Let the machine fail

Ignorance and fascism aren’t defeated by serving them

Today, tens of thousands of professionals employed by the federal government are asking themselves: Should I stay, or should I go?

A column by Ross Douthat in Friday’s New York Times says, basically, “Stay. A minority of Americans have somehow contrived to elect an expedient ignoramus who is deeply hostile to your country’s ideals, and now your country needs you more than ever.” A column by David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times echoes Douthat’s argument.

We need your professionalism, your expertise, your respect for democratic norms and American values. Stay on. Stay on, please, for your country.


Certainly, I agree that we have elected an incompetent and ignorant proto-fascist with the instincts of a cheap thug. I sharply disagree that an honorable professional can or should serve under his administration.

All professional people are expected to abide by some variation of that famous injunction of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. The engineers who superintended the Flint water supply disaster, for instance, now face prosecution for their knowing failure to put the public health and safety first. The Arthur Anderson accounting firm knowingly hid Enron’s finagling — and is now out of business.

That’s small solace, of course, to those who will live with the lifelong consequence of being poisoned, or who lost their life savings and now pick-up bottles on the roadside in order to score some pocket change.

I understand the reasoning of Douthat and Leonhardt, certainly. After all, the checks do have to be written, the subcontractors do have to be supervised, the jihadists do have to be foiled, the cargo containers do have to be inspected, the floors do have to be swept. Perhaps the pros should just keep on keeping on and hoping for the best. But what is the professional person to do when the preening boob who gave us the Flint water disaster makes his ignorance a matter of policy rather than a one-off error from the bottom of the class? Douthat and Leonhardt are urging, in essence — subvert him.

Under Trump the obsequious, the craven, the ignorant … will inevitably, necessarily, rise to the top, and professionals will find themselves working against longer and longer odds to keep the machine going, and doing it surreptitiously with the hope that nobody notices.

Imagine this wholly plausible scenario: Ben Carson, Creationist nutjob who believes that the pyramids were built to serve as granaries, is nominated for Secretary of Education; he is much-discussed as a likely nominee for that job, and weenies like Paul Ryan will doubtless urge his swift confirmation. Carson reads some law or other as granting him authority to withhold federal educational funding from states which don’t teach creationism as an alternative scientific explanation of human existence, and piously adds that to do so will uplift the country’s morals.

He has said he believes exactly those thngs, and millions of Trump voters agree with him. This could actually happen.

What is an honorable mid-level science professional serving in the Department of Education supposed to do in that case? Disgrace himself by attempting to implement such a policy, condemning a generation of American schoolchildren to appalling ignorance and sweeping the floors of the Chinese-owned factory on the midnight shift?

S-a-a-a-y that he is trying to implement the policy and look busy-busy-busy while underhandedly subverting it?

One more thing: Variations of this conversation undoubtedly took place in Germany during its collapse into lunacy during the 1930s. How did that work out?

Douthat and Leonhardt are right about this much: America will need for its professionals to honor their ethical obligations as never before in a Trump administration — and the way to do that is for them to do what the engineers in Flint had a clear ethical obligation to do: Refuse to go along.

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