The moral lessons that Jonathan Gruber could have learned from a brain-damaged man

Jonathan Gruber Health Care Obamacare for DummiesTrey Gowdy conduct a masterful examination of MIT Prof. Jonathan “Stupid Americans” Gruber.  What made it so good was that he had Gruber repeatedly offer the canned defense that he (Gruber) was arrogant, stupid, and ill-informed.  That defense might have flown once but, when a formerly boastful MIT professor said it over and over again, it quickly appeared insincere:

The incredible sweet spot in this examination comes right after Gruber robotically repeats again that he isn’t a politician, and he was just trying to make himself look smarter. Gowdy, in that slow, Southern drawl (the kind that makes Northeastern leftists mistakenly assume that Southerners are stupid), then says, “And again your defense is that you’re not a politician. The lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. Well, what is a non-politician doing talking about political advantages?”

Gruber, in an attempt at self-deprecating charm, answers “A non-politician is talking about political advantages to try and make himself seem smarter by conjecturing about something he really doesn’t know.”

Hearing this, Gowdy goes in for the kill. “So you’re a professor at MIT and you’re worried about not looking smart enough?”

Having trapped himself, Gruber gives the only answer possible: “Yes.”

At which point Gowdy, the able prosecutor, has the last word. “Well, you succeeded if that was your goal.”

Watching Gruber trying unsuccessfully to hide the incredible arrogance that oozes from all those videos in which he boasts about deceiving stupid American voters made me think of a man I last saw more than thirty years ago.   He was an utterly undistinguished man but, as I’ve written before, he was also the best person I’ve ever known. His story is a little long, and a little convoluted, but I think it’s important in the Gruber context to look again at true goodness:

Harry and his sister Esther were born to a Jewish shop-keeping family in Berlin during or immediately after World War I. The family lived an ordinary middle class life until 1933, when their world ended. The family tried to keep going for a while, but in 1935 they could no longer pretend to normalcy. It was in that year that Harry was attacked by Brown Shirts and beaten around the head so badly he suffered permanent neurological damage.

When I met him forty plus years later, the left side of his face drooped, and he had some speech difficulties. In addition, the beating seemed to have left him with some cognitive damage as well. He just wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. Instead, he had an endearing goofiness that drew people to him, coupled with a complete lack of cynicism. Luckily, his parents were able (God knows how) to send Harry to England and Esther to what-was-then Palestine (now Israel).

Unfortunately, Harry and Esther’s parents couldn’t get themselves out of Germany. They remained there and were eventually rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Dachau. I think they must have been very good and nice people, because their German shop girl, Gretel, followed them to Dachau. That is, she didn’t immure herself in the camp with them, but she moved into the town and bent all her energies to keeping them alive — something she did at great risk to herself. Sadly, she failed, and Harry and Esther’s parents were eventually shipped to Auschwitz and gassed to death.

After the war, Harry, who had served with distinction in the British military despite the handicaps caused by the beating he received, came back to Germany looking for his parents. He learned that they had died in a concentration camp, and he learned about Gretel’s efforts to keep them alive. He went looking for Gretel, and discovered her living in great destitution. Although he barely remembered her from his childhood — she was much older than he was — Harry offered to marry her and care for her for the rest of her life. She accepted.

Either naturally, or as a result of her war experiences, Gretel was a sickly woman. Harry knew that marriage to Gretel would not be easy — and it wasn’t. Nevertheless, as I can attest, Harry was a devoted and loving husband until the day Gretel died, more than thirty years later.

Meanwhile, in Palestine, Harry’s sister, Esther, met and married Alex, one of my parents’ friends. Alex and his brother, Max, had spent the war years in the British military. After the war, Max met Miriam, a Holocaust survivor. Miriam’s story is a book in itself.

Miriam was from a middle-class Jewish family in a suburb of Prague, in Czechoslovakia. When the Germans came, she and her family were rounded up. Indeed, Miriam’s entire school was rounded up. She once showed me a picture of her first or second grade class at school, which consisted of 35 sweet, round-faced children. Miriam was the only one to have survived the war.

After the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, they immediately killed her father. Miriam, her mother, and her sister were sent to Therezienstadt. From there, the three of them were shipped to Auschwitz.

On their arrival at Auschwitz, Miriam and her family were put in line to pass Mengele’s review. Miriam, was then only 14, but her time in Auschwitz had educated her about the Nazis. She quickly realized that the old, the very young, and the sick were being sent off to Mengele’s left, while the healthy went to his right.

When Miriam and her family reached the head of the line, Mengele told her sister and mother to go right. He then looked at Miriam, who is very sallow, pronounced the word “jaundice,” and directed her to the left. Miriam — and remember, she was only 14 years old — acted. Thankfully, because she came from a middle-class home, she spoke fluent German.

“Dr. Mengele,” she said. “I’m healthy. Look at the whites of my eye — they’re not yellow. I can work.” Mengele looked her over again, saw that she was indeed capable of working, and redirected her to the right.

By the time Miriam got out of the line for the gas chamber, however, she’d lost her mother and her sister. As you may or may not know, Auschwitz was a huge complex of death and labor. For the next two years, Miriam, a young teen, survived alone in Auschwitz, without ever finding her family.

As the war was wrapping up, the Nazis transferred Miriam to Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen, while it did not have gas chambers, was in many ways worse than Auschwitz. Auschwitz was hell, but at least it had organizing principles that gave people something to hang onto. Bergen-Belsen was pure chaos — a stink hole of mud, death, and disease (it was here that Anne Frank actually died).

Surprisingly, in the midst of this Dante-esque Hell, Miriam was reunited with her mother and sister, and all three of them managed to survive the war. Miriam eventually ended up in Israel, where she met Max (whose brother Alex married Esther, who is the sister of Harry, the man about who started this post).

Fast forward to the 1980s. Harry and Gretel lived in Germany; Miriam and Max lived in Israel; Alex and Esther lived in America. None had children. At the beginning of the 1980s, Alex (Max’s brother) and Esther (Harry’s sister) died within two weeks of each other.

Alex and Esther had written reciprocal wills, each leaving his (or her) half of the marital estate to the other, with the survivor of the two leaving his (or her) combined estate to his (or her) sibling. This meant that when Alex died, everything went to Esther. And when Esther died ten days later, everything went to Harry.

Harry, however, thought this wasn’t fair. He knew that, had Esther lived long enough to change her will, she would have left half of her estate to Alex’s brother and his wife (Max and Miriam). So Harry did something unheard of: he announced that he was, as he said, “done with beating through the bushes” and he was going to give half the estate to Max and Miriam. The estate lawyers were agog. They had never heard of something like this before, and did not even believe it could be done as a matter of law.

With pressure from Harry, and the cooperation of the Probate Court, however, it was done, and Max and Miriam duly inherited half the estate. My family lost contact with Harry years ago, and I’m sure he’s died. However, whenever I think of a righteous man, Harry — who married an older woman he didn’t know or love, because she had acted morally to his parents, and who gave up half of a valuable estate because it was the right thing to do — springs to mind.

Harry was the un-Gruber. He had no arrogant sense of his own self-worth, and utterly lacked the intellectual’s ability to justify an immoral course of conduct.

You see, that’s the problem with Gruber. He was so convinced of the rightness of his end goal (i.e., socializing American medicine), that he was also able to convince himself that he should work to achieve this goal by any means necessary. And then, having bent his powerful intellect to a sustained fraud against the entirety of the American people, that same sense of self-worth compelled him to boast about and gloat over his dishonesty.

Watching all those Gruber videos, it’s painfully obvious that he was proud of having done wrong. That pride arose because he had bent his intelligence to the task of justifying wrongdoing for the greater good. That is, the dishonesty itself was a point of pride because it revealed his intelligence to fellow-travelers. Looking back through history, one can find many examples of people just like Gruber wrecking havoc because they will always subordinate their morals to their intellect. Moreover, they will always surround themselves with sycophantic fellow-travelers who value intellectual feats, no matter how dishonest, over morality and justice.

And then there’s Harry, Harry with the sagging face, and fractured speech, and goofy, often naive, intellect. Despite these handicaps — or, as the Grubers of the world indicate, because of these handicaps — Harry didn’t over-think things. He knew what was right and he knew what was wrong. Add to this moral clarity the fact that Harry had a strong moral code, and you find yourself looking at a man who, while he would never have been a professor at MIT, was probably a better human being than all of MIT’s professors put together. That last is conjecture, but what’s certain is that Harry was a better human being than Prof. Gruber, with all his intellectual dodges and weaves, and all his canned self-deprecation, could ever hope to be.