Tuesday, August 21, 2018

An Enemy of the People

"The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."
New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)

The title of the blog is a phrase that has been increasingly used over the past several months, but one whose concept is likely ill understood. 
Over the course of the last century, the phrase has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters.  Though the phrase dates back to Roman times, it came into use in the modern period during the French Revolution.  Ennemi du peuple was used to referred to those who disagreed with the new government during the "Reign of Terror."  It was further used by the Third Reich to describe the Jews as a "sworn enemy of the German people."  Vrag naroda was then used by the communists during the early years of the Soviet Union.  It referred to anyone to disagreed with the ideologies pushed forth by the Bolshevik government and the newly-formed Soviet Union.  In recent years, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has also called political dissenters "enemies of the homeland."

The phrase also served as the title for a play by Henrik Ibsen, later further adapted by Arthur Miller.  Ibsen wrote the play in response to the outcry to his previous work Ghosts.  The play focuses on a doctor who discovers that the source of the town's economy, health baths, has been contaminated and is poisoning its inhabitants.  The action centers on his attempts to reveal the truth and the attempts by others in the town including his family, the mayor, and the newspaper editor to suppress that information.  The term "enemy of the people" is thus used to describe the protagonist for the damage he would do to the town's reputation (despite the fact that he would be saving them all).

Trump has almost exclusively used the phrase to refer to the "mainstream" media, as part of his decrying of "fake news."   His administration continued to support this position, even reaching the point where his Press Secretary Sarah Sanders refused to say the press was not the enemy of the people in a press briefing.  This has led many others to push back.

On Thursday, August 16, 2018, the senate unanimously voted to assure that the press is not the enemy of the people.  Further, hundreds of newspapers across the country printed editorials to elaborate and to extol the virtues of a free press.

Trump responded in appropriate fashion.

Freedom of the press is a foundational belief in our country.  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."  Tied to the freedom of speech, it is fundamental to our representative democracy.  It's one of the "great bulwarks of our liberty."

Further, the United Nations as part of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."

It is disconcerting to see such a fundamental right be continually attacked and denigrated, particularly by the highest offices of our nation and particularly when it is done as to so clearly pander to a base constituency.

The irony is the term "enemy of the people" truly can be used to describe to someone that was perceived threat to those in power, but who has the best interest of the society in mind.  It's definitely the way that the play uses the term, and how history has represented its use by dictators and autocrats.

Perhaps then, it is most appropriate here.  After all, the press is warning us of the abuses of an administration that perhaps sees that the walls are closing in.  And the press has played a large role in the resignation of a corrupt president before.

I just pray we don't lose sight of its value in the interim.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to a friend, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."  He may have changed his thoughts during his presidency, but perhaps therein lies the central conflict.  It's hard to champion the free press when you are its target.  It then rest with the rest of us to make sure such a fundamental right is maintained and appreciated.

The New York Times makes a very good point in its editorial on the subject.  Subscribe to your local papers.  Praise them when they do well and criticize them when they could do better.  But be involved and be a part of it.

We're in this together.

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