Witchcraft hysteria in America is most famous through the Salem witch trials, which Arthur Miller used to critique McCarthyism in his celebrated 1953 play, The Crucible. In 2015, Richard Beck published We Believe the Children. Beck analyzed hysteria surrounding the daycare abuse accusations of the 1980s as a modern, secular witch craze. In a recent Slate article (“A Moral Panic for the Age of Trump, “Dec 6, 2016) he extended that analysis to the current events surrounding the recent shooting at a family pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, on the outskirts of Washington, DC. The shooter claimed to be investigating an online conspiracy theory that the restaurant fronted a Clinton-run pedophilia ring in tunnels beneath the business. Beck asserts that conspiracy theories have vitality because they validate people’s anxieties, provide them an outlet for acting on the anxieties, and give them a focus for blame. These stories allow people to create and share an anxiety monster that they can act to destroy.
It’s an interesting theory, one that allows us to think comparatively about witch crazes across time and space. Well, that’s a book or more, and it requires careful research. So, here I’ll try to ask several contexted questions that put the pedophilia ring conspiracy theory into perspective.
Who is seen as a witch and how have witch hunts begun?
1.Background. Circumstances for witch hunts: existential crisis.
The European witch craze, circa early 14th century -late 17th century, began in the wake of several crises that severely destabilized European society: a series of epidemics and conflicts that destroyed a large percentage of the population; technological innovations and trade that served to transform pre-existing structures; and a threat to the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church with the rise of intellectual questioning. For centuries earlier, the Church had sought to avoid entanglement in local superstitions, focusing instead on bringing ignorant peasants into its teachings and practices. Later, the Inquisition gave legitimacy and structure to local witchcraft accusations. For example: My cows foam at the mouth and die for unknown reasons (bacterial causes of disease were unknown); a neighbor takes ill and dies swiftly–both suggest witches.
2.What is a witch?
Throughout western history, witches have been conceptualized as an inversion of values: evil. This is why it had been enticing to see a woman (subject to a man’s control) as an evil power–although men were not immune from witchcraft accusations. It was often claimed that witches worshipped naked (rather than civilized and clothed) and in the dark of night; that they engaged in orgies; and that they cannibalized people at these ceremonies. Children were sometimes seen as their victims. One can imagine, therefore, how foreigners, people who practiced other religions and the vulnerable among those villages made destitute from the ravages of disease or warfare could become vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Accused witches were often those who lacked strong social networks and were therefore easy scapegoats…such as older women without kin for support.
So, how does this general conception of a witch (which varied locally across time and space) fit that of Hillary Clinton as a secular leader today? How are the dynamics of this situation similar to the post-feudal period in its transition to the start of the modern age?
The Inquisition gave legitimacy and structure to varied local practices and beliefs around witchcraft at a time of extreme social crisis. What today gives structure to the pedophilia ring accusations, which are continuing despite the events at Comet Ping Pong restaurant?
After all, the shooter admitted he did not find any evidence of child sex trafficking–but doesn’t disavow its existence (Goldman, Adam. “The Comet Ping Pong Gunman Answers Our Report’s Questions.” December 7, 2016). This appears to be a characteristic of Beck’s moral panic.
One way that structure is provided may be that operatives within the electoral campaign and transition of President-elect Donald Trump gave the story credibility. The tweets of Michael G. Flynn supported this story and led to his firing from the Trump transition team after the Comet Ping Ping incident, when he continued to tweet about the ring. His father, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor nominee, has tweeted about Clinton in incendiary language. As far as I can tell from the news media, President-elect Trump has not denounced the story itself.
Alex Jones and Infowars perpetuated this story as fake news and thus provided it the camouflage of respectability to those susceptible to such beliefs.
Another way that the story evolved and gained a following was through the hacked emails of John Podesta, who had a correspondence with the owner of the pizza parlor. This gave credence to those who believed that Hillary Clinton and Podesta led the child trafficking ring. The story is therefore connected to out of state actors, with their own motives regarding the United States.
So, unlike witch hysteria of yore, even the daycare hysteria of the 1980s, this is not a local story. The connections to deep social anxieties on the part of those who propagate this theory are unknown because they and their followers are an online community. In fact, out of state actors and their connections to the recent election still need to be understood.
We need facts. Fake news is used as foreign propaganda. Nato has studied and reported on Russia’s role in fake news in the Ukraine elections; Russia has also been accused by Germany and the UK to have published fake news to affect affairs in these nations. Even Business Insider in July of 2016 claimed that Russian trolls and bots were backing the Trump campaign. We also know that some fake news is posted only to make money. Are there also true believers involved in this dynamic? This is more complicated than the Salem witch trials.
What of the times in which we live? Are there massive social transformation and stresses that challenge us to function in a very different, very difficult world? After all, the United States is not struggling with the massive depopulation that faced Europe during its witch craze in the wake of pandemics and wars.
Well, as Dickens said in the Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” For many Americans, including those in the rust belt and rural areas, this is the worst of times. For young millenials like the Comet Ping Pong shooter, technological changes in the economy are reducing opportunities for young adults to attain a comfortable middle class life. These economic shifts are resulting in changed family composition as families adjust to these economic realities. At the same time, the nature of gender and racial participation in society is changing. For those for whom this is the worst of times, anxiety about economic survival may overlap worries related to these emerging demographics. So, it’s possible that some large sectors of society may find conspiracy theories attractive. We don’t know.
But what of Clinton herself? How is she perceived to be so evil that she might be capable of child sex trafficking and other social crimes, such as serial murder, for which theories float about the ether? Again, we only can infer. Researchers need to study those who propagate these theories and those who believe them.
What does appear consistent with a witchcraft accusation in this case is that Clinton is a female seeking power at the highest level (is this still an inversion of the good, today??); she is accused of exploiting children in one of the worst ways possible and in an inversion of the nurturing female role; she does so “out of sight” in the darkness of underground tunnels; and she is in a dark conspiracy with others who are suspected of abuse of power (at least in other conspiracy theories).
If this is an age of hysteria, then we can expect others to be scapegoated and people to be endangered in response to that scapegoating. If there is institutionally encouraged, sponsored, and/or directed hysteria, then the question becomes one of the development of internal terror. Senator McCarthy’s senate investigations into communism is one such example of a modern political hysteria and witch hunt.
Therefore, it’s essential to start discovering the complexity of who propagates and spreads these conspiracy theories and their perhaps varied motivations; who supports and encourages such scapegoating conspiracy theories –and their motivations; and finally, who consumes and believes them—and why.