Jim Wagner
In the Crucible with You and #MeToo
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By Jim Wagner
September 25, 2018

Most educated people are at least passingly familiar with Arthur Miller's 1953 fictionalized account of the Salem Witch Trials, in which wild accusations of witchcraft serve as allegorical representations of the investigations by the late and unlamented Senator Joseph McCarthy into a supposed Communist deep state. But in the years following the release of Miller's play few have kept abreast of the copious intelligence revelations coming out of Soviet archives which largely vindicate McCarthy's assertions. Most do not know – or do not care to know – of this new information, and so they continue to imagine that the charge of "McCarthyism" properly indicates a maliciously false political accusation. I doubt if one American in ten has even heard of the Venona Files or has any idea of the extent to which those documents demonstrate that McCarthy was mostly right in his accusations. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1996/04/14/was-mccarthy-right-about-the-left/a0dc6726-e2fd-4a31-bcdd-5f352acbf5de/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2454d06ca1ce

But even among the few who are aware of those vindicating Soviet archives, most continue to view McCarthy himself with unrelenting distaste, though in fairness they have refined the charge of McCarthyism to mean merely a heavy-handed and overbearing method of interrogation. And yet, for the most part they believe in "McCarthyism" not because they have invested any personal study into the question, but because it has been passed on to them as part of the zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, nearly all have missed the real significance of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93 upon which Miller's The Crucible was based. It all started when two young women began to display odd, seizure-like symptoms centered on extreme bodily contortions, wild vocalizations, and bizarre histrionics. They also claimed that they were being pinched and poked with pins by some demonic entity. In short order several other young women began to exhibit similar behavior and sensations, symptoms which denied all medical explanation. Charges of witchcraft quickly ensued. Within two years 19 people had been executed, while another was tortured to death and an additional five died in confinement. Approximately 100 were imprisoned.

There is little purpose in wading through the trial details or exploring the crazily zealous charges and hopeless denials, the momentarily gratifying convictions, or the final disenchantment and remorse of the people of Salem. Likewise there is no need to search for a medical explanation for events which can hardly be viewed as other than insane. Even the quest for a moral explanation would be fruitless. The simple fact is that those experiencing the peculiar symptoms and levelling the outlandish charges which today have become so closely linked to malicious political prosecution in the popular mind were utterly sincere in their accusations and utterly convinced that they had been bedeviled by witches. In short, they had fallen under a mass hysteria which encompassed an entire community and corrupted its judicial system into a malignant parody of law.

If those young women of Salem had claimed that they were sexually assaulted by witches, or even raped by them, few in Salem would have doubted them. Such was the intensity of the feeling and conviction in that community. And in fact those young women do not seem to have been lying. They seem to have been telling the absolute truth as they knew it. Except....

I hesitate to mention the exception because, as you know, we have all been sternly admonished to "believe the women." And yet it is an important exception. You see, among the first accusations of witchcraft, which were levelled by 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr., one is thought by many historians to have arisen out of a feud between the Putnam family and their rivals, the Porters. That feud, which was based upon both commercial competition and religious differences, had divided the community into factions so heated that some antagonists resorted to violent recriminations and even to open fist fights. In other words, that very first charge of witchcraft may well have been politically motivated. Several of those named as witches by Ann Putnam Jr. had been in conflict with her family.

According to specialists the condition of mass hysteria, now sometimes called "collective behavioral obsession" or "mass psychogenic illness," is a kind of psychogenic illness, meaning that while the genesis of the condition is in the mind the physiological symptoms are nonetheless real. The disease most commonly affects women, and is thought to possibly result from stress. There are two general forms of manifestation. The first is characterized by physiological symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and including chest tightness and abdominal pain, heart palpitations, hyperventilation, dizziness, fainting etc. The second type of mass hysteria involves peculiar motor impairments or distortions which can be seizure-like and/or paralytic. Both types can occur together, and are typically accompanied by strongly held delusions.

An incident in Singapore illustrates the comic absurdity to which such hysterias can sometimes descend. Koro is a species of mass hysteria in which people assume the bizarre and medically baseless conviction that their sex organs are retracting into their own bodies and will soon disappear. (I hasten to assure you that this is not a joke. Also known as "genital retraction syndrome," Koro is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

In 1967 a notable Koro outbreak took place in Singapore, and was quickly spread by a rumor that pork from infected pigs was the cause. It started with a 16 year old boy who had seen a news report on the eating of tainted pork and recalled having eaten a pork sandwich. Arrived at a hospital with his weeping parents, he was treated with sedation. Rumors spread, and soon hundreds of men and boys were reporting to hospitals, gripping their supposedly shrinking male members in desperation and manifesting all of the classic physiological symptoms of mass hysteria. Some were grasping their manhood with pliers or other implements. All believed that if they lost their grip, so to speak, they would suddenly die. By the end of the epidemic, some 500 known cases were treated.

Women too are sometimes afflicted with Koro. In search of medical help, they present clutching their nipples between forefinger and thumb, or in extreme cases they are found to have driven pins or nails through their nipples to prevent them from retracting into their breasts. Notably, the victims of koro firmly believe that their condition is real and are not consoled with reasoned assurances. Though the disease is worldwide, it has a cultural component. Asian victims of Koro are convinced that the disappearance of their genitalia will result in death.

Fortunately, nothing like what happened in Salem or Singapore could ever take place in modern America. Right? After all, haven't we set all that sort of superstition aside? Well, not so fast! Consider the McMartin Pre-School case, a moral panic in the early 1980's that had all the earmarks of a mass hysteria, including accusations of sexual abuse against children, satanic rituals (witchcraft), and even human sacrifice. Charges against the McMartins persisted for six agonizing years, during which time the papers were flooded with McMartin horror stories while the faces of alleged McMartin miscreants flooded the television news. Nearly all the media reported the allegations as valid and implicitly beyond dispute, and despite the fact that no real evidence ever emerged, reputations were destroyed and lives were ruined.

And yet, how could anyone have doubted the detailed and very graphic assertions that were coming out of such small and innocent children? After all, child sex abuse is a real problem. And children don't lie about such things, do they? Quoting from the Washington Post article by Maura Casey, July 31, 2015:
    "We believe the children" became both the unofficial motto of advocates for the prosecution and a catch-all response to those few who asked whether the accusers had completely lost their minds. The approach was based largely on the work of psychiatrist Roland Summit, who claimed that, of every 1,000 children who say they were sexually abused, only two or three are guilty of inventing or exaggerating. He also said it was normal for children who had been sexually abused to retract their claims and say they made it all up. The upshot: No matter what children said, they were sexually abused, and if you didn't believe them, something was wrong with you.
Adults who should have known better were caught up in this satanic abuse craze. Even trained professionals ardently took up the witch hunt, brainwashing the children through prolonged and suggestive interrogations to produce more and more outlandish claims. In that atmosphere, to doubt the children was to side with abusers and thereby place oneself beyond the pale of decent society. And so, as in Salem, seeming adults set aside their common sense and came to believe what they wanted to believe. Or to put it more generously, they came to believe without reservation what it was safe and fashionable to believe.

Me too! I didn't want to be on the wrong side of popular opinion. What would my friends have thought! Ok, perhaps I didn't fully believe the exceedingly peculiar allegations against the McMartins. But here is the point. Under massive social pressure I was leaning that way. I did not want to be a dissenter, or in modern parlance a "denier," and I liked being at one with the righteous. Having myself been abused as a child, I was quick to take the side of those I wanted to see as victims. Perhaps too quick! After enduring a seemingly endless ordeal, the McMartins were wholly exonerated. (Did they ever get their reputations back?)

Today we are faced with a startlingly similar spectacle. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of women are coming forward with accusations against men they say abused them in the past. Some of these charges are clearly true, having been supported by irrefutable evidence and corroborating witnesses or by the confessions or apologies of the accused. Others seem plausible, and while brought forth by credible witnesses still seem to lack anything that might serve as evidence in a court of law. But a few seem palpably fatuous. And why not! There is glory these days in being a victim, and more glory in accusing a man. Who will dare to doubt the woman? Who will deny that she is "brave," a "survivor," and as pure and honest as the driven snow? Heck, if I were a woman I might be jumping up and down and shouting "#MeToo!"

And now we have the charges of Christine Ford alleging sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, charges so vintage as to be almost collectible (36 years gathering dust in her mental cellar) and so vague and contradictory and lacking in substantiation as to merit, legally speaking, little more than a passing mention. And yet they threaten to derail Judge Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. Until 2012, Ms. Ford had no recollection at all of the events she now claims took place when she and Kavanaugh were in high school. In fact, her charges are based on so called "recovered memories" evoked by her psychologist during a couple's therapy session. (That is, by the way, the same highly controversial process that evoked all those disturbing memories in the McMartin case.) Ford alleges she cannot remember the year or place where she was assaulted. She has named four supposed witnesses, and all four have unequivocally repudiated her assertions. She has stated that four men were present, and then at another time that there were only two men, and finally that there were three men and a woman. She claims that Kavanaugh attempted to remove her swimsuit from beneath her clothing, an odd way to disrobe a victim. (How did he know she was wearing a swimsuit?) And yet she cannot recall at whose home this all supposedly took place. She does not know how she got to that party, or how she got home.

In spite of saturation publicity, not one witness has come forward to support Ms. Ford. But perhaps more concerning is her insistence, after dancing with the Senate for weeks over process, that she will not testify under the conditions that any other accuser would normally be subject to. Among the odd accommodations upon which she has insisted is that the accused must first answer her charges before she will present them. But in a classic Catch 22, she will not present those charges to him, because she has insisted that he cannot be present in the room when she testifies. For those who do not see the absurdity in all this, allow me to recommend The Trial by Franz Kafka!

And now, eschewing traditional justice and lacking all sense of the historical irony, blind supporters of Ms. Ford are drumming yet again the din of that hypnotic refrain. "You must believe the woman – all men are guilty – I believe her – #MeTwo!" I am not suggesting that Ms. Ford is lying. It is possible that she believes every word she is saying. But that does not mean that what she is saying is true. The young women in Salem were absolutely convinced that they had been the victims of witchcraft. The men and boys in Singapore had no doubt that their male organs were being retracted into their own abdomens. And the adults in Los Angeles were of one mind in their conviction that the McMartins had sexually abused their children and forced them to participate in satanic rituals and human sacrifice.

But how could Christine Ford be deluded about an event of such significance? Don't ask me, I'm not a psychiatrist. Perhaps it has something to do with the current "#MeToo" hysteria. It could also be that as a result of real trauma in her life having nothing to do with Judge Kavanaugh she has tapped into that meme. All I can say is that in a country of 320 million people stranger things have happened. Many people on the left desperately want to block the Kavanaugh appointment, and Ms. Ford is decidedly on the left. Moreover, even if delusional she is not an idiot, and there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow for any woman who can stop Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Mass hysteria is by definition highly contagious, as a vast number of epidemics will testify. Democrats have now coaxed forward another woman with a Kavanaugh story that is laughably odd. Former Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez is claiming that when they were freshmen attending a campus party Brett Kavanaugh dropped his pants and thrust his sex organ in her face. Describing herself as "foggy" drunk and slurring her words after losing big at a drinking game, Ramirez says she was lying on the floor surrounded by other classmates when someone thrust a penis in her face. "That's not a real penis," she recalls saying." And then she goes on to describe her mental clarity in recalling that the owner of that "not real" penis was Judge Kavanaugh.

But where was that clarity these past 30 years? Ramirez admits that there are "holes" in her memory. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times now reports that as recently as a week ago Ms. Ramirez was phoning former classmates in search of someone who could fill in the voids. According to the Times, she confided to at least some of them that she was not sure who it was that assaulted her as described above. But no matter! After spending six full days with her attorneys, she is now sufficiently confident to testify that it was Judge Kavanaugh. As of the time of this writing, her phone calls have failed to produce a single corroborating witness.

Call me a heretic, but I do not reflexively believe the woman, any more than I believe the Puritan daughters of Salem, the Singapore Koro victims, or the credentialed McMartin child counselors from 1980's Los Angeles. What I believe in is evidence, prosecutorial due process, and the presumption of innocence. These standards of evidence may not be perfect, but over the past thousand years they have kept a lot of people from being burned at the stake. Someday they may protect you as well. And hopefully, #MeToo!

© Jim Wagner

 

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Jim Wagner

Jim Wagner is a retired businessman and freelance writer. His degree is in Psychology with a minor in English from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, where he lived, worked, farmed and studied for nine years after his repudiation of the Vietnam War... (more)

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