Friday, November 18, 2005

Modern Witch Hunts

The most notorious modern witch hunt was the McCarthy committee. Arthur Miller made the link explicit in his play The Crucible. Conservative commentator Mark Steyn once asked what the connection between Salem and McCarthy actually was. After all, he reasoned, witches don't exist but Communists surely do and in the 1950s they were a real threat to America. I'm not sure this is fair to people of the sixteenth century who had good reason to believe witches were real. But it does raise questions about the point Miller was trying to make.

What makes a witch hunt? I'd suggest that it requires a number of factors. First, a crime so awful that rational discussion of it becomes impossible. In the early modern era that might be witchcraft or heresy. Today it is child abuse. Second, you do need some genuine cases of guilt. Witches were real even if they lacked magical powers. Thomas Hobbes was happy to see a witch hung if he claimed to be able to work magic. And many did. Today there is no question that child abusers are real and dangerous. Third, you need cash - a lot of it. To get a witch hunt going there have to be plenty of victims. To easiest way to find them is to offer them lots of money. Of course, the cash should belong to the alleged witches or abusers and the victims are offered a way of getting their hands on it. Finally, you need a hue and cry to get public attention. The modern media are past masters at providing this and ensuring that rational debate remains impossible.

Let me give a couple of examples.

There was the Satanic abuse cases of the 1980s. Do you remember this? This was a classic witch hunt and is now viewed as totally preposterous. But the authorities fell for it and took a long time to crack down. Sadly, this witch hunt was partly driven by Christians who should have known better (link to article originally from the Daily Telegraph). In the US the driver was the myth of recovered memories.

Next came the paedaphilia in care homes witch hunt. This has been recently documented by Richard Webster in his book The Secret of Bryn Estyn. Boarding schools, foster homes and many other institutions were targetted by a concerted campaign by police, bien pensants and the media. You can read the Times Literary Supplement review at the author's website.

And now? Well, I'd suggest another witch hunt is going strong. The victims are being offered large amounts of money to dig up allegations sometimes decades old, rational debate is impossible and the media is in full cry. A very few real cases undergird the whole shambles. I don't even have to say what I am talking about.

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