STANDING ALONE

By Louisa Thomas

Published: March 11, 2012

Paul Gruninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same.

Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required. Gruninger made a choice, and it was certainly not the expected one. He did not fit the image of a resister. He was not a political activist and did not have a history of rebellion. He had a family to protect and provide for. He had taken an oath to uphold the law, and he considered himself faithful to his country. When the authorities discovered that he had falsified the documents of Jews, he became a pariah. So why did he disobey his orders?

That is the question that Eyal Press asks in “Beautiful Souls.” It is not a book of moral philosophy. Press is a journalist, and he is interested in how moral problems play out in particular lives. To that end, he relates the experiences of Gruninger and three others: a Serb who saved the lives of Croats by lying about their ethnic identity; an Israeli soldier from an elite unit who refused to serve in the occupied territories; and a financial industry whistle-blower. Press is not simply storytelling, however. He splices his case studies with brief accounts of other dissenters, along with insights drawn from sociology, political theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, fiction and philosophy.

Press examines his subjects carefully, alert to the different personalities and circumstances of each individual. He weighs the role of prejudice, idealism and community. He explores the “element of reciprocity” in one case and the “anxiety of responsibility” in another, sees the importance of “mutual support” and discusses the frustrations of being ignored. He reads about oxytocin receptors; he studies David Hume. He makes modest conclusions. I don’t mean that as criticism. If Press made more comprehensive claims, I wouldn’t trust him. It’s no more possible to explain an act of conscience than it is to dissect a dream.

We often use the word “conscience” when we don’t know what other word to use. When Gruninger said he “could do nothing else,” he may have been deflecting judgment, or he may not have been able to describe his sense of compulsion any better, his feeling that he didn’t have a choice when he clearly did. “Conscience” is indefinable. It can be indefensible, too: An act of conscience describes an action motivated by loyalty to a conviction, but it usually requires the defiance of other loyalties. It can mean turning away from your family, or your country, or your job, or even your sense of self. Press’s real achievement in this short book is not in his research or analysis, but in his refusal to flinch from that disquieting fact.

Though Press clearly admires his characters, and wants readers to find them inspiring, he can see how their actions can create conflict and their personalities grate. “If I knew only Thoreau,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friend Henry, “I should think cooperation of good men impossible.”

The conflicts can be benign. Thoreau plants his beans, refuses to pay the tax collector, spends a night in jail, writes a masterpiece. But moral convictions can lead to disengagement from civic life, or sometimes even wars.
A conscience can be used to justify anything, even heinous crimes. It can lead a person to protect his purity at the cost of harming other people. As Press acknowledges, what you might call fanaticism I might call justice. One Israeli solder refuses to serve in the occupied territories because of injustices perpetrated against Palestinians; another refuses to remove Jewish settlers because they are Jewish. Both men appeal to their consciences. “Measured by depth and sincerity of conviction, perhaps there wasn’t much difference between left- and right-wing refuseniks in the Israeli Army,” Press writes. “Measured by moral content, there clearly was.” To distinguish between them, Press cites “the standard Adam Smith might have proposed”: the “stretch” of their “moral imaginations,” which he describes as the ability to sympathize with those who suffer.

Press shows little patience for the more strenuous claims of religious faith (and devotes too little space to the idea of conscience’s religious roots), and his political allegiances are self-evident. But he does have a sensitive moral imagination, and it makes him wary of too much exalting. Those with whom he disagrees receive his sympathy, and those whom he admires can give him pause. They sometimes disappoint his expectations, and their noble efforts have high costs – often for little reward. Take the case of Gruninger. For doctoring the papers of the Jewish refugees, he was fined and fired from his job. He underwent psychiatric examination to see whether he was “deranged.” His application to open a pawnshop was denied, and so he was reduced to selling raincoats and animal feed. His reputation was ruined as rumors spread that he’d received sexual favors and money in return for his help. Even if he did the right thing, the number of lives he saved was nothing compared with the number of lives lost in the Holocaust. “Was it worth it?” Press asks near the end, considering the fate of someone else who was penalized for speaking out.

If an act of conscience can be a betrayal, it can also be a tragedy. In his first book, “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America,” Press told the story of his father, a gynecologist who refused to stop providing abortions even after his colleague was murdered and his own life was threatened. Press admired his father’s decision – and yet when he imagined his father murdered, he found himself wishing he would not be so brave. “Who among us would like to see a parent become a martyr?” Press asked. “Or, for that matter, become one themselves?”

In “Beautiful Souls,” Press interviews Armando, the son of Leyla Wydler, a financial industry whistle-blower who was fired after she questioned the dubious financial instruments that her employer was peddling. Press can see that Armando is proud of his mother but also conflicted; he’s well aware of the risks she took – risks that affected his life as well as hers. “‘Do I wish my mother would have stayed there and continued to make money?’ Armando asked me suddenly, as though reading my mind. ‘Kind of, you know.”’ Press does know. He knows that Leyla feels misgivings, too. He knows that those who act bravely are all the more likely to feel anguished, since they know what’s at stake. In some ways this book is a thoughtful gesture of support. That might sound like a small thing, but it’s not. Compassion never is.

(Louisa Thomas is the author of ``Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family _ a Test of Will and Faith in World War I.'')
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