“A man must be a public enemy to wish to ruin a whole community!” Henrik Ibsen
The devastating water contamination in Flint calls to mind the acerbic play “Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, in which a doctor tries to warn the town that the new spa facilities, designed to attract tourists, were “nothing but a pest-house” because the water was noxious.
In Flint, too, a “damnable blunder” involving water pipes started a crisis of public health and recrimination. In both towns, a duty-driven doctor sought to expose the contaminated water. Dr. Stockmann, the doctor in the play, sent water samples from the spa to the state, and received a report that the water was poisonous. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the doctor in Michigan, performed her own analysis of the hospital records of children in Flint. She found that lead levels in Flint children’s blood had skyrocketed since, under financial duress, the source of Flint city water was changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
When Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann hints mysteriously about the spa’s water, his brother, the mayor, warns him to go through “official channels” so his concerns about the spa would “be dealt with by the duly constituted authorities.” Instead, Dr. Stockmann excitedly announces the lab results to visitors in his home, telling them the townspeople would have to dig up and replace the pipes carrying water to the spa.
Similarly, in Flint, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, took immediate action with her findings, despite the risk of placing her employer in the cross-hairs of controversy. First, she alerted city officials. Shocked at their failure to act, she and her colleagues called a press conference, citing their “professional obligation to care for the children of Flint [and to tell parents] if we know something.”
As word spread of poisonous water and ruinous expense, both doctors encountered the disbelief of politicians, shaped by the needs of the “People” who vote. Dr. Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, questions whether “there is actually any imminent danger.” The townspeople turn against Dr. Stockmann, crying, “Yes, yes! He is an enemy of the people! He hates his country! He hates his own people!”
In Flint, the officials served the People of Michigan, not just Flint. Like Ibsen’s mayor, they ignored the science and attacked the messengers. Brad Wurfel, speaking for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, dismissed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s analysis, accusing her of causing “near hysteria.”
In bitterness, Dr. Stockmann tells townspeople, “The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority.”
Here, art and life diverge. Dr. Hanna-Attisha has no occasion to denounce “the compact majority” in Flint. The governor supplanted local democracy with an emergency manager. His staff dismissed warnings about the lead in Flint’s water. His health department challenged the revelations of contaminated water and lead-poisoned children. The result is catastrophe.
Ibsen’s play closes with cynicism and despair. But when life imitates art, we choose how the story ends. The voice of the honest doctor is honored by the people of Flint. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was the people’s Dr. Stockmann. Who, then, is the enemy of the people of Flint?