An Enemy of the People

Your president just called CNN “the enemy of the people.” This, of course, is far from the first time that he has referred to the press by this phrase. (Marvin Kalb just published an entire book on the subject, straightforwardly titled Enemy of the People.) Clearly what Trump doesn’t realize is that the purpose of the press is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” in the well-known words of Finley Peter Dunne. In a free country — which we still are — the press is not an arm of the government.

Not only is 45 unaware of this quote, he also surely doesn’t know the origin of the phrase. I’ve never seen the movie, so let’s go back to when I was in 12th grade, taking a wonderful AP English class…

The reading list was amazing. Seven years ago I wrote a post that included a paragraph about that course:

My wonderful AP English class taught by Dudley Fitts included not only a huge amount of Greek literature, which I loved, but also an entire collection of poetry by a contemporary American author — a woman, no less. Unfortunately almost nobody has heard of her today. But do check out Jean Valentine’s website, from which I re-learned something that I had forgotten: her collection Dream Barker, which is what we read in 1965, was almost literally hot off the press, having been published mere weeks before we read it. That was truly an unusual opportunity in those pre-Internet days.

From memory I can still recall that the syllabus in this course included half a dozen plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes; about half a dozen of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales plus the prologue (all in the original Middle English, of course); another half a dozen plays by Henrik Ibsen; some Shakespeare and contemporaries; the above-mentioned Jean Valentine; and quite a few other works that I can’t remember at the moment. One of the Ibsen plays was An Enemy of the People, which still feels fresh today even though it was written in 1882, well over a century ago. It concerns whether a local newspaper should publish an article about contaminated water in the town spa. The doctor who discovers the contamination is called an “enemy of the people” for exposing it when it was being kept secret by the Environmental Protection Agency [no, it wasn’t actually called that] which was under the thumb of the corrupt government and the top 1% [no, Ibsen didn’t exactly say that either, but that’s what he meant].

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the Wikipedia summary, which will give you an idea of why this is not exactly one of Trump’s favorite plays:

At a town meeting in Captain Horster’s house, Dr. Stockmann is about to read his water report to the townspeople. Billing, the family, the mayor, Aslaksen, and Hovstad are there. Aslaksen, a respected citizen, is elected Chairman of the meeting. Permission for Dr. Stockmann’s being allowed to speak is about to be voted on when he says he has a different subject. He then winds up into a passionate oration about social evolution. He says that new, truthful ideas are always condemned, due to the “colossal stupidity of the authorities” and the small-mindedness of “the compact majority” of the people, who may as well “be exterminated.” The audience feels insulted by these accusations and anger rises. By the end of the meeting the audience has rebelled, repeatedly shouting, “He is an enemy of the people!” Dr. Stockmann tells his father-in-law, Kiil, that it is his tannery that is leaking most of the poisons into the baths. As the crowd is leaving, voices are heard threatening to break his windows.

The next morning, Dr. Stockmann’s study is shown, badly damaged. The windows of the house have been smashed. The town has turned against the family, and no one they know will help them. The landlord is evicting them from their house, and Petra has been fired from her job as a schoolteacher for having progressive opinions. Peter comes to the house to present Dr. Stockmann with a letter from the board of directors of the baths, terminating his contract, and a resolution from the homeowners’ association stating that no one should hire Dr. Stockmann in this town again.

Categories: Books, Life