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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

odd, but my copy is subtitled: “The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” which is what drew me: the notion of ordinary people.

and one of the popular misconceptions this book debunks is that only Heroes with Capital Aitches ever transgress a moral or religious or societal code because their conscience propels them to do so. in other words, you don’t have to be some White Knight or Knightess to do the right thing.

the book does some analysis of what sort of person breaks ranks, and of what motivates them to do so. most, he finds, are not inherently transgressive sorts: they’re often socially conservative, careful people. they don’t do what they do to change things, they do what they do because they can’t do otherwise, they can’t square it with their own consciences. oftentimes this arises because they have a deep belief in an opposing notion.

the first chapter in the book deals with Paul Gruninger, commander of the state police in northeast Switzerland at the outbreak of WWII. Switzerland at the time had come around to refusing entry for Jewish refugees, quite contrary to the country’s former ethos of welcoming all. Gruninger very quietly began stamping the passports of Jews escaping Hitler’s regime, and continued to do so until he was caught.

so here’s a police commander, a very conservative law-and-order guy, breaking the law.

this is the sort of dilemma Press examines through a number of cases in the book: how a person broke ranks, why, and what supported their decision or not.

it’s fascinating. the folk who do these things turn out to be, well, just folk. not Heroes.

most people are doubtless pretty convinced that they’d stand up and Do The Right Thing if some crunch came. some of them doubtless would, but probably fewer than one might wish for.

personally, i think most people delude themselves on that score. as a person with a lifelong habit of pointing out Emperor nudity, let me tell you, while there are always some in the room who thank me later for doing it, damn few of them speak up while we’re in the room. and the others are generally about 1/3 who agree with me but are pissed off that i rocked a boat, and 1/3 who both disagree and are pissed off at the boat-rocking. i don’t generally Emperor-diss because i enjoy it, i do it ’cause i can’t do otherwise.

the last chapter of the book discusses the case of a woman who blew the whistle on a dirty financial services company, and the aftermath for her personally. it’s not a pretty story. people like Paul Gruninger and Leyla Wydler don’t get drowned in oceans of gratitude for what they’ve done, they often just get ostracized or vilified (and not just by the powers that got their eyes poked, either). this part of the book is just sad. i will never understand how it is that a whistleblower gets pilloried–i’ll never understand the social mechanism that wants to see them punished.

all in all it’s an enlightening and important book. do the right thing: read it.