All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

The Strongest Man

Mr. McGath is a software consultant in Hollis, New Hampshire.

Amajor influence in my teenage years was Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. This splendid play deals with a Norwegian doctor named Thomas Stockmann who discovers an inconvenient fact: that the local baths, which he had helped to establish and are economically vital to the town, are dangerously contaminated. His supporters drop away from him as the town’s leaders put pressure on them, until he is left alone to address a public meeting on the subject.

At the meeting, Dr. Stockmann is forbidden even to state the case which he came to present. Instead, he speaks on an even deadlier pollution: the power of the “compact majority” to stifle dissent. He is branded an “enemy of the people” and is driven out of the meeting; yet, in the courage and confidence which he shows, he is the clear moral victor.

For me, Dr. Stockmann was only a fictional character; things like that could happen, but only somewhere else in the world. Or so I thought, until I experienced a taste of his ordeal in my own town.

The story starts with a frustrated board of library trustees in Hollis, New Hampshire. For year after year, they have been trying to get the town to approve an expansion program which would double the size of the existing library. Year after year, it has been voted down. This year, they decided to take a more active role in shaping public opinion. They issued a series of flyers, in the name of the Hollis Social Library, and mailed with its bulk mailing permit, urging the people of the town to vote for the library expansion.

It seemed to me that political advocacy by a government agency is something which everyone would recognize as plainly wrong, though perhaps they needed to have the issue named for them. In view of this, I devoted an installment of my column in the local newspaper to this issue. In my column, I pointed out how such a practice could spread to every government agency if not opposed.

The column drew a response from one of the trustees, who defended their action, claiming that “it is the elected responsibility of the Trustees to be advocates for the library,” and that engaging in political advertising is “a standard and continuing fulfillment of the Board’s obligations to the citizens of Hollis.” He stated that no tax money was used for the mailings, but that income from the library’s trust fund was used, in addition to donated services. As further evidence that they were indifferent to my arguments, the library trustees sent out another mailing the week before the town meeting, again explicitly soliciting votes in favor of the expenditure.

The next step in the battle was the town meeting. After throwing out draft after draft, I devised a short speech that would, I hoped, convince an honest person that a government agency could not morally engage in political advocacy, whether it used tax money or solicited contributions for the purpose. The site was a crowded high school gym, not unlike many others across the country where town-sized democracy has been exercised. As I waited for my chance to speak, I kept scratching at my draft, taking out anything that didn’t strictly address the point. Finally I had my turn at the microphone.

I said: “I’m Gary McGath of 5 Ames Road. I’d like to address the issue of morality in politics. We’re concerned with high taxes—they’re bad enough—but the activity which the library trustees have been engaging in, in order to promote the warrant issue, I think is far worse. We’re supposed to be a government of the people, not people of the government, but the library trustees have put out a whole series of flyers promoting their political position. [One of the library trustees] wrote a letter to the Hollis Times telling us that this money came out of the library trust fund, and thus presumably originated in contributions. But even so, a government does not have any business engaging in political advertising. Either they solicited contributions for political activity, or they solicited contributions that were not for political activity and then spent it on political activity. I consider either one to be entirely immoral. In today’s morality, people tend to ask, ‘What do we want?’ and ‘How can I get it?’ and it seems as though that’s about as much as the library trustees have been asking; and they figure . . .”

That was as much as I was allowed to say. The moderator of the meeting told me that the library trustees were not immoral, that he objected to my terminology, and that I had been given a sufficient opportunity to make my point. When I asked to be permitted to close out my remarks, he told me that if I repeated that the library trustees were immoral, lie would make me sit down.

I fell into the trap. I hadn’t said that the trustees were immoral, only that their actions were, so I couldn’t very well repeat a statement I hadn’t made. But my concern was with not being cowed, rather than with being lured into a statement that could be construed as a personal attack. I answered, “The library trustees are immoral.” Outraged at being disobeyed, he told me to sit down. About half the crowd applauded him. No one said a word in my defense. I did not sit down; I left the meeting.

On my way out, I realized that in my haste I had forgotten my jacket. When I turned back to get it, a couple of undersized cops, trying very hard to look tough, stopped me. One of them got my jacket for me, but they had provided the final proof for me of how low Hollis had sunk; I was excluded from a public meeting, even if it was one I was only trying to leave. I had, in effect, been declared an Enemy of the People.

From here, the story stops following Ibsen. Noone has slashed my tires, thrown rocks through my window, or strangled my cats. Some people have offered me encouragement. But the shock of seeing people applaud the silencing of a political opponent has stayed with me.

At the Expense of Others

What makes people act this way? The desire for something at the expense of others is an obvious factor; when people want what they know others aren’t willing to offer, it becomes tempting to resort to subterfuge. The open exchange of information is valuable to people who deal with one another by consent; it is a danger to people who want what others won’t consent to. The crowd mentality is obviously operative as well; people will often stick with the group rather than appear different.

But these factors are symptoms of weakness rather than strength. People who want the unearned are dependent on those who provide it, and specifically on their ignorance. They must—as this meeting showed—turn to desperate measures to keep people from understanding the issues and making an independent decision. People who follow the “compact majority” have no enduring motivation; when the crowd sways in another di rection, they must sway with the crowd or fall on their faces.

This is what Dr. Stockmann came to understand after he was declared an “enemy of the people.” He discovered that each person who denounced him or stopped doing business with him was acting simply out of fear of his neighbors. He realized that he was temporarily stymied, but that he was the only person in town who knew how to take action on his own initiative. He formulated a plan to start a new school, in the very hall where he had been denounced, in which he and his family would teach poor boys from the streets to be free thinkers, until one day they would be strong enough to drive the “wolves” away.

As he made his plans, he was confident, not afraid, because of a “great secret” he had discovered: that “the strongest man in the world is the one who stands alone.” Such a statement may seem paradoxical, especially to those of us who have stood alone in opposition to governmental encroachment and lost. But it is a truth which has shaped the world. Individuals standing alone have always been the initiators of change; those who follow the crowd are merely acted upon, and those who purport to lead the crowd must constantly run to arrive where the crowd is going to be next. Anyone who hopes to see the world or a community move in a new direction must be the first to go in that direction and must be willing to stand on nothing more than his own judgment, presenting a case and setting an example which others will eventually understand.

No Quick Fixes

Some people hope for quick fixes to society through the political process. But before political change can happen, there must be change in the minds of people. Without this, the crowd will turn away from attempts at change. With it, nothing can stop the change; witness the events in the Communist world today.

The key element in Ibsen’s “strongest man” is certainty without pretense. This does not mean regarding oneself as infallible; that sort of certainty is the most pretentious and vulnerable of all. It means not shrinking from the facts, not disguising one’s own knowledge, but at the same time re-examining every piece of that knowledge whenever possible. Only knowledge that has survived the most difficult tests in one’s own mind will survive in public debate.

To reach people by standing alone, it’s necessary to reach them when they’re standing alone, that is, one person at a time. It’s possible to sway a crowd with an emotional appeal, but reaching people with reason is a much slower process. Creating a free society is a “bottom-up” process, one that proceeds from the individual to the social organization, not a “top-down” process of changing the individual by changing society. People who depend on the crowd for their thoughts may adopt the slogans of freedom, but they won’t understand its substance,

This approach doesn’t preclude addressing large audiences, but it requires addressing the reasoning power of each individual, not appealing to mob instincts or disguising one’s message as something fashionable.

It requires staying calm under stress, in order to be able to address the issue rather than the crowd. This can be the most difficult task of all, and a lapse can allow clever leaders to maneuver the debate to their advantage; failing to remember this was certainly my own greatest mistake in that town meeting.

It requires not overestimating the power of the crowd. It can seem, when facing a crowd alone, that the whole world has turned against you and that nothing you can say will ever make a difference to anyone. It’s important to remember that there are still people with minds, even if they aren’t present or if they lack the courage to speak in your defense, and that even people who cheer with the mob may reconsider in privacy.

In the case of my own experience, there was one light that penetrated the darkness: When the time came to vote, the library issue was defeated. Everything that the politicians had done couldn’t get them their way; there were still enough people who made their own judgments to keep the vote short of the needed two-thirds. These people, to that extent, stood alone in their own minds. By encouraging each person to hold on to such independence, those of us who care for freedom can survive and succeed in spite of the loneliest moments which political battles may thrust on us.

  • Gary McGath is a freelance software engineer living in Nashua, New Hampshire.