Tag Archives: Taleb

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

In this powerful work, Ibsen places his main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in the role of an enlightened and persecuted minority of one confronting an ignorant, powerful majority. When the physician learns that the famous and financially successful baths in his hometown are contaminated, he insists they be shut down for expensive repairs. For his honesty, he is persecuted, ridiculed, and declared an “enemy of the people” by the townspeople, including some who had been his closest allies.

First staged in 1883, An Enemy of the People remains one of the most frequently performed plays by a writer considered by may the “father of modern drama.” This easily affordable edition makes available to students, teachers, and general readers a major work by one of the world’s great playwrights.

Author Blurb

Widely regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) brought the social problems and ideas of his day to center stage. Creating realistic plays of psychological conflict that emphasized character over cunning plots, he frequently inspired critical objections because his dramas deemed the individual more important than the group.

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

Most Ibsen plays fit the risk theatre mold well, and An Enemy of the People is no exception. In this play, Dr. Stockmann, as chief medical officer, investigates incidents of typhoid and gastric fever in a coastal Norwegian tourist town. Dr. Stockmann wants to keep the town safe. Risk theatre looks at the dramatic action as a gambling act consisting of three parts: temptation, wager, and cast. That the doctor wants to keep the town safe represents the “temptation” phase of the tragedy. His concerns motivate him to act.

Dr. Stockmann conjectures that the illnesses arise from the contaminated waters at the local municipal baths. When the test reports confirm his fears of an infusoria infestation, he takes action to rehabilitate the baths. He will publicize his findings in the local blue-collar newspaper, The People’s Messenger. The town authorities who skimped out on the design and implementation of the water supply to the baths (one of whom is Stockmann’s brother) will be in hot water. Reputations will be destroyed. But the doctor is an idealist:

Dr. Stockmann: Who the devil cares if there be any risk or not! What I am doing, I am doing in the name of truth and for the sake of my conscience.

So, according to the risk theatre model, Dr. Stockmann makes a wager: the town’s well-being and the reputation of some of the townsfolk for the truth.

Like most wagers in popular tragedies, Stockmann has a high degree of confidence that he will be successful. He will publish his findings in the paper. Some municipal officers will go down. But the baths will be repaired and lives saved. He has the support of the paper. He has the support of the working class folks, who secretly want to see the wealthy authorities pay. This is class warfare.

Dr. Stockmann has every expectation of success. But–you know the drill now–a low-probability, high-consequence event happens which upsets his best-laid plans. This happens when the mayor, his brother Peter Stockmann, turns the tables against him. Peter begins a fear campaign: if the news gets out, the lifeblood of the town will run dry. The repairs will be prohibitively expensive. The baths will be shut down for years. The local economy will tank. House prices will crash. The blue-collar workers will lose their jobs.

Peter’s fear campaign works. Instead of being called the town’s saviour, in a vicious town meeting, Dr. Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” He is fired from his post as medical officer and loses his practice. His daughter loses her job as a schoolteacher. His two sons are suspended from school. His house is vandalized, all the windows are broken.

To be Free of Conflict You Need to Have No Friends / Family

Reading An Enemy of the People reminded me of a passage from Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. In this book Taleb talks about how whistleblower types are hindered by the risks to friends and family:

It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage.

And of course most fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond don’t have the encumbrance of a family that can become a target of, say, evil professor Moriarty.

Let us go one step further.

To make ethical choices you cannot have dilemmas between the particular (friends, family) and the general.

Celibacy has been a way to force men to implement such heroism: for instance, the rebellious ancient sect the Essenes were celibate. So by definition they did not reproduce–unless one considers that their sect mutated to merge with what is known today as Christianity. A celibacy requirement might help with rebellious causes, but it isn’t the greatest way to multiply your sect through the ages.

Financial independence is another way to solve ethical dilemmas, but such independence is hard to ascertain: many seemingly independent people aren’t particularly so. While, in Aristotle’s days, a person of independent means was free to follow his conscience, this is no longer as common in modern days.

Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.

An Enemy of the People reminded me of this passage because Dr. Stockmann has to ultimately decide not between his welfare and his principles (he can willingly die a martyr to truth), but has to decide between the welfare of his family and the truth. His family is the weak point.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Reaching Out to Famous Writers – Taleb

Have you heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb? He’s the author of Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the MarketsThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableThe Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Well, he’s a self-described renegade ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ who has set his sights on destroying the bell curve. It turns, out, that the familiar bell curve, which incidentally graced the ten Deutsche Marks bill along with a picture of its originator, Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a deceptive fraud. It focusses our attention on the normal distribution of events, whether the weather, earthquakes, or stock market prices. The ‘hump’ on the bell curve represents the normal distribution of events, the events that are likely. Well, Taleb argues that the unlikely events, represented by the ‘tails’ on the left and right side of the bell curve, is what actually shapes our lives. Who cares if there are no earthquakes for 50 years?–when the earthquake hits, it alters lives. Who cares if the stock market goes up for 10 years?–it’s when it collapses in the 11th year that wrecks folks’ retirement dreams. And so on.

It was in 2007 when I first ran into Taleb’s books. Fooled By Randomness and then The Black Swan. I was living in Providence, RI at the time, and they had a big Borders bookstore in Providence Place Mall (remember those days?). Fooled By Randomness was in the economics section, and, since I was looking for something to read that wasn’t related to my MA thesis, I picked it up. Well, it was a life changing book. After I read it, it occurred to me that you could devise a whole theory of tragedy (that was what I was trying to do) looking at tragedy as a sort of ‘risk theatre’ where the unexpected rules over heroes’ lives. The unexpected outcome, like Euripides likes to mention in the closing riposte of many of his plays, dominates our lives. The heroes make their plans looking at the hump on the bell curve. But they aren’t looking for the tail event to happen. They’re caught off guard and perish. Well, I spent the next ten years connecting this idea to the art form of tragedy. If it’s one lesson I learned, it is that, to come up with something worth pursuing, read outside of your chosen field. If you’re reading what everyone else is reading, you’ll likely start from the same standpoint and end up in the same place. But if you’re reading outside of your field, then, sometimes, you can find something different.

Well, now that the manuscript is completed (I was wondering for a long time whether it could be completed), it’s time to start reaching out to get some reactions. It turns out that Taleb now is quite famous, but not quite famous enough that it’s impossible to find his email address. He has a website, which, to my surprise, includes his email address. I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll try reaching out to him.” You know, the interesting thing is he’s always talking about black swan events, but he’s never talked about the art form of tragedy, which I’m convinced now is a dramatization of black swan events. The black swan problem is a problem of induction. You can see a thousand white swans over the course of a thousand years and safely declare that there are no black swans. But inductive logic is very fragile. You just need to see one black swan (as they did in Australia), and all your thousands of years of thinking you’re right goes into the wastebasket. Another bird, the turkey also has a problem of induction: it thinks the farmer is a friend because every day the farmer brings food. But come Thanksgiving, things change, and it’s this change that has a big effect on the turkey’s life. So, back to the email: I decided I’ll write Taleb, thank him, and ask him what he thinks about my tragedy as ‘risk theatre’. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Mr. Taleb,
I’ve been inspired by your books and wanted to share my story with you. It was in 2007 that I first came across The Black Swan in a Borders Bookstore in Providence, RI where I was finishing a MA at Brown University on ancient Greek tragedy. After reading it, I began to see the tragic theatre as a place which dramatized the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane hill is a low-probability event. But when it happens, it has high-consequences. Or take Oedipus from Sophocles’ play. The chances that the oracle is right (he will marry his mother and kill his father) is a low-probability event: he has taken every safeguard to ensure it won’t happen. But when it does happen, it has high-consequences. Have you ever thought of tragic theatre as being a place where heroes take risks, and, as a result, are susceptible to ruin?
I did. I’ve spent the last ten years working on a new theory or tragedy called “risk theatre.” Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. My theory posits that, in the tragic theatre, heroes are gamblers. They have skin in the game and leverage themselves 100:1, thereby exposing themselves to tail risk. So, although heroes are smarter, stronger, and devise the best-laid plans, the unexpected ruins them. I argue that the tragic theatre is a school for risk because it shows how, the more confident we are, the more we’re in danger. In today’s age where we are surrounded by GMOs, artificial intelligence, and mutual assured destruction ideologies, we can learn a thing or two about risk (mis-)management from ancient theatre.
I recently finished my book: Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and now I’m shopping for a publisher. I’m writing first of all, to thank you for your inspiring books, and second of all, to ask for your reaction on the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk.
Edwin Wong.
Well, Taleb’s website claims that his email backlog is sitting at 10 months. Stay tuned, assiduous readers, it’s just a blink of the eye away!
I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.