— Exodus 22:18
It’s that time of year again, one short week before Halloween, when a refreshing crispness begins to creep into the air and the leaves begin to turn. It’s also the season when the religious wingnuts raise their usual objections to what they perceive as a Satanic holiday. This year, those objections come on the heels of news that a devout mother of four in Atlanta, Georgia, has asked the local Board of Education to ban all Harry Potter books from the public schools, insisting they are an “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children into the Wicca religion. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and Harry still has a place in Atlanta public schools, at least for the time being.
This is hardly the first time objections have been raised about J.K. Rowling’s best-selling books, featuring the heroic boy-wizard’s adventures at the fictional Hogwarts School. The recently released film Jesus Camp features a now-notorious scene in which the camp’s director denounces the Harry Potter series as “evil” because it celebrates warlocks and witchcraft, among other cited “sins” — even insisting that the fictional title character deserves to be put to death for his magical practices. But Harry has been embroiled in controversy since at least the second or third book in the series, with calls for its removal from classrooms and school libraries occurring in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California, and South Carolina, among other states.
The ruckus prompted bestselling author Judy Blume — whose own books have been banned from schools in the past because of their frank treatment of teen sexuality and the onset of puberty — to write an Op-Ed in the New York Times in 1999, mourning what she sees as a disturbing trend extending beyond religious zealots to target any number of other “isms.” (She pointed out, for example, that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been targeted by politically-correct would-be censors for promoting racism.) “[S]ome parents believe they have the right to demand immediate removal of any book for any reason from school or classroom libraries,” Blume lamented. “The list of gifted teachers and librarians who find their jobs in jeopardy for defending their students’ right to read, to imagine, to question, grows every year.”
Imagination is a powerful thing, and good stories stoke the imagination, especially in children. Blume recalled reading L. Frank Baum’s Oz books as a child — another series rife with those evil witches and wizards — and dreaming of being able to fly: “I may have been small and powerless in real life, but in my imagination, I was able to soar.” The enduring appeal of good story-telling and its profound effect on imagination — coupled with the need for young girls to feel powerful in a tightly controlled religious environment that frowned upon, and severely punished, any dissenting voice — were among the myriad of factors that converged into a perfect storm of mass hysteria and blood lust in the late 17th century: the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
It’s a particularly dark period in American history, one that has been well documented and carefully studied from every possible angle. Over the course of several months in 1692, nineteen men and women were wrongfully convicted of witchcraft and hanged. Two dogs were executed as accomplices, and hundreds of others were accused and jailed for months without being brought to trial. An 80-year-old man who refused to undergo trial was pressed to death under heavy stones, and the four-year-old daughter of one accused witch was also arrested and jailed for eight months. (Yes. A four-year-old was accused of witchcraft.) The sight of her mother being carted off to the gallows ultimately drove the little girl mad with grief. All this was done in the name of god and the safety and security of the community.
Even before the witch hunt began, that community had its challenges, most notably an ongoing frontier war with Indian tribes a mere 70 miles away, bringing a constant fear of imminent attack to the little town of Salem. It was also becoming increasingly polarized, thanks to (a) a bitter rivalry between two clans vying for social prominence in (and thereby control of) the community; and (b) an economic rift between the rural/agricultural Salem Village and the more mercantile-oriented city of Salem, which was flourishing from a lively sea trade.
Against this backdrop of social tensions, unrest, and discontent, the daughter of the new village minister, Samuel Parris, fell mysteriously ill, diving under furniture, contorting in pain, and complaining of fever. Many theories have been bandied about as to the exact nature of young Betty’s “illness,” but one possibility is that she had read Cotton Mather’s recently published popular book Memorable Providences, which described the “crimes” of an Irish washerwoman suspected of witchcraft in great detail. Stories fuel the imagination, after all, and six-year-old Betty was at an especially suggestible age. Furthermore, Parris’ household included Tituba, a Caribbean slave from Barbados, who often regaled the local children with voodoo tales from her native folklore. On the advice of a well-meaning neighbor, Mary Sibley, Tituba even baked a rye cake with an unusual ingredient — Betty’s urine — and fed the cake to a dog, believing the dog to be a witch’s agent and the cause of the little girl’s “affliction.”
Young Betty suddenly became the center of attention, so it shouldn’t be surprising that other girls in the village quickly began exhibiting the same mysterious symptoms. Why should Betty have all the fun? As the cause (and cure) of these “illnesses” continued to elude the local doctor, the superstitious town folk fell back on witchcraft as the only likely explanation. Soon, the finger-pointing began: Tituba was accused of witchcraft, along with a local beggar woman, Sarah Good, and a querulous old woman named Sarah Osborn, whose greatest sin (apart from being unpleasant) was that she had not attended church for over a year. The initial judicial “examination” of the accused women was hardly fair, based entirely on hearsay, local gossip, and the suspect testimony of the afflicted girls, who made up wild tales of specters cavorting with devils, and fell into their well-practiced “fits” almost on cue. Anything bad, no matter how minor, that had happened in the village was also attributed to the three accused women: cheese and butter mysteriously going bad, or the birth of deformed livestock. And god forbid if a woman accused had some abnormal birthmark on her body, widely viewed at the time to be a mark of the devil.
One would think that rationality would prevail; surely someone could see the hysteria for what it was. A few people did, including a judge named Nathaniel Saltonstall, who resigned from the court in protest at the way the “trial” of an accused witch named Bridget Bishop had been conducted. Bishop was convicted and hanged anyway — the first victim of the Salem witch trials. Saltonstall managed to escape with his life despite voicing his objections to the proceedings. An outspoken local tavern owner named John Proctor — immortalized in Arthur Miller’s fictionalized account of the events, The Crucible — wasn’t so fortunate: he was summarily accused of witchcraft himself and hanged. (His wife, Elizabeth, was also convicted, but her life was spared because she was pregnant.)
In short, the town was a powder keg; suspicion of witchcraft was the spark that set it off. The accusations multiplied as the hysteria escalated, with more and more women finding themselves targets of the afflicted girls’ dramatic “testimony.” Anyone slightly difficult or different, emotionally disturbed, or independent-minded and outspoken was likely to be accused of witchcraft. Denied such basic rights as legal counsel, witnesses to testify on their behalf, and no formal means of appeal — although they were allowed to speak on their own behalf, produce evidence, and cross-examine their accusers — the alleged witches quickly learned that the best way to avoid being hanged was simply to confess and repent.
Eventually cooler heads prevailed, as people began to realize that it was highly unlikely that there were so many previously unsuspected devil worshippers in their midst, masquerading as devout Christians. The execution of a former minister, George Burroughs, caused great consternation, as he refused to recant, professing his innocence and reciting the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged — something witches weren’t supposed to be able to do. In fact, the assembled crowd might have set Burroughs free if Cotton Mather hadn’t intervened and insisted that the hanging proceed. (If there is an afterlife, Mather had a lot to answer for when he got there.)
Ironically, Mather’s son, Increase, helped spear-head the movement that essentially ended the madness, as more and more of the “intellectual elite” began to speak out against the proceedings and question the truthfulness of the accusers. However, only one of the main players, a judge named Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized for his role in the witch hunt and the innocent lives it claimed. Most sought to shift blame, and the chief justice, William Stoughton, stubbornly stuck to his assertion that his “good work” had been interrupted just as he was on the verge of ridding the land of witches for good. More frightening than Stoughton’s pig-headedness is the fact that he was elected the next governor of Massachusetts.
The Salem Witch Trials were an aberration, but they are not unique. This sort of hysterical mob mentality appears to be inherent in human nature, popping up repeatedly throughout history, in every culture. Miller’s timeless drama was ostensibly about the Salem era, but he also intended it as a criticism of the anti-communist “witch hunts” and hearings led by US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s — conducted under the aegis of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Here, too, the “hearings” were dominated by wild accusations (often motivated by personal antipathy), hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and a shocking disregard for civil liberties — again, all in the name of god and preserving national security. Very few of those accused turned out, in retrospect, to be communists, and many lives and reputations were ruined in the process.
Of course, the self-appointed Thought Police aren’t limited to religious fanatics or xenophobic political conservatives. I recall a conversation one Halloween in a friend’s living room, where another guest — a schoolteacher by trade — ranted at great length about her objections to the Harry Potter books, which she had forbidden her own children from reading. (The irony is that she considered herself to be an ultra-leftist liberal.) Her objections stemmed from her insistence that because Harry is rewarded for defying authority and breaking school rules, Rowling’s books therefore teach children that it’s “okay to break the rules,” undermining the authority of schoolteachers in the real world.
This is, at best, a bit of a stretch, and easily refuted via internal textual evidence. Do Harry and his friends occasionally flout school rules? Absolutely. But note that when they break rules for no good reason, they are summarily punished. How often has Harry suffered detention, been denied certain privileges (like playing in a Quidditch match), or earned demerits for his “house” because of his disregard for the rules? It’s only when they must break rules to save lives — theirs or their fellow students — or when rules are imposed for no good reason, that their “disobedience” is ultimately “rewarded.”
If Rowling is teaching children anything with the Harry Potter books, it’s how to think for themselves and take responsibility for their decisions and actions, thereby fostering critical thought, as opposed to blind obedience. The danger of the latter is aptly illustrated in the film Ella Enchanted, an inventive re-working of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. In this case, the princess is cursed with uber-obedience. The fairy who bestows this particular “gift” thinks she’s doing the parents a favor, giving them the world’s perfect child. The problem is, Ella has to do whatever anyone tells her — even when it goes against her own desires, her basic nature, or her own (or others’) best interests. Needless to say, people quickly figure out how to exploit this aspect of her personality — until she is able to break the spell through sheer force of will (and, of course, true love), releasing her long-suffering, independent-minded inner rebel. Compare the plight of poor Ella to that of Harry Potter and crew, who can still choose when and where to disobey, and suffer the consequences (and, occasionally, the rewards) of their decisions.
That’s the real trouble with Harry, and all his free-thinking, independent-minded ilk. There’s a certain type of person for whom “bucking the system” through vocal dissent or civil disobedience is tantamount to being a traitor. (Paging Ann Coulter!) The underlying emotional motivation is fear: fear of those who are different, fear of change, and mostly, fear of losing order and control. Such people exhibit no qualms about crushing the infidels underfoot, and they usually find some noble, patriotic or religious excuse for rationalizing their vicious behavior. This is as true today as it was in 17th century Salem, or during the 1950s McCarthy Era. And it’s true in the world of Harry Potter: the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was surprisingly unflinching in its depiction of the lengths to which the Ministry of Magic would go to deny the reality of Lord Voldemort’s return and hence the impending threat facing the wizarding world — not to mention the Ministry’s ruthlessness in perfunctorily squelching any voices daring to disagree with them.
Perhaps I found that fifth book so unsettling because there are disturbing signs of a convergence of trends in America today that bear striking parallels to Salem and the McCarthy eras. There is an ongoing war, the threat of imminent attack on American soil, an increasingly partisan and divided populace, economic tension between the “haves” and “have nots,” and a outspokenly zealous religious sector that values faith and superstition over provable fact, and considers itself at “war” with “unbelievers.” Our country’s leadership seems intent on revoking some of our most cherished basic human rights — most recently, habeas corpus — ostensibly in the name of god, patriotism, and national security. Those same leaders are also growing more and more desperate, as the war they are waging becomes increasingly unpopular, with no sign of victory in sight. (It’s worth noting that many of the Salem judges played leading roles in the unpopular 17th century frontier war, with a comparable lack of success.)
Fortunately, cooler heads — and common sense — can ultimately prevail. This Halloween, as we gear up for a critical mid-term election that could change or stay the present course of our nation, let us take a moment to reflect on the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of the 1950s. From that historical perspective, let us take a long, hard look at the madness of the last five years, and ponder how fear and hysteria have held sway, often to the detriment of our personal freedoms. And let us cast our votes accordingly, each man being true to his conscience, with no fear of ugly reprisals from the self-appointed Thought Police — of any persuasion. For the time being, at least, we are still a democracy. Let us exercise our rights as independent, free-thinking citizens and take steps to preserve those rights for future generations… while we still can.
When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture at Cocktail Party Physics.