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Freedom Fridays, Lesson 5: Remember Professional Ethics

Authoritarians need obedient servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Today’s discussion will be (compared to previous weeks) brief and, hopefully, to the point. But it’s a point that is a critical linchpin for whether tyranny will succeed or fail.

In Lesson Five, Snyder shines the spotlight on all the collaborators and people with bendable ethics who are necessary for establishing a tyrannical regime.

Young attorneys joining the barMost influential professions in our society have strong implicit, or even explicit ethical standards which their members must swear to uphold. For instance, the most famous is the Hippocratic Oath, for physicians.

And upon admission to the bar, every state in the U.S. has their own requisite covenant of professional conduct, allegiance, local protocols, and so forth.

Other professions also have rules, norms, and agreements by which they set standards of quality, how they behave with decorum, and so forth. There are oaths for pharmacists, military personnel, social workers, veterinarians, teachers, social workers, clergy, and many more.

Some of these are informal and optional, like my own pledge as a reader, which is based on the American Tarot Association’s ethical guidelines. Others are required as people graduate from their training and join the working ranks. Or, upon election to office, are sworn to uphold the United States Constitution.

Snyder offers the example of Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, and the governor-general of occupied Poland, where, as you know, millions of Jews and other Polish citizens were slaughtered by the state.

Snyder writes:

[Hans Frank] once boasted that there were not enough trees to make the paper for posters that would be needed to announce all of the executions.

Frank claimed that law was meant to serve the race, and so what seemed good for the race was therefore the law.

With arguments like this, German lawyers could convince themselves that laws and rules were there to serve their projects of conquest and destruction, rather than to hinder them.

Hmm.. wonder what standards P45’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen is known for?

The Most Grievous Grift

Dictators have a great deal in common with con artists.

They amass tremendous power from manipulating the weaknesses of their marks. In particular, they win big by igniting the selfish greed of their victims.

So if a professional group is promised insider benefits by cooperating with the authoritarian government, not only does that hopefully exempt them from being on the dangerous fringes, but their alliance with the power structure may reward them with riches and benefits impossible through legal, ethical means.

And that is exactly what happened as the Nazi influence grew. Sensing wealth and influence beyond their wildest imaginings, Snyder notes, “Lawyers were vastly overrepresented among the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special task forces who carried out the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Polish elites, communists, the handicapped, and others.”

Profits from Misery

We are already seeing how there are huge profits being made by companies supporting P45’s dirty work of rounding up and disappearing undocumented immigrants, and, most recently, the hideous separation of children from their families. Often, this is taking place without due process.

Who are the shills that are enabling this misery? In late June, CNBC reported:

The Trump administration’s much-publicized increase in immigration enforcement is also increasing the bottom line for for-profit prisons and other companies from the private sector, with many signing multimillion-dollar contracts with the Department of Homeland Security.

“A lot of people imagine immigration detention as being a government-only function, but there are private contractors throughout the entire immigration enforcement and detention system,” said Jeremy Mohler, communications director of the research and policy group In the Public Interest.

“From the moment after an undocumented immigrant is arrested, you have corporations that contract with federal agencies and provide everything from operating detention centers to providing ankle monitors … all the way to chartered flights if they’re deported,” Mohler said.

For instance, they named Media giant Thomson Reuters. “Its Special Services subsidiary won a $6.8 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in March,” CNBC reported. “According to the contract, Thomson Reuters will provide support for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations unit in its mission to ‘locate, arrest and remove criminal aliens that pose a threat to public safety.’”

And although, because of their employees’ backlash they were forced to make a more humble public statement, Microsoft’s 19.4 million dollar contract with ICE continues.

In addition, transport companies, for-profit prisons, bail bonds, commercial food services, legal offices, and bureaucratic agencies of every kind, like General Dynamics are suddenly floating in huge profits.

Is it only coincidence that the “zero tolerance” immigration crack-down inaugurated by this administration has resulted in a windfall for some of P45’s biggest donors?

But what if these agencies and businesses had ethical and professional standards that bound them to refuse participation in the suffering and abuse of .. you know.. innocent children?

Is that really too high a standard?

Setting the Bar Ahead of the Crisis

As Snyder argues:

If 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 erosion of ethical boundaries under the pressures and promises of authoritarian power is most likely when the people who must attend to the paperwork and programs have no occupational spine.

But for so many of us, regardless of our employment, we do have pledges, vows, and standards of professionalism and respect towards our fellow humans. Let us all give our word NOW that come what may, we will support one another, and never fail to uphold our highest standards of decency and honor.

Just finding your way here? Want to go back and read from the beginning? No problem:

Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays: Lesson One – Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Two – Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Three – Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Four – Take Responsibility for the Face of the World

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  • August 11, 2018, 9:30 am nofixedstars

    i was raised in a family with high ethical standards, personal and professional. some espoused religious faiths, from catholic to episcopal to jewish; others such as my parents are atheists. but all were demonstrably ethical in their professions and pretty consistently so in their personal lives. moral imperatives were frequently discussed and philosophical questions were a common topic. i feel like this wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time and in the place where i grew up, but i wonder how typical it was outside that, or how common it is now. hopefully the professional organisations such as you mention above will remind their members that they serve a larger purpose in society than simply making money for themselves or their companies.

  • August 13, 2018, 2:38 pm Jacqueline

    The two professions I have worked in Psychology and the Library both had high standards of privacy and respect for each individual. My faith growing up gave a great deal of thought to moral imperatives. I have been shocked by the twisting of clear imperatives by this administration (like when Sessions claimed the Bible backed up his separation of families, or P45’s claim of “both sides” equivalency). It certainly does feel like a form of gaslighting or a con job. So far I have been relieved to see pushback to both of those claims. I hope that people of good heart will continue to stand up for what is right, but it certainly helps when there are standards and oaths to stiffen the spine and to remember what is right.