(it was, it turned out, the site of a terrible massacre of Native Americans, three hundred years earlier, at the close of a failed rebellion) but also utterly destroyed the "historicist" argument for exonerating our ancestors - that they had "different" sensibilities and so it isn't fair to judge them by today's standards.
The Name of War showed, from first hand writings and sources, that our Pilgrim predecessors knew perfectly well that what they were doing, robbery, murder, oppression of other faiths, atrocity, genocide - was wrong and unChristian - and showed too the logical contortions they went through to rationalize it to themselves, and future generations.
And how this revisionism, back then, carried on down and how utterly different our history was, from Europe's - had the Romans behaved like our English forebears, there would have been no Germany, no Britain, no France, no Spain - there would have been nothing there of independent cultures to reshape Rome's legacy and create new but connected societies with their own persisting ethnicities.
It made me start seriously questioning the "it was all along time ago" dismissal of the treatment of Native Americans, and to ask how America would have looked, if we had behaved instead as the Romans did, and all the subsequent history of the world - something I realized that I didn't know nearly enough US history to be able to answer - and that I walked every day past invisible ruins and over battlefields, and had all my life, and never knew it. (Temporal Vertigo, I call this sensation; it's kind of like deja vu, only worse - like being the "fool on the hill," who sees past the surface appearance to the reality of the moving planet and the stationary sun--)
Then, in 2003, another author, Mary Beth Norton, spoke of how that war, King Philip's War, fed into another mythic event, the Salem Witch Trials - and how the standard versions, our understandings of it in pop culture, were nearly all incorrect, incomplete, as she herself discovered to her surprise, digging into the firsthand source materials to write what became The Devil's Snare.
That rather than simply revealing the benighted superstion and sexism of our stupid ancestors, then-current events were creating a climate of insecurity, (and I thought of this overlaying angst and guilt over the past generation's big war back home in England, the English Civil War, one of the themes of Jill Lepore's great work) and the tying together of Native American paganism and demonic influences trying to destroy "God's chosen" set up a fortress mentality that was paradoxically most vulnerable to self-directed purges and violence.
In short, the use of Salem as a paradigm for McCarthy and the Cold War paranoia began to look to me like an inspired choice, perhaps even more than Miller (not himself a historian) realized, not something coincidental at all. Our predecessors were more modern than we have allowed them to be, or rather, there is nothing new--
And then tonight on the way home, third time's the charm - another local scholar, a woman who watching a student production of The Crucible recognized a familiar name - literally. It turned out that one of the hanged was her own ancestress, black sheep, or rather lamb, and a long obsession that turned her into a leading expert on the era began.
The half-hour interview like the others is here, in Real Audio; you can listen yourself and judge for yourself my account of Burns' work. There's a lot here which is really interesting to me, in terms of the concreteness of history, and the methodology, but that's not so relevant (not so immediately relevant at least) to politics. Well, actually it is - it's the same thing that Epluribus Media is doing, looking at timelines, looking at actual documents, only it's a lot harder when you're working back 300 years of muddled, forgotten, or upcovered data.
She references Norton's work, which is what true scholarship is all about, building on past discoveries, but then amplifies it, and makes it even more relevant than the Trials were (on the surface at least, in what was known to the world) in 2003.
Specifically, that investigators with a strong mental picture of the kind of evildoing they suspect can get admissions out of people, given a free hand to interrogate them, particularly young people, and that in a climate of social instability - the political power of the Puritans was waning, their Church already losing power to the state, the new colony charter granting the vote to all landowners, instead of only those who were the right sort of Christians, there were bitter factions among the Puritans (all utopias carry their own destruction waiting to sprout like a baobab) and then - always remember this forgotten fact - they were fighting a widespread war, and losing it, against the outraged Wampanoag and their allies.
Norton thought that the fury with which the Trials were prosecuted represented a seeking of scapegoats, a distraction by the same government authorities who didn't want people looking too closely at how badly they were doing in the war, as well as that PTSD untreated accounted for some of the accusers' fantasies, as many were survivors of the frontier wars, refugees resettled in along the coast.
To this, Burns adds emphasis on the total weirdness of it all, calling it a "Perfect Storm" of stresses and circumstances that resulted in this snowballing of accusations, the increasing improbability, so that respected community leaders and even ministers - and four-year-old kids - were picked up in it, and the ferocity with which these convictions were defended, even after the fact, so that they were still looking for testimony to prove that it had been right and good for public safety to put those people to death, even after they were already dead.
This should be a cautionary tale for those who can't understand how the freepi and their masters of the Hegemony have no reverse gear, how Hindrocket can't admit that he was wrong even when he admits that he was factually wrong he wasn't really wrong--
But equally importantly, as I noted, she compares it to the frenzy of accusations and arrests and this current climate that has given us Annie Jacobsen and Abu Ghreib alike, dread that the person next to you is
possessed a terrorist, fear that if you don't catch them all, the entire community is going to be swept off the face of the earth, the way this stuff feeds on itself, so that by the end of it, it had spread all over eastern MA and up into NH and ME, and hundreds of people had been dragged into it as accused, witnesses or accusers, and people had confessed to anything, absolutely anything, and made wierd shit up to fit the stories told in the winger books of the day, Cotton Mather's Memorable Providences and the Malleus Maleficarum, made widely available by the technolgical miracle of talk radio cheap printing.
The backlash afterwards was harsh. Cotton Mather's own father wrote a rebuke, on the subject of conscience, and said it would be better to let "ten suspected witches" go free, than to condemn one innocent person.
But we have, as a nation, wholesale forgot this lesson complete.
--One thing I have been thinking more and more sharply these past two years is why is New England as liberal as it is - with the caveat that it isn't anywhere near as liberal as Corpo flacks paint it! But there is, regardless, and always has been even in NH despite the Union Leader's hardest efforts, a sort of stolidity which (despite "Banned in Boston" of yore) is truly libertarian and not merely selfishness rationalized, a quiet unconcern and unwillingness to meddle in other people's personal business, and to define that pretty wide, including religion and substance use and sexual practices - "An it harm none" could well be the creed of the old New England farmer, churchgoer or not, no less than their descendents who run B&Bs or collision shops or liquor stores or what.
And I have thought more and more, comparing notes with other southerners, and reading, and pondering, that this is because we tried Theocracy once, we had it here, we had the humorlessness and the prurience and the sexual hypocrisy and the fear of Strangeness and the legalized bigotry and privilege of the churchstate and you know what, it didn't work out very well, and we don't want to go back to that, ever again.
Not most of us, at least.
And most of us aren't stupid enough to take the word of fearmongers, any more, when they tell us that Dire Fates Await if we even dare to tempt the Lord by dabbling in disobedience - it isn't just that Vermont didn't get turned into a great smoking crater like Sodom and Gomorrah as we were warned, or more modernly a Mad Max scenario, after legalizing civil unions. People here were earnestly making the point that they were fiscal conservatives, and didn't care about others' sex lives (to the despair of our local theocons) as far back as the early 90s.
Again, we had Theocracy. It's represented in the collective consciousness with as much grisly and morbid (and accurate) folk culture as "Guido" Fawkes' effort to blow up the government a few generations earlier. Nathaniel Hawthorne's take on his own ancestors, exorcising them with joyous neo-Classical lighthearted paganism amid the New England arts colonies, is the road we took.
Not because we didn't understand what we were rejecting, as we chose not to perpetuate the traditions of Plymouth Rock, then or now - but because we did. Reading back, over the bloody, messy politics and conjoined history of 16th-17th century England and America, it's very clear why the Founders made such a big deal out of not having Yet Another Christian State, like they'd had, here and back home, already.
--One thing that all three authors show is that historical events make no sense, taken out of their cultural context. Of course they look irrational and mindless, and the participants vicious and stupid - and yet, how many people here today believed that there were WMDs, who know curse themselves for being such fools as to trust the sincere Dr. Rice speaking dreadfully of
curses and broomsticks mushroom clouds and smoking guns, or the honorable General Powell soberly assuring us that these fuzzy blobs were the Devil's Mark harbingers of death and destruction? And were willing to sign onto the slaughter of thousands of innocent strangers, out of that ungrounded, trusting, irrational fear?
Oh ye liberal hawks, you are no different from Cotton Mather and William Stoughton! -or rather, the masses of Massachussetts citizens who stood by as their neighbors were stuffed by the hundreds into overcrowded jails and subjected to farcical show trials and convicted even in spite of the evidence in their favor, until in time the pointing finger of fear came to light on they, themselves, and it was too late--
That is the other lesson: that there is no immunity conferred by mere passing of time, against the errors of past humanity - and that the only immunity there is, is no use if we do not make use of it. Santayana's Law is no less implacable than Murphy's, and yet we continue to defy them both, trusting to our innate virtue and dumb luck to protect us from the consequences of our ignorance and rash misdeeds.