For my Boston-based friends and colleagues, please join me for a discussion with author Eyal Press. His book explores the other side of Christopher Browning’s “ordinary men,” or Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Mr. Press speaks with those who did not just go along, but somehow managed to keep their moral compass while those around them overwhelmingly did not. Who are these ordinary people who maintained their decency in extraordinary times?
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
A Conversation with the author, Eyal Press
September 27th, 11:30-1:00, William James Hall 105
On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel’s most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn’t want to serve in the occupied territories.
Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.
About the Author
Eyal Press is the author of Beautiful Souls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), an exploration of what animates individual acts of courage and conscience in dangerous circumstances. Framed around the stories of four people who defy the sway of authority and convention when thrust into morally compromising situations, the book has received critical acclaim in publications including The New York Times and The Economist. A former recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice journalism, Press’ work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Atlantic, The Raritan Review and numerous other publications. He is also the author of Absolute Convictions (Henry Holt, 2006), a narrative account of the abortion wars that racked the city of Buffalo, NY.
Too often we think of courage only as something required to charge into gunfire or scale an icy peak. Eyal Press looks at courage of a different and far more important kind. His examples spread across decades and continents, and he is wise enough to know that it can take as much bravery to defy an unethical corporation as it does to resist a totalitarian regime. This is an important and inspiring book.”
–Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars and King Leopold’s Ghost
“Beautiful Souls helps us understand why a minority stands on principle when a majority fails. It’s an important book for our time, about conscience, group pressures, ethics, and psyches, and a beautifully crafted one that never falls prey to simple answers about matters of conscience.”
–Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell
Currently in Ayacucho, a group of human rights organizations has organized a mobile exhibit of bits and piece of clothing the forensic anthropologists exhumed from some of the mass graves that are scattered across the highlands.=. Here is a piece I wrote for the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, and I found myself re-reading it today.
During the presentation of the Peruvian TRC’s Final Report, Dr. Salomón Lerner posed a rhetorical question: “In effect, we Peruvians used to say, in our worst estimates, that the violence had left 35,000 dead. What does it say about our political community now that we know another 35,000 of our brothers and sisters were missing and we never even noticed they were gone?” I say “rhetorical” because the answer lies in the demographics of those who died: they were overwhelmingly Quechua-speaking peasants, people who — in the national imaginary — had counted for little during their lives and went largely unaccounted for in their deaths.
But only in the national imaginary. Of course their loved ones never forgot them and continue to remember them now as they touch their clothes, their bones — when they see a child’s shoe, so small yet capable of containing so much sorrow. Laid out on the blue plastic tarps is the material evidence of their dead loved ones. Yes, they may have been absent in the national history of the conflict, but they will always be present in the memories of those who loved them.
When the forensic anthropologists exhume the mass graves in Putis, they are also exhuming the Peruvian State. In recovering these remains, there exists the possibility of recovering the Peruvian state following many years of indifference to the most marginalized people in this country. The possibility exists if the state finally accepts that the armed forces com- mitted much more than “excesses and errors”: a tiny shoe accuses them.
As the mass graves that lay scattered throughout Ayacucho are opened, the state should open its own investigation into the military officials responsible for these crimes: doing so would be an important step in the long process of democratizing the Peruvian democracy. It would also be a response to the many campesinos who are still waiting for “a bit of justice.” During the TRC’s Public Audience in Huanta, Abraham Fernandez from the community of Chaka finished his testimony with these words: “Perhaps in a generation our children will be Peruvians. Once again I remember those Sunday mornings and the flag, and hope the wait will not be so long.