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The Courage of Conscience

“Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times”
A book by Eyal Press

Eyal Press’ book “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times” is a stunning, deeply stirring collection of true stories about the most unlikely of heroes: four men and one woman who chose uncomfortable, and in some cases potentially lethal, courses of action because they could envision doing nothing else.

None sought to be heroes. None were motivated by external validators such as money, power or fame. Indeed, in all cases, the opposite occurred — loss of money, influence and status. They acted, rather, out of a profound sense of empathy and compassion, putting the needs of the “many” before their own.

Throughout the book, Press presents theories, experiment results and analyses of what motivates people to nonconformity, quoting luminaries such as Hannah Arendt and Adam Smith. But in the end, theories are just that. Press’ message is that people can, and do, have the capacity to make humanity-preserving choices, regardless of the obstacles. It is not because they are radicals, but because they witness something terribly wrong in the system they trust.

book cover

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages

Buy the book

Leyla Wydler was a successful financial adviser at Stanford Group Co., making $150,000 a year in 2002. The last chapter, The Price of Raising One’s Voice, follows her decade-long fight after she blew the whistle on her employer, Allen Stanford, who was the perpetrator of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, one of the largest in U.S. history. In addition to using his ill-gotten gains for extravagant living and influencing politicians, Stanford paid handsome bonuses to salespeople to sell fraudulent CDs to clients. Yet, his crimes went uninvestigated for years. On June 14, 2012, Stanford was finally sentenced to 110 years in prison, convicted of 13 felonies.

In the course of Wydler’s fight to expose his scam, she was fired by Stanford and ignored by a series of ambivalent regulators, who remain unaccountable.

As a single mother, with two children and breast cancer, Wydler had everything to lose by standing up. She didn’t set out to become a hero; she wanted to expose the truth in order to save her clients’ money. Far from being skeptical of the system of finance, she was a big believer in it and in the regulatory structure. But what she saw at Stanford shook her values and forced her to act. Throughout legal battles with a billionaire, taunts from former co-workers and a waning bank account, she persevered and prevailed. But many whistle-blowers do not triumph. They lose their jobs and dignity in an antiquated system that favors the powerful, and their efforts are never acknowledged.

The first chapter, Disobeying the Law, is the story of a police commander, Paul Grüninger, in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1938. He breaks protocol to help Jews obtain asylum as they cross over the border from Austria, and saved hundreds of lives.

He was honored for his heroism decades later, but at the time he was socially ostracized, fired from his job and had his reputation destroyed. His actions were an acute reproach to Switzerland for what the country was supposed to stand for, but didn’t.

To see long excerpts from “Beautiful Souls” at Google Books, click here.

He was not born a rebel, but a man who had fervently believed in the asylum-providing traditions of Switzerland. His official duty of denying Jews entry in 1938, coupled with his own subsequent treatment, revealed those beliefs to be misguided. According to his daughter, the social consequences he suffered took a major toll on his psyche. But “when I looked into the faces of those people, I had to do what I did,” he said in a 1971 interview. At his funeral, a rabbi recited a famous Talmudic passage: “He who saves a single life saves the entire world.”

In Defying the Group, Press takes us to the bloody 1991 revolution in Bosnia- Herzegovina. There, a young Serb, Aleksander Jevtic, was asked to select Serbs for removal from a hall filled with Serbs and Croats, who are physically indistinguishable. Knowing that the Croat men faced certain death, he gestured to a group of them, calling them by Serbian names. He allowed them to exit the hall and saved their lives.

Speaking to Jevtic recently, Press discovers that it was more than instinct or an indifference to the consequences that led him to save these men. Though Croats had killed his grandparents during World War II, his mother taught him that “most Croats were good people and that it was wrong to hate.” Also, Jevtic’s wife was a Croat. Her and her family’s acceptance of him resonated with his resistance to group identification. This reliance on feeling rather than inductive reasoning, as explained by British economist Adam Smith, propelled Jevtic to act as he did.

In The Rules of Conscience, we meet Avner Wishnitzer, who at 18 served in the Sayeret Matkal, the most elite unit of the Israeli army, and became an objector to the mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Growing up, Wishnitzer believed in peace and also took pride in serving with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces. During his tour of duty, his sister took him to see what the Palestinians endured during the second intifada. It was a turning point for him. He was shocked that his army could so mistreat the Palestinians. At the time, resisting orders as a soldier was equated with being a traitor. Wishnitzer went a step further: He became an ardent peace activist.

book cover

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages

Buy the book

He then “found it increasingly difficult not to feel enraged by his fellow citizens. … [He had gone] from being vilified as a traitor to feeling something arguably more exasperating than this: ignored.”

Press sensed, however, that for Wishnitzer, the struggle to open his country’s eyes was also “rejuvenating, enabling him to feel things he might otherwise have paid an equally dear price for trying to repress.”

Wishnitzer said, “It is my obligation. And in a sense that’s not very different from what I felt when I was 18 … only now … I served my society in another way, a way I believe will take us in a better fashion.”

In his epilogue, Press presents a military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay named Darrel Vandeveld, a self-professed patriot. It is his fervent belief in the integrity of the Constitution that compels him to provide testimony for the defense in a case revolving around Mohammed Jawad, who at 16 years old was prosecuted and tortured for a crime Vandeveld did not believe he committed. Taking on the entire U.S. military establishment, Vandeveld endured painful isolation and humiliation. But as Vandeveld says, “I went to Guantanamo on a mission … and the mission that I achieved was perhaps my own salvation.”

We live in a world where bank CEOs linger at helms of fraud-producing firms, Pfc. Bradley Manning is jailed for allegedly exposing the rot at the core of civilian-killing American military procedures, and laws protecting whistle-blowers are routinely weakened by those who do wrong with impunity. In “Beautiful Souls,” Press has penned an inspiring antidote to the malaise of helplessness in the face of crushing circumstances. It will move you, and that may move the world.

After I read the book, I caught up with Press to ask him some questions.

Nomi Prins: You covered a vast amount of geographical ground, as well as conducting in-depth interviews, a wonderful journalistic feat in today’s world where instantaneous results are coveted. How long were you working on this book?

Eyal Press: The book took four to five years, but the process was not linear — that is, I began writing before I’d actually finished reporting — so it’s hard to say exactly how the time was split. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize the book. In the end, I decided it should go from the most familiar, frequently narrated context for stories about moral courage and resistance — a “rescuer” who helps Jews fleeing Nazism — to a setting that is slightly less familiar (the Balkans) to the occupied territories in Israel/Palestine to the financial world here in the United States, an environment so rife with conformity that many hardly see a need for defiance. I arranged it this way to show that resistance isn’t necessary only in extreme situations — a dictatorship, a genocide … — and that, in some ways, it can be as challenging in contexts where everything appears to be fine but isn’t.
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?

book cover

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages

Buy the book

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.

Nomi Prins
Contributor
Nomi Prins is a renowned journalist, author and speaker. Her latest book, All the Presidents' Bankers, is a groundbreaking narrative about the relationships of presidents to key bankers over the past century…
Nomi Prins

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