Monday, November 11, 2013

264. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People (1882; translated by Farquharson Sharp) by Henrik Ibsen is a play that critically examines society's role in its political and ideological enslavement and the elements that prevent or impede its progress. The questions: whether 'the government of the people by the people for the people' is a concept that exists or is even possible; the 'rightness' of the majority, which is the basis of democracy; and the end result of unquestioned liberalism, are all answered in this stupendous play.

It critiques society's choices, and the factors that influence those choices: are the choices leaders make made in the interest of the people or are they made in the interest of a few who, armed with the tools given them by the people, make the people believe the reverse? Or is society deceived to choose the very option that is counter to its interest, serving instead the interest of the privilege minority, as in this story? In this story, set in a Norwegian coastal town, the interest being served is the Mayor's, which he has carefully and shrewdly sold to the people and of which the people are enamoured.

Peter Stockmann - Mayor of the Town and Chief Constable, Chairman of the Baths' Committee (and more) - and his brother Dr Thomas Stockmann - Medical Officer of the Municipal Baths - are in an uneasy relationship. Peter wants to be the only person of relevance to the people. He 'is confoundedly afraid of anyone doing any service to the town except himself.' Any idea that he does not generate, or cannot be remotely linked to, or which attempts to challenge his earlier decisions, or brings his office into disrepute, is fiercely opposed to. When Dr Stockmann came up with the idea that the town is well placed to invest into Baths, Peter sabotaged the idea and only implemented it, after a change in its critical design, at a time when he could be credited for it. His behaviour and manoeuvres are meant to seem important and relevant to the people and maintain his grip on society, ensuring the safeness of his political position. In this situation, Peter is no different from any politician today. He is a man who prefers bureaucracy, which imbues power into his position, over urgency. Thus, he worships his position and not the responsibilities it demands of him. He believes in power, and the authority if affords a person.

Dr Stockmann, on the other hand, is the usual strong-headed man who will not hide the truth or allow the wrong thing to be done, just to please people. He believes in authority for opportunities it offers to serve. At home, he ensures that he is what he wants his children to be. Dr Stockmann is that Mr Good Guy, whose moral astuteness does not budge regardless of the strength or source of the suasion. And will choose poverty, if the alternative is to cheat the system and bend to the wishes of the corrupt. He is the guy that can bite the hand that feeds him if that hand is also involved in anything he considers contrary to his principles.

So when Dr Stockmann discovered, and got confirmation from a research laboratory, that the towns' pipes had been polluted with decomposing organic matter resulting from the changes Peter made to the earlier design Thomas presented, which would lead to mass illness and death he was bound to face a fierce opposition from his brother. And this face-off was bound to be destructive. In fact, Thomas, as practical as he was, was prepared to allow Peter to take all the credit for this 'if only I can get the thing set right'. That was his response when his wife asked him if he could not 'make out that it was he [Peter] who set you on the scent of this discovery?'

Peter's opposition resulted not just from the direct cost of the renovation Thomas proposed and the revenue to be lost in the interim, which were the reasons he gave to garner support from the people; his opposition, as expected, was from the damage this finding would have on his reputation, as the main person who changed Thomas' design.
DR STOCKMANN: You have! It is impossible that you should not be convinced. I know I have represented the facts absolutely truthfully and fairly. And you know it very well, Peter, only you won't acknowledge it. It was owing to your action that both the Baths and the water conduits were built where they are; and that is what you won't acknowledge - that damnable blunder of yours. Pooh! - do you suppose I don't see through you?
PETER STOCKMANN: And even if that were true? If I perhaps guard my reputation somewhat anxiously, it is in the interest of the town. Without moral authority I am powerless to direct public affairs as seems, to my judgement, to be best for the common good. And on that account - and for various other reasons too - it appears to me to be a matter of importance that your report should not be delivered to the Committee. In the interest of the public, you must withhold it. Then, later on, I will raise the question and we will do our best, privately; but, nothing of this unfortunate affair not a single word of it - must come to the ears of the public. [Emphasis mine]
Thus, it was not that Peter did not believe his brother. He did. He knew that he had represented the truth in his report, which he intended to submit to the Baths Committee. But Peter would not admit this publicly. Here, not only did he want to be the source of the idea, but he wanted it to be carried out in a way that would keep his integrity intact.

In doing so, Peter equated his interest to the interest of the public, the people he represented, even when it was clear that he was the only beneficiary. However, what is fascinating is not Peter's opposition to Thomas' discovery. What is fascinating is the speed at which the influential people of the town - Hovstad, editor of the People's Messenger; Billing, his sub-editor who was Thomas' close friend; Aslaksen, the printer and Chairman of the House-holders' Association - who had earlier given support to his course suddenly withdrew their support. They had withdrawn their support after Peter wheedled them into believing that the cost of Thomas' proposed renovations was such that the common people, especially the House-holders, would have to contribute financially; besides, the engineer described the renovations superfluous and unnecessary and that it would take two years to complete, taking customers - and revenue - away from the town, further burdening them financially. Overnight, they, who had completely supported Thomas' propositions, considered it sabotage against his brother.

Each influential person, protecting his financial interest, managed to get the entire town - which had nothing to gain and all to lose from the illness that would befall them from drinking the polluted water - to doubt Thomas' findings. In fact, they would not listen to him when he made his appearance at the town council. There, after several cut-ins, insults, and gross misunderstanding of what they were doing, except following one another, in blind support of the few whose interest it was to oppose, they declared Thomas 'an enemy of the people'. Hovstad whose 'humble origin' had given him 'opportunities of knowing what is the most crying need in the humbler ranks of life', and Aslaksen, who had assured Thomas the support of the 'compact majority', and of whom Hovstad had said belonged to the class of people who vacillate from one side to the other and prevaricate and are never able to take any decisive step, led the crowd in incriminating Dr Thomas Stockmann.

Of particular interest is Aslaksen's behaviour. It resonates with most activists of today. Though he believed that authority has to be prodded to act, he was equally afraid of antagonising them, and so got nothing done. For instance, Aslaksen was prepared to debate the politics of the central government but was timid towards local authorities whom he met every day - people are activists as long as they do not have to meet or know the authorities against whom they fight. When the problems got closer Aslaksen demanded moderation. He sought his interest first and foremost, rather than the common good.

Dr Stockmann was completely unaware of the stance his few supporters had taken; he still relied on their capability of convincing the broad-minded, socially aware liberals to understand what he had found; he actually believed that they would be able to ratiocinate, independently, and come to the conclusion he had come to. He saw his conclusion as the natural end of a sequential analysis of the problem at hand, which any normal and intelligent person could not but arrive at. He did not know, then, that the masses whose support he courted were not intelligent and normal and could not hold an independent thought; he could not know that they only regurgitated what they had been fed, that they looked up to their leaders to think for them, that the people were complicit in their own enslavement. He was, however, forced to reassess the nature of society and its people when he was shocked out of his reverie by the open betrayal of these earlier supporters, and in the presence of his brother the Mayor. This reexamination led him to posit his profound insights of society.

This play is a fight against stagnation, against the people who believe that there could be no more progress other than what pertains at present, that where they had got to is the ultimate, and any further progress - because it would radically change the status quo, implying that their position and comfort are at risk - would only complicate matters. It is a fight against both the liberals and the conservatives, who believe that
[T]he public doesn't require any new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.
In this way, Ibsen asks, subtly: if a people make a choice, do they they make the choice from their own free will, or have they been made, prodded by an invisible hand, to make that choice? But the people - whose respect for authority borders on reverence and deification - devoid of all these background wrangling, of these hidden decisions and agenda, revel in the idea of having chosen (or voted), of having decided; but, what really is choice if it is between A and A?

In the fight between right and might, right - standing alone with Thomas; might - crowding around Peter, Thomas unfurled his profound expositions on society. Using the water as a metaphor for the community's moral life, Ibsen says that the whole society, which itself is built on falsehood, has been poisoned.
I have already told you that what I want to speak about is the great discovery I have made lately - the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.
And this poisoning of the community's moral life was not carried out by the few who coaxed the gullible masses to take the decision that favoured a few, the likes of the Mayor, Aslaksen, Billing, or Hovstad; it is not these leaders or the old conservatives who, holding on to dead and dying ideas were 'paving the path for their own extinction'. These folks pose no danger to truth and freedom.
It is not they who are most instrumental in poisoning the sources of our moral life and infecting the ground on which we stand. It is not they who are the most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom amongst us.
The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom, those who poison the soil with their pestiferous baths, are the masses, the compact Liberal majority, who instead of fighting for its rights fights against it, who blindly supports and fights unknown wars. These are the pollutants that suffuse and poison our moral life.
The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority - yes, the damned compact Liberal majority - that is it!
[I]t is the masses, the majority - this infernal compact majority - that poisons the sources of our moral life and infects the ground we stand on.
This is what he wants to 'drum into the heads of these curs'. And this majority - wherever they are and in whatever circumstances they show themselves - are never right. They are incapable of holding independent ideas; they are cannot stand unique ideas; they yearn for homogeneity, which in itself is anti-progressive. For because they entertain no opposing ideas, they produce no revolution, and consequently no progress. The only thing the majority can offer is safety, safety from one another because it has might, and even this, temporarily. For with time, the truth will come crushing and the impenetrable field will be shattered.
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. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. ... The majority has might on its side - unfortunately; but right it has not.
I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of the truth. 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. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie...
According to Ibsen, or Thomas, truths when they become universally agreed upon are already becoming a lie. In a progressive society therefore, hypotheses, laws, institutions, authorities should be constantly challenged. One need not accept or believe an idea, a response, a supposition, just because everyone believes it. Universally believed ideas, must be analysed and questioned. This is as important today as the year 1882. Ibsen was speaking portentously. Today, people are given all sorts of names because they believe something entirely different from what the masses do; today, a country, a nation, can do whatever it wishes, because it can and because it has the might and because it has the ability to prod the people to act in any way it requires. They feed the masses with the half and plausible truths, for the masses can reason no further than that which have been offered them and will pounce on anyone who attempts to question it. The stupider ones will ask 'what more do you want? Are you in a position to know more than those in the corridors of power?' For such folks, whom to think is to risk haemorrhaging a cranial nerve, it is sacrilegious to question authorities, the people they salaam before.
The truths of which the masses now approve are the very truths that the fighters at the outposts held to in the days of our grandfathers. We fighters at the outposts nowadays no longer approve of them; and I do not believe there is any other well-ascertained truth except that no community can live a healthy life if it is nourished only on such old marrowless truths.
If society lives on ideas, then stale ideas strangulate and kill societies. Ibsen explains that people should be broad-minded, and allow their independent thoughts to lead them. Was it not universally accepted that the white race is superior to the black race - a fact of which led to slavery and segregation? Was it not accepted by a group of people who had the compact majority, and therefore might on their side, that Jews must be wiped out to pave way for the establishment of a pure Aryan race? Was it not universally accepted that women were inferior to men and were incapable of voting? Yet, in each of these scenarios there were those in the dominating group who could have lucidly argued against the system. That truth ages and dies, that concepts fade and laws breakdown, is a fact of life any broad-minded person cannot but be open to. What might be truthful today, might not necessarily be so in a few years to come. Have not many superstitions been shattered by new scientific discoveries? Ibsen says that 'broad-mindedness is almost precisely the same thing as morality.' Consequently, a community that thrives on lies 'ought to be razed to the ground.' To Thomas a man's worth is based on his ability to hold an independent thought; people who go with the herd are lower in the ranks.

This compact majority is to be found everywhere, and wherever they are their characteristics do not change. However, nowhere are they dangerous than in political parties, where all manner of people come together to hold themselves to common ideologies.
A party is like a sausage machine; it mashes up all sorts of heads together into the same mincemeat - fatheads and blockheads, all in one mash!
Thus, 'from one end of this country to the other, every man is the slave of his Party'. They are unable to hold an independent idea, not stained by others' thought processes, and will act on the interest of that amorphous constitution, which is not the interest of the people. Ibsen sees a party, or any organisation for that matter, as the easiest route to losing one's ideas and identity; for an organisation - working for its own interest - usually cannot stand an ideology that is antithetical to its purpose and its ways of doing things.
Party programmers strangle every young and vigorous truth - that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down... 
The irony according to Thomas was that those who 'turn every idea topsy-turvy', are 'these "liberals," men full of age, going about in crowds imagining that they are the broad-minded party!' Thus broad-mindedness does not come from talking but from acting. If Ibsen bemoaned a bulging and useless Liberals, who were liberals only in name, in 1882, then we should, today, be revolting against them.

In a stroke of genius, a moment that could be described as nothing less than epiphanic, not just in its foreboding but also in its complete and profound truthfulness, Ibsen compares a party leader to a wolf. He says
A party leader is like a wolf, you see - like a voracious wolf. He requires a certain number of smaller victims to prey upon every year, if he is to live.
But standing alone against the truth has its consequences, for no one stand against the raging masses and leve unscathed. In the end, Thomas was dismissed from his position as a Medical Officer by Peter, citing public opinion as the sole reason (it is the reason all his friends gave when they severed relations with him). He however added a caveat, that should Thomas return to the town (as he was urging him to leave for his own good) and accept his error, through a letter of apology, retracting what he had earlier said, he could restore him to his position. 'What about opinion, then?', he asked of his brother. And Peter said:
Public opinion is an extremely mutable thing. 
Clearly, the leaders know their people. The politicians know their flock. With control over the media, and consequently public opinion, today's political leaders do whatever they want and get away with them for they could make the public fight for them by working on what they think. Today, there is a gulf of space between those who get into political positions and the masses. Power and wealth have become the true end of politics. Just as Ibsen pointed out, the majority are made to support the ideas of the few that benefit fewer. Consequently,
the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
For such a man is usually right. In this light, one is looking at such whistle-blowers as Edward Snowden, Chelsea E. Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg and others who, exposing the government to the people, became enemies of the people. Telling the people: 'your government is spying on you. Your government can kill whoever it wants', the people replied 'and so what! You're traitor. You should be killed.' These are the bare facts of life today. The truth cuts and it cuts deepest.

This play, together with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, should be our bedtime stories; they should be on our study tables; their pages should be pasted onto walls, at every turn; they should be taught in schools (in your dreams!); they should be discussed on radio (who owns them?), for these two books, alone, expose, comprehensively, the nature, structure, characteristics, and working of societies, nations and the political machinery of governments. These are books that should be in everybody's handbag. They do not give you fish; they teach you how to fish. They are eye-openers, and if there is anyone out there, who had not read either of the two, you are gravely missing something, and at your own peril.

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