This reflection is based primarily on two sources: 1) an article by Heidi Schlumpf in the National Catholic Reporter (Oct. 2, 2019) on Robert Ellsberg, the son of Daniel Ellsberg who “blew the whistle” on the Pentagon in 1971; and 2) an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Oct. 13, 2019) by Tom Mueller, author of Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in the Age of Fraud.
First, a definition. Whistleblowing (according to Ellsberg) is “truth-telling.” It is the reporting of fraud, criminal behavior, or other illicit activity. It is motivated not by personal gain, but by a sense of loyalty to a higher public good. The whistleblower often pays a high personal price for his/her reporting—being labeled a traitor or snitch, losing one’s job, or even being convicted of a crime. Daniel Ellsberg knew if he was convicted of espionage, he would probably be sentenced to 115 years in prison. Later it was also learned that the White House had a plan to “incapacitate” Daniel Ellsberg.
But let’s start at the beginning. As some of you may recall, in 1969 Daniel Ellsberg “blew the whistle” on the Pentagon and the Nixon and previous Administrations by photocopying thousands of pages of secret reports that showed the true story of the military build-up in Vietnam and revealed the lies being told to Congress and to the American people. At one point he invited his teenage son to help him with the copying. Why? Says the younger Ellsberg, “He wanted me to be a witness to what he was doing.”
Daniel Ellsberg tried to give the papers to Congress, but no one wanted them. So he gave them to The New York Times which began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971. The Nixon administration immediately got a court injunction to stop the Times. On June 18, The Washington Post began publishing excerpts. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the news media and the First Amendment. The so-called “Pentagon Papers” led to the end of the war and the eventual resignation of President Nixon.
Other examples of whistleblowers abound. For his book, Tim Mueller interviewed over 200 of them: individuals who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, lead-laced water in Flint, Big Pharma, corner cutting at Boeing, etc. He writes, “Whistleblowing becomes necessary when organizations become more interested in silence and loyalty than in ethics or public welfare, or when government watchdogs have been muzzled or euthanized.”
Why is there an increase in whistleblowing? Mueller cites two factors: “institutional corruption and normalized fraud. If our private and public institutions were healthier, we wouldn’t require singular acts of courage to halt wrongdoing.”
Robert Ellsberg makes two other points worth mentioning here. First, he says, “Public servants take an oath of loyalty to the Constitutions, not to any individual leader.” And secondly, he cites this question raised by his father (who is now 88): “Has more damage been done, more lives put at risk, because people revealed the truth, or by keeping secrets?” That’s a good question to ponder.
And, finally, Ellsberg summaries his father’s legacy in these words: “All it takes is the power of one.”
Prayer: Loving God, give us a renewed appreciation of the truth and the power of one. Give us greater courage when we are asked to pay a price for our beliefs and ideals. And give us an expansive love, a love that cherishes and works for the common good of all. Amen.
Is there anything in this reflection that touched you or moved you? Did any words or phrases stand out for you?
Can you cite any other examples of individuals who demonstrated “the power of one”?
PS: A BIG thank you for your prayers for last weekend’s retreat at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA. And a special thank you to the 32 wonderful and inspiring individuals who participated. I’m also grateful to Sisters Angela, Julie, and Karen for their invaluable assistance!
Here is the song, “The Power of One,” sung by the country music duo, Buffy Lawson ad Kristy Osmunson. This first version has powerful images. The second version has the lyrics.
I invite you to respond below to the reflection and/or the song. My readers tell me how much they look forward to reading the responses each week!