“Fighting the Good Fight”

Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, July 3, 1863

Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, July 3, 1863

“Fighting the Good Fight”

Sometimes, you just can’t.

A woman I knew ran a beauty salon in New York City. She had an only son, the light of her life, who got involved with drugs. He became a dealer, offended somebody, and was murdered. She searched persistently to discover who had done it and eventually succeeded. However, before she could go to the authorities, one of the killers contacted her. If she didn’t retire her efforts to get an indictment, everyone who worked in her shop would be gunned down.

What was she to do? For herself, she “wouldn’t care” (as she put it to me). But for the women who worked for her? How could she risk their lives?

This is the power of terror. The m.o. of coercion is the same, whether or not it comes in an ideological wrapping. You don’t have to kill all the potential resisters. You just have to make it clear that you could, and that conscience wouldn’t slow you down.

Over breakfast this morning, Jerry told me about a remarkable book he’d been reading. It was a biography of Tom Dewey, former special prosecutor in New York County, and later Governor of New York. In 1948, Dewey ran for President and was defeated by Harry Truman in a celebrated upset victory. In my family, we were lifelong Democrats and I always heard Dewey described as the “little man on the wedding cake” or (in tones of liberal scorn) “a prosecutor.”

Well, it turns out that he was no ordinary prosecutor. In the 1920’s, the era of Prohibition and bootleg liquor, crime morphed into a major American business. It became Organized Crime, with departments, territorial allocations, stipulated protocols and an administrative hierarchy.

We are inclined to romanticize outlaws, but this empire had a particular subject class: prostitutes. These women, as they later testified, were not volunteers. The mob would target abandoned wives, single mothers, waitresses laid off during the Great Depression – women without social supports. If they resisted, there were threats: to break their legs, to scar their faces, and so forth. Often they had kids to feed. The authorities had been paid off: the cops, the judges, the works.

What were they to do? Sometimes you cannot fight the good fight. You enter a cauldron of corruption, having no alternative.

Dewey, however, could fight, and he did. Like a combination detective, archeologist, historian, journalist and theater director, he blanketed the whole, vast criminal landscape with an information retrieval operation. He put the puzzle pieces together and found the statutes that forbade each piece of crime.

Understanding the possibilities of corruption lurking in the very task of fighting corruption, he transmitted his battle plans orally and only at the moment of implementation. On roundup day, he sent his men out all at once, raiding 41 houses of prostitution, scooping up 100 suspects. He found violations that would hold them long enough for the dominoes to start falling, each underling implicating his superior, going up the echelons to the top. The jury heard the testimony of terrorized, tormented women and it brought in a verdict of guilty against the top man. On every one of the 558 counts. It took 44 minutes for the foreman to read the whole verdict.

Dewey lost the Presidential election of 1948, but he had gained ethical glory of a different order. He had fought a good fight. And he had won it!

There are people — Goethe called them “beautiful souls” — who choose never to sully their psyches with the rough-cut facts of moral life. In a good fight, I haven’t found the beautiful souls particularly steady as allies.

When does the bugle blow? What’s the signal for the fight? I can’t give a rule. But there are fights that have one’s name on them.

Years ago, an election for the post of chairman was scheduled in the department where I taught. The stronger faction was backing a candidate I thought unqualified. The day before the election, a leader of that faction came to observe my teaching. I was untenured. When the class was over, he invited me for tea. After some preliminaries, he asked me how I could explain a man like himself backing a candidate as unqualified as I thought his favorite was.

I had about 30 seconds to think that one over. The teaching evaluation report was in his pocket, still unwritten. Although there were occasions when I would have answered such a question diplomatically, at this moment my senior colleague was not asking how I had arrived at my views.

He was putting me on notice.

Thinking, there goes that job, I said,

“I have read your article on such and such and you seem to me a very intelligent man.  So I can’t explain your backing this candidate– except on the supposition that he’s weak and you think you can use him.”

It would be a seven-year fight before I got my job back. But there was one thing I never had to struggle to get back:

who I was.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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