Dec 10, 2013
The Courage of Conscience
Posted on Jul 31, 2012
By Nomi Prins
NP: How did you come to choose these particular stories and people? Did you seek them out or did they somehow find you?
EP: I sought them out, and some of them took longer to find than others. I was looking for people no one had heard of, and for individuals who did not act out of preconceived ideological beliefs. There are plenty of books about dissenters who fall into the latter category: members of the French Resistance, Marxist revolutionaries. My book is about people who never thought of themselves as dissenters, and who in some ways broke ranks in spite of themselves. That is, they’re all insiders who believed in the system, or rather in the principles underlying the system, and their fierce loyalty to those principles eventually led them to resist when they saw them being corrupted and compromised. To me, there is something uniquely fascinating—and moving—about this kind of dissent, maybe because it’s so grounded in experience and because it so frequently goes unrewarded, despite being admired in the abstract.
NP: Four stories revolve around men whose actions save others from physical or mortal danger, and one around a woman who saves others from financial loss. Would you say there’s a gender aspect to certain types of heroic roles?
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
By Eyal Press
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages
EP: You’re right about the gender split, but I’m not sure we can draw generalizations based on that. The stories in my book that unfold in wars or conflict zones do have male protagonists, but that’s partly because most of the people on the front lines of these conflicts were men. There were plenty of women who rescued Jews during the Holocaust; there are plenty of female whistle-blowers (Time magazine gave three of them the “Person of the Year” award in 2003). I don’t think we can say moral courage exists more in one gender than the other, though I do think defying authority in some contexts may be easier when you feel entitled to raise your voice by virtue of belonging to the privileged group. In Israel, for example, refuseniks who won’t serve in the occupied territories have tended to be (male) Ashkenazi Jews, a historically privileged group that has also tended to be overrepresented in the top units of the army.
NP: Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison, yet his crimes didn’t get much coverage, nor did Leyla Wydler. Are conditions more or less favorable to whistle-blowers now versus when she first contacted the SEC in 2003?
EP: My understanding is that the Dodd-Frank whistle-blower provisions did improve things, giving whistle-blowers new protections against retaliation and possible financial incentives for stepping forward. Already, however, there’s an effort under way, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, to gut these protections. There’s another, deeper problem, which is that laws protecting whistle-blowers matter only if the rest of society pays attention to what whistle-blowers say. The story I tell about Leyla Wydler and Stanford isn’t just about the absence of legal protections for people like her: It’s about the failure of our institutions (the SEC, the media) to respond when someone speaks out about fraud and about a society that is often too apathetic or anesthetized to notice.
NP: The people in your book possess acute levels of empathy and consideration for others. Do their tales give you hope for humanity in general?
EP: To some degree, yes. None of the characters in the book are saints. They’re flawed, in some ways disarmingly ordinary people, yet they were able to display enormous empathy, as you say, which does leave me with a hopeful thought: As the cliché goes, “if they can do it, anyone can.” On the other hand, the treatment to which my characters were subjected does not leave me hopeful. They were vilified and ostracized and the reason, in most cases, is that they dared to display empathy for people who were not like them—for the “other.” This is where the real challenge lies, I think: not simply to display compassion or “goodness,” which is easy enough, but to do so for people your society or group has told you don’t deserve it.
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