BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Citizens Need Soul

At the last meeting of the Democrats in our county, the average age of members there seemed, as usual, to be about 65. The group seemed smaller too. Let's face it, I thought, things are really bad all over for the causes of progressives. We need new inspiration.

The very next day a new book came to my mailbox. Paul Rogat Loeb wrote Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time (St. Martin's Press, 1999, $15.95, see before the presidential election. So what he says about keeping the faith has never been more important than today.

His message in a nutshell is that we run-of-the-mill citizens must not give up on our goals, even though we are imperfect, and things do not always turn out the way we would like. Loeb's optimism is like historian Howard Zinn's, hopeful of some good surprises coming out of our activism. The two happy outcomes that Zinn usually mentions are the success of the civil rights movement and the ending of the Vietnam War, both accomplished largely from the grassroots.

What makes this book a little different from many on the subject of political reform is that the author connects religious and ethical beliefs to the actions we take on behalf of our larger community. It is full of examples of both well-known people who have made a difference and the rest of us who struggle to do that.

Sometimes there are dangers in the struggle. Example: A well-known African-American activist started challenging the wisdom of our involvement in Vietnam. Soon major newspapers were saying that respect for him was disappearing. The Washington Post wrote that he has "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." Does this sound like a description of Jesse Jackson and his recent troubles? No, the writer was describing Martin Luther King, Jr.

Loeb's examples of people who, despite their imperfections, were effective activists go on and on. David, a recidivist prison inmate, finally got himself straightened out and ended up helping the Palo Alto, Calif., mayor curb community violence. A small-town Connecticut housewife became first a member of the League of Women Voters and then an environmentalist. A San Antonio woman became interested in community housing through COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service). Oklahoman Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokees for a time, once helped the tiny town of Bell, east of Muskogee, get a new and safe water supply.

So what stands in the way of all of our similar good work? Why do we hesitate to undertake good works? Learned helplessness, says Loeb. While the essence of democracy ought to be widespread participation in our communities, we find it easier to be passive and hold on to pessimism and cynicism.

And sometimes the job just seems too big. While I was reading, I thought of an old Albert Schweitzer idea. As he worked in Africa, Dr. Schweitzer wrote that he, like Loeb and many others, was always conscious of the tremendous amount of suffering in the world. It was not possible for one jungle doctor to relieve all of it. So his ethical advice was for us to concentrate on the lives our lives touch. And sometimes unusual circumstances make our influence go farther than we think. Bud Welch, who lost his daughter in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is now speaking out forcefully against the death penalty, one example of many which give us hope.

Soul of a Citizen is a book for the good Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheist. Thank you, Paul Loeb, for a very good book.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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