While, I found myself returning to Goska's theme of the power of ordinary people. How often that power has changed history, but how often that power has also remained unrecognized. Untapped. Indeed, it has always been the ordinary, mostly unheralded people who in their personal as well as collective efforts have driven our world forward.

We live now in an era when the Bush Administration can send 150,000 U.S. soldiers across the world on the wings of a lie, sacrificing the lives of hundreds of American soldiers and some 10,000 Iraqi civilians to their duplicitous cause. But rather than despair now, we can challenge this war through our voices and our organizing, our spirits and our resolve. We can discover our power. The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a primer on the topic. In his accompanying notes, Loeb shares with us an important but little known story from the days of the Vietnam War. In 1969, President Nixon was secretly preparing to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, unless the Vietnamese surrendered by November 1. But only two weeks before the secret deadline, millions of Americans joined the National Moratorium Against the War, taking part in marches, vigils, and other antiwar protests. Publicly, Nixon pretended that the antiwar protests would not influence him. The truth was different. Confronted by an escalation of antiwar activism, Nixon knew, as his memoir would later reveal, that he could no longer politically afford such a brazen, criminal escalation of the war.

Now, that is a story worth remembering. We should keep it in mind the next time a President or some talk radio saber-rattler declares that the voices of those of us who now speak for peace don't count.

Mark Harris is a writer living in Bloomington, Illinois. His work has appeared in Utne, Z magazine, and elsewhere. Visit his web site at You can write to him at

For more information or to order "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide To Keeping Hope Alive in a Time of Fear," edited by Paul Rogat Loeb (Basic Books, 2004), go to: