E-Mail Ethics Train Wreck in New Mexico

This is how things spin out of control.

This really has nothing to do with anything.

In New Mexico, Gov. Susanna Martinez, a Republican, attended a summit of the tribal leaders in the state. For reasons known only to himself, this inspired Pat Rogers, a member of the Republican National Committee and a partner at the prestigious law firm Modrall Sperling, to send a bizarre e-mail to Gov. Martinez’s staff that read,

“Quislings, French surrender monkeys. … The state is going to hell. Col. Weh would not have dishonored Col. Custer in this manner.”

Quisling was the Nazi puppet head of Norway during World War II, and his name has become a term for “traitor.” “French surrender monkeys” is a quote from “The Simpsons.” Col. Weh, a Marine, was Martinez’s opposition in the GOP primary for governor. Taking all of this together along with the fact that this was New Mexico, Custer’s last stand was in what is now Montana, and occurred in 1876, I think it is obvious that Rogers intended the e-mail as a joke, a tongue in cheek remark satirizing the kind of wacky complaints that a Republican Governor probably gets on a regular basis. Either it was a joke, or Rogers is insane. I don’t think he’s insane.

Never mind: some staff member thought the e-mail was hilarious enough to pass on, and someone in the e-mail chain decided to send the message to ProgressNow New Mexico, a Democratic group, which made the e-mail public to embarrass Martinez, Republicans and Rogers, as well as to get the Native American tribes upset with all of them. The executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, Pat Davis, intoned to Indian Country Today that the email shows “the contempt and disrespect New Mexico’s Republican leadership has for our Native people.”

Now Rogers has had to resign from his law firm. He was, I think, the least culpable individual in this fiasco. The e-mail was a joke, and one has to be looking for offense to see any genuine disrespect for Native Americans in it. His mistake was forgetting that nobody is rational during elections, or fair; that every utterance or printed word has to be scoured and parsed to ensure that it can’t be twisted and warped to show evil intent; and that the Golden Rule, for all intents and purposes, has gone the way of the Glyptodon. As satire, the e-mail was funny, and there would be no reason to send it if it wasn’t intended to be funny, but as Otter says to Flounder in “Animal House,” “Hey! You fucked up! You trusted us!” Rogers trusted the Martinez staff to be professional and discrete, and to keep the e-mail under the eyes of those who were intended to see it. They were not.

Whoever then sent the e-mail to ProgressNow was malicious, and ProgressNow was vicious and unfair. Once the Native Americans were given a chance to play victim, the game was over, and it was Pat Rogers’ last stand. Now he was being publicized in New Mexico as a racist apologist for Custer, who shot Indians like they were clay pigeons, and richly deserved his fate at the Little Big Horn (though he may have saved the Union in the Civil War, at the Battle of Gettysburg.) His law firm reasonably felt that Rogers was now a liability, he apparently agreed, and did the right thing.

If people were fair and ethical, this wouldn’t have happened, yet in retrospect, it is makes sense that this did happen, given the tenor of politics today and the complete lack of proportion, fairness, respect and kindness in our political system.

__________________________________

Pointer and Source: ABA Journal

Facts: ABQ Journal

Graphic: Military Images

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

8 thoughts on “E-Mail Ethics Train Wreck in New Mexico

  1. I haven’t approved of the “It was only a joke” defense beyond a certain point for more than a generation, for any public figure. Too many have shown by other actions over time that it really wasn’t.
    At minimum, he should have been clapped about the ears for being that rude without accompanying ps. or something saying it was a joke. Emails can’t show the difference in delivery of a comedian and someone who is serious about that kind of rude.

    • I hate the “it was only a joke” defense, except when 1) it was really only a joke and 2) it should have been obvious that it was only a joke. Since the e-mail in question quoted one joke right off the bat, since it was sent to a group that could have been expected to get it (and not, say, the relatives of Sitting Bull, since it was absurd on its face, I think a PS should have been unnecessary, and would be necessary if people could be counted on to be sane, perceptive and necessary. Would a smiley face at the end have stopped someone trying to cause trouble from circulating the message? Would even a PS have done the trick, if the objective was scorched earth political warfare? I doubt it.

      A good rule of thumb is that if you need to say “this is a joke”, it’s not a very good joke, or the person you are sending the joke to can’t be trusted to get the joke, as good as it is.

      There was nothing “rude” about what he wrote, however. What do you think was rude about it? Rude to whom? Rude to people who were not on the distribution list? Something I say to my wife can’t possibly be rude to someone in the next town. If we’re going to adopt a “it’s rude if any conceivable person might choose to be offended by it if they happened to hear or read it” standard, communication is dead.

  2. Calling someone a traitor is what I considered rude. Are these polite terms? If I got a message from my best fried starting with that, it’s still rude. I’m not considering the millions who’ve probably heard about it by now, just if the target audience might not identify the joke as easily as you. Humor online/by email is so easily misunderstood.

    If I knew the guy wasn’t like this, I also might think he was drunk or high to make strange accusations like this

    • That surprises me, frankly, when the context is clearly tongue in cheek. The extremity of the term is what loads the joke…I called a guy whose elevator call took me past my floor at a hotel a “kidnapper,” and we were strangers. He “got” it. Context is everything: how can someone be a traitor to the memory of Custer in New Mexico in 2012? It is per se ridiculous; the use of Quisling also flags it. And the criticism being leveled at the lawyer doesn’t have anything to do with rudeness anyway—would the results have been any different if the same message sans “traitor” been delivered?

  3. Most of my fellow native Montanans do not consider Lt. Col. (brevet Maj. Gen.) George Armstrong Custer to be any kind of a hero. I think most of us see him as a damned fool.

    Oh, and in 1876 it was already Montana (incorporated as a US territory from 1864 to 1889, when it became a state).

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