Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Speakers of the Truth

I never realized before.

I have just returned from my Tuesday night 'Jewish Business Ethics' class at TI.

And I am crying.

Tonight we saw a movie about whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is usually looked on as a negative trait, an informer, a traitor to his company or his kind. But under certain conditions, when whistleblowing arises out of a desire for truth rather than spite and hatred, it is not only something good but it is heroic, something dazzling and wonderful, something that can only be reached by those who are truly motivated for the good.

We watched a movie entitled 'The Perils of Whistleblowing.' I didn't know the title at the time, but came home and looked it up. It was made by Mark Wallace, in accord with the History Channel. It is shocking.

It is more than shocking. It is one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen.

What is it about?

From here, so that you may see:

    The Perils of Whistleblowing(1996) A Mike Wallace 20th century CBS program focuses on some high-profile whistleblowing incidents, including the Challenger O-ring disaster, the Brown & Williamson insider expose, GM’s surreptitious investigation of Ralph Nader, unsafe nuclear reactor situations, Silkwood, and defense analyst Fitzgeralds’ efforts to highlight fraudulent waste and overruns in the Air Force. The whistleblowers all seem credible in their charges. Virtually all of them were subjected to attempts to discredit and destroy them. Often careers were shattered. Despite a subsequent congressional whistleblowing law, the message is clear: become a whistleblower and face probable destruction of the messenger.

I never realized before.

I never realized there was a system, an actual, physical system, a way in which to unleash a smear campaign, to pour venom and hatred upon people. That people planned this. That people could lie so blatantly. That they could expend so much effort and energy in discrediting people who had been trying to tell the truth.

I have difficulty believing that there are truly evil people in the world. I want to believe- I want so much to believe- that my teachers at Templars were uninformed of all the harm they did. That it was all unintentional. That they never intended to cause me so much pain. That they truly did not and do not understand.

I want to believe in human goodness.

And to an extent, I can. To an extent, I do believe that humans have the capacity for goodness. I believe that people desire to be good.

But watching the video, seeing the enginners who knew there was a problem with the Challenger and hearing them speak...seeing that one of them had an actual memo in writing that said that if the problems were left unfixed something "catastrophic" would happen, and would result in the "loss of human life," seeing these men who have tears in their eyes as they describe how happy they felt when they saw they were wrong, that the Challenger was fine- and then seeing them describe what they felt when they saw the accident, how one of them returned to his office, closed the door, and just cried...seeing this, I feel such anger towards the needless waste of human life.

And I feel so much sadness for this man whose life was summarily ruined, for his company shunned him, his managers had nothing to do with him, he was slandered and known as the man who caused the death of the seven people on the Challenger, his children grew up hearing him persecuted and hated, he had to sell his house in Utah and leave...seeing this, I wonder at the strength of these people, and bow my head before them.

I look at the man who resigned from his job as head of a department with regard to nucler regulations, stating that at the moment Indian Point Three (the nuclear power plant) was not acting up to regulations, that he was very concerned about its performance and he felt that ultimately it would lead to disaster...seeing him, and then seeing the head of the entire company speak about the fact that this "young man should have expressed his concerns to his supervisors before making his pledge (i.e. resigning)"...and then seeing the response as the man states that he tried, he tried in every way he could, he attempted to talk to his supervisors and boss but was told to keep everything "low-key" and not to inform the public...

Or the man working at a tobacco company who unmasked the fact that they knew very well nicotine was addictive and that cigarettes caused cancer, that the company deliberately was chemically producing an effect on the cigarettes so that the nicotine would act faster and people would rely more and more on their "fix"...This man was fired, and the head of the company blatantly lied to Congress, stating that he did "not believe nicotine was addictive..." What ensued was a slander campaign, a 500 page book talking about the fact that this whistleblower was a wife beater, an abusive husband, and a shoplifter, allegations which the Wall Street Journal later said was based on "scanty and contradictory evidence." This man was hunted, his children were targeted, his name was blackened, and why? Because he had tried to tell the truth....

I had never before realized people could be so evil, so malicious, so cruel...to deliberately pretend they knew nothing, to state that their former employee was a liar and an abusive man, to drag his private life into a public case...When asked whether he (the whistleblower) would do it again, he hesitated. Sometimes he thinks he would not, because the cost was so high, but there are other times when he feels that he was compelled and would again have been compelled to tell the truth.

There is a system, an actual system at work to discredit people, to make them into liars and fools, into criminals and people looking for revenge...there is a system to abolish truth in favor of falsehood.

When I saw this movie, I was so emotionally impacted by it that I could not speak when it was time to leave. I was amazed by the seemingly careless responses of my classmates, people who did not intend to be crass or rude but who stated that the movie "was interesting" or said that "it was so sad" but then promptly forgot about it and began speaking about more interesting things, such as gossip, fashion and homework assignments.

Sad? Sad does not describe it. These people, all people who stood up for the truth, were destroyed because of what they dared to say. Painted as heroes by the media, did we defend them? Did we protect them? Or did we forget them, and hence condemn them to the miserable, haunted lives that so many of them have led?

It is difficutl to stand up for the truth, to stand alone, a figure who will not be believed, a figure who will be persecuted and hated.

And so I bow to them.

Because I realize- on a much smaller scale- how difficult this is. And because I hope that during my life I have the courage and strength to be as truthful, as strong, and as unrepentant as they are. Because I hope never to give in, never to succumb, never to be pressured into a situation where I give up my ideals, my values, and my concept of myself...because of fear.

The only one I truly fear is God. There is no man who can hurt me- unless it is me, unless I betray myself.

My father comforted me. For these men- these men who were persecuted and hated- are the men who can sleep at night. The men who know they did the right thing. These others, these vile creatures who preach falsehood and destruction, cannot rest easy with themselves. For they know- in their heart of hearts, they know. And it cannot be a pleasant knowledge.

There are so many of us who have suffered at the hands of the Orthodox Jewish educational system. And while this is small in comparison to the types of scandals and truths that the men on this video revealed, we too must do our part. We know what has happened, what has been permitted to happen. And we must, must speak. Without fear of man and his ability to take revenge. Without fear of anyone but God.

God is my judge, and He knows what I speak is true.

We must accuse. And we must tell the truth, piece by piece, slowly and carefully. Each person must speak, for one individual may take a stand, but ultimately he will fall- fall prey to the campaign against him, the "dirt" that others have dug up on him. What you have seen and what you know.

Because if we speak- if I speak- then those who are to come will not suffer the way I did, the way you did. We will have prevented a great and terrible tragedy- a tragedy that grows ever closer.

It is difficult to be a whistleblower. It is difficult to tell the truth.

I hope that I may be as worthy as these men and women were. I hope that I withstand temptation so that I too may speak. I hope that I will not fall prey to cowardice.

I bow to them. Because it is in these people- in those that speak truth, and have been ruined because of it- that we see God.


Jewish Atheist said...

Touching post, Chana. Unfortunately, it's all too common a story.

In current events, of course, many believe that Valerie Plame was exposed as punishment to her husband Joe Wilson for writing an op-ed saying "Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

The movie The Insider is about the tobacco-company whistleblower you're probably referring to.

Russell Tice is a whistleblower from the NSA who claims that "some of those secret 'black world' operations run by the NSA were operated in ways that he believes violated the law... The NSA revoked Tice's security clearance in May of last year based on what it called psychological concerns and later dismissed him. Tice calls that bunk and says that's the way the NSA deals with troublemakers and whistleblowers. Today the NSA said it had 'no information to provide.'"

I have difficulty believing that there are truly evil people in the world.

Obviously some people are "truly evil" by virtually everybody's definition. Nazis, rapists, African warlords, etc. Some people might simply be mentally ill or misguided, but others seem to be gleefully, eyes-wide-open evil.

I highly recommend the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It's a great movie that shows the evil that went on in Enron. The most shocking moment to me was listening to two traders on the phone (this was an actual recording, mind you) joking and laughing about how their illegal actions were going to make some poor grandmother lose her retirement money while gloating about the millions of dollars they're making.

All we can do is fight with the good guys, Chana. Fight evil, fight corruption, and protect those who do the same.

Irina Tsukerman said...

I definitely believe you'll be successful in your task. You speak with so much passion about the issues you bring up, and yet with so much open-mindedness. You definitely have what it takes to be an honorable and courageous individual like the people above. But I think that there are probably ways of coming out winners in these situations. I don't think it's necessary to martyr oneself to expose a flaw in the society. The trick is to find the balance - to tell the truth, but also to survive so you could continue fighting for your cause and tell the truth repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

Just be careful who you are lumping together. Yes, there are so-called "evil" people in this world. But not everyone who harms you in this world is evil, nor is their harm intentional.

I have my own issues with religious indoctrination, but be careful before you accuse your former teachers of trying to intentionally hurt you. The honestly felt what they told you was for thge best; mostly because that is what THEY have been taught as well. Are they evil? I think not but you need decide for yourself.

FrumGirl said...

I, too, get impacted by such things. It is a sensitivity that seemingly few have... to take the time to internalize what you just saw and apply it. It irks me and I wonder why it is that so few really internalize and make a change - so few care.

I cannot believe your former teachers intentionally tried to harm you, but then again I do not know what the situation was and knowing how school administrations can try to make examples out of students that dare to think independently, I guess it is certainly a possiblity. Only you know and we are waiting to hear why you harbor such resentment towards them.

The term whistleblower to me stands for an insecure person looking to gain respect from higher authorities by putting their peers out to dry by snitching. I cannot stand such people. However the term as you speak it is about amazing people with true goodness. People who will put their own reputations and careers on the line to do the right thing. Such people are ones we should strive to be. I hope that at crunch time I am that kind of person and such people of quality are the kind I like to surround myself with.

It is scary to think that true evil exists, but it does. There are people out there that are pure evil. I try to believe in the goodness of humanity too, but with the good comes the bad. Some are just too far gone... however the concept of teshuva teaches us that no one is lost... unless they choose to be.

Let us make sure we are the people of light and goodness and let Hashem take care of the people of darkness and evil. We have no other choice.

Ezzie said...

Amazing post, Chana.

Originally, that's all I was going to say, but the different comments above made me realize there's a bit more, as well. To some extent, frumgirl's original way of thinking is also correct: There are whistleblowers who are trying to become famous, make money on a book, or the like; much as there are those who are noble. The examples JA gives are perfect - while the Enron guys were undoubtedly selfish bastards, the more facts that come out regarding Joe Wilson show him to be far more interested in an agenda than the actual truth.

The truth must always be spoken, and if there is a problem it must be properly addressed. Do not assume, however, that all whistleblowers are doing so. Look at some of the scandals in the Orthodox world: Some of the "whistleblowers" are simply trying to ruin the lives of others, for slights perceived or actual.

Elster's point about whether the hurt is always 'evil' is a good one as well, and important to remember. Often, people act as they think is proper, only to be wrong. Other times, people merely feel that the problems are minor, or aren't sure if they're really problems - and then discover that they were huge.

I have difficulty believing that there are truly evil people in the world.

There are, but they are incredibly rare. Even then, they aren't acting for purely evil reasons, but more likely selfish ones - or often, misguided idealism. The Tice example JA gave is perfect: I have no idea if he's telling the truth, but say he is - those who are acting improperly may feel it is vital to save lives and the like. This is not evil, but merely (possibly) misguided.

However, always speak up (after you've made sure you are correct) if something is wrong. Just be careful to never let yourself be put in a situation where someone can make up lies about you. [My FIL always keeps his office door open when speaking to students, for example.]

Sorry for the long comment.

Tobie said...

I, too, stand in awe of people who dare to do what they think is right. Such courage is rare, and unbelievably noble.
Nonetheless, I wouldn't be me if I didn't devil's advocate here just a little. As frumgirl mentioned, for every genuine whistleblower out there, there are a whole bunch of people just trying to get publicity and push an agenda, without justice or courage on their side. Also, there are plenty of false positives out there- how would we feel about the Challenger whistle-blower if people had taken him seriously, spent millions of dollars investigating the allegation of safety problems, and then discovered that nothing was wrong after all?
Similarly, for every evil, Machiavellian whistleblower-crushing schemer out there, there a bunch of people doing their jobs, without any particular inspiration, intelligence, or nobilitiy, but also without evil. Much of this "crushing" is probably done by everyday people, with 2.4 children who give generously to charity and sometimes feel bad about what they're doing, but really, one can't let this sort of attention-seeking trouble maker ruin the company just for his own ridiculous notions.
Perhaps this makes it even more terrifying.

dbs said...

People do, in fact, do terrible things. Although much harm is done by the small percent of humanity who are true sociopaths, far more evil is done by good people who buy into a bad story. That is probably the category which Templars falls into (though I don’t know the circumstances). As my father says, “A person only has to lie once – to himself – after that, everything is easy.”

What is the antidote; honesty and empathy.

MUST Gum Addict said...

Your post is wonderful, as always Chana. While it does focus on the human side of how these things happen (and all of them are terrible I admit), it doesn't focus on the flip side, which is more of a business focus: risk.

There's no question that in every industry and in every situation, one is asked to make decisions. One makes informed decisions based on the information placed before them. And with each decision, there is a certain level of risk involved.

Having worked in high tech, I've worked at a company that creates software that millions of people in the world use daily to do their business. I can also tell you that this one piece of software has over 3000 bugs in it. As someone responsible for the product, it was my job to decide if there was a high enough risk that any of these bugs would cause problems, or data loss, or other severe issues. And you play a game. You release a product that you hope doesn't fail -- even though you have proof that under certain circumstance it will.

Now, on a much larger and significant scale, like with the Challenger disaster, there were obvious risks. But the person who ultimately made a decision to go ahead with the launch weighed the risk and felt that there was reason enough to go ahead with the launch. In hindsight, it was the wrong choice, but how could that have been known before? You can make an argument that when loss of life is a possibility, that risks take on a completely different meaning, but all astronauts are also aware of the risks involved.

Bottom line is, yes, it's our duty to always tell the truth and more importantly, not to withhold information that can be used to assess risk. But like everything else in life, we ultimately are forced to make a decision. And sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose.

In the case of computer software, if you wouldn't take such risks, I guarantee that you'd never be able to ship software and make money. And if every shuttle launch could only happen if EVERY engineer gave the green light, you'd never see a launch (as what is the case today).

I'll admit that sometimes, the justification for taking risks is based on evil inclinations (to make more money, etc.) -- as in the Enron case -- but it's still a risk. The people obviously did it thinking they would get away with it -- they took that risk and lost -- and the evil part is that other innocent people suffered because of it.

Sara said...

Ok, Chana. I must admit that I have been a devoted lurker on this blog, but now that I know it's for sure you, I have to say hi.

I have heard so many good things about your writings here, all from different people, and I was like "That's SO her", but I didn't want to jump in unsure. Plus, I see that you have the best commentors from all surrounding blogs. The conclusion: I'm here to stay.

Talk to you soon. Sara

rabbi neil fleischmann said...