In Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, a doctor discovers that the mineral springs in his town—the same springs to which people flock from all over the country for the health benefits—are in fact polluted, poisoned. He passes this information on to his brother, the mayor. But the brother, ever the pragmatist, realizes that closing the springs will wreak financial havoc and refuses to do so. Even the newspaper, on the doctor’s side at first when the editor sees scandal-driven sales, is convinced by the mayor to take the opposite tack and challenge the discovery. In the end the man who briefly envisioned himself as the town’s savior becomes the title character.
Truth dies. It doesn’t usually die as quickly as it does in this play, but especially among the weak-minded, it dies.
At the beginning of this century we were an inclusive country. No, not everywhere and not at all times, but it was beginning to happen. We even elected a black president and nominated a woman eight years later. Popular TV series centered on alternative life styles, and when Seinfeld alluded to them with the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” we laughed—but we believed him. These were truths we espoused, some of us grudgingly, but we did. But then those truths became platitudes and the platitudes became clichés that could be assailed as political correctness. And when enough of us were convinced that political correctness was more weakness than decorum, we were ripe to be hoodwinked by someone like Donald Trump. He is, in the end, the weak and venal mayor of Ibsen’s town, and the gutless editor of Ibsen’s newspaper, and all the vapid and characterless people who scream for the doctor’s demise.
But yes, this is about Newtown—our own poisoned spring—and the guns that made it that way. It’s been four years now since the shootings, and nobody needs clearer proof of the fact that truth dies than to examine this country since December 14, 2012. The events of that terrible day offered us a chance to be better than we were, to rise above our own personal preferences and do something that was true. Baby steps maybe—banning assault weapons or closing gun-show loopholes or keeping firearms away from the certifiably deranged. But everything was a struggle, and every defeat was more disheartening, and finally we selected Donald Trump because we no longer wanted to confront the uncomfortable truth about ourselves—and he obliged by suggesting during his campaign that some like-minded gun lovers shoot his opponent. Then we elected him.
The doctor in Ibsen’s play says:
Was the majority right when they stood by while Jesus was crucified? Was the majority right when they refused to believe that the earth moved around the sun and let Galileo be driven to his knees like a dog? It takes fifty years for the majority to be right. The majority is never right until it does right.
The truth of Newtown is dead. It took only four years to kill it. And with suddenly deteriorating foreign relations, a renewed advocacy of nuclear weapons, an increasingly damaged environment, and a virulent and xenophobic isolationism staring at us from the perfectly coifed but morally bankrupt leader of the free world, I’m not sure if any of us has Ibsen’s fifty years to spare while we wait around for the truth to win out.