Excerpt of Soul of a Citizen from Utne Reader.
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SOUL OF A CITIZEN
Most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and
friends. We'll even stop to help a fellow driver stranded by a roadside breakdown, or give
spare change to a stranger. But increasingly, a wall separates each of us from the world
outside, and from others who have taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries. How can
we renew the public participation that's the very soul of democratic citizenship?
To be sure, the issues we face are complex. It's hard to comprehend the moral
implications of a world in which Nike pays Michael Jordan millions to appear in its ads
while workers at its foreign shoe factories toil away for pennies a day. The 500 richest
people on the planet now control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, half the human
population. Is it possible even to grasp this extraordinary imbalance? And, more
important, how do we begin to redress it?
Certainly we need to decide for ourselves whether particular causes are wise or
foolish. But we also need to believe that our individual involvement is worthwhile, that
what we might do in the public sphere will not be in vain. The challenge is as much
psychological as political. As the Ethiopian proverb says, "He who conceals his
disease cannot be cured."
We need to understand our cultural diseases--callousness, shortsightedness, denial--and
learn what it will take to heal our society and our souls. How did so many of us become
convinced that we can do nothing to affect the future our children and grandchildren will
inherit? And how have others managed to work powerfully for change?
Pete Knutson is one of my oldest friends. During 25 years as a commercial fisherman in
Washington and Alaska, he has been forced to respond to the steady degradation of salmon
spawning grounds. He could have accepted this as fate and focused on getting a maximum
share of the dwindling fish populations. Instead, he gradually built an alliance between
Washington fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes, and persuaded them to
demand that habitat be preserved and restored.
Cooperation didn't come easily. Washington's fishermen are historically individualistic
and politically mistrustful. But with their new allies, they pushed for cleaner spawning
streams, preservation of the Endangered Species Act, and increased water flow over
regional dams to help boost salmon runs. Fearing that these measures would raise
electricity costs or restrict development opportunities, aluminum companies and other
large industrial interests bankrolled a statewide referendum, Initiative 640, to regulate
fishing nets in a way that would eliminate small family operations.
At first, those who opposed 640 thought they had no chance of success: They were
outspent, outstaffed, outgunned. Similar initiatives backed by similar corporate interests
had already passed in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. But the opponents refused to give up.
Pete and his coworkers enlisted major environmental groups to campaign against the
initiative. They worked with the media to explain the larger issues at stake and focus
public attention on the measure's powerful financial backers. On election day in November
1995, Initiative 640 was defeated. White fishermen, Native American activists, and Friends
of the Earth staffers threw their arms around each other in victory. "I'm really
proud of you, Dad," Pete's 12-year-old son kept repeating. Pete was stunned.
We often think of social involvement as noble but impractical. Yet it can serve
enlightened self-interest and the interests of others simultaneously, giving us a sense of
connection and purpose nearly impossible to find in private life. "It takes energy to
act," says Pete. "But it's more draining to bury your anger, convince yourself
you're powerless, and swallow whatever's handed to you."
We often don't know where to start. Most of us would like to see people treated more
justly and the earth accorded the respect it deserves. But we mistrust our own ability to
make a difference. The magnitude of the issues at hand has led too many of us to conclude
that social involvement isn't worth the cost.
Such resignation isn't innate or inevitable. It's what psychologists call learned
helplessness, a systematic way of ignoring the ills we see and leaving them for others to
handle. We find it unsettling even to think about crises as profound as the extinction of
species, depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of the rainforests, and desperate urban
poverty. We're taught to doubt our voices, to feel that we lack either the time to learn
about and articulate the issues or the standing to speak out and be heard. To get socially
involved, we believe, requires almost saintlike judgment, confidence, and
character--standards we can never meet. Our impulses toward involvement are dampened by a
culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes us feel naive for caring
about our fellow human beings or the planet we inhabit.
A few years ago, on Martin Luther King Day, I was interviewed on CNN along with Rosa
Parks. "Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus," said
the host. "That set in motion the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa
Parks the title of 'mother of the civil rights movement.' "
The host's description˝˝the standard rendition of the story˝˝stripped the boycott
of its context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, Parks had spent
12 years helping to lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, she had attended a
10-day training session at the Highlander Center, Tennessee's labor and civil rights
organizing school, where she'd met older activists and discussed the Supreme Court
decision banning "separate but equal" schools. Parks had become familiar with
previous challenges to segregation: another Montgomery bus boycott, 50 years earlier; a
bus boycott in Baton Rouge two years before Parks was arrested; and an NAACP dilemma the
previous spring, when a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the
bus. The NAACP had considered a legal challenge but decided the unmarried, pregnant woman
would be a poor symbol for a campaign.
In short, Parks didn't make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She was part of a movement
for change at a time when success was far from certain. This in no way diminishes her
historical importance, but it reminds us that this powerful act might never have taken
place without the humble, frustrating work that preceded it.
We elevate a few people to hero status --especially during times of armed conflict--but
most of us know next to nothing of the battles ordinary men and women fought to preserve
freedom, expand democracy, and create a more just society. Many have remarked on America's
historical amnesia, but its implications are hard to appreciate without recognizing how
much identity dissolves in the absence of memory. We lose the mechanisms that grassroots
social movements have used successfully to shift public sentiment and challenge entrenched
institutional power. Equally lost are the means by which participants eventually managed
Think about how differently one can frame Rosa Parks' historic action. In the
prevailing myth, Parks--a holy innocent--acts almost on a whim, in isolation. The lesson
seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something heroic, that would be
great. Of course most of us wait our entire lives for the ideal moment.
The real story is more empowering: It suggests that change is the product of
deliberate, incremental action. When we join together to shape a better world, sometimes
our struggles will fail or bear only modest fruits. Other times they will trigger
miraculous outpourings of courage and heart. We can never know beforehand what the
consequences of our actions will be.
NOT FOR SAINTS
''It does us all a disservice," says Atlanta activist Sonya Tinsley, "when
people who work for social change are presented as saints. We get a false sense that from
the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a
circle of light. But I'm much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their
failings and un-certainties."
Enshrining our heroes makes it hard for mere mortals to measure up. Because we can't
imagine that an ordinary human being might make a critical difference in a worthy social
cause, many of us have developed what I call the "perfect standard": Before we
take action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue is the world's most
important, but also that we have perfect knowledge of it, perfect moral consistency, and
perfect eloquence with which to express our views.
As a result, we refrain from tackling environmental issues because they're technically
complex. We don't address homelessness because we aren't homeless. Though we're outraged
when moneyed interests corrupt our political system, we believe we lack the authority to
insist that campaign financing be reformed.
Proliferation of information makes it even more likely that we'll use the perfect
standard to justify detachment rather than seek the knowledge we need to get involved. Now
we can spend our lives garnering information from books, magazines, newspapers, the
Internet, satellite cable channels, and radio talk shows, yet we don't dare speak out
unless we feel prepared to debate Henry Kissinger or Trent Lott on Nightline.
Eloquence, however, is not as important as kindness, concern, and a straightforward
declaration of belief. Will Campbell has been a Baptist preacher, civil rights activist,
farmer, writer, and volunteer cook for his friend Waylon Jennings. Years ago, he was
invited to participate in a student conference on capital punishment at Florida State
University. At the last minute he discovered that he was supposed to formally debate an
erudite scholar, who delivered a long philosophical argument in favor of the death penalty
as a means of buttressing the legitimacy of the state. When Campbell got up to present the
opposing view, nothing equally weighty came to mind. So he said, slowly and deliberately,
"I just think it's tacky," and sat down.
The audience laughed.
"Tacky?" the moderator asked.
"Yessir," Campbell repeated. "I just think it's tacky."
"Now, come on," the moderator said, "tacky is an old Southern word, and
it means uncouth, ugly, lack of class."
"Yessir. I know what it means," said Campbell. "And if a thing is ugly,
well, ugly means there's no beauty there. And if there is no beauty in it, there is no
truth in it. And if there is no truth in it, there is no good in it. Not for the victim of
the crime. Certainly not for the one being executed. Not for the executioner, the jury,
the judge, the state. For no one. And we were enjoined by a well-known Jewish prophet to
love them all."
I'm not lobbying for disdaining reasoned arguments. But modern society, by virtue of
its complexity and sophistication, makes moral engagement difficult; we don't need to
compound the problem by demanding perfection. Simple can still be forceful and eloquent.
Social change always proceeds in the absence of absolute knowledge, so long as people are
willing to follow their convictions, to act despite their doubts, and to speak even at the
risk of making mistakes. As the philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote,
"If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out."
According to another version of the perfect standard, we shouldn't begin working for
social change until the time is ideal--when our kids are grown, say, or when our job is
more secure. We wait for when our courage and wisdom will be greatest, the issues
clearest, and our supporters and allies most steadfast. Hesitation is reasonable; we are
subject to real pressures and constraints. Yet when will we not be subject to pressures?
There is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for
voicing our convictions. Instead, each of us faces a lifelong series of imperfect moments
in which we must decide what to stand for. We may have to seek them out consciously,
sometimes in discouraging contexts or when we don't feel ready. The wonder is that when we
do begin to act, we often gain the knowledge, confidence, and strength that we need to
LEADERS ARE BORN
--And Made, Too
I've heard countless people say they'd like to do more but are just not "the kind
of person who gets involved." The suggestion here is that the ability to make a
difference is innate and immutable, either part of our character or not. But if
developmental psychology theories are correct, there are no natural leaders or followers,
no people who by sole virtue of superior genetic traits become activists. There are only
individuals whose voices and visions through happenstance or habit have been sufficiently
encouraged. Being able to stand up for our beliefs is a learned behavior, not an inherited
In fact, seemingly powerless people may be in a better position to change history than
their more fortunate counterparts. Consider Martin Luther King Jr. early in his career, a
26-year-old preacher heading into Montgomery, Alabama, uncertain of what, if anything, he
might achieve. Indeed, King's campaigns failed as often as they succeeded. Lech Walesa was
a shipyard electrician before events thrust him into the forefront of Poland's Solidarity
movement. Wei Jingshen, the long-imprisoned dissident who helped inspire the Tiananmen
Square protest by placing his democracy essay on a public wall, was a technician at the
Beijing Zoo. Lois Gibbs was an ordinary housewife until she organized her neighbors at
Love Canal, then founded Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. These people were not
fulfilling a preordained destiny. They were developing character˝˝their own unique
character˝˝by speaking out for what they believed. As the 18th-century Hasidic rabbi
Susya once put it, "God will not ask me why I was not Moses. He will ask me why I was
EXPERIMENTS IN TRUTH
--Leave Room for Error
If participation in public life is a developmental process, then taking action is also
an experiment in self-education. Sociologist Todd Gitlin argues that learning often takes
place precisely when we enter "that difficult, rugged, sometimes impassable territory
where arguments are made, points weighed, counters considered, contradictions faced, and
where honest disputants have to consider the possibility of learning something that might
change their minds." Social activism, in other words, is as much a matter of learning
how to listen, especially to those who disagree with us, as it is of learning how to voice
How do we know the changes we're promoting will do more good than harm? Advocates for
the perfect standard would have us believe that uncertainty is an insurmountable obstacle,
but it can also be a blessing. "The fact that we don't get it could be the best news
of all," writes Sister Mary Smith of Portland's Franciscan Renewal Center,
"because in not getting it we are opened up to a new way of seeing, a new way of
hearing, and possibly a new way of living."
Those of us who work for social justice often have no choice but to pursue our
fundamental goals by means that are unclear, ad hoc, half-baked, contradictory, and
sometimes downright surreal. I remember going to one Vietnam-era demonstration that
focused on the role of major oil companies in promoting the war; my friends and I drove to
the demonstration because there was no other cheap and efficient way to get there. As we
stopped to fill up at a gas station along the way, it dawned on us that we were
financially supporting one of the companies we would soon be vocally opposing. We felt
more than a little absurd, but it was the best choice available.
We learn to live with contradictions in our personal lives. A lonely few wait
indefinitely for partners who match their romantic ideals, but most of us fall in love
with people who, like ourselves, fall short of faultlessness. Children are the embodiment
of unpredictability; we can influence but not control them. We respond to those dear to us
moment by moment, as lovingly and mindfully as possible, improvising as we go. We embrace
uncertain human bonds because the alternative is isolation.
Public involvement demands a similar tolerance for mixed feelings, doubts, and
contradictory motives. When we act, some may view us as heroic knights riding in to save
the day, but we're more like knights on rickety tricycles, clutching our fears and
hesitations as we go. Gandhi called his efforts "experiments in truth," because
their results could come only through trial and error.
How then shall we characterize those who participate in our society as active citizens?
They are persons of imperfect character, acting on the basis of imperfect knowledge, for
causes that may be imperfect as well. That's a profile virtually any of us could match,
given a willingness to live with ambiguity, occasional failure, and frustration.
Imperfection may not be saintly, but wielding it in the service of justice is a virtue.
Whoever we are, we can savor our imperfect journey of commitment. Learning as we go, we
can discover how much our actions matter.
Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical
Time. This August, Basic Books will publish his new anthology on political
hope, The Impossible Will Take a Little While. See
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