Keeping the Faith
The soul of a Citizen: by Paul Rogat Loeb
by Paul Rogat LoebSt. Martin's Press, 1988 352 pp. $15.95
REVIEW BY SONYA HUBER
Paul Rogat Loeb's strength lies in collecting the stories of real people. Taking his example from such popular progressive chroniclers as Studs Terkel, Loeb demonstrates in this book that he gets around. He talks to friends and comrades from all walks of life and many areas of the country, asking them how they got involved and how they stay involved in struggles for social justice.
As in his other books, Loeb is interested in the motivations and emotional worlds of activists. His past books -- including Nuclear Culture (New Society, 1986), about workers in the nuclear armaments and power complex in Hanford, Washington, and Generation at the Crossroads (Rutgers, 1994), about student activists -- explore concrete social conditions as well as the viewpoints and perspectives of everyday people who struggle with whether or not to get involved in shaping their world.
In addition to first-hand accounts, Loeb draws from the varied disciplines of religion, psychology, sociology and literature to demonstrate what may be a forgotten truism to many organizers: that people benefit on many levels when they become involved in organizations. Many of us believe that people are, by nature, social animals; the quotes and stories that Loeb has collected back up the assertion that human beings blossom as they become more connected to their communities and to our collective fate.
Loeb attempts to come to terms with a gamut of questions: How can we come together collectively in a time when so many messages encourage us to remain isolated consumers? How can activists avoid burnout? How can we build effective organizations that avoid becoming insular enclaves? How can we raise children and teach them the values of community? How can we remain hopeful when the obstacles are so large and the evidence of success is often nowhere to be found?
Loeb also takes on the many facets of self-help movements, encouraging readers to acknowledge the emotional needs of organizers and activists while remaining critical of individualist solutions. He mentions the dilemma of volunteerism: Should we give our time to a soup kitchen or work to change the conditions that make a soup kitchen necessary? "We distribute two dozen loaves of bread to the hungry in one neighborhood, while Congress makes a decision that robs each poor community in the country of 500 loaves," he writes.
The middle third of the book appealed to me the most, because this section is augmented most generously with real-life stories. At his weakest points, Loeb plays the role of a political philosopher (for instance, attempting to explain the failure of Marxism in a page and a half). Soul of a Citizen may have benefited from a sharper focus, leaving some questions alone rather than trivializing them with a few paragraphs.
Although this book is not a unified theory of values, emotion, and social action, it raises a host of fascinating and necessary questions, and builds on the ground-breaking feminist dictum that as movement-builders we need to pay attention to the many ways that our individual feelings, values, and concerns reflect and affect our common struggles.
This review first appeared in The Workbook, a catalogue of information about environmental, social and consumer issues, and is reprinted with permission. Contact The Workbook at 505-346-1455 or by e-mail WorkbookEd@aol.com.