Saturday, May 20, 2017

Witch Way To The Truth?

For those wanting more about the temporary madness in Salem, MA in 1692, here is a link to an essay that Stacy Schiff derived from her latest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (2015).

To help with the reading, try the best pop song about the dark arts:

[x YouTube/RebelSongbird Channel]
"Witchcraft" (1957)
By Frank Sinatra

Thanks to Schiff, it's obvious that the real witch hunt is the frantic search for insiders "leaking" embarrassing tidbits to reporters. If this is the (fair & balanced) consideration of public madness, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
The Single Greatest Witch Hunt In American History, For Real
By Stacy Schiff

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It didn’t take long for our President to declare the appointment of a special counsel for the Russia inquiry “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” Historical literacy has never been for everyone. Even the ancients complained of ignorance about the past and inaccuracies on the page. The greatest witch hunt in American history, of course, occurred in 1692, not 2017. It’s worth revisiting, as it happens to offer a few lessons about name-calling, special prosecutors, and abuses of power. Strictly speaking, the Salem witch trials were less a hunt than a free-for-all. Beginning with three more or less usual suspects, they ended in a colony-wide epidemic. Fingers pointed in every direction as friends and families accused one another. By some counts as many as seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts. A special court prosecuted the cases according to the law of the land. Nineteen innocent men and women hanged. Over several days, a twentieth would be crushed under stones, for contempt of court

Behind those witchcraft prosecutions—not Massachusetts’s first, but forever its most infamous—stood the colony’s best-educated men. The political √©lite had reason to embrace the trials. Together they had recently sent a royal governor packing, in a political coup; they had a fledgling administration to support. At its head sat a barely literate man, rude and reckless, a rascally treasure hunter installed by a beleaguered group of purists eager to safeguard their privileges and padlock their ranks. A weak, absent administrator, he had little interest in governing. He far preferred glorious deeds involving sunken treasures and Indian scalps. He was without political experience; he threw tantrums; he bullied and insulted elected officials. His supporters worried about legitimacy and strained to broadcast proficiency. Having earlier incited a mob to overturn the government, they needed to prove their law-and-order credentials. Political concerns outweighed all else. Close-knit and inbred, those men constituted as much a “real family” as a fraternity. Their business interests coincided. They moved in lock step.

Why was there no twenty-first victim of the Salem witch trials? The initial attempts to object to the proceedings proved dangerous. The skeptic was a marked man; he could count on being rewarded with a witchcraft accusation. Early on, a Baptist minister warned that the court stood in danger of convicting innocents. He was offered a choice between a jail sentence and a crushing fine. He would not be heard from again.

Only after eight frenzied months did sane men finally speak up. Establishment figures, they broke ranks with reluctance. Thomas Brattle, a thirty-four-year-old, Harvard-educated merchant, and among the wealthiest men in the colony, prefaced his remarks with a near apology: he would prefer to bite off his fingertips than cast aspersions on authority. Men were not infallible, however. And when they erred it was essential to take a stand. Sometimes silence was unconscionable. Brattle could no longer bear the government’s “ignorance and folly”; he balked at the proceedings, remarkable for irregularities of all kinds. Were they to continue, he warned, they would spell the colony’s ruin. In one of the most eloquent have-you-no-decency documents in history, Brattle asked how anyone involved in the trials would be able to “look back upon these things without the greatest of sorrow and grief imaginable.” He anticipated a stain on New England, one that ages would not remove.

Diplomatic though he was, Brattle also registered his dissent anonymously, in a letter that circulated privately, probably later than we would like to believe. The original is nowhere to be found. Integrity wins no popularity contests; at first blush it bears a resemblance to disloyalty. It is not easy to comment on the emperor’s wardrobe. It is infinitely easier to sully the reputations of others, to divert attention with a delusional narrative and to trample accountability. President Trump, in more than one Oval Office tweet, has suggested that any wrongdoing lies with those who give information to reporters, and he has urged his government to find the “leakers.” That sounds curiously like witch-hunting to me. # # #

[Stacy M. Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author and columnist for both The New Yorker and The New York Times. She won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for Vera, a biography of Vera Nabokov, wife and muse of Vladimir Nabokov. Her biography Cleopatra: A Life was published in 2010 and most recent she has written The Witches: Salem, 1692 (2015). Schiff received a BA (history) from Williams College as well as a DLit, honoris causa from her alma mater.]

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