Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ibsen's An Enemy of the People Questions the Validity of Democracy

A couple months ago I watched a film dramatization of Ibsen's powerful play An Enemy of the People. Like many influential works, most people have heard of them but never read them, and in this case I number myself among the majority. Until this autumn.

I'd just finished reading a biography of James Madison, who authored the Federalist Papers and was instrumental in creating the founding documents that created the foundations of the United States, a beacon of light for Democracy. We elect our officials and the people have power in the voting booths and caucuses, in the process of electing a representative government.

Ironically, Madison may have been an advocate for democracy, but he also expressed private doubts about how it would work out in reality. This was eye-opening for me, but then again that is why many scholars call it "the American experiment."

Within a week of reading the Madison bio I watched An Enemy of the People, and it became a apparent that the ideal of Democracy (with a capital D) has flaws that must be faced with honesty. Some of the drama in this year's mid-term election centers around this overabundant exuberance for democracy that we feel. And for this reason I share a brief overview of Ibsen's 1882 play.

* * * *
The story takes place in a small town in southern Norway that has earned its reputation as a tourist destination because of its spa baths. Though it's an economic boon for the community, the medical officer for the baths has become suspicious about the safety of the waters and upon having them tested he confirms that they are contaminated with bacteria and not healthy. He writes an article about the issue to be published in the papers.

The response is quite contrary to what he expected. Instead of people being happy that people will no longer get sick from the waters if they avoid them, they are angry that it will have a negative impact on jobs. Instead of being a hero who saves the town he is told he will be ridiculed for ruining the town. Local leaders make it known to him that there will be "terrible consequences" if he doesn't retract his article before it goes to press.

The newspaper itself begins to waver as regards printing the article. They wish not to be blamed if the town's economy craters. So Dr. Stockmann takes his message directly to the people in a public oration in which he gives it his all. Here are some excerpts from this speech and this section of the play.

At the opening of his speech he lays down the gauntlet: "The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war." Naturally the crowd of townsfolk gathered to hear him is incensed, but he goes on to defend his position in this manner:

"I have already said that I don't intend to waste a word on the puny, narrow-chested, short-winded crew whom we are leaving astern. Pulsating life no longer concerns itself with them. I am thinking of the few, the scattered few amongst us, who have absorbed new and vigorous truths. Such men stand, as it were, at the outposts, so far ahead that the compact majority has not yet been able to come up with them; and there they are fighting for truths that are too newly-born into the world of consciousness to have any considerable number of people on their side as yet."

How often have we seen this. New ideas do not have a majority behind them because the masses are stuck in old ways of thinking. The earth as center of the universe, for example. That the earth is flat. So Stockman declares, "I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of the truth."

* * * *

I myself do not consider myself a revolutionary and I really do not wish to see the fabric of society upended so that we have to start over. It gets very cold here in Minnesota and most of us are pretty dependent on the energy grid to warm our homes.

On the other hand, no matter who wins today's elections, let's not run around declaring the best man or woman won. The winners will only be those who got the most votes this time around.

Over the years many new ideas have emerged to address issues of poverty. The idea of a Flat Tax had merit, but like many new ideas it is squashed before it gets examined. In our government and in our board rooms, if a good idea comes from someone else, especially an opponent, we feel obligated to kill it lest our adversary become more more powerful. That is, we no longer "work together" for solutions, and claw one another to maintain power.

UBI (Universal Basic Income) is another new idea and I see foaming at the mouth from some adversaries because it goes against an old idea that "he who doesn't work shouldn't eat." Well, there are other older ideas about the dignity of man that could be brought forward rather than letting people starve as the Brits did during the Irish Potato Famine in which the government let them starve because "it must have been God's will to bring them into submission." (These ideas were put forth with seriousness in the British Parliament.)

So, Ibsen's Dr. Stockmann continues:
"What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up... These "majority truths" are like last year's cured meat—like rancid, tainted ham; and they are the origin of the moral scurvy that is rampant in our communities."

I encourage you to read the whole of it, if you have time. Here are a couple more juicy bits, though.

"The theory that culture demoralizes is only an old falsehood that our forefathers believed in and we have inherited. No, it is ignorance, poverty, ugly conditions of life, that do the devil's work! In a house which does not get aired and swept every day."


"Lack of oxygen weakens the conscience. And there must be a plentiful lack of oxygen in very many houses in this town, I should think, judging from the fact that the whole compact majority can be unconscientious enough to wish to build the town's prosperity on a quagmire of falsehood and deceit."

* * * *
My appeal is that our legislators, who theoretically more informed than the public on most matters they wrestle with, armed with more information than can fit on a bumper sticker, will have the courage to make wise decisions based on what they know, and stop pandering to constituencies.

I don't know how many of the politicians on our ballots today are that kind of leader, but we can hope and we can pray.

1 comment:

LEWagner said...

The "winner" will be the one we are told got the most votes.
It's as real as WWF wrestling.

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