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Moral Hysteria and the Persecution of Difference

In 1692, the "city upon a hill" faced unprecedented crises. The Crown had revoked its charter and ordered the arch-Puritan colony to tolerate dissenting faiths. Puritans were engaged in a bloody war with Native Americans, who had decimated Casco (Portland) and York. A military expedition to Quebec returned to Boston with heavy losses. A small pox epidemic spread outward from Boston to outlying communities like Salem and its rural offshoot, Salem Village. Salem Village, part of the larger, richer community, was straining against traditional geographic and political boundaries. Its men had to walk ten miles to participate in political affairs and enjoyed no infrastructure for settling local disputes. Nonetheless, their complaints were dismissed.

Amidst this tumult, two girls, nine and eleven, reported that they had seen the likeness of a coffin while staring into a looking glass. They became hysterical. Witchcraft soon became both the popular and official diagnosis of these visions. Witches were casting spells, corrupting innocents, and striving to reverse God's order. Witches had sex with the devil and seduced others into satanic activities.

The sense that its social crisis emanated merely from a few agents corrupted by an external demon united the community for a time. It both scared residents from challenging traditional values while reassuring them as to the ultimate worth and longevity of those values. Nonetheless, as James Morone's powerful Hellfire Nation suggests, the witch hunts exemplified and reinforced a dangerous trend in American political life.

Who were the witches? They were the poor, the deviant, even some Native Americans. The first accused witch, Sarah Good, was a pregnant beggar with no address who dragged her five year old daughter along with her.

Many other accused women were post- menopausal and living alone. Beyond the reproductive age, they were a source of worry and concern. They were accused not merely of witchcraft but of strange, deviant sexual acts with animals, the devil, prominent town residents. The evidence against them included "spectral" visions (reports of dreams) and confessions implicating them by other witches.


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History never repeats itself in any simple fashion, but the quest for demons to explain broad social crises did not die in Salem. In the immediate post WWII era, when women's role in the workforce had become contentious, mainstream media and business leaders became obsessed with the notion that only strong masculinity could protect the nation. A Senate report suggested that "one homosexual can pollute a government office." Effeminacy was seen as symptomatic of communist sympathies.

American history has seen repeated challenge to the economic and social stability of the working and middle class. Roles in child rearing, the workplace, and the public arena have changed and marriage itself has become less stable. These are complex issues properly subject to debate and analysis. Yet the suggestion that such cataclysmic social change springs from the private behavior, corruption, or example of small distrusted or despised minorities--whether "old maids," welfare mothers or gays and lesbians-- hardly meets the most minimal factual tests we require in any other aspect of our lives.

As we look over the past, many standards by which minorities were once constituted or judged now seem grotesque. This does not mean that society can operate without standards. Nonetheless, grave harm is inflicted on families and the most vulnerable when some claim their models of the family are sanctioned by God and that any challenge to those standards must bring irreversible anarchy.

Writing in the (London) Guardian, George Monbiot cites recent research that suggests willingness to question and alter traditional social values can have positive impacts. Though the work is surely open to further refinements and debate, it indicates a positive correlation between national rates of worship of an omniscient and omnipotent creator and national rates of homicide, juvenile mortality, STD infection, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Within the US, "the strongly theistic south and Midwest [have] markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the north-east...Three sets of findings stand out: the associations between religion - especially absolute belief - and juvenile mortality, venereal disease and adolescent abortion."

The tragic catch-22 of American life is that openness to pluralizing views of family life and sexuality seems more widespread among those who are at least modestly secure and have access to political and educational opportunity. Universal programs that extend better healthcare, education, job security and political access to poor, working, and middle class citizens are often blocked on the grounds that such programs would also benefit the "deviant," whom cultural conservatives have labeled merely an elitist preoccupation. I know no simple way around these binds. The only hope lies in intensifying our struggles for economic justice while we still labor mightily to assure the rights of despised minorities.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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