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The enemy of the people and the truth

Lanise Antoine Shelley and Rebecca Hurd perform in a production of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" at the Goodman Theatre earlier this year. To be called an "enemy of the people," Phil Kadner writes, can be high praise. | Liz Lauren

President Trump calls the news media the “enemy of the people.” There could be no higher praise.

In 1882, a Norwegian playwright named Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called “An Enemy of the People.” It’s about a man who tells the truth although that means he will be an outcast in his own town. It means he will lose his livelihood, alienate his brother, lose his home and place his family in danger.


It’s about ignorance, the politics of fear and the ability of people to use the democratic process to silence those who hold opinions they view as threatening.

Trump points at my colleagues in the news media and brands them the “enemy of the people” because they have reported that a foreign country, Russia, interfered in our presidential election. This has been established by all of our intelligence organizations, including the CIA and FBI.

It is a fact supported by tape recordings and spies embedded in the Kremlin.

Trump calls an investigation into his campaign’s possible connections to Russian espionage “a witch hunt.” He says that newspaper stories about connections between some of his closest advisers and Russia are “fake news.” He says newspaper reporters are horrible people who are unpatriotic.

“An Enemy of the People” is about a doctor in a small town who discovers that its main attraction, a hot spring, is contaminated. He decides to notify the people by printing his findings in the local newspaper.

The newspaper people are not heroes in this story. They are gutless folks who, in the face of pressure from the mayor and the threat of a reader rebellion, turn against the doctor. They not only refuse to print his findings, but ridicule him and support the mayor, who accuses the doctor of attempting to destroy the town because he dislikes authority and is selfish.

As a newspaper reporter for more than three decades covering mostly small suburbs in Chicago, I have seen the storyline of Ibsen’s play repeated time and again. A politician twists the truth, appeals to the worst fears of ordinary people, and suddenly a person who is simply trying to do the right thing discovers he is an “enemy of the people.”

It could be a person campaigning for an environmental cause, a citizen defending a tax hike to help the schools, or a group of religious people trying to open a Mosque.

The strength of this country, it’s greatness, the thing that makes it different than any nation in history, is that the minority has the same rights as the majority.

This bothers many people who consider themselves patriots.

They do not understand why criminals have civil rights, or why illegal immigrants get a day in court before they are deported. It angers the majority that in a Christian country Muslims can refuse to sing Christmas carols in public schools or refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Gays have a right to be married and football players can kneel when the American flag passes by.

Newspaper columnists can defend all of this and ridicule the powerful and the rich and question everything they believe to be true.

That is the essence of the First Amendment. It is the most radical concept in the history of mankind. It allows for dissent and the expression of opinions that are unpopular, which is why the majority often finds the concept offensive.

That is also why, when Trump ridicules the news media for its lack of patriotism, he feels a groundswell of support from the crowd.

“An enemy of the people” ends with the doctor cowering in his home with his wife and children as his neighbors throw rocks through the windows. He vows to defend the truth, believing it is so powerful he eventually will be vindicated.

He does this because he believes in the people, even if they do not believe in him.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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