It’s October, and many of us have Halloween on our minds. When I drive around town, I seem to see toy ghosts and witches in every yard. Many of us also have our minds on politics, which sometimes doesn’t seem much different. I am reminded, particularly, of the term “witch hunt,” which has been tossed around quite a bit the past few years. In the modern sense, of course, it doesn’t mean hunting for literal witches. It means raising a hue and cry of a different sort, warning the public of a nonexistent or negligible danger as a cover for persecuting your political enemies. This type of behavior is a time-honored American tradition but seems to come in cycles. During the first Red Scare in the late 1910s-1920s, and the even larger one in the late 1940s-1950s, the “witch” was communism (or just the accusation of it). During WWII, it was Japanese-Americans. After 9/11 it was terrorism; in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, it was not only Muslims but even French words (since many conservatives viewed France as traitorous for not jumping wholeheartedly into a war with us).
More recently, in my opinion, critical race theory has become a witch hunt. Just as in Salem in the 1690s, the mere accusation of teaching CRT can lead to serious repercussions (admittedly with no executions, knock on wood).
It could be argued that it’s all in one’s point of view - that the mere perception of being persecuted makes one feel like the object of a witch hunt. Trump has been throwing the term around since shortly after he was elected, doubling down since he was defeated. Every piece of new evidence that comes to light about his corruption and even illegal activities leads to fresh cries of “witch hunt!” This from the man who, while in the White House, presided loudly over countless witch hunts of his own. Just to clarify, by the way, it is only a witch hunt if the charges are exaggerated or false. Trump himself has been the object, not of witch hunts but of legitimate legal investigations.
For a little context, I am going to give some background information about the actual Salem witch trials, in Massachusetts, 1692-1693. You probably all know that some young girls were accused of consorting with Satan in the woods, which led to broader accusations and hysteria in the community. Before all was said and done, several people were dead (19 by hanging, one by being crushed to death by rocks in an attempt to make him confess), and 150 people had been arrested and tried (several dying in jail). Finally, the community started to calm down and realize what they had done.
Here’s what you probably don’t know - or didn’t connect with Salem. Puritan communities, of course, had no separation of church and state; their church WAS the state, and no one else was allowed in. Quakers and Baptists could be hanged for preaching in Massachusetts. And yet, when William and Mary ascended the English throne in the Glorious Revolution, in 1689, they put an end to those practices with the Religious Toleration Act. Puritans could no longer force everyone to be Puritans. At the same time, (Catholic) France had started attacking New England settlements with their Native American allies.
To the Puritans, it seemed like the devil was winning. Some thought it was the signs of the last days. They were very, very scared on an existential level - and very paranoid. It was a short step to hysteria.
Just as Americans were terrified after the first Soviet atomic bomb. And 9/11. And many are scared today of recent rapid social changes, with more seemingly on the horizon. Witch hunts, then, come from fear.
When you have politicians willing to stoke that fear for their own benefit, bad things happen (see also: Hitler).
And THAT’S scary.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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