These are strange times, but nothing we haven’t seen before. In this letter, Craig begins by looking back at the Salem Witch Trials. Craig touches on hysteria, Histrionic Personality Disorder, and narcissism. He talks about Spectral Evidence and Cotton Mather. He talks about Mark Twain and storms come up a lot. So does social media. Carl Sagan chimes in. History as a topic is always on Craig’s mind and he includes a long excerpt from Thucydides. Only briefly does he touch on life before cellular GPS and talks about New Science and New Faith. He laughs at the “belief” in science. It probably wouldn’t be a letter unless he discussed politics, so that, too, comes up. Community, Insurrection, Civil War, and tantrums from teenage girls, there’s a lot to unpack.
One late August day, the Reverend Joseph Green stepped to the pulpit of his Church. To receive the Communion, it was required of all new members that they confess to their sins before the congregation. On this particular Wednesday, it was a 27-year-old woman who wished to join. Seven years prior, when she was 20, her parents passed away within two weeks of each other and she had been raising her 9 younger siblings on her own ever since. She had chosen to write her confession and have it read by the Reverend Green with those siblings standing by her side.
The young woman acknowledged the following to be her confession, and the Reverend began:
“I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ‘92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood. Though what was said or done by me against any person I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly being deluded by Satan. And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing of Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused.”
The Reverend closed the letter and finished with, “(Signed) Anne Putnam.”
While she was not the first nor was she the most famous, fourteen years earlier, when she was age 13, Anne Putnam was one of the primary accusers and witnesses in the Salem Witch Trials.
For those unaware, the Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. More than two hundred people were accused. Thirty were found guilty, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging (fourteen women and five men). One other man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to plead, and at least five people died in jail.
The population of the village of Salem at the time was officially 500-600 residents and the population of the immediate surrounding area has been estimated to be around a total of 2,000 people. This was no small percentage of this community.
Much has been written about the political and religious context that culminated in the trials and I’m not going to go into too much of that detail here. To keep it short, in late 17th century New England, the Puritans had effectively founded Bible-based societies and governed according to their chosen interpretations and disciplines. If the elected officials weren’t ordained clergy themselves, most of the local government’s leadership and nearly all of the surrounding peers were strict religious devotees.
Over the years, many historians and scholars would argue these colonial settlements passed a dangerous line into what could be described as Christian theocracies but that can and should be debated elsewhere. That is not a castigation of religion in itself, of course, or even a local government having an official state religion, but it’s to outline a brief bit of background that lead up to the events.
However, as this was the beginning/middle of the Age of Enlightenment, the Salem Witch Trials has been pointed to as one of the incidental catalysts that would cause the particulars of “Spectral Evidence” to be brought to the forefront and litigated as never seen since in American history. Even Cotton Mather, a prominent minister of the area at the time and the minister, in fact, who argued it was appropriate to allow Spectral Evidence into legal proceedings, cautioned that convictions should not be based on Spectral Evidence alone. In Cotton Mather’s own words in his private correspondence, Spectral Evidence should not be used to convict as, “it was possible for the Devil to take the shape of an innocent person.”
As backwards as that wording may seem to us today, at least it was some sort of theorizing that would lead toward a reasonable destination. All roads lead back home, as they say.
Cotton Mather was a strange man. He never denounced Spectral Evidence publicly, only doing so to judges privately while simultaneously praising some judges for casting out the devils from society. He considered witchcraft only to be found “among the poor, and vile, and beggars upon the Earth.” Further, Cotton Mather made significant contributions to plant hybridization. Further still, he was one of the first and most prominent advocates of inoculation against smallpox in the colonies.
I don’t wish to dwell on Cotton Mather other than to briefly point out that one man can have many sides and peculiarities.
The Salem Witch Trials remain the most famous example of mass hysteria in American history and now often serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. George Lincoln Burr, noted historian and Professor of History and Librarian at Cornell University in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said about the trials, “the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.”
Originally, hysteria specifically referred to a diagnosable physical illness found in females, before it shifted to a more generalized mental illness. Today, most doctors do not accept the larger, original scope of hysteria as a medical diagnosis and the former condition has been fragmented into a variety of conditions, categories, and classifications. Today, the form of what we used to refer as hysteria in the Salem Witch Trials case is most often called Histrionic Personality Disorder but, for this letter, I’m going to mostly continue to use the word hysteria rather than the modern because I like it better.
It’s a funny thing, hysteria.
Our modern perspective on it can take many forms and vary in its severity, but HPD is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a personality disorder characterized by a pattern of excessive attention-seeking behaviors, usually beginning in early childhood, including inappropriate seduction and an excessive desire for approval. Others describe it more simply as, “A mental health condition characterized by an overwhelming desire to be noticed and dramatic behavior.”
If a tree falls in the forest…
“An overwhelming desire to be noticed…”
It’s an interesting phrase for a medical diagnosis. I don’t think it would be an unreasonable response to say, “Don’t we all?”
I think it’s also fair to say that you’d have to be relatively obtuse to not see the unique parallel between that phrase and the condition of our modern society.
Some would argue that mild forms of hysteria can be found in popular music and sports fandom, new technologies or great advancements, celebrity culture, favorite tools or clothing, and in the clamor for children’s toys and fads especially around the holidays.
- “Have you heard [insert new band]? They’re my favorite and I totally heard them before anyone else did…”
- “Nobody knows [insert favorite team or player] like I do…”
- “Did you get the new [branded product]? It’s the best! I stood in line to have it first…]”
There are plenty of examples we could give that are all easy to see and, for the most part, easy to understand. Much of it can be dismissed as excited hyperbole or manners of speech amongst friends, but what if we include some common addendums…
- “General manager of [insert favorite team] did what? They’re a moron and shouldn’t have that job, I should have that job…”
- “No, my [favorite product] is the best and if you use [competitor’s product] you’re an idiot…”
- “Did you see what [insert famous person] did? lol. Dumbass. I would never…”
- “Anyone can do what they do but all these sheeple fall over themselves to worship them…”
You can insert any profanities you want to include anywhere you like.
Still, while all of the above things can be unhealthy and walk a fine line bordering on dangerous behavior depending on other circumstances, for the most part, they are relatively harmless. Let’s also not pretend this is only some recent phenomenon found in our modern society or that it’s not just how some people naturally talk and criticize and make others laugh and let’s not pretend that we will magically solve something as inherent to life as gossip. It’s a natural part of us as much as anything else. And these mild forms of hysteria can be an advertiser or marketer’s wet dream and people are handsomely compensated and build careers for their abilities to manipulate and maximize this mysterious hysteria. I think they’d admit as much.
But what happens when a society becomes more fractured and individualized? A society so fractured and individualized that also has an extraordinary ability to have conversations and reactions and everyday engagements entirely with people they’ve never met or who hardly know them and don’t know their tone or tenor or subtle inside jokes or idiosyncrasies formulated and summarized in a lifetime of friendship and family? A society where we’re all nameless or where we might as well be nameless and faceless figures darting into and out of the lives of others from some aether? What happens when a society becomes so fractured and so individualized, either due their own choices or by decisions made against their will, that they almost forget that a fundamental nature of humanity requires a blend of personal and social cues? A place where some…being…can dart into our metaphorical personal space from halfway across the country or the world from a place where we’ve never been or never seen or never would have any context whatsoever of their historical perspective or understanding of where they’re coming from? Would we forget, too, that individual freedoms also require an acknowledgment of family and community involvement in those freedoms?
That’d be an awfully strange place to live in, would it not?
What type of behavior will a person take to get noticed in this environment? Overwhelmed and lost in isolation, what type of behaviors will follow in order to be liked? And then…oh God no…what if…you’re not suggesting…what if they post something no one likes? What if no one comments? What if they don’t subscribe? Tweet? Share? Are they really there at all???
It’s easy to see that can be harmful to a person’s psyche.
But what happens if someone encourages, “Look! Look! Others get likes and comments! Why can’t you be little more like them?” What if those in charge of those things begin to give little icons and indicators that what one person is saying is more valid than what others are saying? Would you not struggle to understand why one person’s words or opinions is more or less valid than yours? If you came out the victor, would you care? That they can’t say what they want to say because they can’t verify or refuse to verify what it is they’re saying or where they’re coming from? Or would you care if only what some people say is allowed to be verified? What of that society? Where does that go? What will they do?
And then what happens if someone tells them it’s not only not their fault but that the reasons for their lack of engagement is not because they’re not being seen or noticed it’s that they’re being ignored, intentionally ignored? That there is no harmless explanation that could possibly be the cause but what’s being done to them is “evil”? That a great injustice is being done to them? That they have been wronged? That they are hopeless? That they are being played for a fool? That they have become a thrown away toy and product of a system stacked against them? And they say these things without repercussions? That these people need to be made to listen…
And then they begin to point fingers…
Welcome to the future…isn’t it grand?
The storm is coming…
How do children often react to their first conscious summer thunderstorm? Most are fearful. Terrified, even. Until they see the parents and those around them, loved ones they know and trust who’ve heretofore kept them safe and warm and protected, who’ve experienced it many times before, knowing that this…torrent…will pass.
But what would happen if, when the children turn toward them in fear of an approaching storm and the parents, in their infinite wisdom, do not react with the necessary calm or endeavor to soothe and assuage their children’s fear? What if they bend down and hold them close and tell them, “How dare someone or something cause you such fright?! Life is only beautiful days and quiet nights! I will make whoever caused this thunderstorm pay for what they’ve done!”
It’s a little more complicated but, essentially, that was the reaction from the parents and leadership in Salem to a group of schoolgirls who began to…feel bad. A little known fact to the history of the Salem Witch Trials is there just so happened to be a significant political land disagreement between the parents of the first accusers. One is forced to wonder, where their children picked up on this hysteria? Isolated children in an oppressive environment who weren’t getting the attention they were looking for watching their parents bicker amongst themselves. Well, they figured out a way and finally had their parents attention.
But I’m not here to reignite the social media flame war against teenage girls of Salem in the 17th Century. Plus, they’d probably be on TikTok and I don’t have a TikTok.
Hysteria comes and goes like a summer storm. Like a summer storm, while it hangs over the heads of an individual or a community, it can feel almost biblical and the thing of nightmares and, if we hadn’t been fortunate enough to have experienced storms so many times before, I don’t know how anyone is supposed to rightly function under such clouds.
I remember thinking once, when I was younger and we were camping and a particularly nasty storm came through, how would I feel if I had never experienced a storm before? I think I had recently seen/read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, so everything had a context of “what if I went back in time and was the smartest kid in the world” type of thought to it. I remember I thought it a funny idea of being in a happy little place where a storm was gathering but no one there had ever experienced a storm.
Imagine the scenario. Imagine you’d experienced a lifetime of nothing but beautiful days and quiet nights. Then on some random mid-afternoon, for the first time and with zero reference point for what is causing it or why it is occurring, you watch a nasty summer storm appear on the horizon heading in your direction. As it gets closer and closer and you can see the lightning flash and the thunder crack and it seems as if the very sky itself is opening, imagine how that would feel? If you didn’t have a concept of God before then, I’d have to guess you most definitely would after. There’s a similar chapter about an eclipse in the aforementioned book by Twain.
Or maybe better said, imagine you’re a person from a far away land that had many experiences with roaring summer thunderstorms, only now you’re living in a strange, new land and surrounded by people who’ve only experienced beautiful days and quiet nights. Southern Californians, maybe? I kid. But imagine being surrounded by people wincing at every flash of lightning and cowering at every crack of thunder and being entirely convinced that the rain will never cease and their homes will wash away. I imagine you’d look around in confusion and try and try and try to convince them, plead with them to understand, “Look! It’s just a storm! This will pass!”
How would it feel if they turned to you and said, “What’s a storm?”
Or maybe best said as it relates to modernity, imagine if you were surrounded by a group of people who’d heard of storms, been told of storms, read of storms, or maybe even lived through a what could be classified as a small storm or two, but had never experienced anything close to a tornado or a hurricane? Heck, I myself was born and raised in the Midwest and have seen some nasty Midwestern prairie storms but I’ve never had a tornado pass close. Some years back a community nearby was decimated by one and I remember the aftermath but I didn’t experience it directly. I’ve never experienced a hurricane nor have I ever been on a fishing boat out of Gloucester with a Nor’easter bearing down on our position with the back of my mind filled with tales by drunk old timers at the local bar about a rogue wave rising from the deep, somewhere out there, lurking in the darkness.
We all have our own various reference points for magnitude of storms we’ve experienced.
You can probably see where I’m going with this…
When we don’t engage with history and historical perspective, we lose sight of where we came from. We lose all the combined wisdom of history that allows us to make the best decisions we can in our present and chart our best course of direction for the future.
It could be argued that, if we don’t engage with or refuse to engage with our own personal history and personal historical perspectives, we would lose sight and vast knowledge of our very selves. Just as this same gathering storm and cheap map metaphors can be felt inside of us it can be felt through our society.
Isn’t it ironic then that, while we carry a device that fits into our pockets that allows us to be one with history, that gives us the ability to look up and interact with the entire history of human knowledge, and gives us the ability to teach each other and learn how to do anything we as humans know how to do, we feel so alone? Isn’t it a wonder, so many feel an overwhelming desire to be noticed? And the dramatic behaviors that go with it…
I have a lot to say regarding the profound changes and the technological moment we’re living through and its impact on our human condition that will have to wait for a much, much longer piece that I’m eventually going to do. I will quickly say that, while what we are currently beginning to experience is something not entirely unique in history, it is most certainly up there among the most profound changes technology has ever delivered us through time.
It is my belief that what we are living through is up there with a technological change even beyond something as significant as…I don’t know…modern plumbing. Though I have the greatest of respects for my ability to expel in the comfort and warmth of my home and have it rushed swiftly away to unknown dimensions, it is my belief that we are living through the stuff of Ages. You won’t find that sentence written by any other than me and that’s why they’re no good and I’m better. When I say that this is the stuff of Ages, I mean it in the way the archaeologist or anthropologist would classify it in the periodization of historical sense. And I do mean it.
Again, I will have to revisit this so I won’t get into the parallels here but I do mean it sincerely. We have yet to reckon with what is happening let alone do anything akin to atone for what we have done. No matter. Time marches on.
Though I could drop it, I’m a sucker for cheap metaphor.
To continue it, some have never seen this type of weather, others are only accustomed to their localized weather patterns, and still others have read/heard/been told about events through history and are better prepared than the rest. The storm is coming all the same, but the one thing we should all be able to agree upon is that we shouldn’t react to the storm by turning to the children as the parents of Salem did and answer their fears with, “You’re right, little one. You’re a victim. I’ll find and punish whoever frightened you with this storm…”
There was a reason I had that long question session before. I admit, it doesn’t always happen right away in my initial reactions but I try to do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt because I acknowledge that I, too, need to remind myself not to fall into the abyss of metaphorical Spectral Evidence.
The behavior of everyone this last year has been, quite frankly, remarkable. And, really, it began long before this last year. Some days I wake up and feel as if I’m living a lost Twilight Zone episode and Rod Serling is writing my dialogue. Some days I feel as if I’m the only one who has ever seen a storm before.
I’m old enough to remember life before cellular GPS so it’s an antique metaphor but it’s as if we forgot the map at home before our long journey. We have our knowledge of cardinal directions and the stars to help guide us and we know various techniques to help us survive on the way to our destination, of course, but it sure would be easier with a map, no? People have been through here before. They’ve plotted the land. Scouted it and written it down. Outlined where the dangers lie and best ways to get through a particularly rough terrain.
Because it sure feels like the people in charge are intentionally misreading the map, doesn’t it? That doesn’t sound right, let me revise. It’s more as if we watched as they drew a route from A to B on a map with a ruler and then declared that’s the way we’re all going to go. And, despite everyone questioning them and then flailing their hands around and then yelling at them and then pleading with them they can’t traverse a great distance or plan a journey that way, they’re doing it anyway. As if a storm is coming and they refuse to listen. That they should not and can not use Spectral Evidence to make their case or justify and declare their own righteousness.
I was recently reminded of something that Carl Sagan wrote, in his introduction to his 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” In this book, Sagan tries to explain the scientific method to laypeople and to encourage people to learn critical and skeptical thinking. He explains methods to help distinguish between ideas that are considered valid science and those that can be considered pseudoscience. Sagan states that when new ideas are offered for consideration, they should be tested by means of skeptical thinking and should stand up to rigorous questioning.
Sagan writes: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
I’m sure you would agree that sounds pretty damn prescient, yes?
And yet, if you reread Sagan’s words carefully, both sides could reasonably quote it and pick it apart and turn it around on the other. Many perspectives could say, “Ha! That’s right and that’s why you’re wrong and that’s why I’m right and won’t listen to you!” And, though there is prescient wisdom in that statement, a person can pearl clutch and nervously consult old “science” or any perspective because it makes them feel good and it can cause them to slide them into superstition and darkness just as much as anyone who approaches from a perspective of faith or any other perspective, really.
Now, you and I and many may know and understand the likely perspective Carl Sagan was coming from, but we have to acknowledge the flaw, no matter how small, in such statements. We have to acknowledge that people are capable of and are going to craft their own spectral evidence around any statement.
My problem with this New Science, or whatever you want to call it, and my problem with New Faith, or whatever you want to call it, is it appears to be filled with people who could genuinely look at problems or unknowns and attempt to find what solutions to the wonders of the universe that they can and continually rework and reexamine and reanalyze but, too often, they’re fundamentally incapable of understanding nature. Human nature. These New Prophets are the same as the Old Prophets. They seem to forget their most human of natures and seem to forget that even if where their research or philosophy started from or their physical or logical results led to some sort of objective outcome in their own mind and in their perspective for themselves, they forget that these results and even the initial intention of the research of others can be just as twisted into a subjective perspective as easily as anything else.
Despite their refutations, this New Science and this New Faith and its followers almost always fails to recognize the twisting and turning and manipulating of this subjectivity into forms of irrefutable science and justified faith all their own. That nearly anything can turn into an isolated group of devotees with an overwhelming need for attention and can succumb to delusion just as quickly as the others they seem to be challenging against can. Both the scientific method and a skeptical approach to the wonders of the universe is the correct approach just as the use of logic and reason to find truth in our eternal search for meaning is the correct approach but neither of these are the ends. We must always leave open the need to learn more or we all become trapped under dogma.
Before you jump on me, Science is right to answer, “Well that’s not Science then,” and they’re correct. When the standards are properly applied, they are correct. But how quickly they forget? How quickly we all forget our most human of natures?
Believe in Science
They’ve tried to prosecute faith for enough centuries that I’m not going to do so here, but I’m consistently amazed at how often “scientists” are willing to embrace this oxymoron. It’s confounding but it certainly makes it easier to spot the actual morons.
I struggle to contain my laughter when I see someone proudly boast of their “belief” in science. Most of the time it’s done by someone entirely ignorant of Science itself but, hey, all the cool kids are doing it and it’s a sure thing to get “likes”. But Science has yet to admit this ignorance. They have yet to admit that work done in the Holy Name of Science can still have the Devil take the shape of it.
I get it. It’s a tough ask. To admit that biases and subjectivity in their respective fields and manipulation of results and data is just as pervasive as in any local preacher’s interpretation of a psalm. But it must be done. Unless held to a standard, even Science walks a fine evidential line between observable and spectral. This “belief” that Scientists are immune to these pitfalls or that it’s impossible for someone to be just as guilty of this “sin” against Science. They are just as susceptible to the limitations of their natures. When some study that goes against all logic and reason or historical perspective is waved in defense of an argument with no understanding or ability to explain the results or even why it was chosen to be studied in the first place let alone the conclusions reached but just because it was done “in the Holy Name of Science,” it may as well be the same and look just as ridiculous and nonsensical as a money-changing Pharisee castigating a boy for breaking one of the 613 Jewish commandments or the demand for indulgences by leaders of the local parish.
Merely “believing” in science just because you were told that’s what it says and that’s how you should interpret it is just as ugly as any other. Science is yet to have a figure drive this from their Temple.
I’m rambling again. Let’s try to refocus.
Maybe reading how Carl Sagan saw our modern era coming from 25 years time is not going back far enough to outline what I mean? Maybe looking back a few hundred years to the Salem Witch Trials is not far enough to outline the dangers of hysteria? Maybe we need to go back a little further to better understand that hysteria and the heightened rhetoric and division all around us is nothing new?
Maybe the following excerpt will look familiar to you?
“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.”
“Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.”
“Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable—on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy—but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.”
“As the result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies and the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-maneuvered in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, overconfident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.”
“Certainly it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order. There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed instead of wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those who, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbors; there were the savage and pitiless actions into which men were carried not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions. Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where laws exist, showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for the pernicious power of envy, men would not so have exalted vengeance above innocence and profit above justice. Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and will need their protection.”
This above excerpt is from Thucydides and his account of the civil war in Corcyra, 427 BC. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (Penguin, 1972; pp. 242–245).
Is that prescient enough for you?
Thucydides made this claim for his book:
“It will be enough for me… if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”
Thanks, I guess.
I think I mentioned above that, as I grow or try to grow, I’ve been doing my best to be better about giving people the benefit of the doubt and being more careful and considered with my words. Not Stoic, per se, as I think going too far with anything can be a misstep and that dynamics in life are just as important in playing the composition as the player’s technique. Just a little more considered.
So much of what we have done, what we have allowed to be done, in response to the recent storms raging all around us is profoundly misguided. And we’ve been particularly misguided because we have these maps of history. We have the historical storm preparedness blogs and the survival tip books and 15-second life hack videos from all time. We carry them with us in our pockets, every where we go.
But that damned human nature…
Getting close to the end…
I admit, these days feel almost as if the clouds are hovering over us continually and that these clouds have unleashed nothing short of a metaphorical torrent of pure mass hysteria. All of us convicted under spectral evidence in the Holy Name of Science. You’re welcome to include the last few weeks and months and years, if you like.
Though the definition has morphed over the years, hysteria is still here and it’s still considered madness. I’m not a doctor nor am I an expert on anything at all but it’s an issue I suspect is afflicting our society/community the same as it did in the late 17th century in and around Salem. The only way to stop it is to address it and deal with it.
Long before the novel coronavirus appeared, the constant bombardment of various forms of distracting media all day every day gave us all the excuses in the world to keep ourselves away from each other but also away from ourselves. Away from our own thoughts. Away from ever reexamining our thoughts, reactions, and internal behaviors. Within and away from asking ourselves if we even begin to make sense to us let alone the outside world.
This new virus was just threw gasoline on that fire and that’s not even beginning to discuss family or community dynamics.
When this is paired with social media and our news feeds are filled with constant and endless scrolling, never ending reactions, of anger and envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiorities, deceits, doubts, and false prides, it becomes almost a self fulfilling prophecy. One thing leads to another until we’re all little girls in Salem accusing everyone else of being a witch and of doing spectral harm to us and our psyche. And sometimes, it’s difficult to see the difference. It may as well be witchcraft, for all I know.
What’s worse? Now our “leaders,” the metaphorical parents, are supposed to turn to comfort but instead say, “Yes, you are the victim! I’ll find who did this to you and make them pay!”
Politically, one side picked up this victim mentality a while ago and I have a lot, and I mean a lot, to say about that particular side and the dangers inherent in its ideology and the impotence of the spirit that it causes and effects but I don’t want to do that right now. Because it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair because now both sides are consumed by this impotence and they’ve been convinced of the ideology of their victimhood. Convinced that great injustice has been done to them and that they are powerless to stop it.
This was always my biggest problem with Donald Trump’s political legacy. Hillary Clinton was never really his opponent and I think, deep down, he and most everyone knew it. His opponent was always the crippling narcissism creeping across the country. So the country sent out their biggest narcissist to do battle against this force.
He was always right to push back against the careerists and false prophets under the opposition’s umbrella who promise salvation because of their wholesale bargain basement pricing of victimhood. There was/is a very easy way that it could have been done. All too often, rather than push back and fight it the way it should be put down, with courage of principle and intelligent wit and wisdom of resolve, he would simply co-opt it and repackage it and resell it back to his own. Of course, his opponents would turn around and condemn him for stealing their idea as if they held copyright and intellectual property on psychological insidiousness, but this piece is has long ago begun to run long and a conversation for another time.
The answer is not to attempt to figure out which side is victim. The answer is not to try and rule one way or another and it’s not a competition over which side has been wronged more. It never has been. Telling someone or trying to convince someone that they are a part of a collective victimhood should be treated as nothing short of abominable. And now an entire country, and you may just go ahead and include the world, is now caught under this victimhood.
I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m obviously not referring or including any individuals that had actual crime perpetrated against them, I’m simply referring to the collectivization of victimhood in political contexts. That, when no actual crime has been committed against you, simply because of the color of your skin or your socio-economic status a great wrong has been committed against you.
That’s when the invisible monsters in all of us begin to come forth. Once that threshold is crossed, the invisible monsters will be waiting behind every tree and around every corner. Behind every door in every home. Under every thumb. Every slight and every glance behind every eye, reimagined and recast as if from an invisible monsters inside. Even simple mistakes become great injustices of inimitable circumstances beyond our control done by the only possible answer called evil.
That’s when the Devils begin to take shape. And you see them in your neighbors and friends and employees and bosses and politicians…and they begin to point fingers…
In matters of the spectral, the only direction anyone should point is in.
All Americans, all people, have the fundamental right to speech and that includes protest. A right not decreed to them by any elected official. A right they were given fully and given completely by their Creator just as they were given to you by yours.
Even in small towns on the rural outskirts of a major metropolis with little history of abuses and indignities, there are people who feel that the very concepts behind our laws and the balance of their enforcement need to be questioned, reformed, and redressed. And I sympathize with their cause. Whether it is a movement against the militarization of policing and how force is applied or it is to outline the freedom of movement and the choices of a free people or if it is a call to reexamine election integrity, I welcome any challenge to debate and discuss and figure out best steps. I urge you to listen to these grievances, the same as I would urge any other to listen to yours.
And I urge you to consider the quality of the community you grew up in and, if you had grown up someplace less desirable and due to no circumstances of your own, would you not want to do all in your power with His great Grace to see that place become as enviable and desirous a place to live as the community you did grow up in?
Just as it does with a group of teenage girls living in a late 17th century Puritan environment, sometimes it comes down to a very simple idea. Your fellow Americans are asking for help. Even if they’re not asking in the way you’d expect them to ask, even if they’re not asking for it in the way you’d want them to ask, your fellow Americans are asking for help. But, and this is an important and necessary distinction, asking for help and even demanding help is wholly and entirely different than the wholesale violence and destruction of the livelihoods of those individuals in a community who are also doing all they can to continue to make their homes and community as peaceful and desirous as they can.
And that very specific response sometimes requires it be dealt with as a responsible parent would do to a brat.
See, at the same time as this profound history is being written and while one or another or all of these particular protest’s causes may be just and their fundamental intentions to be righteous, there is little doubt that there are significant elements that seek any opportunity, any opening to co-opt and commandeer and cause chaos and destruction. Elements who do not care the size of a town or country or who do not care the direct involvement of that town’s or that country’s citizens. Elements with a singular goal to sow further division between neighbors, between friends, and between families. I imagine that, while many of the organizers of these many protests likely have their hearts in the right place and their motivations are unlikely to be nefarious, I see little good in following a heart paired with an unsettled mind and, no matter how the events of these years ultimately end, peacefully or in the alternative, the adult organizers and backers of these events have displayed an astounding level of naivete, a stunning lack of foresight, and a noteworthy disregard for the other members of its community. All of which amount to a special exhibition of nothing shy of sheer narcissism. I can only hope they spent more than a flashing moment thinking about the social and political ramifications of their actions if these or any others go awry instead of how they would look on their InstaSnap and their TwitBook feeds. Because it most certainly will not be forgotten in this small town we call America.
It would seem to me we all need reminding of a simple lesson we learned in childhood. Or, should have learned in childhood.
Just because we may agree or disagree on certain aspects of an argument, it does not mean that we will agree or disagree on all aspects of an argument or that any additional arguments are automatically wholly embraced and agreed or disagreed upon. And our agreement or disagreement one way or another does not mean that we all automatically turn ourselves over to and become subservient of whatever opposite side our argument lies. Even those outlining a struggle and/or a manifesto.
This is not this country’s first challenge and it will most certainly not be its last. You are not experiencing a true insurrection. You are not experiencing a race war. We are not about to be drafted to march to Gettysburg.
If the young men of this great land were to fight the Civil War again today it would be the equivalent of 6.5 - 8 million young Americans dead upon the field. Does anyone out there look like they are prepared for that type of commitment? Or does it look more like they’re playing dress up and pretend? Do they look and sound like they’re really read to take on the United States Military and rewrite power structure of the world? I mean, really?
No. They’re lazy, isolated, and bored looking for anything to break the monotony of their day and to pass the time.
So why don’t we all just cool down the rhetoric, okay?
We are not there. This is not that. We are not experiencing a great battle with righteousness against our evil neighbor with the local democrat party sign outside running for city council. I mean, that’s just a guess and, to be clear, I’ve been wrong before.
No, I think both sides are experiencing a tantrum of a hysterical group of teenage girls who aren’t getting enough attention. The question is, do our “leaders” and do we have the courage to be parents?
Do you know why the Salem Witch Trials finally came to an end? The Governor’s wife was accused. The Governor told them to stop it. The executions ended.
I think the thing we most need to remember is much more basic. Maybe a little boring and plain but necessary and nice. The thing to remember about a wicked summer storm is the same we tell children. Do not be afraid. The sun is always there above and behind the clouds.
Today is no different. Take comfort, that these storms will pass and the sun will once more shine upon the face of our waters and the breeze will play in the hairs of our fields. Hopefully, we can one day stand at the pulpit before our congregation and say sorry to each other. Sadly, for now, it remains only a hope.
Oh, I almost forgot. Perhaps you’re wondering why I singled out the young Anne Putnam at the beginning of this letter?
Anne Putnam was the only person to ever apologize for her behavior in the Salem Witch Trials.
The only one.