May 26, 2006

Henrik Ibsen made me do it

I'm a little late getting down to work today because I've been attending a Norwegian Embassy symposium at the Library of Congress celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the man who helped to ruin my life: Henrik Ibsen.

I don't really hold it against him and I'm far from the only one who has been affected by the Norwegian playwright. At this moment, for example, some 184 performances of Ibsen's plays are being readied around the world, including one at Washington's Shakespeare Theater next fall. Others will take place in Nepal, Bangladesh, Palestine, Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Australia, Argentina and South Korea. New translations are underway in Polish, Farsi, Vietnamese, German and French.

Ibsen introduced to the stage, and helped define, the existential and humanistic side of what would become the 20th century. Unfortunately, within a decade of his death, tanks and submarines would make it clear who would really be in charge of the century and it wasn't to be existentialists and humanists.

Nearly a hundred years before Earth Day, he wrote a strongly ecological play and declared in his notes for another work, "There are two kinds of moral law, two kinds of conscience, one in man and a completely different one in woman. They do not understand each other; but in matters of practical living the woman is judged by man's law, as if she were not a woman but a man." He also wrote about child abuse, incest, business ethics, venereal disease and media morality.

He has been praised as the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. Freud credited him with helping him discover the Oedipus complex. The National Committee for the Promotion of Ibsen describes his writings as "alive and relevant, constantly rejuvenating new generations." And that's just for starters.

But in a new book, Said About Ibsen, novelist Nikolaj Frobenius points out that there is another Ibsen: "An argumentative, provocative, stubborn and prickly sod."

This was the Ibsen I met in the 1950s in high school, an Ibsen alien to everything the 1950s stood for, as removed from the gestalt of 20th century American Pleasantville as he had been from conventional 19th century Norway. A still subversive Ibsen.

One of the Ibsen plays I read was the Arthur Miller adaptation of An Enemy of the People about the doctor had tried to warn his spa-dependent town of the ecological dangers of their polluted water system . At first, the town is receptive but when they find out how much it will cost to repair they turn against Dr Stockmann and he then turns against them. At point he says of the town, "It should be razed to the ground, I tell you! And wiped out, like vermin, all of those who live with the lie."

If the play had been commissioned by Move On and written by Michael Moore, Dr Stockmann would have been an unblemished hero. But Ibsen was a writer, not a polemicist. And so, a half decade before Silent Spring, a young man was able to learn in one play about ecological hazards, whistle-blowing, and the hubris that can come from just being right.

With it, life became far too complicated to just settle down as a happy 1950s lawyer, doctor or corporate executive, especially if you had also read a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Willie Loman musing, "After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." Or one year after graduation, picking up William Whyte's Organization Man:

"The corporation man is the most conspicuous example, but he is only one, for the collectivization so visible in the corporation has affected almost every field of work. Blood brother to the business trainee off to join Du Pont is the seminary student who win end up in the church hierarchy, the doctor headed for the corporate clinic, the physics Ph.D. in a government laboratory, the intellectual on the foundation-sponsored team project, the engineering graduate in the huge drafting room at Lockheed, the young apprentice in a Wall Street law factory. . .

"Listen to them talk to each other over the front lawns of their suburbia and you cannot help but be struck by how well they grasp the common denominators which bind them. Whatever the differences in their organization ties, it is the common problems of collective work that dominate their attentions, and when the Du Pont man talks to the research chemist or the chemist to the army man, it is these problems that are uppermost. The word collective most of them can't bring themselves to use--except to describe foreign countries or organizations they don't work for--but they are keenly aware of how much more deeply beholden they are to organization than were their elders."

The problem with such an education is that it is far easier to write and read about it than to actually live with the message. At Germantown Friends School I was, politically and philosophically at least, non-radical and normal. One year later I would learn that Harvard wasn't interested in Ibsen, Sloan Wilson or William Whyte; and, still later, Washington even less so. And so, with no little help from Henrik Ibsen and those who followed, I became an outsider.

Even one among my supposed allies. Because if you approach things as a writer you see too many things to please the truly committed. For example, I have never subscribed to the notion that those who disagree with me politically are therefore evil. Some of this comes from living in a large family but I suspect the lesson of Dr. Stockmann lingers as well: the underrated dangers of righteousness. And so I found myself siding with Al Camus who, when asked if he were willing to die for his beliefs, responded, "of course not, what if I am wrong"?

Yet oddly, and without premeditation, I have spent an extraordinary amount of my life dealing with whistleblowers like Dr Stockmann, both as a journalist and as a board member of a fund backing groups helping whistleblowers. I wrote about it in Why Bother?

Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one's job, blacklisting, or even death. . .

From the doctor in Ibsen's Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you should keep one foot in the stirrup.

Whistleblowers fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and terribly lonely.

On the other hand, whistleblowers have forced the cancellation of a nuclear power plant that was 97% completed, potentially prevented widespread illness due to poor meat inspection, ended the beating of patients in a VA hospital, and exposed multi-billion dollar waste in the Star Wars program.

And not all whistleblowers are defeated. When Ernest Fitzgerald discovered a $2 billion cost overrun on a military cargo plane, Richard Nixon personally ordered his staff to "get rid of that son of a bitch." Twenty-five years later Fitzgerald was still on the job. . .

One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering retaliation; others found reprisals in about 95% of cases. As Admiral Hyman Rickover told a group of Pentagon cost analysts: "If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy. God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will."

The whistleblower, the outsider, the rebel, always faces the dilemma that trapped Dr. Stockmann. I didn't like his solution, but I understood it. There is no textbook for the outsider, only stories like Ibsen's. Here's how I tried to explain it in my memoir, Multitudes:

I didn't plan it this way. I didn't want it this way. In truth, a large part of me still would like to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way - some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness, and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child's dreams and an adult's faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I'll float off.

Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I'm different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.

But it's really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:

"You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . . "

Those dissidents who somehow remain connected to the normal find themselves alone in the crowd. Even in my home town, I often feel an exile - as though all had emigrated except for me, as though somehow I had missed the ship. . .

Emerson understood the problem:

"You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

Still, you can't talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould described as the "cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats."

Still, among the illusions of my life has been that if I stuck it out long enough, time would provide the acceptance that my words and thoughts had prevented. I. F. Stone used to say that when you're young you're blamed for things you didn't do and when you're older you get credit for them. It hasn't worked out like that, in part because just when I should have started coasting, the world around me took a nasty, greedy, and dangerous turn. America began destroying itself. It was the wrong time to start fitting in .

True, the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back.

What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America's great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country -- without debate, consideration, or struggle -- decided it really didn't want to be America any more.

And so today, sitting in a library that was under construction as Hedda Gabler and the Master Builder were being written, across the street from a US Congress that still won't deal with problems such as polluted water systems, I felt blessed by the ghost of that argumentative, provocative, stubborn and prickly sod. May he rest in peace. And keep everyone else riled up.