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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Return of the witch trials

Remember what you have seen, because everything forgotten returns to the circling winds.  Navajo Wind Chant

When people need to understand the world around them,  they turn to literature.  It is the repository of the cultural memory.  Our lives find meaning and direction in the stories we tell.  The literature of Salem and the  witchcraft trials is particularly pertinent and informing today.  The hysteria in the colony of Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 is recorded by participants and observers of the time and is part of the canon of American Literature.  Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the witchcraft trial, kept a diary, which records how he came to recognize the  serious error he made in judging, but also the mental process he went through to come to that recognition.  Five years after the trials, he prepared a statement of repentance which his minister read before the congregation of his church while he stood before it:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order of this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative...
Sewall had fourteen children, few of whom survived childhood,  a fact of the hardships of colonial times.  But he was particularly affected by the anguish of an adolescent daughter as she tried to deal with the puritan doctrine of predestination.  In his daughter's suffering, he saw the injustice inflicted upon those accused of witchcraft.  

That time of hysterical paranoia was taken up as a major literary concern of Nathaniel Hawthorne whose great grandfather was also a judge at the witch trials and was distinguished by being the only one who never repented his participation.  A modern examination of the lethal hysteria of that time is playwright Arthur Miller's "The Crucible,"  which has become a classic of American theater.  That hysteria,  when remembered through the stories about it, has ominous relevance for our time.

The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency has moved many people to turn to literature to understand and deal with what he means and portends for the nation.   They turned to an obvious book,  George Orwell's 1984, and 68 years  after its first publication, they put it on the best seller list again.  The psychological derangement it describes is a combination of hatred and abject fear induced through political conditioning,  a form of brain washing, that is recognized as what Trump has brought to America.  And it might be said that the particular derangement is what brought Trump into prominence.  A huge segment of the American population lost or has rejected science and factual information,  endorses the malignant spread of lies and defamation, and scoffs at probity as a condition of democracy.  To understand why about half the population abandons the cognitive principles on which democracies and any advanced civilization are based, one must turn to the accounts of humankind's biggest failures.  The Salem trials show the causes and consequences of the mindless hysteria that gripped the people at the time,  later repudiated when heads cleared and facts and reason and moral conscience prevailed.

The most obvious and significant parallel of the Salem hysteria to our time is the vilification of Hillary Clinton for things she did not do.  In Salem, the accusations of witchery were directed primarily at females from as young as 9 to elderly woman.    Mysogyny is recognized as a contributing motive behind the witch trials combined with other mental and moral failures and derangements.  The women accused of being witches were blamed as the cause of every social and natural disorder.

There are many reasons one can find to politically oppose Hillary Clinton.  Those  given to prejudice based upon personality can also find cause in their minds,.   But the behavior of Trump and the GOP went far beyond political premises into malignant derangement.  The main pretexts for the Hillary derangement were her email server and Benghazi.  Multiple investigations have been made of those matters by political opponents  dedicated to bringing her down and by federal agencies,  and they all ended up finding no cause for legal or executive actions against her.

She admitted that the private email server was a mistake.  Mixing personal emails on the same server with State Department business was unwieldy.  She initiated her  own server after being advised by predecessors that emails often became serious impediments in carrying out diplomatic duties.  However, the issue that the Republicans tried to pursue was that documents with security classifications had been put on a server that was not protected with official government devices.  The paradox is that her server was never hacked although the servers of security agencies in the government have been.  She did turn over all the emails that were not personal for review,  although some Republicans claim that she withheld 30,000 emails.  The FBI director said the handling of secure messages was sloppy, but there was no breach of security for which Clinton could be held liable.  

Congressional committees have conducted 12 investigations into Banghazi.  None of them produced information that Hillary did or failed to do anything that led to the deaths of four men, the ambassador and his security staff.  The families of the victims except for one have absolved Clinton.  One bereft mother, Patricia Smith, was exploited at the Republican National Convention where she was a featured speaker and accused Hillary Clinton of being responsible for her son's death,  of lying to her about why it happened, and stating that Clinton should be in jail.  The mother of the dead ambassador, Chris Stevens,  asked the Republicans to stop using Benghazi and her son as political propaganda.   

What Patricia Smith claims Hillary lied about was the motive behind the Benghazi attack.  She takes up the GOP party line used to besmirch Clinton and Obama's security adviser Susan Rice.  The day that Benghazi was attacked, there were anti- U.S. protests in Egypt and Libya against a video that mocked Muhammed.  In initial reports of the attack on Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens and his three staff members, it was assumed that the attack was part of that protest.  In her early comments,  Susan Rice referred to that protest.  Secretary Clinton was condemned by Republicans of holding to that explanation,  but the record of her communications show at the outset that she said the attack was carried out by an organized group.  Patricia Smith claims Clinton lied to her and the families of the men killed by insisting that their deaths were the result of the protest.  Other families say they never heard her mention the video protests.

In order to support their claim that Clinton lied,  the GOP tries to insist that the protests and the Benghazi attack were totally separate incidents.  Intelligence analysts make the point that the group that attacked Benghazi used the state of unrest created by the video as an occasion to launch their attack.  The most recent testimony indicates there were attacks by both disorganized protestors and by an organized group with a detailed plan. The main perpetrator of the attack has said that part of his motive was in revenge for the video mocking his religion.

The attempts by the GOP to use differing perspectives on a complex event as the basis for branding Cinton and Rice as liars are perhaps the most significant facts to come out of the turmoil.  The Republicans don't care or wish to determine just what actually happened.  They wish merely to use the incident as a pretext for maligning Clinton and Rice.

After Patricia Rice made her accusations at the Republican National Convention,  the Republicans instituted, as right out of Orwell's 1984, the 15 minutes of hate in which crowds would rise to their feet at the mention of Hillary Clinton and chant "Lock her up" and other threats to her person.  It was the re-enactment of what Orwell describes:

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.
This kind of malicious frenzy was experienced during the Salem witch trials, as neighbors turned on neighbors and accused them of evil.  Perhaps the latest example is in the accusation that Susan Rice in her role as security adviser asked for the names of people mentioned in intelligence reports about spies from other nations.  That is part of the  job, but Trump and the GOP try to make it a crime.  Susan Rice is a prime target for the reals motives of Trump and the GOP:  she's a woman and she's African-American.  Which adds another dimension of hatred to that "hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness."

Trump's accusations and threats against Hillary Clinton are wild, malicious hysteria not based on any facts.  The fact that so many people join in the frenzy indicates a reversion to an episode in America that is remarked in  literature as a matter of shame.  But that portion of people who join in the hate sessions are not that literature portion that reads and understands why episodes like the witch trials are recorded in literature as knowledge which warns of the dangers that lurk in the uninformed human mind.  

And once again humanity regresses to mindless rage.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States