December 23, 2017

Sina-cism: Lessons from a modern witch hunt

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Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

A few of my Putnam ancestors knew a thing or two about witchcraft, having played leading roles as accusers and prosecutors during the unfortunate events that unfolded in Danvers and Salem between 1692 and 1693. The emotionally disturbed Ann Putnam, the misguided judge Thomas Putnam, and a host of other early New Englanders with axes in need of grinding pulled off one of history’s most infamous and memorable mass delusions.

There were, of course, no witches in Salem in the 17th century, and one cannot help but lament the 20 executions, the losses felt by their survivors, and the incalculable damage to the lives and reputations of all the accused.

Still, I have a certain grudging respect for all involved.

For starters, they managed to kick up a complete bucket of nonsense for well over a year without the aid of the internet or any mass media. All they needed was one best-selling piece of fake news, Cotton Mather’s 1689 book, “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions,” too much Calvinism; some bitter squabbles over land; and a few impressionable young women.

Plus, more than 300 years later, all that unpleasantness serves as a rich and ongoing source of tourism dollars for several area communities.

Today, Americans are in the grip of another kind of witch hunt, as one powerful public figure after another loses their job, reputation and influence in the face of withering accusations of sexual impropriety.

This time around, the demons are real. The various entertainers, producers, movie stars, politicians, athletes and business leaders now losing their jobs and reputations have, in most cases, either begrudgingly admitted their misdeeds, or resigned their duties in a tacit admission of guilt. Good riddance to them all.

And, obviously, the willingness of victims to speak out is welcome. Still, it is not yet clear that all the participants are drawing the proper lessons. While it is refreshing that those in the #MeToo movement are finally discovering morality, one has to wonder how the alleged victims failed to notice that many of them built their Hollywood careers on the principle that sex sells. And I wonder how many of them will be donating any of their wealth to the aspiring actors and actresses whose careers went nowhere because they said “no” to the likes of Harvey Weinstein?

As usual, politicians are making matters worse.

On Dec. 7, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, faced with mounting accusations of sexual improprieties, announced his intention to resign. Yet Franken claimed some allegations against him were untrue and that he would have been cleared in any ethics investigation.

Similarly, Andrea Ramsey, a Kansas Democrat, abandoned her campaign for a House seat after a 2005 workplace sexual harassment lawsuit resurfaced, but denied the allegations against her. Ramsey blamed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for adopting a zero-tolerance standard that has undermined her political support.

Zeal is surely playing a role in rooting out misdeeds, but if Franken and Ramsey are innocent, the morally correct course is to fight the charges against them. Quitting is a tacit confession of guilt. And quitting while maintaining your innocence does no favors to those who may be targeted by accusations that are trivial, politically motivated, or simply false.

Within about 20 years of the witchcraft delusion, Salem, Danvers and the other communities involved in the fallacy had mostly repented, apologized to victims and their families, and rehabilitated the reputations of the accused.

As Marion Starkey wrote in her 1949 book “The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials,” “It is not surprising that delusion comes among men, nor is it any enduring cause for terror so long as in men can be found the faith and courage to wring enlightenment from delusion.”

It remains to be seen what enlightenment, if any, Americans will wring from our 21st-century morality play.

The day may come when most businesses will take seriously the ethical standards they establish for themselves. It is a good deal less likely that most voters will consistently put ethics ahead of ideology. But as for the entertainment industry, abandon all hope.

When this current phenomenon has run its course, I suspect the most lasting legacy will not be an infusion of morality in Hollywood, but a blockbuster movie about the whole sorry mess. And you can bet there will be no lack of applicants shouting “Me too!” in hopes of a leading role.

Hollywood may care about the appearance of morality, but morality itself is simply too much work, and tends to detract from one’s power, wealth and attention.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear online every week. Chris will also be regularly featured in Worcester Sun’s weekly print edition, on newsstands Saturday morning.


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