Brian Moench: Science and reason treated as enemies of the people

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rally protesting government mask mandates at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.

In Henrik Ibsen’s play, “An Enemy of the People,” written in 1882, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the doctor of a Norwegian town, reveals that a key business, the town’s spa and baths, is contaminated with a deadly bacteria.

Because shutting down the business will have widespread economic repercussions, the responses of the mayor, business leaders, and townspeople are to turn on Stockmann. Shunning the evidence, the truth, if not the Enlightenment itself, they shout, “He is an enemy of the people!” They vandalize his house, all his family are fired from their jobs and their physical safety is threatened.

A nonfiction version of “An Enemy of the People is playing out in real time all over this country. Dr. Anthony Fauci, our premier infectious disease scientist, is struggling to deliver the truth about the deadliest health crisis in 100 years. Ibsen could have written what happened next.

After badgering Fauci with juvenile insults, Donald Trump has all but fired him for challenging his Pollyanna propaganda. Fauci has had to hire bodyguards for his whole family because of death threats.

Echoing Ibsen’s mayor, White House spokesperson Mark Meadows justified the new “survival of the fittest” pandemic strategy — ridicule the scientists and the science, hold superspreader rallies, let the virus rip through the country, pursue nothing beyond a vaccine and magic bean therapeutics, and we’ll see who’s left standing.

In another time, and surely in another country, a plot by terrorists to kill a sitting governor, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, over mask-wearing, would be the ignominious end of the political fortunes of anyone whose rhetoric had provoked it. But in 2020 America, there is a real chance that person could remain in power, thanks to voters and political enablers willing to sacrifice all human decency and tear down every democratic guardrail necessary to make it happen.

Multiple instances of fights and fatal violence over mask wearing have occurred nationwide. Calvin Munerlyn, a security guard at a Michigan store, was shot to death after telling a family to wear masks. In a Buffalo, New York, bar, Rocco Sapienza asked another customer to put on a mask, who then shoved him to the ground, killing him.

Another version of the play took place days ago in Lehi. R.J. Walker, a vendor at the Lehi Farmers Market, where many vendors and customers refused to wear masks, had a run-in with the proprietor for wearing a mask himself and encouraging others to do so. The proprietor insisted masks were “useless” and proclaimed, “We pride ourselves on having a loving atmosphere here.”

She and her husband then demonstrated that “loving atmosphere” by throwing Walker out, calling him a “socialist” and spreader of mask “propaganda.”

Because of weak public policy and selfish individual behavior, hospitals in Utah are at the breaking point, facing the inevitability of rationing care.

“Patients who are getting worse despite receiving intensive care would be moved out first," said Utah Hospital Association President Greg Bell. “In the event that two patients' conditions are equal, the young get priority over the old, since older patients are more likely to die.”

Forced onto real “death panels,” doctors, nurses and hospital staff won’t be asking if either patient was an anti-masker, but you couldn’t blame them if they did, given that they are risking their own lives to save them both.

Odd that many anti-maskers also claim to be “pro-life,” even though their behavior is killing Americans by the thousands.

Ibsen’s play ends with Dr. Stockmann standing indignantly alone, declaring he intends to stay and make the townspeople understand “that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down.”

MAGA America now runs solely for “considerations of Trump’s expediency.” A country that has made Anthony Fauci, Gretchen Whitmer, Calvin Munerlyn, Rocco Sapienza and R.J. Walker, “enemies of the people,” has not only turned morality and justice upside down, it has turned inside out all the elements that make a noble society — science, empiricism, rationalism, empathy and mutual respect.

It is wrong to assume that the Enlightenment is permanently baked into “American exceptionalism” and can be taken for granted. Ibsen’s play and the 2020 election show it must be continually fought for, and defended over and over again.

Dr. Brian Moench

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.