Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times

Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times is a good book — with a great, shorter book inside struggling to get out. All it would take would be a bit of a lost art: editing.

Writer-activist Paul Rogat Loeb is never satisfied with one example when two or three will do. He drops names as if he were an award-show host. (On page 320 alone, he mentions Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, civil rights activist Ysaye Barnwell, Billie Holiday, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela.) It's his "thing" to jump from quote to quote and anecdote to anecdote, grabbing from a sometimes dizzying array of perspectives.

That kind of "share-the-wealth" approach to information can be effective. Certainly it's refreshing that Loeb finds political inspiration in everything from his friends to his Seattle surroundings to his reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Indeed, he's right to seek and find evidence of civic participation in so many different corners of American culture, but the parade of examples can get tiring. He also has an unfortunate tendency to revisit the same subjects a few times too many. His recounting of his friend Pete Knutson's thirty-five year commercial fishing career leading to environmental activism is effective. But Knutson, like some other subjects in the book, keeps showing up after we've learned his lessons. Soul is an important book, reissued this year in a form that's been updated since its original publication in 1999. But it could be even more compelling. Note to Loeb: next time, remember that less is often more. And go deep instead of wide.

By all means, though, keep going! Loeb's voice is one we need to hear. He's a champion for democracy, prompting us all to get involved in the political sphere. He's wisely chary of the popular wisdom that "politics" is a four-letter word, especially given the great respect the ancient Greeks once gave to the political sphere. "Idiot," he reminds us, "was a Greek word for those incapable of involving themselves in civic life."

Soul of a Citizen, especially at its beginning and end, amounts to an inspired and inspiring call to arms. At his Web site, PaulLoeb.org, the author reports that, with more than 100,000 copies in print, "Soul's original version has become a classic handbook for budding social activists, veteran organizers, and anyone who wants to make a difference — large or small. An antidote to powerlessness and despair, it has inspired thousands of citizens to make their voices heard and actions count — and then stay involved for the long haul."

What's more, at the end of the book Loeb provides the equivalent of the Ten Commandments for would-be activists. The list is a winner, and perhaps Loeb could have started with it. Self-aware enough to know he's on dangerous territory when it comes to issuing commandments, he calls his postscript "The Ten Suggestions." They make sense and are clearly presented, beginning with, "Start where you are."

Loeb himself started a long time ago. In fact, he's now spent thirty-five years writing about citizen responsibility, during which time he has produced an amazing body of work that serves as a welcome antidote to the values of our me-me-me culture. He lectures (he's visited more than four hundred colleges and universities around the nation) and truly lives the values he teaches — stories of his own political awakening and activism are included in Soul. In a way, his book would be even better if he stuck more to his own tales and travails. It's interesting to read about his enthusiasm for secondhand suits and used cars, but what's really inspiring is when he uses personal examples to say something larger about the opportunities for activism. He clearly understands the potential pitfalls of political involvement, from burnout to bloated egos to the seductiveness of the "in-crowd" mentality. He also knows how to avoid such problems — or at least recognize them and get beyond them.

Granted, the people who most need Soul are not going to read it. They're busy with...well, other stuff. And at times the book reads as if Loeb is preaching to the converted. But that's okay. The converted need reassurance in these challenging times, and Loeb is at his most impressive when he's rallying tired troops. He knows that after the great rush of optimism unleashed by the election of Barack Obama, there may be millions feeling disappointed and even betrayed by the tradeoffs involved in actual governance. Ever the gentle warrior, Loeb urges his readers to pressure the president to do the right thing — on the environment, especially, but also on a host of other issues. He knows that no president, regardless of political skills or persuasive powers, can drive meaningful change without the active support of a majority of the rest of us. A simple lesson, perhaps, but one that Americans, distracted as they are, routinely forget.

Throughout the book, Loeb references history and the stories we tell ourselves about activism. The latter are often misleading and designed to showcase saints and miracle workers, instead of real, flawed human beings who took a stand. Too often, Loeb explains, political action is reported later as if it were a shocking out-of-context gesture, rather than the result of hard work and difficult choices that many people could have made. In the introduction for the 2010 edition of Soul, he cites Rosa Parks as a prime example. He notes that Parks had attended a ten-day social activism training seminar before she made the decision to stay seated on that Montgomery city bus. Her decision "didn't come out of nowhere....[T]he full story of Parks reminds us that her consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble, frustrating work that she and others had undertaken earlier, and on the vibrant, engaged community they had developed in the face of continual hardship and opposition."

The lesson Loeb wants us to learn from Rosa Parks: Opportunities to make a difference exist in our own lives every day.

Even if you're a political conservative. While Soul is the work of an unabashed progressive, its author makes room in his book for the likes of Rich Cizik, a self-described "Reagan conservative" who pushes his evangelical supporters to confront global warming, fight poverty, and curb human trafficking. Indeed, one of Loeb's most important lessons is the need for political activists of all stripes to seek out allies in unlikely places.

As a writer, Loeb goes beyond politics and mixes in the occasional psychological insight. It's a technique that adds credibility and a humanistic touch to the somewhat wonkish story he has to tell. In reflecting on the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi, for example, Loeb forces us to see the man's personal weaknesses as well as his strengths: "I like viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he later became," Loeb writes, "but as someone who at first was literally tongue-tied — shyer and more intimidated than almost anyone we can imagine. Given where he ended up on his subsequent journey, who knows what might be possible of the rest of us."

If Gandhi was nervous and, at times, intimidated by the task at hand, we can be, too, Loeb reminds us. Indeed, the only thing that really matters is that, like Gandhi, we ignore our fears and forge ahead. To do any less is cheating ourselves — and each other.

Christopher Moore
Editor/Writer/Blogger
New York, New York