The Banality of Goodness: 'Beautiful Souls' by Eyal Press
I came to Eyal Press' “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” not because of its title (although the subtitle helps) but because I'd read the author's recent New Yorker piece on corruption in the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida: guards torturing prisoners in the mental-health ward and intimidating the psychiatric workers whose job it is to help the prisoners—in some cases, simply by removing themselves from the premises, leaving the worker unprotected.
It's a harrowing piece, and the book, per its subtitle, is part of the same theme. In it, Press examines four people who resisted unethical/immoral times:
- Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander who backdated visas allowing Jewish refugees fleeing the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany to stay in Switzerland, which had recently passed laws against their entry.
- Aleksander Jevtić, a Bosnian Serb, who saved dozens of Croats in a detention facility in 1991 simply by pretending they were Serbs.
- Avner Wishnitzer, a member of Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, who became a refusenik: officially declaring his opposition to serving in the occupied Palestinian territories.
- Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor, who suspected and blew the whistle on her company, Stanford Group, for engaging in a Ponzi scheme in the early 2000s.
What connects them? How did they do what few could? Were they extraordinarily courageous? Iconoclasts? Natural rebels? Press thinks the opposite:
In every society, there are rebels and iconoclasts who don't share the moral code to which most of their fellow citizens subscribe—who delight in thumbing their noses at whatever authority figure will pay them mind. The resisters featured in these pages are not among them. Their problem was not that they airily dismissed the values and ideals of the societies they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.
So Grüninger believed in Switzerland as a place that welcomed refugees, Wishnitzer believed in the IDF as “the most moral army in the world,” Wydler believed in the U.S. financial system as an honest industry that looked out for its clients. They were true believers. If Eichmann represented the banality of evil, these courageous people, in a sense, represent the banality of goodness.
Press doesn't let us off the hook:
It's easy enough to judge soldiers at Abu Ghraib or bystanders during World War II who failed to find their courage when unconscionable things were happening before their eyes. It's a lot harder to acknowledge or even realize how often we avoid making uncomfortable choices in the course of our daily lives by attributing the small injustices that momentarily grate at our consciences to the system, or the circumstances, or our superiors. Or how rarely we bother to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.
I'm surprised Wydler's story hasn't been made into a movie; I suspect it might. Grüninger's has. In 1938, he lost his job, his reputation; his daughter had to drop out of college to support the family, and even she had trouble finding work because of what her father had done: his inconceivable betrayal of Switzerland. And his ostracism didn't end when the war ended; it continued into the 1980s. Then, finally, redemption. In the '90s, his story was made into a documentary, “Gruningers Fall,” and it's now a Swiss-Austrian feature-length film, which, from the trailer, looks slightly sentimentalized. I would've preferred something like Press' cool, matter-of-fact tone.