On Feb. 13, FSG releases the latest from journalist and author Eyal Press. Called Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, it looks at the legacy of and capacity for human goodness in the midst of a corrupt mob mentality: the Swiss police officer who helped German Jews across the border; a whistleblower in the financial industry; a U.S. military official resigning over conditions at Gitmo. Tip Sheet spoke to Press about the book and how it came about.
How did this project start—what inspired you to examine the human capacity for moral courage?
Part of it was I reread Hannah Arendt’s book about the Eichmann trial [Eichmann in Jerusalem], which is probably most famous for its subtitle, “The Banality of Evil.” It left me with two feelings. First, that we have much more of a literature on conformity, evil, and the various ways in which human beings fail to exhibit moral courage, than we do the opposite—though the disparity is understandable given the horrors of the 20th century. Second, I felt that a lot of books that do go to the other side of the story are either sentimental or very trapped in a kind of “hero’s narrative.” I tried to avoid that, which is not to say I don’t think the people I wrote about do heroic things—they certainly do—but I wanted to get close to them and show the multi-dimensionality of them as characters.
One point I make in the book is that I don’t think that depicting people who do display moral courage as saints, sanctifying them, is terribly helpful. For one thing it’s striking that we only use those labels for people in contexts that are very far away or distant from us. We look at Rwanda, and say what a hero that guy was who helped Tutsis get to the hotel, or we plant trees for the righteous who saved Jews during WWII—and we should plant trees for them! But the Swiss police captain in my book [who helped Jews cross the border during the Holocaust], it took 23 years after he died for his own country to acknowledge what he did was legitimate—much less heroic. But if these people are put on a pedestal, if we call them saints, we let ourselves off the hook because really, who’s a saint? What interested me about the people I met is that they are, in some ways, strikingly ordinary. I want readers to look at these stories closely, and think about how we act when we’re asked to conform or obey.
Why the focus on “ordinary” people? Are examples of moral courage harder to find among leaders and officials? Or is that just the editorial direction you picked?
I wanted to tell new stories, wanted readers to have some original characters in the book that they hadn’t heard about before. And when I say “ordinary,” I want to qualify that: the book is really about people who display imaginative courage, who exercise moral imagination. So there’s a Serb who, instead of seeing the Croats in the detention camp as enemies, he sees them as human beings. That’s an act of empathy. It doesn’t take being perfect or heroic or brilliant to feel empathy or compassion, it’s a universal human capacity. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy—in every example, people who exercise this moral courage suffer a price. We all know how hard it is to disobey, refuse to conform, and in telling their stories I hope that his rare form of courage can maybe become less rare.
Why do you suppose this moral courage seems in short supply among the country’s elected leaders?
I’m not sure I can speculate about that, but I would want to say that I don’t think we’ve lacked examples of moral courage [in our government], despite what have been some very unfortunate policies. For example, in Guantanamo, a prosecutor who was troubled by a case there ended up resigning, but he wasn’t alone—he was one of seven officials who believed very much in what they were doing, but felt what was happening around them was so contrary to the Constitution they couldn’t stomach it. Seven is a lot! The U.S. has more whistleblowers than any other country—we invented the term—and almost any scandal we look at we find people who executed moral courage. In my view it’s not that we lack people willing to act on this kind of courage, but that we don’t listen to them when they do—they’re so quickly marginalized and silenced and dismissed. In the book, that comes across dramatically in the story of a financial industry whistleblower who did everything possible to alert the SEC and the media to what was happening at the financial firm where she worked. It wasn’t until five or six years later that she got a call from the SEC saying, “We think there’s a Ponzi scheme going on at this firm, what can you tell us about it?” And of course by that time she was ready to pull her hair out.
I think a lot of people think of whistleblowers and officials who end up speaking out as rebellious types, freethinkers, people who went into it with some doubts. What I discovered was the opposite: all the people involved were true believers, really believed in their organization—that financial industry worker, she was so proud of being a broker and so believed in the integrity of the financial system. And it’s not an accident: if you go into something already cynical, what’s the point of putting up a fuss, of resisting? But if you really believe in the principles and ideals of the thing, it’s something else. Dissent from the inside often springs from a very surprising place—the functionary or midlevel official who really believed in the goodness of the mission, only to see it go awry.