Beautiful Souls

I’d wanted to read Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press for some time. The premise sounded fascinating – examining people who make courageous decisions.

The book is excellent, and lived up to my hopes for it. Eyal Press (the name of the author, not the publisher) writes about four individuals, and what did – or didn’t – make them remarkable:

  • A Swiss captain, who helped refugees into Switzerland when it meant the difference between life or death for them.
  • A Serb caught in the midst of ethnic cleansing helps Slav villagers save their lives, at considerable risk to his own.
  • An elite commando refuses to take part in military action he thinks is unconscionable; and
  • A financial broker refuses to sell a product she thinks is untrustworthy. Ultimately, it proves to be a Ponzi scheme.

Press writes about each of them carefully. He tells as much backstory as he can, to give us a sense of what has brought an individual to a particular decision, but doesn’t downplay the courage or conviction required.

The stories themselves are fascinating, and powerful. Hearing about people risking their money, reputations, and lives to save others is inspiring, and thought provoking.

Eyal considers at length in different cases what has brought people to stand on their conscience. But he doesn’t conclude that a single factor, or even several factors, are universally causal. Some of the things he talks about are in the quotes below- our social context and relationships, the examples set for us by others, the sequence of events that leads people to a particular decision point, empathy (and its genetic determinants), and our principles and the values we place on them.

In his epilogue, Press asks whether a conscientious stand is worth the tremendous cost that whistleblowers and other conscientious objectors often pay. He concludes that it is; not because change is always immediate, but because of the impact they have on a broader society, and the subsequent steps they can inspire.

Quotes

That, moreover, what ultimately determines moral conduct are not character traits, personal beliefs, or political attitudes but situational factors, as not a few social psychologists and philosophers have indeed come to believe. 

As counterintuitive as it may seem, might a similar process [habituation] unfold among people who resist? So contend the psychologists Andrew Modigliani and Frocis Rochat. Resistance to authority, they argue, often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but “small, modest actions” that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out. This is particularly true if the noncompliance starts early, before any compromises are made, as was the case with Gruninger, whose first act of dissent came at the 1938 immigration conference in Bern, where he uncharacteristically rose to express his views, telling his peers that it was “impossible” to send the refugees back because the situation on the border was “heartbreaking”. 

But before this [bias against and fear of an outgroup] happened, an intervention occurred. Before his refusal to conform came another act of refusal: his mother’s decision not to bequeath to her son the aggrieved sense of victimhood her story seemed to warrant, and not to encourage him to judge other people by the labels that had cost her own parents their lives.

The primatologist Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading authorities on bonobos, has documented displays of compassion performed by these good-natured mammals – our closest cousins in the ape family – not only toward their own offspring but also toward other species, such as injured birds. 

Subjects with a particular genetic variant scored consistently higher on an empathy test measuring the ability to infer the mental state of others. 

… there is another kind of resistance that is arguably no easier and no less important – the kind that arises when the stakes are murkier and the circumstances more prosiac. When it takes some imagination to envision that dire consequences might follow from doing what everyone else is. And when some people will think you’re crazy or paranoid for stepping out of line-when, indeed, you might come to wonder this yourself. 

In their book The Whistleblowers, Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer drew on interviews with sixty-four Americans who tried to expose misconduct in their workplaces. Like Leyla, most ended up doing so not because they suspected a lot of people in their profession were crooked but because they naively assumed nobody was. 

“I don’t know, it’s a need. It was the right thing to do, and I feel like my actions, my intentions, have to have a sort of meaning in this life.” 

They had an effect because, even when the people engaging in them have more limited ambitions, acts of conscience have a way of reverberating. Who knows whether the first soldier in Israel who refused to serve in the occupied territories wanted to to anything more than keep his own hands clean, but the fact is that in the decades since, hundreds of other conscripts have done the same thing. It surely wasn’t Paul Gruninger’s aim to prompt Switzerland to reexamine its past and engage in some collective soul-searching when he disobeyed the law in 1938, but that is what his singular act of principled noncooperation played a role in doing. 

The word conscience implies “a shared knowledge of good and evil”, a set of precepts that take shape not in isolation but through interaction with other citizens and engagement in groups, sects, political parties, labor unions, professional organizations, military units. 

… it’s considerably harder for insiders who’ve spent their lives fiercely identifying with the values of the majority than for dissenters accustomed to being on the margins, with their like-minded comrades by their side. 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

I’ve been reading B. Traven for a while now (first stumbled across him after reading The Ship of Theseus, and reading The Death Ship and some short stories). Despite the mystery that surrounds his name, I’d found his writing slightly underwhelming.

But the Treasure of the Sierra Madre (you can download a copy) is one of his better books that I’ve read. It tells the story of Curtin and Dobbs, two characters looking for work. On the way they team up with Howard, an old timer who knows how to dig gold out of the hills.

From there, it’s a story about power. The power that comes from possessing gold, which other people will trade for, and the power that comes from pointing a gun at someone in a wilderness, when no-one else is around. Traven tells a good story, as his characters pursue their dreams of wealth and comfort, and discover along the way how dangerous and fragile relationships can be.

Worth a read.

Quotes [SPOILER ALERT: Some of these touch on plot points]

He worked his mind to answer the question: How can I get some money right now? If you already have some money, then it is easier to make more, because you can invest the little you have in some sort of business that looks promising. Without a cent to call yours, it is difficult to make any money at all. 

Anyone who is willing to work and is serious about it will certainly find a job. Only you must not go to the man who tells you this, for he has no job to offer and doesn’t know anyone who knows of a vacancy. This is exactly the reason why he gives you such generous advice, out of brotherly love, and to demonstrate how little he knows about the world. 

… gold is a very devilish sort of thing, believe me boys. In the first place, it changes your character entirely. When you have it your soul is no longer the same as it was before. No getting away from that. You may have so much piled up that you can’t carry it away; but, bet your blessed paradise, the more you have, the more you want to add, to make it just that much more. Like sitting at roulette. Just one more turn. So it goes on and on and on. You cease to distinguish between right and wrong. You can no longer see clearly what is good and what is bad. You lose your judgement. That’s what it is. 

It isn’t gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist. 

I’m sure that every man has acted differently from the way he had thought he would when face to face with a heap of money or with the opportunity to pocket a quarter of a million with only the move of one hand. 

With every ounce more of gold possessed by them they left the proletarian class and neared that of the property-holders, the well-to-do middle class. So far they had never had anything of value to protect against thieves … The world no longer looked to them as it had a few weeks ago. They had become members of the minority of mankind … As long as they had owned nothing of value, they had been salves of their hungry bellies, slaves to those who had the means to fill their bellies. All this was changed now. They had reached the first step by which man becomes the slave of his property. 

Gold is for thieves and swindlers. For this reason they own most of it. The rest is owned by those who do not care where the gold comes from or in what sort of hands it has been.

… a foolish woman who thought that nobility stands for honesty. 

Howard had no means and no words with which to explain to these simple men that business is the only real thing in life, that it is heave and paradise and all the happiness of a good Rotarian. 

He knew how the big oil-magnates, the big financiers, the presidents of great corporations, and the in particular the politicians, stole and robbed wherever there was an opportunity. Why should he, the little feller, the ordinary citizen, be honest if the big ones knew no scruples and no honesty, either in their business or in the affairs of the nation. 

There was only one way out of this danger. Curtin had to do to Dobbs what Dobbs had in mind against Curtin. There was no other way of escape. 

Books I’ve been reading and things I’ve been watching

I’ve read a few books over the last few months, but haven’t had much time to actually make notes about them. In no particular order, they are:

Consider Phlebas, by Ian M Banks

This is a disappointing read, and not worth the time. It tells the story of a secret agent, who in pursuit of a major objective goes on a series of adventures through space, forming connections with people. There is really no significant arc, apart from the protagonist developing a slightly stronger ability to connect with people by the end of the book. There’s a delightfully devastating review over at Goodreads by ‘J.G. Keely’ – more worth a read than the book.

The war toed-and-froed for over thirty years, with many battles, pauses, attempts to promote peace by outsiders and the Homomda, great campaigns, successes, failures, famous victories, tragic mistakes, heroic actions, and the taking and retaking of huge volumes of space and numbers of stellar systems. 

Season three of Black Mirror

Not a book, really. But I’ve just started watching season three of Black Mirror (trailer here). If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s not easy or light viewing, but it is excellent TV – some of the best I’ve seen recently.

As an exercise for myself, I thought I’d work through episode one of season three in rough shorthand, as a way of thinking about the narrative arcs.

The first episode opens with the protagonist buying coffee – as she does, she rates people. Soon, she’s walking in to work. In the elevator, she takes to a 4.8. She’s a 4.2. Now, the protagonist wants something. The episode sets up her other desire, as well – love – when we see her visit an apartment complex, and the advertisers tell her (through a beautifully fashioned hologram) that she can find true love there. The catch? She has to have a 4.5 or above rating.

She tries various things, but it’s only when a life line is thrown her way – an old friend, long out of touch, wants her to give a speech at her wedding – that she has a real opportunity to get the 4.5 she craves.

From there, fate conspires against her (in a beautiful twist, her brother’s one-star rating after they fight contributes to her missing her flight). From there she has to try and make her own way – this is the descent, into the underworld. There, she finds an old woman with a one-star rating (this is very bad, in the world of episode one), who offers her freedom from the rating system. She’s not ready to take it.

Eventually she makes it to the wedding – where she wants to be. But her journey in the ‘underworld’ has changed her. Now, instead of the speech she wanted to give, with five star ratings pouring in, she gives a slightly deranged one as she evades security – including both the lines she wanted to give, and the frenetic accusation that ‘She fucked Greg‘.

The episode ends with her, in prison, with her contact lenses removed – she’s out of the rating system – achieving what she always wanted: connection with another human.

Pulp fiction

I watched Kill Bill a little while ago, and it was interesting to see one of Tarantino’s earlier pieces. For a movie that was made more than two decades ago, it doesn’t feel artistically dated at all.

Pulp fiction opens with a definition of pulp as a ‘shapeless mass of matter’.`From there, the story sets out to follow that approach, treating three different stories as interconnected and chronologically jumbled. Main characters in some sequences are side characters in others.

Definitely worth watching.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince is definitely worth watching. The film has the same ethereal feel as the book, but doesn’t try to recreate it. Instead it layers two narrative arcs over the top of it (what happened to the aviator? What happened to the little prince?), and does it beautifully.

The House of Medici: Its rise and fallby Christopher Hibbert

This is an interesting history of the house of Medici. It’s better at the start – as he sets the scene, Hibbert talks about the context, the social systems, the political structures that the Medici worked through. As it progresses though, the book is more and more a ‘great man of history’ piece – it simply says that a particular Pope restored the Medici, but doesn’t given an insight into how it happened.

Worth it if you’re very interested in this period of history, but it doesn’t really answers the questions about power and politics that are most interesting about something like the Medici dynasty.

… the smiths, in their turn, could feel superior to tens of thousands of those ordinary workers in the wool and silk trades, the weavers, spinners and dyers, the combers and beaters who, like carters and boatmen, labourers, pedlars and all those who had no permanent workshop, did not belong to a guild at all, and … were not allowed to form one … In the summer of 1378, the lowest class of woollen workers, known as ciompi– because of the clogs they wore in wash-houses – rose in revolt, protesting that their wages were scarcely sufficient to keep their families from starvation. Shouting ‘Down with the traitors who allow us to starve!’, they sacked the houses of those merchants whom they condemned as their oppressors … and demanded the right form three new guilds of their own. 

Because of its deep, mooing tone it was known as the Vacca; and as its penetrating boom sounded throughout Florence all male citizens over the age of fourteen were expected to gather in their respective wards and then to march behind their banners to the Piazza della Signoria to form a Parlamento.

To the Florentine merchant, money had quite extraordinary significance. To be rich was to be honourable, to be poor disgraced.

Already sentences had been passed on his opponents. Rinaldo degli Albizzi, his sons and descendants were all banished from Florence – so were branches of several other families, and, in some cases, families in their entirety, in accordance with the custom of considering a crime as much a collective as a personal responsibility.

If Cosimo were to rule successfully, he must appear scarcely to rule at all; if changes in the political structure were to be made, they must be changes calculated to arouse the least offence.

… like all rich men of prudence, he kept special accounts which, by exaggerating bad debts, showed his taxable income to be much lower than it was. 

… after twenty-two years work the doors were finished at last … 

The Church’s ruling was that the usurer might obtain forgiveness only by restoring during his lifetime, or at his death, all that he had gained unrighteously; and cases were known of penitent bankers who had appalled their heirs by stipulating in their wills that the first charge upon their assets must be the payment of full restitution. 

[Paraphrasing sermons by Savonarola, a priest who dominated Florence at one point]: ‘Blessed bands’ of children, their hair cut short, must march through the streets, singing hymns, collecting alms for the poor, and seeking out those rouge pots and looking-glasses, those lascivious pictures and immoral books, all those ‘vanities’ which were the Devil’s invitations to vice. These children must shame their elders into abandoning the gambling table for the confessional box … 

[When a group of Lutherans sacked an Italian city – Florence, I think?]: The doors of churches and convents were smashed, their contents hurled out into the streets, their bells and clocks, chalices and candlesticks beaten into fragments, their sacred treasures defaced, their holy relics used as targets by arquebusiers, and their ancient manuscripts as litter for horses. Priceless vestments were tossed over the shoulders of drunken whores, and nuns changed hands on the throw of a dice. The name of Martin Luther was carved with a pike on one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze. 

 

 

Trawling the links

A little more from what I’ve found interesting online. James Fallows talks about how the media should respond to a Trump Presidency, and links to an interesting piece on different information strategies.  There’s also a fascinating set of interviews with Obama, post-Trump.

There’s been an enormous amount written about the rise, spread, significance and import of ‘fake news’. Let’s lay aside the question of how useful a category that is. There’s a useful summary over at The Saturday Paper.

The week’s reading

I’ve had a little more time to do some reading recently. In no particular order, some of the pieces I thought were interesting:

There are bots, trawling Wikipedia and regularly making edits. Which makes sense, I suppose. What’s interesting, is that some of them get into edit wars.

In thinking about politics, power and economics, I think it’s often useful to think about the concentration – what degree of competition is there in a given area? This interview with an author over at the Atlantic is an interesting discussion about the implications of monopoly power for democracy.

This piece by George Saunders at The New Yorker is one of the more thoughtful ones I’ve read, trying to understand Trump’s support base. He neither excuses nor accuses unnecessarily, but simply tries to understand. Worth reading.

Of course, one of the biggest questions roiling public debate since Trump’s election win has been some variant of was it racism or economic anxiety that fuelled his success? This piece in the New York Times talks insightfully, I think, about how they’re linked or can be linked at a theoretical level. Because as with most complex questions, there’s usually some element of linkage between different factors.

The flip side of that question about identity and economics, of course, is what it means for political parties. I think Matthew Yglesias makes a good case that identity politics is inevitable – political parties just need to be smart about how they interact with that.

And of course, there’s been a lot on the news about the spread of fake news. Part of understanding it, I think, is simply to start with the question – who’s writing it? This piece in the Washington Post is a useful insight. The next step is to figure out the mechanics that are driving it – but that will come.

At the movies (and on the TV)

Life’s felt a little busy at points recently. Not busy enough that I haven’t watched several movies, but busy enough that I haven’t had a chance to make a few quick notes about them. So, some quick notes.

Kill Bill

I’ve been getting into Tarantino recently. More on Pulp Fiction to follow.

Kill Bill feels like Quentin Tarantino set out to make a beautiful action movie that was fun to watch. He did brilliantly. Yes, it’s gory, but there’s something beautiful in the whole thing. Worth it.

Where am I going

Where am I going is an everyman story; a tale of a gormless character bounced around the world by happen-stance, as he struggles to retain his sinecure as a government official. In the end, he finds true love instead. The film has a few moments that will make you laugh, but unfortunately those are more than outweighed by the moments that are simply offensive. Not worth seeing.

Stranger things

There’s a lot I’d like to write about Stranger Things. Suffice to say, it’s a well-plotted, tension filled piece, that’s worth seeing.

It’s also tempting to over-analyse some of the philosophy underpinning Stranger Things, in light of recent electoral outcomes. Suffice it to say, I think it’s interesting that Stranger Things tells a story of a small mid-western country town, predominantly (almost exclusively in terms of characters) white – where something has gone terribly wrong, as a result of Government testing that’s unleashed a hideous terror. The higher powers are a danger that’s still trying to cover it up, and the only hope for the town is when the beleaguered townspeople start believing each other about the unbelievable things they’re encountering.

This underlying ethos (that the government is most definitely not on our side) was spelt out most clearly, it felt, in a moment where a gormless father tells his wife they need to trust the Government. This is the first (but not second) part of the clip below.

Arrival

Arrival is a well put together movie. It centres around the idea of contact with alien life, and what the practical implications are of the Shapiro-Whorf hypothesis. It follows a linguist who’s recruited to help with the contact efforts. If you like soft sci-fi movies or linguistics, this may be for you.

It veers from there into a poignant love story between mother and daughter, and the complications of linear time, and does reasonably well at presenting the pieces.

The central underlying conflict isn’t between humans and aliens – really, it’s between Louise, the linguist the story follows, and the political-military system that is cutting her off from the aliens. At each stage she makes a conscious choice to reach out to aliens in defiance of the political-military system, and in each case a stronger connection results.