Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Unlikely professionalisms

When I wrote about Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, I knew and feared that I'd have to come back to his insights. After a few days respite on the trails followed by re-immersion in the news cycle, one of his points leaps to the fore.

5. Remember professional ethics. When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

... If [under the Nazis] lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.

Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” ...

The Cheato, his flunkies, and too much of the Republican Party are trying to break or sully the professional ethics of the people who do the work of government.
  • The experienced and broadly respected former government lawyer Jack Goldsmith has imagined how responsible legal professionals inside the DOJ might act under the man he calls a "Kamikaze president."

    ... the only thing for the men and women of the Justice Department to do is to keep doing their jobs well until they get fired.  That is the way to serve the American people in upholding the rule of law in the face of a president bent on trying to destroy it.  It is a remarkable fact that despite Trump’s relentless attacks on DOJ independence, DOJ continues to function with extraordinary independence, which every single Trump DOJ nominee has underscored before the Senate and—with the possible exception of Rosenstein’s shenanigans with the Comey firing—in practice.  The President can fire [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions and [Assistant AG Rod] Rosenstein and [Acting FBI Director Andrew] McCabe if he likes, but he cannot fire everyone, and he cannot stop an investigation that now has a relentless logic that is only reinforced every time he attacks DOJ independence.  In this regard, Trump’s unhinged tweets display weakness, not strength.

    Professional ethics (and professional inertia) have a species of power here. Many of us may not instinctively look to the government legal establishment for protection from a rogue government, but we should applaud this kind of professionalism if we see it.
  • There are even less likely contexts in which people with professional ethics find themselves mired in the raw viciousness of the Trump white supremacist regime. Who knew there have been Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who wanted to play by the rules? -- and who are disquieted when the rules are torn up in favor of brute bigotry? New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer cultivated a conversation with an ICE agent who has become willing to express his horror at what the "deportation force" is becoming under untrammeled racist leadership.

    We used to look at things through the totality of the circumstances when it came to a removal order—that’s out the window,” the agent told me the other day. “I don’t know that there’s that appreciation of the entire realm of what we’re doing. It’s not just the person we’re removing. It’s their entire family. People say, ‘Well, they put themselves in this position because they came illegally.’ I totally understand that. But you have to remember that our job is not to judge. The problem is that now there are lots of people who feel free to feel contempt.”

    ... the agent sees long-standing standards being discarded and basic protocols questioned. “I have officers who are more likely now to push back,” the agent said. “I’d never have someone say, ‘Why do I have to call an interpreter? Why don’t they speak English?’ Now I get it frequently. I get this from people who are younger. That’s one group. And I also get it from people who are ethnocentric: ‘Our way is the right way—I shouldn’t have to speak in your language. This is America.’ ” It all adds up, the agent said, “to contempt that I’ve never seen so rampant towards the aliens.”

    ... Before this year, the agent had never spoken to the media. “I have a couple of colleagues that I can kind of talk to, but not many,” the agent said. “This has been a difficult year for many of us.” These people, not just at ICE but also at other federal agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, are “trying to figure out how to minimize the damage.” It isn’t clear what, exactly, they can do under the circumstances. ...

    The rest of us need them to do all they can; we need to be ready to defend these unlikely allies if we must.
  • And then there are the "lawmakers," those rather pathetic GOPers who seem willing out of tribal loyalty to pass healthcare policies that will harm millions, notably including their own constituents, without apparently feeling any professional responsibility to make their country work. The enormity of their dereliction of duty seems unfathomable. Haven't they any professional pride? Will they ever remember that with power comes responsibility? The Cheato clearly hasn't a glimmer of this; why would he, he's merely a rapacious looter. But professional pols might be expected show some measure of responsibility for what they do to us.

    It seems worth noting that, at least for the moment, Democratic lawmakers are indeed managing unity against GOPer measures, carrying out their professional responsibility to do their best for constituents and country. This was never a sure thing. We should thank them when they do right, at the same time we let them know we're watching them.
It's going to take all kinds if the country is going to emerge from this ugly pass intact. Resistance includes finding allies in unlikely places.

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