Blog Post

“The Enemy of the People”: The Traveling Meme

Part I. Fake Rumor As the Enemy of the People

Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin used the phrase “enemy of the people” to jail and execute individuals and groups they saw as opponents. In spring 2017, when the elected President of the United States began repeatedly declaring that “fake news is the enemy of the people,” several commentators noted the disturbing history of the phrase, for instance Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, Lucy Ferriss in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Marvin Kalb in the second chapter of “Enemy of the People”: Trump’s War on the Press, the new McCarthyism and the Threat to American Democracy (2018). Even this astute analysis, however, neglects some of the more disturbing historical connections. In doing so, their history may underplay some of the current threat that the phrase poses, not only for a free press but also for other democratic freedoms.

The Law of 22 Prairial 1794: “To punish all the enemies of the people”

In the fourth act of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People (En volkefiende, 1882), the doctor of the town has learned its newspaper will not publish his findings that their water is contaminated. The doctor tells citizens at a town meeting that he will not be silenced, that he will publish the findings in newspapers of neighboring towns. The people, however, believe the rumor that the doctor’s story about contaminated water is not true. They start shouting, “He is an enemy of the people! He hates his country! He hates his own people.” The mayor calls for a vote, and all—with the exception of a drunkard—vote that the doctor is “an enemy of the people.” The crowd leaves, crying, “Enemy of the People, Enemy of the People!”

Ibsen’s play might seem source enough for the current meme, now magical in alt-right circles, that “fake news is the enemy of the people.” Yet the meme has earlier origins, a historical line Ibsen knew full well, extending back at least to the French Revolution. And there, as in Ibsen’s fourth act, “fake news” meant more than just bad journalism. It also meant false information spread by personal letter and word of mouth among the people themselves. It included false rumors that were concocted and spread deliberately.

By 1793 the French Revolution was deep into its second stage, sometimes called the radical phase, the second Revolution, the counter-revolution, or just “the Terror.” The extremist Jacobins were in power, led in part by an increasingly paranoid and unstable Maximilien Robespierre. The French National Convention was ordering the trial of leaders of more conservative groups, who had a few years earlier assisted the first Revolution. It was dire times. France was surrounded on land by the armies of Prussia and Austria, and England was blockading the ports.

On June 10 of 1794, with the support of Robespierre, the National Convention passed the Law of 22 Prairial. This infamous “loi de la grande terreur” re-shaped the Revolutionary Tribunal. That extraordinary law court in Paris was now obligated to try moral infractions as well as political ones. It could deny the accused legal representation in court, and restrict witnesses to those who were willing to denounce accomplices. A verdict of guilty usually meant death by guillotine within a few days. As the Law put it, the Tribunal was now “instituted to punish all the enemies of the people [punir tous les ennemis du peuple].” Among the long list of enemies were anyone “blocking the progress of the revolution, by counter-revolutionary and insidious writings or by any other machination,” and anyone “spreading false news [fausses nouvelles] in order to divide or deceive the people.”

Rumor during the French Revolution

In French, nouvelles can mean news of any sort. In Robespierre’s time it could be spread in print by gazette, slanderous pamphlet, or broadsheet (nouvelles à la main). With potentially more impact, it could also be spread by personal correspondence, or by word of mouth (nouvelles de bouche) in the form of rumors and gossip passed along wherever people gathered, in homes or on the streets. For paranoid Robespierre, deliberate hoaxes were the worst fear. In a speech to the National Convention delivered in March, 1793, dwelling on France’s enemies from within [“ennemis au dedan”], he reviled “this pack of careerists and schemers, these people—prattling, conning, faking [“babillard, charlatan, artificieux “]—who arise from the cracks everywhere, who persecute patriotism, who disrupt tribunals and often public functions, who abuse the learning given them by the privileges of the old regime in order to mislead public opinion.”

Leaders of the second Revolution had good reason to fear rumor. The large majority of the populace could not read or write. In July of 1789, alarmed over the possibility of a second disastrous harvest, word spread throughout rural France that the aristocracy had hired brigands to terrorize the peasants and steal their food. Panic and riots followed. Local ad-hoc militia groups attacked country estates. Later a worse case of rumor gone wild occurred in the first week of September, 1792, after Prussian armies had breached France’s northern border. The word spread that when royalist armies got to Paris they would release inmates of the prisons to swell their ranks. Mobs attacked the prisons, and some 1,400 inmates, most with no political connections, were summarily tried and executed on the boulevards. Rumor could be deadly. (For an excellent analysis of rumor and the French Revolution, see the chapter by Timothy Tackett.)

Of course, as self-anointed parties coming into power have often done, the French revolutionaries shut down their share of newspapers and publishers they deemed adversary. The Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced to death their share of print journalists, such as Camille and Lucile Desmoulins. But in some ways the Jacobins dreaded more the power of their enemies to spread unrest and rebellion underground by letter and word of mouth.

Robespierre often connected oral fake news with “enemies of the people” or “enemies of the nation.” In a speech delivered to the National Convention in February, 1794, he again attacked the “ennemis intérieurs du peuple français”: “counter-revolutionary hypocrites who would sully and stigmatize [flétrir] the cause of the Revolution.” He accused certain persons of spreading terror among the people of Bretagne and the Rhine by “seeding the rumor” [en semant le bruit] that everyone younger than ten and older than seventy were going to be killed. These rumor-mongers, said Robespierre, are no better than the Roman tyrants Caligula and Elagabalus.

Fake news: Fear and suspicion

Fausses nouvelles, of course, worked both ways. In 1794 the Revolutionary Tribunal, often acting on unsubstantiated hearsay, sentenced 1,376 persons to death between June 10, the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial, and July 28, when Robespierre himself was guillotined.

So historically, fake news that is the enemy of the people meant more than print news. Today the phrase still conjures up societies—as in German-occupied France or Stalinist Russia —where fear and suspicion reign because citizens can be arrested without warrant, tried in secret, never allowed to face their accusers, and sentenced to exile, hard labor, or execution, all on no more evidence than an intercepted personal letter or a phrase overheard, accurately or not, on a street corner. Maybe the good citizens of revolutionary France were lucky that during the Terror they did not enjoy current social media.

Today in the US, however, the meme of fake news as the enemy of the people also carries with it an even deeper and darker meaning. It tells of conspiracy across borders. Remember that Ibsen’s townspeople start calling their doctor “enemy of the people” only when he tells them he will use the newspapers of neighboring towns to spread his unwelcome truth.

(Continued tomorrow: fake news as international conspiracy)

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