(Reprinted with permission from the journal America, written by John A. Coleman.)

When I was a fledgling, just-arrived Ph.D., I served on an academic panel discussing the writings of the well-known British development economist, E. F. Schumacher, especially his Small Is Beautiful. At one point, I asked Schumacher how we should choose among so many good causes and groups related to peace and justice. Expecting an answer detailing theoretical criteria for discerning choice, I got, instead, homely practical wisdom: Listen to your heart to find out which of these causes most stir it; find like-minded people who are already working on the problem; if necessary, start your own group to address unmet and urgent needs. Just do it, he seemed to respond.

In Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, Paul Loeb would resonate with Schumacher’s wise practical advice. He states: “I suspect the best responses to many of our society’s ills may be local and decentralized approaches that draw upon such spiritual values as love, generosity, a willingness to listen and the capacity to see a divine spark in even the most desperate and self-destructive of our fellow human beings.”

Soul of a Citizen is basically, an inspirational tome—much stronger on spiritual uplift and wise apothegm than on theory (although its background shards of theory are well-informed). Loeb believes in the power of exemplary stories of social activist citizens, who, moved by specific lives and situations, make a difference on issues or to their communities. He recounts success stories and the character of people such as Carol McNulty who took on Gap for its slave-labor wages in third-world countries; Virginia Ramirez, a working-class mother who worked with COPS, the church-based community organization that so transformed the politics and civic culture of San Antonio; Pete Knudson, a Seattle fisherman who took on corporate giants to save the ecology of Puget Sound. Like Livy’s history, this is a text that constantly seeks to elicit a moral response from its readers by the presentation of exemplary paradigms.

Loeb, an associate scholar at Seattle’s Center for Ethical Leadership and an activist on peace and nuclear issues, draws primarily on an amalgam of the civic republican tradition (Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of active stakeholders) and economic democracy, with its fears of dominant corporate wealth undermining our democratic foundation. These two anchor his ideal of citizenship. Loeb sees social involvement as “the rent we pay for living” in a nation or community. He rails against what he calls “the cynical smirk” of apathy and addresses the many, once committed, who have now withdrawn.

More than most such calls to action, Soul of a Citizen goes beyond a narrow focus on issues and justice. Loeb draws widely upon psychology and spirituality. He notes that paralysis has affected especially the secular social justice activists to a far greater extent than those from religious communities. “Religious social justice activists have had the most success in building subcultures that sustain the difficult work of healing the world. Churches and synagogues offer an institutional base, a common moral framework and a community with the avowed goal of serving others.” Loeb would like to see secular social activists find something akin to the spirituality that helps the religious activists to stay with issues over the long haul.

At the heart of the book is a section on the politics of witness. Such a politics expands our vision of justice to include an ethic of care. It widens the circle and affirms many areas of common ground across ideological divides. It allows for the human hesitation, uncertainty and ambivalence which an older, ideological radicalism denied. Like self-help programs, it takes one incremental step at a time and realizes that you do not have to be a saint to do justice. The politics of witness includes forgiveness. In what Loeb calls “restorative justice,” we meld forgiveness with fairness, moral courage with mercy. This is a communitarian vision to counteract America’s addictions to rugged individualism, consumerism and shortsightedness.

I was edified and stirred while reading Soul of a Citizen. But I missed a more analytic emphasis. In the end, anti-federalist notions of citizenship do not easily translate on state and national levels. We are neither the Athenian direct democracy nor the Jeffersonian nation of small farmers that inspires Loeb’s vision, but a representative republic. While we are not only citizens of the state (civil society also claims our citizen loyalties), we neglect the state to our peril. One (by no means the unique) source of danger to our liberties, the state also has a characteristic care for the common good. Loeb has some wise things to say about the limits of voluntarism but never really gives us a rounded vision of the state’s role in the soul of a citizen.

I also missed any systematic address to the discussion of common citizen virtues needed in a liberal, pluralist society—as found, for example, in the writings of political philosophers such as William Galston, Amy Guttman and Will Klynuka. It is not enough merely to evoke “the common good,” which has become, for most, an empty cipher. We need to spell out in terms of a common agreement on virtue and character what that common good entails. In the end, exemplary stories may sway us into action and teach us apothegms of wisdom, but they fail to provide sufficient analytic fodder for common discourse and policy. That said, I still recommend the book for the soul and nurturance of social activists.

In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times, we’ll even stop to help another driver stranded with a roadside breakdown, or give some spare change to a stranger. But increasingly, a wall now separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who’ve likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries. We’ve all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and how much it can enrich our lives.

Soul of a Citizen

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