Monday, February 27, 2017

Correspondence: Enemy of the people

By Moristotle

“Trump Embraces ‘Enemy of the People,’ a Phrase with a Fraught History” [Andrew Higgins, NY Times, February 26]. Excerpt:
MOSCOW — The phrase was too toxic even for Nikita Khrushchev, a war-hardened veteran communist not known for squeamishness. As leader of the Soviet Union, he demanded an end to the use of the term “enemy of the people” because “it eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight.”
    “The formula ‘enemy of the people,’” Mr. Khrushchev told the Soviet Communist Party in a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader....
    ...Why would the elected leader of a democratic nation embrace a label that, after the death of Stalin, even the Soviet Union found to be too freighted with sinister connotations?
    Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of Mr. Khrushchev and a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, said the phrase was “shocking to hear in a non-Soviet, moreover non-Stalinist setting.”....
    The phrase “enemy of the people” first entered the political lexicon in 1789, with the French Revolution. The revolutionaries initially used it as a slogan that was hurled willy-nilly at anybody who opposed them. But, as resistance to the revolution mounted, the term acquired a far more lethal and legalistic meaning with the adoption of a 1794 law that set up a revolutionary tribunal “to punish enemies of the people” and codified political crimes punishable by death. These included “spreading false news to divide or trouble the people.”
    The concept resurfaced in a more benign form nearly a century later in “An Enemy of the People,” an 1882 play by the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen about an idealistic whistle-blower in a small town at odds with the authorities and locals who, to protect the economy, want to suppress information about water contamination. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 returned the term to the blood-drenched dramas of the French Revolution, with Lenin declaring in Pravda that the Jacobin terror against “enemies of the people” was “instructive” and needed to be revived, so as to rid the Russian people of “landowners and capitalists as a class.”
    Stalin, who took over as Soviet leader upon Lenin’s death in 1924, drastically expanded the scope of those branded as “enemies of the people,” targeting not only capitalists but also dedicated communists who had worked alongside Lenin for years, but whom Stalin viewed as rivals. [read more]
Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, is being referenced a lot. The best quote from it that I’ve seen is this one: “You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”

“Trump called the news media an ‘enemy of the American People.’ Here’s a history of the term.” [Amanda Erickson, Washington Post , February 18]. Excerpt:
Around the same time, leaders of the Soviet Union were transforming enemy of the people into a major tool for oppression and silencing enemies. Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Bolsheviks, used “the peoples' enemies” as a label to stigmatize anyone who didn't fall into line when the revolution happened. Enemies of the people were ostracized and even their friends were under suspicion.
For foes of Joseph Stalin, being branded an enemy of the people was a death sentence. The Soviet leader deployed that language against politicians and artists he didn't like. Once branded, the accused were sent to labor camps or killed. Best case? An enemy would be denied education and employment. “It is one of the most controversial phrases in Soviet history,” Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told Voice of America. [read more]
The record needs to be set straight: “The Real Enemy of the People Is a President Who Opposes the Free Press” [John Nichols, The Nation , February 20]. Excerpt:
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association just two months after he was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States, he explained that: “I have selected as the title of my remarks tonight ‘The President and the Press.’ Some may suggest that this would be more naturally worded ‘The President Versus the Press.’ But those are not my sentiments tonight.”
    Kennedy went on to say to the assembled publishers,

[My] purpose here tonight is not to deliver the usual assault on the so-called one-party press. On the contrary, in recent months I have rarely heard any complaints about political bias in the press except from a few Republicans. Nor is it my purpose tonight to discuss or defend the televising of Presidential press conferences. I think it is highly beneficial to have some 20,000,000 Americans regularly sit in on these conferences to observe, if I may say so, the incisive, the intelligent and the courteous qualities displayed by your Washington correspondents.
    ...the point of Kennedy’s speech was a serious one. He had come, as a new president of the United States, to talk about the relationship between his administration and the media. He acknowledged “the dilemma faced by a free and open society in a cold and secret war,” and he spoke honestly of his hope for a measure of restraint in the coverage of particularly sensitive global disputes. But he also said: “The question is for you alone to answer. No public official should answer it for you. No governmental plan should impose its restraints against your will.” [read more]
The obituary can’t come soon enough: “Trump Voters, Your Savior Is Betraying You” [Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, February 25]. Excerpt:
Trump howls at the news media, not just because it embarrasses him, but because it provides an institutional check on his lies, incompetence and conflicts of interest. But we can take his vitriol: When the time comes, we will write Trump’s obituary, not the other way around. [emphasis ours]....
    ...The truth is that among the biggest losers from Trump policies will be you Trump voters...You were hoping you’d elected a savior, and instead Donald Trump is doing to you what he did to just about everyone who ever trusted him: He’s betraying you. [read more]
I consider myself a reasonable, considerate person – even compassionate, but when I look inside myself these days I see such enmity and spite, I know what the author of this piece means by “inflamed and enmeshed”: “Trump vs. Press: Crazy, Stupid Love” [Maureen Dowd, NY Times, February 25]. Excerpt:
[Trump]’s most intense, primal, torrid relationship is in full “The War of the Roses” bloom here. And it is not with his beautiful, reserved wife. It’s with the press, the mirror for the First Narcissus.
    ...Trump thinks that the mirror is cracked and the coverage is “fake.” And many in the press, spanning the ideological spectrum, think that he is cracked and that a lot of his pronouncements are fake.
    ...Can this strange, symbiotic relationship be saved? Probably not. It is too inflamed and enmeshed, too full of passionate accusations.... [read more]
Hate, hate, hate...from ALL sides. I’m sick of it!

“I’m sure many readers would rather live in a nation in which more of life could be separated from politics. So would I! But civil society is under assault from political forces, so that defending it is, necessarily, political. And justified outrage must fuel that defense. When neither the president nor his allies in Congress show any sign of respecting basic American values, an aroused public that’s willing to take names is all we have.” That’s an excerpt from Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece, “The Uses of Outrage” [NY Times, February 27]. Krugman also says:
Are you angry about the white nationalist takeover of the U.S. government? If so, you are definitely not alone. The first few weeks of the Trump administration have been marked by huge protests, furious crowds at congressional town halls, customer boycotts of businesses seen as Trump allies. And Democrats, responding to their base, have taken a hard line against cooperation with the new regime.
    But is all this wise? Inevitably, one hears some voices urging everyone to cool it — to wait and see, to try to be constructive, to reach out to Trump supporters, to seek ground for compromise.
    Just say no.
    Outrage at what’s happening to America isn’t just justified, it’s essential. In fact, it may be our last chance of saving democracy....
    It’s true that white working-class voters, the core of Donald Trump’s support, don’t seem to care about the torrent of scandal: They won’t turn on him until they realize that his promises to bring back jobs and protect their health care were lies. But remember, he lost the popular vote, and would have lost the Electoral College if a significant number of college-educated voters hadn’t been misled by the media and the F.B.I. into believing that Hillary Clinton was somehow even less ethical than he was. Those voters are now having a rude awakening, and need to be kept awake. [read more]
Immediate source of Trump’s “enemy of the people”? “Trump, Archenemy of Truth” [Charles M. Blow, NY Times, February 27]. Excerpt:
...The conspiracy theory Bannon posits here is perfectly shaped for the xenophobe: America’s media has economic interests that extend well beyond this country’s borders, and therefore Trump’s “America first” message and policies pose a very real, bottom-line threat to the media’s global prosperity. The threat is so urgent that the American media is willfully damaging the only real asset it has — credibility — by inventing falsehoods designed to damage Trump and insulate its own profitability. [emphasis ours]
    As far-fetched as this may sound to any reasonable person, one must always remember that Trump isn’t a reasonable person or even a particularly smart one, which makes him the perfect vessel for Bannon’s pseudo-intellectual vanities.
    The day after Bannon spoke, Trump himself came to CPAC and reaffirmed his commitment to this anti-media crusade, parroting Bannon’s language.
    First Trump said: “A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.”
    He continued in a barely coherent diatribe of sentence fragments, incongruous ideas and broken logic. But if you listened closely, you could hear echoes of Bannon. At one point, Trump said: “We have to fight it, folks, we have to fight it. They’re very smart, they’re very cunning and they’re very dishonest.” At another he said of the media: “Many of these groups are part of the large media corporations that have their own agenda and it’s not your agenda and it’s not the country’s agenda, it’s their own agenda.”
    Trump is Bannon’s puppet....
    The fact is that Trump simply wants the truth not to be true, so he assaults its quality. He wants the purveyors of truth not to pursue it, so he questions their motives.
    And yet, truth stands, rigid and sharp, unforgiving and unafraid. It is our only guard against tyranny and the brave men and women who labor away in its service are nothing short of patriots and heroes.
    The press won’t pat Trump on his head and give him a gold star for the few things he gets right, and then turn a blind eye to the overwhelming majority of things he gets wrong.
    That’s not how it works. That’s not how it has ever worked. Trump wants to brand the press as the enemy of the American people when the exact opposite is true: A free, fearless, adversarial, in-your-face press is the best friend a democracy can have.
    The press is the light that makes the roaches scatter.
    Remember this every time you hear Trump attack the press: Only people with something to hide need be afraid of those whose mission is to seek. [read more]
It is most un-American to undermine the elected president of our country and the office. There have been many presidents I have not wanted in the office and Trump may end up being another, but for me, the jury is still out.

I didn’t know Krugman was a sports writer: “It’s not even O.K. to go golfing with the president, saying that it’s about showing respect for the office, not the man. Sorry, but when the office is held by someone trying to undermine the Constitution, doing anything that normalizes him and lends him respectability is a political act.” That’s from “The Uses of Outrage” [NY Times, February 27].

Grateful for correspondence, Moristotle


  1. On Facebook, Sharon Stoner just commented on today's Correspondence column: "Everyone needs to read this." I of course wholeheartedly agree. Thank you, dear Ms. Stoner!

  2. David Brooks provides a deeper way of understanding Trump’s assault on rationality, science, and journalism in his latest NY Times article, "The Enlightenment Project":

    When Trump calls the media the “enemy of the people” he is going after the system of conversation, debate and inquiry that is the foundation for the entire Enlightenment project.

    When anti-Enlightenment movements arose in the past, Enlightenment heroes rose to combat them. Lincoln was no soulless technocrat. He fought fanaticism by doubling down on Enlightenment methods, with charity, reason and patience. He worked tirelessly for unity over division. He was a hopeful pessimist who knew the struggle would be long but he had faith in providence and ultimate justice.

    We live in a time when many people have lost faith in the Enlightenment habits and institutions. I wonder if there is a group of leaders who will rise up and unabashedly defend this project, or even realize that it is this fundamental thing that is now under attack.

  3. Roger Cohen offers some insight into the current anger (or hate, enmity, & spite, as two of yesterday's correspondents put it), in his latest NY Times article, "The Madness of Crowds":

    People ask, and it’s a reasonable question, why everyone’s so angry, why they’re voting against their own-self-interest, even electing hucksters like Donald Trump who never really had anything but mean little thoughts and now says he’ll clean the swamp as he replenishes it daily.

    They ask what the deal is when job numbers are pretty good and Warren Buffett, no less, says the American economy will continue to perform its wealth-making miracle and the world has known a solid quotient of peace for way longer than is usual — and yet there is enough anger for a shallow con man to get elected who says he’ll make America great again with “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.”

    What Trump knows about history (or for that matter the Constitution) would not fill a Post-it note. Just for the record, massive military buildups tend to precede a war. My bet would be with Iran, possibly before the midterms. But that’s not the issue here, although it’s scary.

    The issue is the anger. It’s a European as well as an American phenomenon. It led a generally cautious people, the British, to hurl themselves over the White Cliffs of Dover last year in a successful attempt to break from the European Union and satisfy an urge to get their country back (whatever that means). A windy buffoon called Nigel Farage led this exercise in the madness of crowds and has since become Trump’s dining companion. I suppose they disparage Muslims over well-done burgers and Coke. Multilateralism gets a guffaw with the ice cream. God help us.

  4. Interesting! However, we already believe.