Friday, December 18, 2015

Anger: An American History: Note for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By STACY SCHIFF DEC. 18, 2015, New York Times; see also Tomdispatch: John Brown on the War on Terror as an Indian War (2006)

Cotton Mather image from article

WHERE, many have asked these last weeks, do the rhetorical fireballs — the
raging suspicion and rabid xenophobia — come from? Barring people from our
shores, Paul Ryan reminds us, is “not what this country stands for.” Emma
Lazarus would have agreed. But while the demonizing may sound un-American,
it happens also to be ur-­American.

Well before Japanese internment camps, before the Know-­Nothing Party,
before the Alien and Sedition Acts, New England drew its identity from threats
to public safety. We manned the nation’s watchtowers before we were even a

From that earlier set of founding fathers — the men who settled 17th
century Massachusetts — came the first dark words about dark powers. No
matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once
established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them. The city on a hill was
an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely
the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William
Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the
start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.

Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only
to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New
England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if
he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous”
people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”

Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans
discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed
and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner
imaginable.” The most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist
cabals; priests qualified as the radical Muslim clerics of the day. From the
pulpit came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to
disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.

The alerts naturally served an evangelical purpose. The common enemy
encouraged cohesion, appealing to a tribal instinct. In the words of Owen
Stanwood, a Boston College historian, the trumped-­up fears neatly packaged
the Massachusetts settlers’ “desire for security, their Protestant heritage, and
their nascent sense of racial privilege.” Those anxieties multiplied at a time of
real violence, of political and economic dislocation, of an emboldened Native
American population. And in 1690, Mather warned, New England was in a
state of “such distress and danger as it never saw before.” He forecast the
imminent descent of “whole armies of Indians and Gallic bloodhounds.”

The muddled fears produced a snarl of blame. When fire broke out in
1679 Boston, it was said to be the work of Baptists. Who killed the sheep
grazing on Cambridge Common? It had been wolves, but it made sense to
harass Frenchmen anyway. The enemies did not need actually to be in New
England’s midst. As an Anglican official snorted from a Boston prison in 1689:
“There were not two Roman Catholics betwixt this and New York.” New
England was nonetheless sacrificed over and over to its heathen adversaries,
according to the ministry, that era’s Department of Homeland Security.

In the blur of rampaging predators it became increasingly difficult to
distinguish Indians from Frenchmen from devils. One village minister lumped
together Louis XIV, his Catholic confederates and Satan, at least two of whom
were nowhere in the neighborhood. Conspiratorial fantasies came easily to a
Puritan, who found them enthusiastically confirmed from the pulpit, the sole
means of mass communication in a province still without newspapers.

Nor, when it came to subversive forces, was it necessary to conjure up real
ones. In 1692, New Englanders began to look among themselves for things
they could not see. To the “bloody and barbarous heathens,” as Stoughton
would term the French, New England added invisible demons, producing the
panic we now know as the Salem witch trials.

So great was the terror that year that grown men watched neighbors fly
through the streets; they kicked at gleaming balls of fire in their beds. They
saw hundreds celebrate a satanic Sabbath as clearly as some of us saw
thousands of Muslims dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11. Stoughton
would preside over the witchcraft trials, securing a 100 percent conviction
rate. A Baptist minister who objected that the court risked executing innocents
found himself charged with sedition. He was offered the choice between a jail
sentence and a crushing fine. He was not heard from again. One problem with
decency: It can be maddeningly quiet, at least until it explodes and asks if
anyone has noticed it has been sitting, squirming, in the room all along.

The toxic brush fires flare up with regularity. “Shall our sons become the
disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters the
concubines of the Illuminati?” asked Yale’s president on July 4, 1798. In the
1830s it was the Mormons’ turn to subvert America. The language remains
remarkably consistent: A 1799 pro­-Federalist sermon warned of a plot to
“subvert and overturn our holy religion and our free and excellent
government.” In 1951 the judge sentencing the Rosenbergs for espionage
termed theirs a “diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God­-fearing nation.”
Throughout, we brandish our enemies’ hatred as our badge of honor. The
churning suspicions invigorate; we become superheroes when we bulk up our
opponents. To rage against the powers of darkness is to assure ourselves that
we stand in the light.

The homegrown history in no way justifies the incendiary language. But it
reminds us that the demonic plots are unlikely to vanish anytime soon.
Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed,
we take reckless aim. “We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to
end,” Donald J. Trump has warned of the war on terror. Amen. At least we can
savor the irony that today’s zealots share a playbook with the Puritans, a
people who — finding the holiday too pagan — waged the original war on

Stacy Schiff is the author of, among other books, “Cleopatra” and
“The Witches: Salem, 1692.”

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