Barry’s Blog # 123: American Witch-Hunt, Part One of Six

…divide us those in darkness from the ones who walk in light… – Kurt Weill

The ideal American personality is the rugged, individualistic, heroic, figure of extreme masculinity; the self-reliant, “self-made man” who takes charge, defeats evil, saves the endangered maiden and redeems the innocent community. He is the winner in the deep-stakes competition. Henry Kissinger describes him:

This cowboy doesn’t have to be courageous. All he needs is to be alone…he rides into the town and does everything by himself.

He lies deep in our American psyche, and to some extent we all share his one-pointed, confident and productive – and also violent and dissociated – nature.

And we all share his shadow. Our monotheistic, demythologized world offers us few archetypal alternatives to the Hero. One is the Villain, who is merely his mirror opposite, another rugged individual who is perfectly evil rather than good, a character we all secretly admire. The other alternative is the Loser, or the Victim. And the shadow of extreme individualism is extreme conformism.

When society undergoes periods of significant social change and people feel that avenues toward heroic victory — in our case, “getting ahead” — have narrowed, the experience of victimization emerges in the individual mind. And the shadow of conformism emerges in the social mind or collective consciousness – in the form of witch-hunts. At such historic junctures, many societies, including America, have joined together to identify certain scapegoats – the Other – and eliminate them with Biblical ferocity.

European fear and loathing of the Other stems from an ancient, paranoid imagination. The Old Testament repeatedly celebrates genocidal yet redemptive violence:

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

Medieval art depicts the Last Judgment with detailed scenes of naked bodies subjected to (almost) inconceivable torture. The blessed, however, will enjoy these scenes. Saint Thomas Aquinas declared that in Heaven, “…a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned.” Eighteenth-century evangelist Jonathan Edwards agreed: “The sight of hell-torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.”

02last33The paranoid imagination combines eternal vigilance, constant anxiety, obsessive voyeurism, creative sadism, contempt for the erotic and an impenetrable wall of innocence. We can find it at least as far back as Rome, where authorities claimed that Christians: “… burn with incestuous passions…with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions…”

Witch-hunts and Inquisitions are the Paranoid imagination’s traditional ways of erasing the threatening presence of The Other from public awareness. They have the additional function of scaring hell out of the entire community, preventing further dissent or unacceptable thinking – and reducing the anxiety that arises during these periods of social change. Conformism does, after all, have its benefits.

The Catholic Inquisition arose early in European history. For generations, it produced a constant state of fear across the continent. A Protestant version took strong root in America, and it periodically re-surfaces in epidemics of scapegoating. Inquisitions are often characterized by highly imaginative cruelty perpetrated for the good of the accused. As Blaise Pascal wrote,

Men never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.

This idea of “therapeutic coercion” can be traced back to St. Augustine, who wrote of “forcibly returning the heretics to the real banquet of the Lord.”


The Witch Craze reached its zenith during the anxiety-ridden fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, not, as commonly assumed, in the Middle Ages. Churchmen, Protestant as well as Catholic, found witches everywhere, claiming that they made pacts with the Devil, accepted eternal punishment in exchange for sensual gratification and ate children in a blasphemous parody of the Eucharist. Conservative estimates put those executed at 100,000. Most were poor, rural women who were accused, writes Riane Eisler, “…of being sexual; for in the eyes of the Church, all the witches’ power was ultimately derived from their ‘sinful’ female sexuality.”

The persecutions reached across the Atlantic, where Spain brought the Inquisition, and English Puritans, searching for a land where they could have religious freedom (the light), soon enforced strict conformism (the shadow).

The Puritans were Calvinists who believed in predestination, and they were obsessed with the constant presence of evil that threatened their innocent community. With mutual love within that community but expulsion (or worse, much worse) for dissenters, they evolved a paranoid style that continues to re-surface throughout American history.

And unscrupulous characters have always been willing to take advantage of the hysterias. Our continual working phrase in this examination of our American soul will be Cui Bono? (Who profits?), or Follow the money.

The Salem witch trials reveal how the Puritans dealt with the Other within the community. Witches could be anyone, anywhere, but were generally believed to be independent women who consorted with the Devil or with the natives who worshipped him. In this paranoid atmosphere some girls became “possessed” (as in The Bacchae) and upset the order of careful self-control. They “named names” (as they would in 1918, 1950, 2001 and 2015) of others – overwhelmingly women – who had bewitched them. Public executions of these scapegoats intimidated and purified the community.

1280px-Salem_witch2The paranoid imagination seeks itself: it constantly projects its fantasies outward onto the Other and then proceeds to demonize it. Therefore, it finds conspiracies everywhere. In 1798, ministers whipped up hysteria about a tiny Masonic group. Anticipating McCarthyism by 150 years, one minister ranted:

I have now in my possession…authenticated list of names.

That year the threat of war with France loomed: immigrants from France were viewed with suspicion. Accordingly, Congress passed four laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts that required aliens to be residents for 14 years before becoming eligible for citizenship, authorized the deportation of dangerous aliens and allowed the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of any alien who was the subject of an enemy power.

In 1835, future President John Tyler blamed abolitionism on “a reptile who had crawled from some of the sinks of Europe…to sow the seeds of discord among us.”

Propriety and cleanliness were external indications of a clean soul, and bodily needs continually reminded them of their original, corrupt nature. Since they experienced constant fear – and fantasies – of pollution, they rigidly enforced moral standards, denouncing music, theater and dance and declaring capital punishment for adultery (for women). Calvinism’s “most urgent task,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, was “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.”

Although both salvation and perdition fell on the individual, the entire community might suffer for one person’s sins. So each person was responsible for upholding group morality. Individual sin polluted, with consequences for all New England. Ministers addressed condemned criminals (and indirectly everyone else) with “execution sermons:”

You must be cut off by a violent and dreadful death. For indeed the anger of the Lord would fall upon this whole Country where your sin hath been committed, if you should be suffered to live.

These traditions of coerced conformity (as well as the frontier narratives in which the Hero saved the innocent community from evil) became well established in American literature – and, more importantly, in the American psyche) by the end of the seventeenth century.

Since then, at least ten generations of us have absorbed them. They – and the default mode of fear that they engender – live as deeply in us now as they ever did. We are still driven by these mythic furies. We have fretted over the intrusion of the Other in every generation: wild Indians, Black rapists, immigrants, “white slavers” drug-addled Mexicans, communists and terrorists. “Islamophobia” is merely the latest mask of The Other.

Part Two of this essay is here.

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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 123: American Witch-Hunt, Part One of Six

  1. jp says:

    isn’t your opening quote bertolt brecht [words; vs weill music]? ‘some in light, and some in darkness; that’s the kind of world we mean. those you see are in the daylight – those in darkness don’t get seen’ – 3penny opera end

  2. shmoover says:

    Here’s one of many versions:

    Happy ending, nice and tidy
    It’s a rule I learned in school
    Get your money every Friday,
    Happy endings are the rule.

    So divide up those in darkness
    From the ones who walk in light
    Light ’em up boys, there’s your picture
    Drop the shadows out of sight.

    – “Ballad of Mack the Knife, Reprise”
    by: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as Translated by Marc Blitzstein

  3. jp says:

    yes thanks; the point is the words are brecht’s. my version is a willet/manheim one used in 70’s NYC production with Raul Julia as Mackie

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