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Published: Sunday, 3/4/2012

Seeking the roots of bravery

BY MARK OPPENHEIMER
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Paul Gruninger was a state police officer in St. Gallen, in northeast Switzerland, who voted conservative and sang in the church choir. He was not a worldly man, nor given to fits of moral introspection. But before World War II he saved hundreds of Jewish refugees he met at the border. He stamped their arrival papers with dates just before Aug. 19, 1938, when tighter immigration restrictions had gone into effect. In 1939 he was caught and fired.

Unemployed and broke, Gruninger -- one of the four brave men and women whom Eyal Press profiles in Beautiful Souls, his inquiry into what sort of person does the right thing when everyone else is doing evil -- was refused a permit to open a pawn shop. Dogged by false rumors of sexual corruption, he peddled raincoats, greeting cards, even animal feed. Some Swiss Jews lent him money, but they needed to distance themselves from the disgraced Gruninger. Eventually he and his wife moved in with her parents.

"In later years," Press writes, Gruninger "could be spotted on occasion at a local restaurant owned by an acquaintance of his, sipping cider and munching on peanuts, among the cheapest items on the menu."

What makes this book feel essential is not the admirably unobtrusive writing, nor any particular originality. Press, a journalist for The Nation and other magazines, propounds no new theories, relying on thinkers from Adam Smith to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who argues that what made the Holocaust possible was the rise of bureaucracy: When everybody is at a desk doing a discreet task, it is easy to disclaim responsibility for the policy carried out. If one follows Bauman's thinking, brave people are often those who have resisted being colonized by bureaucracy.

No, what makes you eager to push this book into the hands of the next person you meet are the small, still moments, epics captured in miniature, like the lonely man with his cider and peanuts.

Press' case studies -- there's also a Serbian soldier who rescued Croatians about to be sent to detention, an elite Israeli officer who refused to serve in the West Bank, and a financial adviser who blew the whistle on her corrupt Texas firm -- capture how the price of moral courage is often not dramatic condemnation, not the martyr's posthumous exaltation, but a lifelong sentence to sit apart, with no chance for appeal. For example the Israeli soldier, Avner Wishnitzer, helped to spark a national debate about when it is appropriate to defy military orders, but for Press the more interesting fact is that the soldier's own mother, even as she defended his choices, was a little embarrassed by him.

Because most of us are not beautiful souls, we are made uncomfortable by those who are (even when they are our children). They stand as living rebukes to our cowardice. Press wants to discover what kind of person risks that kind of aloneness.

Is it the religiously pious? Sometimes. But religious conviction can lead people to cause bloodshed too.

Is there a genetic predisposition to break ranks? Perhaps, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Maybe the refined intellectual, engaged with ideas, manages to think herself above petty concerns like nationalism? That was what Press suspected he would find in Aleksander Jevtic, the Serb who pulled many Croatians from a line of men destined to be tortured or killed in 1991.

"Aleksander Jevtic had somehow avoided internalizing this us-versus-them thinking," Press writes, "which I assumed had something do with his education and intellect, a rare skepticism and levelheadedness that enabled him to see past the blinding passions and compellingly simple ideas that drove the logic of hate."

But when Press at last meets Jevtic, he finds not a Balkan Isaiah Berlin, nor a soldier-philosopher like Orwell. This lifesaver, this ethical prince among men, turns out to be a slovenly couch potato living off rents he collects from a building he owns: "He also liked sleeping late, hanging out with friends, and watching sports" on his "giant flat-screen television."

Press surveys the findings of social scientists and neuroscientists, but none of them has entirely figured out where bravery comes from. Every beautiful soul is different.

Jevtic's wife is Croatian, which certainly helped him think of the enemy as human. But Jevtic is also a misanthrope, and his natural social isolation helped him hear the call of an instinctive decency; he didn't care what his fellow Serbians, including his commanding officers, might think.

He "wasn't in the business of making good impressions," Press writes. "His obliviousness to what others thought wasn't necessarily his most becoming feature. But it had served him well in 1991."

Gruninger, the policeman, had a timeless, rather quaint patriotism. His "faithful insider's nonrebelliousness -- the earnest belief in Switzerland's asylum tradition, in the justness of its laws --" allowed him to see the unjust, aberrant nature of its recent immigration restrictions.

Leyla Wydler, who blew the whistle on the Stanford Group Co., a Houston brokerage running a giant Ponzi scheme, was motivated by her earnest belief in good accounting principles. Her circumstances were not as perilous as Gruninger's, but that only makes her co-workers' cowardice all the more chilling.

Even in contemporary America, where the costs of doing the right thing are relatively low, most reeds bend in the prevailing winds. According to research by the sociologist Claude Fischer that Press cites, Americans are far more likely than Europeans to believe workers "should follow a boss's orders even if the boss is wrong."

Beautiful Souls offers no prescription for how to become courageous. In the macabre party game of "Would I have the courage to shelter Anne Frank?" there is no way to know. Press' book is a hymn to the mystery of disobedience. The brave are not always likable. But when they arise in our midst, we can at least ensure that they don't sip their cider alone.


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