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Weary Pilgrim – The Aztek Syndrome

In late 2000, Pontiac motors turned the automotive world on its ear when it released the Pontiac Aztek, a crossover/SUV that has since attained the distinction of placing first in virtually any article entitled “All-Time Worst Cars.”

In late 2000, Pontiac motors turned the automotive world on its ear when it released the Pontiac Aztek, a crossover/SUV that has since attained the distinction of placing first in virtually any article entitled “All-Time Worst Cars.”

When the car was previewed at the Detroit Auto Show, a gasp went up in the audience, and reviewers had a field day trying to describe the sheer depth of Ugly the Aztek suggested. One wag said it looked like something that cathedrals hired to ring bells. A frequently asked question was, “Will they pay you to drive it?” When “Breaking Bad” started on AMC, the producers looked around for a car that would highlight the extraordinary wimpiness of the reticent, self-effacing chemistry teacher Walter White, all the better to appreciate the amazing change in personality he was about to experience. Enter Walter White, driving an Aztek. Loser-mobile.

What no one ever figured out is how, over a period of years leading up to premiere of the vehicle, dozens of highly educated, seemingly civilized people at Pontiac worked tirelessly on the Aztec without anybody saying anything negative whatsoever. Engineers, public-relations flacks, inventory specialists, one and all they persevered, all smiling through the day, knowing full well that they had purchased tickets to a slow train wreck. Which they were watching from inside the train. While they were driving. No one ever said, “Excuse me, but I think the bridge is out. In fact, I can see where it used to be, and we seem to be going awfully fast, and don’t you think maybe, just for a second, we could talk about this? In fact, this would be swell time for a handy confab, which maybe we could have while we stop for a second.” Nope, everybody just said, “This whole thing is a real swell idea — ain’t life grand? What, me worry?”

This seems to be happening a lot lately. Say, for example, you’re working on a website for the rollout of a health-care program that the entire country is eagerly awaiting. It hasn’t really been tested, except for a couple of smaller trials limited to isolated segments of the program, and those went so badly nobody wanted the news to get out. Hundreds, if not thousands, of employees and contractors across the nation (and yes, in Canada — let’s blame Canada!) all of them must have had a sense that this was the alltime, original Devil’s snowflake — it was a solid odds-on bet to die a quick public death. But who spoke up ahead of time? Nobody I or apparently anyone else in the press or the government ever heard from or about.

When the forensic lab chemist Annie Dookhan was suspended for inappropriate conduct in 2012, it was revealed that she reportedly tested over 500 samples per month — five times the normal average. When questioned about her work methods, her superiors reported that they had never actually seen her in front of a microscope. Her turnaround time actually went down in the last two years of her job, but no one around her questioned this miracle. She continued to testify in trials even when she was under suspicion for malfeasance. What are the chances that her unmasking came as a complete surprise to her bosses and colleagues? When prosecutors, policemen and even defense counsel undoubtedly became privy to the growing rumors of her astounding, superhuman track record as a forensic specialist, who were those who simply shrugged and went about their jobs, thinking, “So what? If things go wrong, I can always design cars for Pontiac.”

Somewhere in New Jersey a few months ago, a bunch of people connected with the transportation department spoke very quietly to each other both in person and on the phone after the word went forth from the governor’s office that two lanes on the GW bridge into Manhattan would be closing for a few days, for basically no good reason. What did they ask each other? “Wow, isn’t it amazing what you can get away with if you really don’t stop and think that, sooner or later, people actually notice unbelievably stupid moves?” Bear in mind that the chain of command involves a handful of people at the top, but down below in the trenches there are a lot of people who actually think and talk to each other. Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall in their favorite bar at the end of the first day of the bridge closing? Did they think no one would notice? What was the effect on their morale of having to carry out these terrifically silly and harmful commands?

I hope all those who were involved in the lower levels of the bridge closing were bothered. Perhaps some of them feared for their jobs if they blew the whistle. Perhaps some of them actually thought there was a legitimate reason to shut down two lanes in perfect working order. But I’m betting that a lot of people shrugged and went about their business, shaking their heads at the complicit insanity of their own government’s action.

Which brings us to the NSA. Talk about a bunch of smart people working together. When they were tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, do you think any of them said to each other, “You know, sooner or later, she’s going to hear one of us cough while we’re listening in. And boy, is she going to be mad.” The plain fact of it is, sooner or later, pretty much everything gets found out. Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and then not for very long.

I have very mixed emotions about the whole widespread eavesdropping, mail-reading thing. Except for one or two moments during my teen years, I have always been pretty law-abiding (don’t ask), but I STILL don’t want Uncle listening in. On the other hand, sleeping at night is a big plus. And I believe the NSA is full of a whole lot of people who want to keep you and me safe from The Crazies.

BUT: There is still a common element among those in the NSA who tapped pretty much anybody’s email in the whole world and those who worked tirelessly on the Aztek for a couple of years in Detroit 15 years ago. And the same applies to those who relied on Annie Dookhan’s work product for years on end knowing full well it was defective. And those who ordered the closing of those lanes on the George Washington bridge.

We are not a culture that admires whistleblowers, informants, grasses or snitches. Edward Snowden, while he has exposed a great deal of governmental conduct that at best can be called excessive, is nevertheless never going to get a free beer anywhere in my neighborhood. He did intentional harm to some agents of the U.S., and regardless of his intent, he didn’t care about collateral consequences of his actions. When you’re a kid in school, you do definitely NOT want to be labeled a snitch — this sort of thing sticks with you.

But the Aztek Syndrome made for a really, really bad car. It was a commercial failure (the American public really wasn’t that stupid), but mostly I find it embarrassing, and I’m grateful I wasn’t somebody dependent on a paycheck at Pontiac who knew in his heart that he was part of a really Bad Thing. I’m grateful that I wasn’t someone who knew Annie Dookhan’s work would inevitably lead to hardened criminals being handed a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I’m grateful I had nothing whatsoever to do with the rollout of Obamacare. And I’m grateful that I wasn’t someone helping tie up traffic on the world’s busiest bridge simply because I couldn’t question the apparent idiocy of those who signed my paycheck.

But it’s just dumb luck that so far I’ve escaped finding out if I have the wisdom and guts to be the snitch we need when the train is headed off the tracks.


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