Tuesday, February 21, 2017

'Enemy of the People': The Phrase's Ironic and Instructive Literary History

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 5:05 PM

In a recent tweet, Trump called the press "the enemy of the American people." Days earlier, though he didn't use the phrase, he made a similar accusation about our courts when they ruled against his Muslim ban. I'm sure Trump had no idea he was quoting the title of a 19th century play, An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, in his tweet, nor could he know how ironic the play's title is or how clearly it reveals his intentions. The "enemy" in the play is a man who dared speak truth to power. Power, as it often does, did everything it could to suppress the truth.

We're not very familiar with Ibsen these days, but we know Steven Spielberg, and most of us have seen Jaws. The opening of the movie is based loosely on Ibsen's play.

Late one night in Spielberg's little tourist beach town, we see a swimmer killed by a shark. When the coroner confirms to the police chief that it was a shark attack, the chief decides to close the beaches until they're safe. The mayor disagrees. It's the beginning of the summer tourist season, he says, and closing the beaches would be disastrous for the town's economy. The mayor convinces the coroner to change the cause of death, to say the swimmer was caught in the blades of a boat's propeller — in other words, to lie. The mayor forbids the police chief from closing the beaches. It takes two more shark attacks before the mayor acknowledges that the police chief was right and closes the beaches, which is when the hunt for the Great White begins.

Ibsen's original Enemy of the People has a similar setup. A small town's economy is based around its health baths. A local doctor discovers that the water is contaminated and writes an article which he submits to the editor of the local paper. The editor is eager to print it, both to report the problems with the baths and to use it as a way to expose the corruption running rampant in the town's government. But the mayor intervenes. He convinces the editor that printing the truth would be bad for the town, so the editor pulls the doctor's article. In its place, he runs a statement by the mayor praising the quality of the baths.

In typical American movie fashion, Jaws has a happy ending, or as happy as an ending can be after the carnage that begins the story. The shark is killed, and the town's beaches are safe once again. In Ibsen's play, the outcome is darker. When the doctor's article is squelched, he continues to try and expose the truth about the baths, but the townspeople side with the mayor and turn against the doctor, labeling him an enemy of the people. He and his family are evicted from their home and exiled from the town. In an ending that mixes despair and hope, the doctor realizes he can't save the town from itself, but he decides that if telling the truth makes him an enemy of the people, he will accept the label and his fate rather than being party to a dangerous lie.

The "enemies of the people" in Trump's egomaniacal world view are folks like Spielberg's police chief and Ibsen's doctor. They're everyone who openly contradicts Trump, who dares tell the truth in the face of his lies. The movie and the play give us two possibilities for the fate of the U.S. The lies can be addressed and conquered as they are in Spielberg's film, or we can end up with Ibsen's darker world, where the people who want to save our country from corruption and danger are condemned by society while the leaders and their autocratic government triumph, aided by their willingly deluded supporters.

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