An Enemy of the People — Where Was He in the Drug Compounding Scandal?

I watched Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 blockbuster play, Enemy of the People, last night in the 1971 BBC version, having been reminded of it in a book about whistle blowers and the risks they run. There is of course the 1966 Arthur Miller version available, the 1978 version with Steve McQueen in the role of the Enemy, and a new “jagged fist of a revival” playing on Broadway, but strangely — in a country so much embroiled in like issues for the last 30 years — the 124 year old “contemporary” play would not surface as a touchstone for most.

The chemist of a small town in Norway, always somewhat of a gadfly, comes upon the earth shaking discovery that the water being bottled in the town and shipped all over the country, and attracting visitors to the spa, is contaminated.  His seeing a pattern in illnesses of locals made him suspicious.  A finding by a test lab has confirmed.  He suspects the problem is effluent from the local tannery — owned by his father-in-law– seeping into the groundwater.

Beginning as an ebullient town crier —  “gee, aren’t you glad I found this out before more people get really sick”–  in the space of the short play he discovers he has not an ally in the world but his daughter, and to a lesser extent his wife.  The once promising muck-raking editor bows out because of financial compromises.  The head of the local trades-unions understands the potential loss of jobs if the news get out. His own brother, head of the plant, is his worst enemy, exploding personal, political and economic land mines every step of the way.

In the end, no one wants to hear his news.  He is declared an enemy of the people, his warnings ignored, and all but run out of business. The bottling plant goes on…doom, we are sure, is right around the corner.

Gee, how little times have changed!

 A federal inspection of a company whose tainted pain medicine has caused one of the worst public health drug disasters since the 1930s found greenish-yellow residue on sterilization equipment, surfaces coated with levels of mold and bacteria that exceeded the company’s own environmental limits, and an air-conditioner that was shut off nightly despite the importance of controlling temperature and humidity.

The findings, made public on Friday by the Food and Drug Administration, followed a report from Massachusetts regulators on Tuesday and offered disturbing new details in an emerging portrait of what went wrong inside the New England Compounding Center, the pharmacy at the heart of a national meningitisoutbreak in which 25 people have died, 313 more have fallen ill and as many as 14,000 people are believed to have been exposed.   NY Times

The corruption, which Dr.Thomas Stockman memorably describes as spreading like black-spot rose fungus over the whole population is still spreading.  The industries and their abettors in Congress and regulatory agencies always believe profits trump all other arguments.  Heck it’s a free market — you can chose to take that spinal injection, or not!

In this case, as is too familiar, no whistle blower stood. It took deaths and illness to blow loud enough to be heard.   There have been some brave men and women who have stood up over the decades but they are in short supply, intimidated by corporate bullies, the fear of ostracization — being declared An Enemy of the People– and afraid of losing their livelihood.

It’s hard to know how to counter the natural fear.  Perhaps a National Hall of Fame for Whistle Blowers, and of course life-long pensions from the companies whose practices they halted.

Back to the play.  The startling part, to me, was the abrupt John Galtian turn Stockman takes.  Ayn Rand hadn’t written her infamous book yet, but the notion of “supermen” who knew more than the lowly common herd did not begin with her.  Instead of organizing  education and opposition to the idiocy of the bottling plant owners –and a large part of the population– Stockman goes off on megalomaniac tear, condemning the townspeople to their faces –without explaining the issues and looking for allies– and proclaiming that rule by the uncommon and extraordinary man was the only way to peace and tranquility — Plato’s philosopher’s king.  There is a clear whiff of despotism in his attitude — however good his intentions.  It is little wonder that Hitler found Ibsen’s plays to be particularly instructive.


I am far from believing that all decisions made by the demos are sanctified by truth and as often, are arrived at flown in on a carpet of lies.  Nevertheless, Stockman’s hasty rejection of all decision making by other than the superior man tells us about the temperament of his creator and his lack of faith in facts, reason and persuasion.  Hell yes!  Do it my way!

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