Home in the darkness, home on the highway. Home isn’t my way. Home will never be. Burn out the day, burn out the night. I can’t see no reason to put up a fight. I’m living for giving the devil his due, and I’m burning, I’m burning, I’m burning for you. I’m burning, I’m burning, I’m burning for you. Who can forget these lyrics from the world’s greatest garage band, Blue Öyster Cult. Burnin’ for You is from their 1981 album, Fire of Unknown Origin. Written by Donald Roeser and Richard Meltzer, the song plays homage to the book “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, which was essentially about four guys traveling the country living a life of music, poetry, and drugs.
The theme of guys living life large is all across the news this week as more and more actors, producers, reporters and politicians are caught up in a series of scandals involving ostensibly improper sexual antics. Add to this investigations into conversations with Russians, either to potentially spin an election or to rake in cash, protests on college campuses attacking professors for being white or conservative, and endless viral attacks on social media for almost anything brings to mind a different kind of burning, namely that of witches.
There seems to be an inherent need for people to accuse and attack others for perceived slights of current social mores. Where once the masses attacked people who might have not been “politically correct,” or who threatened their group think, as witches or sorcerers, today they attack them based on perceived anti-social or sexual behavior or simple differences in opinion. Often, as with the witch hunts, these attacks are either encouraged or directly supported by political elites.
Of course, one should never condone a person for doing something that is obviously illegal (for example rape or sexual relationships with an underage minor), but simply doing something that others may consider creepy or different is not a legitimate reason to be burned at the stake. And we should always remember that society’s opinion of what is creepy (or even illegal) can quickly change. Only a few hundred years ago it was common for one group of people to own another group. Raping one’s wife was considered to be perfectly legitimate (and still is in many societies). In the 1950s it was generally illegal in America for people to marry someone outside of their race, and until just recently homosexuality was considered both criminal and creepy. This does not mean that societies cannot or should not adopt and change over time, but as our long history shows, to attack someone just because they hold different beliefs is inherently dangerous.
Witch hunts have existed in society at least as far back as ancient Babylonia. The Code of Hammurabi prescribes that someone who put a spell on another would be subject to death – that is of course if the accuser survives being dumped into the holy river. I guess that was a good reason for Babylonians to learn to swim. Ancient Rome also had laws against casting spells or practicing certain religious rituals – laws that would change from Emperor to Emperor depending of course on their own proclivities.
Our modern idea of a witch hunt, at least in a Western sense, can be traced back to Imperial Rome, where persecution of people with different mores or who might be considered a social threat to the Empire were publically shamed and even killed in the form of the Games. This idea of a political witch hunt has continued through Western society, even when harming actual witches was frowned upon by the Papacy. While there were religious pennants against sorcery and devil-worship that were developed during the Roman period, throughout the Middle Ages there were larger problems and real external enemies as the Christian societies of Europe fought a series of bloody wars of conquest with the Islamic societies of Asia. When the wars between Christians and Islam began to recede and political society began to threaten religious leadership the witch hunts began again.
The largest and probably most destructive witch hunt prior to modern genocides was the Medieval Inquisition. This began in the latter 1100s as popular movements began across Europe questioning Papal supremacy. The first involved the Cathars in France who were not considered to be witches, but rather heretics. Following the retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic Moors, the new Christian authorities could not assume that their subjects would suddenly become and remain loyal. So the Spanish Inquisition had both political and religious motives. It was more an ethnic pogrom like the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust than it was a traditional witch hunt. The Inquisition was specifically directed toward Muslims and Jews who were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism or be killed or exiled.
The actual witch hunts and witch trials developed out of the inquisitions and gathered steam following the Protestant Reformation. This began in 1517 and led to a weakening of the political influence of the Catholic Church (which actually tended to be more tolerant of differences than did the political class). Protestant Christianity and the secular institutions took particular interest in declaring as heresy the questioning of the divine majesty of the king (this still exists today with so-called lèse-majesté laws). In effect, the witch hunts and witch burnings in Germany, Denmark, England, and later Massachusetts, were violent attacks on those who were not politically correct in their beliefs. This came to a head particularly in England which swung between Catholic and Protestant control before the Elizabethan period. It was during this period that the old swimming test of Hammurabi was again used to determine if someone was a witch (note that they either died from drowning – not a witch – or from burning – a witch).
Witch hunts in America occurred a bit later with the Salem witch trials occurring between 1692 and 1693. The horrors of these trials quickly led to and understanding in the more secular, and liberal colonies, that persecution of witches was wrong. But this did not stop persecution in general in America.
Throughout the country’s history there have been pogroms, persecutions, and instances of public shaming of myriad groups of people including Huguenots, slaves, Africans in general, Chinese, Catholics, Germans, Irish and Jews. Not to mention what was at best a pogrom (and at worst a genocide) of various Native tribes. Throughout American history there have been instances of public shaming. In fact, our early criminal law depended on public shaming as its main recourse for punishment. We have also shamed communists, homosexuals, polygamists, and interracial couples.
Today’s claims about the behavior of actors, comedians, politicians, and comedy writers may well be based on real incidents that merit some sort of punishment. But publically shaming those with differing political opinions definitely does not. Shaming someone simply because of a statement, or a belief, an allegation, or their religious persuasion, either in the press, on a college campus or in the world of social media is no different than shaming heretics, or witches or homosexuals or Huguenots. It is beneath the American public, beneath the American psyche, and beneath the American ideal. It sure isn’t my way, and will never be.