Witches Then and Now


This illustration depicts the execution of Ann Hibbins on Boston Common in 1656, by Frank Thayer Merril, published in 1886. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I have not finished reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2015), but her recent opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Anger: An American History,” brought into clear relief the contemporary relevance of 17th century witches.

“Witches” is a chapter in our own Hunt the Devil. We locate it in a genealogy of the demonology of US war culture, followed by Indians, Dictators, and Reds—all of which are implicated in the rhetorical lineage of George W. Bush’s Evildoers.

Fear, as we suggested most recently in the post “Islamophobia,” can overwhelm commonsense and incite us to violence. It is not rhetorically unrelated to anger and hatred. Book II of Aristotle’s treatise on Rhetoric explores the emotional means of persuasion, that is, how emotions such as anger and fear affect our judgment when they are aroused in political discourse.

Anger, according to Aristotle, is an impulse to revenge a conspicuous and unjustified slight. We get angry when we are mocked, when someone expresses contempt for us or what we care about, or when an adversary rejoices in our misfortune. We are especially prone to anger when we hold ourselves in high opinion, such as when we think of ourselves as an exceptional people.

Hatred can be produced by anger, Aristotle observes, but hatred is aimed at a class of people, not just a single individual. The logic of hatred leads to a desire not only to punish antagonists but to eliminate them because they are incorrigible enemies who do not agree with us on what counts as good and what amounts to evil.

Fear, by Aristotle’s account, is aroused by an image of some imminent evil that will cause us great pain or loss. We sense that a certain awful power of destruction is close at hand. A powerful enemy aims to perpetrate evil against us. We are more susceptible to fear when we feel weak and vulnerable rather than confident and strong.

Aristotelian anger morphs into hatred, which produces fear that leads to violence. A nation that thinks of itself as exceptionally virtuous is prone to hate and fear whomever it regards as evil and dangerous, especially if it doubts its own might.


The Slovenian Armed Forces assist the police force in the migrant situation, October 2015. (Credit: Robert Cotič / http://www.slovenskavojska.si/)

Which brings us back to witches and the present war on terror. “Where,” Schiff asks, “do the rhetorical fireballs—the raging suspicion and rabid xenophobia—come from” when we talk of barring Muslims from American soil? Such demonizing, she answers, is “ur-American,” not “un-American.” Americans have historically drawn their identity from perceived threats to public safety. The very notion of American exceptionalism is based on the premise that “If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.” Thus, “we brandish our enemies’ hatred as our badge of honor” and make ourselves into superheroes by bulking up our adversaries.

“To rage against the powers of darkness,” Schiff concludes, “is to assure ourselves that we stand in the light.” Such “demonic plots” are not likely to vanish from US political culture anytime soon. “Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim.”



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