Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Witch-hunts in the 21st century

In his book, "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches," Marvin Harris made the argument that the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages were not about putting down power threatening subversives as in the Inquisition, but instead creating them:
 My explanation of the witchcraft craze is that it was largely created and sustained by the governing classes as a means of suppressing this wave of Christian messianism. It is no accident that witchcraft came into increasing prominence along with violent messianic protests against social and economic inequities. —Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 225)
It became a way for the Church and state to divert attention away from themselves and deflect blame for tough times onto a powerless group of women:
The practical significance of the witch mania therefore was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form. Preoccupied with the fantastic activities of these demons, the distraught, alienated, pauperized masses blamed the rampant Devil instead of the corrupt clergy and the rapacious nobility. Not only were the Church and state exonerated, but they were made indispensable. The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of mankind against an enemy who was omnipresent but difficult to detect. Here at last was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector. Vital services pertaining to this life rather than the next were being carried out with sound and fury, flame and smoke. You could actually see the authorities doing something to make life a little more secure; you could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell. Who were the scapegoats? H. C. Erik Midelfort’s unique study of 1,258 witchcraft executions in southwestern Germany during the period 1562 to 1684 shows that 82 percent of the witches were females. Defenseless old women and lower-class midwives were usually the first to be accused in any local outbreak. —Harris, Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 237-238)
In sum:
  1. Times were tough and the people were suffering and starting to blame the rulers of that time: a corrupt Church and governing classes.
  2. A scapegoat was created to divert attention away from themselves and onto a powerless, group of women that they could easily defeat.
  3. The "witches" were deemed to be evil beyond imagination.
  4. The "witches" were tortured.
  5.  The witch-hunts self-perpetuated itself. The "witches" were tortured until two to three other supposed witches were named, supposedly at a sabbat.
  6. The population was kept in a state of "mass hysteria" or "culture of fear."
  7. The state declared itself the savior and protector of its citizens.
Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? If not, pause a moment before proceeding —it should come to you. Here's a hint:
Collins Dictionary definition of witch-hunt: "a rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public" —Collins
And the answer is the global war on terror. The GWOT (Global War On Terror) is nothing more than a modern day witch-hunt. Each one of the seven points above correlates perfectly to the GWOT:
  1. Times were tough and the people were suffering and starting to blame the rulers of that time: a corrupt government and elite class.
  2. A scapegoat was created to divert attention attention away from themselves and onto a powerless, "enemy" that they could easily defeat. i.e.a few men with beards and guns half way around the world.
  3. George W. Bush described terrorists as "evil-doers" and often described the GWOT as some momentous battle between good and evil.
  4. Terrorists and supposed terrorists were tortured.
  5.  The GWOT self-perpetuates itself. Drone strikes create more terrorists than it kills. Also, government agencies create most of the terrorists outright:
    "Terrorists" were indeed tortured. The US military would give a cash reward to anyone who "named" a "terrorist" —whether that person was innocent or guilty. Then, "US authorities relied heavily on information obtained from a small number of detainees under torture. They continued to maintain this testimony was reliable even after admitting that the prisoners who provided it had been mistreated." source
  6. The population was kept in a state of "mass hysteria" or "culture of fear."
  7. The state declared itself the savior and protector of the people.
From a Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet: Security signs that begin with "For your protection..." essentially end with "...we will restrict freedoms & invade privacy"
There is absolutely no doubt that if Marvin Harris were alive today (he died a month after 9/11), he would call out the GWOT as a modern day witch-hunt. The only difference is that terrorism is real. However, the response is grossly overblown and much of there terrorism is the direct result of US actions. This is no doubt intentional:
The Thistle and the Drone explains an important correlation: the United States uses drones almost exclusively against Muslim tribes with strong codes of honor and revenge [who were] living on the borders between nations—the tribes on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen, Somalia, the southern Philippines, Turkey, and Mali. —The Thistle and the Drone: The United States, Islam, and the War on Terror
Remember we're talking about a few men with guns and beards half way around the world as a national threat to the United States. Give me a break. The threat of being killed from a terrorist attack inside the United States is miniscule:

The GWOT has been described as a fraud or a hoax; however, the best and simplest analogy is that the GWOT is a modern day witch-hunt. This has proposed before. There are almost three million hits on google for, "war terror witch-hunt." Here is but a sample:
In 1974, Marvin Harris identified, "counter-culture" as the witches of his time:
The unexpected resurgence of attitudes and theories long held to be incompatible with the
expansion of Western science and technology is associated with the development of a lifestyle which has been given the name “counter-culture.” According to Theodore Roszak, one of the movement’s adult prophets, counter-culture will save the world from the “myths of objective consciousness.” It will “subvert the scientific world view” and substitute a new culture in which the “non-intellective capacities” will reign supreme. Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 243)
If this doesn't describe the current state of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party with their science-be-damned "global warming is a hoax" and "a woman's body has a way to protect itself from pregnancy via a rape," I don't know what does. Surprisingly enough, the "counter-culture" of the "left" that Harris describes has found a home on the "right" with the rise of the Tea Party Republicans. (Aside: Please don't take this as an endorsement for the Democrats. Each party plays the "good" cop to the other party's "bad" cop. Each party plays their role in what amounts to Kabuki theater on a grand scale.)

Harris' concluding thoughts on "counter-culture":
Within counter-culture’s freedom to believe, witches are once more as believable as
anything else. This belief, for all its playful innocence, makes a definite contribution to the consolidation or stabilization of contemporary inequalities. Millions of educated youth seriously believe that the proposal to kiss away the corporate state as if it were an “evil enchantment” is no less effective or realistic than any other form of political consciousness. Like its medieval predecessor, our modern witch fad blunts and befuddles the forces of dissent. Like the rest of the counter-culture, it postpones the development of a rational set of political commitments. And that is why it is so popular among the more affluent segments of our population. That is why the witch has returned. Marvin Harris, 1974, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture  (pp. 257-258)
I couldn't recommend enough, "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches", to anyone interested in culture and the psychology of societies. Every chapter is filled with entertaining stories of how culture developed in different parts of the world and the lessons we can learn from them today. CPWW is as every bit as valid today as it was almost 40 years ago.

If Marvin Harris were alive today, he would surely recognize the global war on terror as the "witch" with "counter-culture" playing an auxiliary role as part of the right's propaganda machines. Certainly, the witch has returned: The global war on terror is nothing more than a 21st century witch-hunt.