America’s troubled relationship with its “beautiful souls”

America’s troubled relationship with whistleblowers was the subject today on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes.  Guest Eyal Press provided valuable insights derived from his new book about whistleblowing,  “Beautiful Souls:  Saying No, Breaking Ranks, And Heeding The Voice Of Conscience In Dark Times.”

An example of that troubled relationship is President Obama’s unprecedented prosecutions of whistleblowers despite campaign rhetoric supporting whistleblowing.  Our view of whistleblowers changes with proximity, explained Press. “We have a much easier time admiring people who break ranks and go against the grain in the abstract, and from a distance, and after the fact.”  But, when the whistleblower challenges our beliefs or our agenda, it’s different.  Press described Americans’ relationship with whistleblowers and dissenters as “schizophrenic.”

“In a sense, we romanticize these people because they speak to something very deep in American culture and American values. We teach Thoreau–the essay on civil disobedience–to high school students . Why do we do that?  Because there’s something very romantic and very American about someone standing against the corrupted institution on his or her own, no matter what happens.  On the other hand, if you look at surveys and polls, which I cite in the book, we are a deeply conformist country, and when you look at the surveys asking to what extent people should follow their conscience if it means going against their country, even if their country is in the wrong, well, America tends to end up last on that. Europeans are far ahead in saying people should break ranks, actually, in those cases.”  –Eyal Press

Press’ book arrives as the U.S. government presses its prosecution of U.S. Army Pfc .Bradley Manning for reportedly releasing State Department cables that include evidence of military wrongdoing.  At a pretrial hearing, Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, made an appeal to conscience.

“An individual who breaks a law and they do so because the law is unjust, and they risk jail to arouse the public,” Coombs said, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “they’re really expressing the very highest respect for the law.” Coombs ended by quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Administration officials have refused even to entertain the idea that individuals might ever be justified in saying no to secrecy requirements–as though secrecy overrides every other consideration, including laws that forbid classifying information in order to hide wrongdoing.

If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law. We’re a nation of laws! We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He [Bradley Manning] broke the law. – President Barack Obama

But, then, what kind of country would we have?  Blind obedience has led to horrific abuses around the world. Press said he wrote his book because, “I think we’ve lost a sense of the possibility of choice.” “I want to get people thinking in a more complicated way about what it means to break ranks.”

“Beautiful Souls” is on its way to becoming one of the most important books of our time.


Photo Credit:  savebradley @Flickr Creative Commons