Witch hunting then and now

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

In 1953, the United States was engaged in a Cold War against the Soviet Union and Communist China, including a worldwide Communist movement that subordinated itself to the requirements of Soviet foreign policy.  Those who opposed the Cold War were blacklisted.

Today the United States is engaged in an omni-directional War on Terror directed against a multiplicity of enemies who have nothing in common with each other.  Those who oppose the War on Terror are blacklisted.

We Americans have come to accept undeclared war, extrajudicial executions, preventive detention and warrantless surveillance as normal.  There are millions who have no memory of a time when these things were not normal.

Now, as then, the hidden hand of the Kremlin is seen behind all inconvenient protest movements.  The FBI is treated as if it were an independent fourth branch of government.

In 1953, investigators sought out the organizations that public figures once joined and petitions they once signed, and used this information to destroy reputations and careers.  Now the same things is done by looking for unacceptable statements on Internet social media, however long ago.

Phil Donohue pioneered the talk show format and, in 2002, had one of the highest-rated shows.  MSNBC fired him, explicitly for the reason that he questioned President Bush’s plans to invade iraq.  I haven’t heard of Donohue since then.  Other once-prominent journalists, such as Seymour Hersh and Chris Hedges, cannot appear in mainstream American newspapers, magazines or broadcasters.

That’s not to say that dissent has been outlawed or does not exist—only that it has been marginalized.

Recently President Trump nominated Gina Haspel, who condones torture, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  John Kiriakou, a CIA employee, was prosecuted by the Obama administration and sentenced to two years in prison for revealing torture.

U.S. military and intelligence agencies use the term “information warfare.”   It consists of persuading people to accept their narrative of events, and reject narratives favorable to their enemies.  So if you express doubt as to the truth of the official narrative, you are giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Although what’s going on in the United States today is not precisely equivalent to the Salem witch trials or to the un-American activities investigations of the 1950s, we can take a lesson from Arthur Miller’s play on how a whole community can go mad, and sanity seems strange and dangerous.


Salem witch trials by Jeff Wallenfeldt for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Journey to ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller for the New York Times (1953)

Why I Wrote The Crucible by Arthur Miller for the New Yorker (1996)

“Are You Now or Were You Ever…?” by Arthur Miller for The Guardian (2000)

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2 Responses to “Witch hunting then and now”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    And yet some still say that we had to choose between the lesser of two evils when in fact our political choices are never that stark. There are choices between slightly flawed and heavily flawed.

    Liked by 1 person

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