An inconvenient enemy of the people

The opening shot in a much anticipated Presidential contest might just have been fired in the strangest of places: Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. The company is currently running a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” But as Washington’s political set return from their summer vacations they will find that their city’s most renowned venue is staging more than a revived classic. To the shrewder eye it is clear that the play was nothing less than a dress rehearsal for a Gore ’08 Presidential run.

The play, claim the Shakespeare Theatre, is merely a morality tale discussing how “society deliberately and ruthlessly ostracizes its truth-tellers.” It is being run to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ibsen’s death. Right? Wrong. Look a little closer and the true parallels are unmistakable. The play tells the story of Dr. Thomas Stockman, a respectable but slightly unconventional idealist in a coastal town in southern Norway. The town is booming as tourists flock to the newly opened municipal health spa. This reputation for good health is seen by all residents as the area’s chief asset. At least, that is, until mysterious illnesses among tourists begin to raise suspicions.

Realizing something is not quite right with the town’s environment our bearded environmentally conscious hero begins to examine what might be amiss. Having sifted the evidence, he seeks scientific help to confirm the cause as contamination of the Spa water. The word comes back: pollution is indeed the culprit. Even worse, it is caused by the irresponsible actions of big business, in the form of a local tannery that allows effluent to run off upstream.

Having already suspected this inconvenient truth, Stockman / Gore decides something must be done. He writes a damning report full of irrefutable scientific evidence that the town’s environment, and indeed its very long-term livelihood, are in peril. It seems as if this compelling mixture of hard science and honest truth cannot fail. With his thoughtful daughter Petra / Karina as a close advisor, Stockman / Gore pledges to go public.

Yet he reckons without his elder brother, Peter, who also happens to be the town’s mayor. Stockman Sr. sees Stockman Jr. as an idealist eco-warrior who plans to wreck the town’s economy on a whim, and destroy the hard won social stability and prosperity on which his Mayoralty rests. Ever the politician, Peter urges a cover-up in the name of the common good. In this he is backed by the duplicitous local press, who prove to be nothing short of a Nineteenth century Norwegian version of Fox News.

Some critics have seen parallels in this fratricidal relationship with the biblical myth of Cane and Abel. However, to the more attuned eye it is clearly a staging of more contemporary battle: the Florida election debacle, and ensuing Bush v. Gore court case. Stockman is lampooned by his brother, just as Bush mocked Gore’s environmentalism during the 2000 race. And the link is made completely clear in the town meeting that forms the play’s denouement. Although called by Stockman / Gore, the event is upstaged by Stockman / Bush, who uses a mix of his business support and legal chicanery to convince the town’s people that his brother is an environmental lunatic. Ultimately he is cast out, and branded “An Enemy of the People.”

What are we to make of this? The most obvious interpretation is that Ibsen is questioning those who think visionaries can really make a difference. By implication is he delivering a chastening rebuke to those — the environmentalists, the liberal bloggers, and the Bush haters — who hope fervently for Gore’s political renaissance. What hope has Gore, when Stockman is thoroughly outwitted by the forces of politics and capitalism; unable to convince the people of his obvious environmental truth?

Boxed in, and unable to win the majority of opinion he deserves, Stockman eventually turns against the very people he seeks to help. In the play’s most dramatic scene he rejects democracy itself, yelling that: “the majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against.” Gore himself never went as far. In 2000 he accepted the people’s verdict with grace, conceding “for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy”. Yet, even so, Ibsen clearly thinks that people like Gore rarely survive their own attempts to take on the conventional wisdom.

The play concludes with Stockman / Gore a broken man. Having had his home and reputation destroyed he sits in ragged clothes able only to joke that one should “never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.” He can console himself only with the bittersweet lament that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

Gore himself has come close to admitting something similarly. During the beginning of An Inconvenient Truth, he admits candidly to his own failure in the past to get his message across. Yet surely what he really means is not so much that he failed, but that they wouldn’t listen. Ibsen clearly thinks that the Gores of this world — the truth tellers, the visionaries — must stand alone while “the fools that form the overwhelming majority” ignore them.

And yet Ibsen — never the most uplifting of playwrights — can’t be quite as fatalistic as he first seems. He surely does not truly believe that ruination is always the path for those who raise the alarm; that desperation must come hand in hand with honesty. He simply believes that those like Stockman and Gore have a duty to the truth, no matter the results. For Stockman these consequences were brutal. But given the dangers facing our planet and the undeniable evidence in Gore’s hands, Ibsen wouldn’t simply be inclined to think that he should run for President in 2008. He would demand it.

James Crabtree is a senior policy advisor at NDN, a Washington-based think tank. He was formerly a Fulbright scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Ed. note: America’s Future Foundation’s AFF Underground program is sponsoring a field trip to see this play. For more information, click here.

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