Katrina vanden Heuvel gives the story behind the guide for free thinkers across the country.
Question: What’s the inspiration behind The Nation Guide to the Nation?
vanden Heuvel: This was a project hatched many years ago by the former editor and publisher, Victor Navasky, and at its core is the idea that this is a lifestyle guide, an almanac, a catalog, if you will, for people of passion, of commitment, of active consciences, who want to connect with like- minded, free-spirited, kindred souls around the country. It originated at a very different time. I mean, Victor was thinking of this maybe 20 years ago, pre-internet, and at a moment when I think the idea of the Red and Blue states, the Red and Blue divide in this country hadn’t fully bloomed but was visible in readers of The Nation who would write us and say they lived in a state where they couldn’t find people who they could engage in argument and debate with, like-minded people. The book still holds because it’s a great guide to whether it’s salons or food coops, green markets, a virtual history tour of the left, a guide to where people could meet, and were working with drinking liberally, living liberally, laughing liberally, to get people to engage in places where they live, to come to these various places, whether it’s, you know, in Montgomery, Alabama or Austin, Texas. So, but the original idea was in short form for kindred souls, free-spirits around this country. One of my favorite parts of this book, and it was something I talked to Richard Lingeman about, who really is at the heart and soul of organizing the collective which put this book together, the collective being Richard, two great ace researchers who had been interns of The Nation, as well as tapping into Nation readers, nation.com readers, but I love the list. There’s a great list of lefty mysteries. You know, John Grisham “The Rainmaker,” or Walter Mosley “Devil in a Blue Dress.” I love “Anthems of the Left,” which was compiled by this wonderful music producer, Danny Goldberg and our media columnist, Eric Alterman. You know, they [had] 10 top Left anthems, Patti Smith “Power to the People,” Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On,” and it goes on, and also Stuart Klawans, our film critic does a list of 25 great lefty films, [tour de filmography] of the left with “Grapes of Wrath.” I might have added Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but it was Stuart’s list. In terms of the watering holes, the bars, I will admit I haven’t made my way to some of these, but one of my favorites is in Austin, Texas, where Molly Ivins, the late great Texas columnist, used to hang out after she’d write her column for the Texas Observer. This is called the Schultz’s Garden in Austin, Texas, and it’s where the great editors of the Texas Observer, an independent magazine we write about in the book because it has all these listings of independent magazines. They’d hang out and it’s a fun place.
Question: Is the book a reaction to a polarized America?
vanden Heuvel: This book was hatched many years ago, but, to me, it picks up on a theme that Barack Obama spoke about in the speech that catapulted him to the presidency, the speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004 where he spoke about how we’re not, you know, there are no Blue states, there are no Red states. In Red states, there are, you have gay friends. In a Blue state, you have fundamentalists, and I think this idea of Blue and Red state is blurring in ways as the demographic political map of our country is being redemogrified, if you can say that. So, there is still a need for people to pick up this book, I would argue, because let’s say you’re in Oxford, Mississippi. One of my favorite, you know, one of my favorite listings is the book store in Oxford, Mississippi, the Square Bookstore, which has done as much to bring about civil rights in that town. William Faulkner, who wrote from Oxford, who wrote a lot about Oxford, wouldn’t recognize it, but it becomes, that bookstore, a meeting place for not just liberal progressives, lefties, but people who are of independent mind and people who want to think and read and talk, a gathering place in a community where there may not be that many outlets. In that sense, it’s a little bit of a counter to the mega churches, because the mega churches, and this book is a counter to the mega churches, I would argue. The mega churches are as much about lifestyle as they are about religion. If you go to a mega church, they will give, on the way out, a leaflet, a flyer where you can get marriage counseling, job counseling, where your kids can do sports. They’re providing lunches, they’re providing reading material. They may have libraries, their own bookstores, their own music, and this is another way of, this is a guide to different kinds of music, different kinds of books, different lifestyles. Is it Left/Right? I don't think so. My sense of this book is it’s for independent people and that it has a strongly non-corporate piece to it, and that is something to be treasured at this time in our history, because so much has been corporatized, and if you ask people, Left or Right, there’s an overwhelming sense that corporate power has become too dominant. So, seeking alternatives to that is also at the heart and soul of this book.