By Eyal Press
Publishers: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Picador
Hardcover: $24.00, Paperback: $15.00, Kindle edition: $8.89
Hardcover release, February 2012; Paperback release, February 2013
This is a book about … nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.In light of the debate raging around hero/villain Edward Snowden, it seems like a good time to look at Beautiful Souls, originally published as a hardback in 2012, re-issued in paperback earlier this year. In it, author Eyal Press profiles several system resisters, a couple of them whistleblowers, a couple of them people who just decided to say "no" in no uncertain terms at times when a huge majority of their people were saying "yes." In Beautiful Souls, Press seeks to find common denominators—character traits, triggering situations, prerequisite conditions—that triggers nonconformists to take risky stands, ones that for the most part make them pariahs to their surrounding society.
Make the acquaintance of the cast of characters in Beautiful Soul beneath the fold:
- Paul Gruninger, commander of the state police in St. Gallen in northeast Switzerland, who during World War II let numerous Jewish refugees into his country against the law. Gruninger was stripped of his job, his reputation was trashed, and it's only now, more than half a century after the fact, that his town is beginning to acknowledge and honor him. During his lifetime, he was a pariah. His chapter is entitled "Disobeying the Law."
- Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb swept up in a round-up of Croats in his small home town in northern Serbia. Since he was a hometown guy, the Serbs asked him to separate the Croats from his fellow Serbs so the enemy could be identified and detained (and presumably killed). Moving slowly through the decrepit cowshed where they were huddled, he slowly began—he'd pick out a Serb, another Serb, another Serb …. and then a Croat, whom he would stare at forcefully and give a new (Serbian) name. He did this repeatedly, saving as many Croats alongside Serbs as he could. After the war, few hometown Croats thanked him or acknowledged the risk he'd run in saving their lives. His chapter is entitled "Defying the Group."
- Avner Wishnitzer, an Israeli born on a kibbutz, who enters the ranks of Sayeret Matkal, the most elite commando unit in the Israeli Defense Force, for his mandatory military service. After he was discharged after three-and-a-half years of service, he joined a civilian convoy on a mission to deliver blankets to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank because his conscience had been pricked by a documentary he'd seen regarding Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Upon arriving at a checkpoint where Israeli police told the group to turn back because they were breaking the law, he and others in the group defied the orders. He'd never served in the occupied territory; indeed, he'd never spoken directly to a Palestinian. But his anger over Israeli treatment of them bubbled over, and even though he still performed regular service in the reserve unit of Sayeret Matkal, his awakened conscience led him to join with a few other reservists in his unit to take a very public, and risky stand: they signed a letter proclaiming they would refuse to ever serve if called upon in the occupied territories. Needless to say, he met quite a bit of public shaming. His chapter is entitled "The Rules of Conscience."
- Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor with Stanford Group Company, part of Stanford Financial Group and brainchild of prominent financier Allen Stanford, who was charged with "massive ongoing fraud" for swindling investors out of billions of dollars. Wydler was the whistleblower who alerted the SEC (several times, actually, which they chose to ignore) and other regulators of the Ponzi scheme. Her testimony earned the enmity of her fellow former financial advisors, and she could not find work in her chosen field after her whistleblowing. A single mother, she risked much—Stanford fined her for "breaking her contract"—and today she works … in real estate. Her chapter is entitled "The Price of Raising One's Voice."
There are no statues erected in their honor (although 60 years after the fact, Gruninger finally received a plaque on his grave). There are no proclamations, laurels or monuments in their name. They are, if not despised, then ignored. Indeed, some are still thought of by their former fellow workers or "tribe" members as traitors to their cause. As author Press puts it:
To judge by the sanctimonious tributes made to those who "confront evil" in places like Rwanda or by Time magazine's tribute to whistleblowers who spoke out about accounting fraud in the United States, we live in a world where overcoming passivity and acquiescence is seen as honorable. In reality, we all know that doing so is risky and dangerous, not least because there is precious little agreement about where the line between duty and conscience should be drawn. Around torture, which much of the world officially banned centuries ago? Not according to those who vilified the handful of dissenters who challenged the abusive interrogation policies that were institutionalized during the Bush era. Around concocting clever ways to defraud people of their savings? Not according to the traders on Wall Street who did exactly that and profited, without pausing to apologize, during the period that preceded the 2008 financial crash (and who were not asked to apologize by politicians who proceeded to weaken or scuttle efforts to regulate their industry afterward). What about stealing people's land? Not according to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who see this as a fulfillment of God's plan. Even people who do regard these things as unconscionable might find it unnerving to see a soldier, a public official, or a colleague at work take an uncompromising stand on the matter. For if we agree that something blatantly wrong is happening, shouldn't we be taking a similar stand? Do we really want to be reminded of the compromise we've made?Those who dare to take a stand, Press claims, really only have one thing in common in the end: they're idealists (some would even say, naive idealists), true believers. Gruninger honestly believed Switzerland was a kind, neutral, compassionate and freedom-loving country; he thought he was upholding the values of his nation when he let in refugees, despite the law. Jevtic truly believed his fellow townsmen would have done the same rescuing in the name of shared history and humanity. Wishnitzer truly believed that Israelis, as a persecuted people with a horrendously victimized past, would refuse to act as persecutor of others. Wydler truly believed in the principles and ethics her chosen profession claimed to hold dear—that serving the interests of clients came first, not lining their own pockets.
All learned the hard way that for the most part, they stood alone or with a very small and often reviled minority.
And the Wishnitzer chapter in particular raises a question that seems unanswerable: How does one judge the "true believer" who holds beliefs in direct opposition to other "true believers"? In Israel's case, there are true righteous believers on both sides—IDF members who refuse to participate in the eviction of Palestinians on the West Bank … and IDF members who are devout Zionists who refuse to comply with orders from the Israeli government to evict Jewish settlers who are squatting in recognized Palestinian territory. Both fervently believe in their cause. Both types are willing to accept the punishment for refusal.
The closest author Press comes to teasing out the differences in cases like this, is to resort to a thought experiment in empathy:
Measured by depth and sincerity of conviction, perhaps there wasn't much difference between left- and right-wing refuseniks in the Israeli army. Measured by moral content, there clearly was. One way to draw it out, it seemed to me, was by applying the standard Adam Smith might have proposed, assessing the ability—or inability—of those saying no to stretch their moral imaginations by putting themselves in the shoes of people who were suffering and extending sympathy to them.In Press' mind, the resistors like Wishnitzer were refusing to evict out of empathy, but they weren't dehumanizing those who didn't agree with them. In the case of the Zionist refuseniks, most of them resorted to justifying Israeli occupation by vilifying the Palestinians as vermin or worse. This strikes me as a very difficult standard with which to draw a distinction, although a handier one for this thorny predicament does not leap to mind.
And with Edward Snowden in the news, it's interesting to discuss what society should do with these true believers and which category he falls into. Is Snowden in the same class as the "beautiful souls" author Press discusses in his book? I took the opportunity this past week to ask Press his opinion of Snowden and if he too typified the nonconformist resistor he's studied. As you can tell from his response, he is at least slightly puzzled about one aspect of the whistleblower:
With the obvious caveat that there is a lot we don't know about Snowden, there are some parallels to the people I wrote about. Like them, he appears to have started out full of idealism—volunteering to fight in Iraq—only to grow bitterly disillusioned. This is often the trajectory whistleblowers follow. And like them, he appears to have been motivated by one thing: his conscience. I'm a bit puzzled why someone so fiercely committed to privacy ever went to work for the intelligence community in the first place, but I suppose we'll learn more about that in due time.How should society deal with inconvenient truth-tellers and those who act out of moral conscience? And how do we as individuals judge the rightness or wrongness of another's actions? Should we make more of an effort to honor these "beautiful souls?" Or do we hold back, learn more, let history sort it out?
These questions are not easy, nor are they painless. As Press says:
Inevitably, then, displays of moral courage sow discord and make a lot of people uncomfortable—most of all, perhaps, the true believer who never wanted or expected to say no. It is never easy to incur the wrath of an offended majority, to "fall out of step with one's tribe," observed Susan Sontag. And it's true: no one finds this painless. But it's considerably harder for insiders who've spent their lives fiercely identifying with the values of the majority than for dissenters accustomed to being on the margins, with their like-minded comrades by their side.