By Tom Lamia
Witches have always been with us. Proof of their existence lies in the certitude and authority of those that hunt them. If witches did not exist, would the Church find them at the heart of such a range of evil doings? Would they be so regularly identified as the source of otherwise mysterious events? The attribution to witches of thoughts and deeds confounding to established order over centuries and continuing to the present is proof (Is it not?) of their existence and guilt, particularly when no evidence to the contrary comes forward. Not all witches are women; men who offend authority and proclaim a righteous innocence also qualify.
The above is a faithful historical account of the role of witches in European and American life. What is left unclear is the source of the witch hunter’s maniacal drive to hunt down and destroy witches.
In researching and writing The Crucible, Arthur Miller intended a historical allegory of the Hollywood Red Scare and Blacklist, of the right of the individual, to be left alone, free from society’s persecution, on one side, and an uncontrolled, largely ignorant power elite on the other. Even the noblest effort to protect society from harm can fail, with terrible consequences, if the source of danger is unknown and works effectively at remaining so. The effort to discover the persons, sources and methods of those who would harm us has often failed, leaving us vulnerable. The effort to succeed at learning what needs to be known to protect us can lead to overzealous efforts at discovery. The chiefs of counterintelligence risk mistakes in order to penetrate the otherwise impenetrable.
The Crucible allegory is one of Miller’s own persecution (and that of hundreds of others) at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) 70 years ago. A few years later, Senator Joe McCarthy used the issue of disloyalty to establish and further his own political career. Nixon and HUAC, then McCarthy, made overzealous efforts to discover the unknown and potentially unknowable architects of evil plots against America. Loyalty to the country was the key. Those advocating a change in our form of governance were considered ipso facto disloyal.
Nixon’s efforts were more successful than McCarthy’s, in the end, but in his time McCarthy was more feared than Nixon had been in his. The reason was that Nixon’s efforts were not taken seriously at first. He was protecting his home state’s motion picture industry, which had a major economic stake in the continuing popularity and cost of production of movies. That might involve labor negotiation issues or industry standards, but not individual freedom. As it happened, the industry nearly self-destructed by unilaterally imposing restrictions on the talent that was responsible for the content of its movies. The search for whether those opposed to these restrictions did so out of divided loyalty led to the Blacklist and the Red Scare in Hollywood.
Later, Senator Joe McCarthy, who used it to more fearful effect than Nixon and HUAC, took up the loyalty issue. McCarthy publicly announced (without names or evidence) that he had found specific but varying numbers of Communists in high level government positions (the State Department, the Voice of America, the Army). Those who might have subscribed to the wrong magazine or attended the wrong meeting were terrified that they might be named among the Communists that McCarthy had “found.”
Before Nixon or McCarthy, fear of HUAC in the motion picture industry had set off a rush among studio heads to identify and control content in their product to avoid offending political sensibilities that might lead to censorship, voluntary or mandatory. Thus, the Red Scare and the Blacklist. All of this was an effort to penetrate the unknown and unknowable thoughts and intentions of the creative artists that provided the content of motion pictures. Right of center insiders (Adolphe Menjou, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan) naively provided names of left of center insiders (Humphrey Bogart, Dalton Trumbo) to investigators. Actor Adolphe Menjou declared, “I am a witch hunter if the witches are Communists.” By naming names many escaped career suicide. No witches they. By their silence others were blacklisted, had their careers destroyed and suffered catastrophic economic loss.
Senator McCarthy surely absorbed the lesson: fear of association with disloyalty was a powerful weapon he could use against his political enemies. Those unnamed Communists in government were his witches, and he too was a witch hunter “if the witches are Communists.”
It took the courage of a freshman Senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, to call out McCarthy and those in her Republican party who would not speak up against him.
Act III of the Washington witch hunt is now playing. Miller’s allegory applies equally to it, but the President is not the witch, he is the witch hunter. The threat of being identified as disloyal to Trump carries such terrible consequences that Republican dissent is silenced. There is no debate possible for Republicans. They are either with the President or they are an enemy, against whom he will use his terrifying power. We have seen the result in the impeachment trial. His power is not diminished through use, apparently, as he has already run at least two Senators and two Representatives out of office with no consequences to him.
He calls investigations of him “Witch Hunts,” but his threats to punish those who oppose him, make clear that, to paraphrase Menjou, “he is a witch hunter if the witches are disloyal.” These were McCarthy’s tactics. We know what happened to him.