24 November 2007

The Transparency of Hysteria

This was an essay I wrote for my Literature and Composition class. It is about Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and I relate it to autism issues. Hillary Clinton at one point is mentioned; it could have been many people I would have mentioned, but as she is influencial in politics in general, I chose her mention.

The odd page numbers used in citations are from our class textbook. This essay, minus grammatical and spelling corrections and the like, took approximately one hour ten minutes and was restricted to about three pages double spaced in length, so it is not so thorough as it could be, but rather serves more as an outline for a project of greater depth.

Literature and Composition III
7 November 2007

The Transparency of Hysteria

As significant spatial and temporal distance removes people from personal involvement from a situation, the relevance of historical incidents of injustice increases in direct proportion with the time passed since the injustice occurred. Human history is smattered with repeats of mistakes – lessons learned, then promptly again forgotten. An illustration: the international community, following the Holocaust, responded with the vow of “never again.” Yet, less than a century later, the same community has taken little to no action in response to the genocide in Sudan. Another lesson briefly learned, studied, and then forgotten to move on to the next stage of the progress of civilization. In the same way as the importance of remembering the misdeeds of the past increases for such events as genocide, so must humanity step up to the commitments made upon the apologies and restitution made following the Salem witch trials.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a perfect example.

Those who exist along the fringes of societal norms – be they women or communists, the homeless or the disabled – are used as the scapegoats for society’s problems. In the case of Salem, the fear lay with the sin and discontent of the community; in more modern times, the fear lies with the very same, though it manifests in various and less obvious guises.

In the United States today, secular values are at the very least tolerated, and a politician (or most other public figures) would face mockery for claiming that the Devil has infiltrated the country and poisoned the national community with sin. However, few who have made equivalent claims, substituting Devil with (insert unpopular ideology) and sin with (insert whatever condition or state is feared – and indeed it often still is sin), have been recognized as practitioners of quackery or purveyors of paranoid thought. Rather, such individuals are lauded for their obscenely ignorant claims, as society is “pulling Heaven down and raising up a whore” (876; Act III), allowing the culture of conformity to strengthen, feed upon its own fiery flesh. Such a lauded individual was Abigail Williams; more recently, Senator McCarthy (for his perpetuation of the Red Scare) and Hilary Clinton (for her propagation of eugenics ideals with regard to the autistic community) stand out. These signs of modern hysteria are evident, at least as evident as they were during the time of the Salem witch hunt. Just as one can justify the ignorance of Hilary Clinton by placing the blame on the conviction of the autism cure charities that they are working to save children, so can one divert the blame from Judge Danforth and Hathorne, as they were working under the belief that they were instruments of God. It is far easier to condemn in retrospect the irresponsible actions of a society, just as it is far easier to forgive in the current times actions of equivalent irresponsibility.

During the time of The Crucible, however, secular ideals were not at all valued. The idea that witches may not exist in the world was outside of the societal expectation, and surely any belief outside of the realm of the mainstream must represent a belief outside the realm of humanity. Such a person as could not remember every commandment, or who might lie or grumble or act in any way that would break conformity of belief, was automatically transferred to a lesser status, a status of rank lesser than that of a true human being. Elizabeth acknowledges this degradation of character when she firmly stands by her beliefs and tells Reverend Hale that “if you think that I am one, then I say there are none.” (858; Act II). It was for this reason that it wasn’t until those with “weighty names” were hanged that people began to question the validity of the trials. Similar to this precedent, until the “higher-functioning” range of the autistic spectrum was made known, there were essentially no non-autistic people arguing against a cure. On the artificial hierarchy, those who look and act so vastly differently from the expectations to which human beings are socially judged may be disregarded as not even people, whereas someone on the spectrum who earns a college degree is held at a more “respectable” level, and so by mere academic merits the worth of the whole person elevates in the eyes of others. No one even took notice of even the possibility that there is an unjust war being waged against a group until someone of “weighty name” (such as Albert Einstein or Bill Gates) is speculated as being part of the group that the majority wishes to eradicate. This mechanism was the driving force behind John Proctor’s dilemma. Just as this is relevant to the characters of The Crucible, to those implicated in the HUAC, and to autistics, so it is relevant to many other groups and other time periods. Surely the pattern will not cease after the vogue hysterias of the day subside.

When Miller wrote The Crucible, many were pointed to as the source of America’s vulnerabilities and struggles. These supposed communists were said to be undermining the country, weakening its foundation. These strategies of diverting attention from issues and their solutions to the seductive proposal that “it’s their fault; let’s get rid of them” rings startlingly in resonance to the key of propaganda as was promulgated in Nazi Germany. It is fortunate that the United States did not set out to create death camps for communists or anything along these lines, but it is nonetheless built upon the same strategies of ideology that led to those tragedies, particularly when one keeps in mind that the eugenics movement got its tremendously popular start in early twentieth century America, and that the kind of sterilization laws that Nazi Germany implemented were modeled after equivalent laws in the United States. Miller addresses this by the testimony from Giles Corey’s anonymous informant that Thomas Putnam instructed his daughter to vilify the name of Jacobs in order to acquire personal gain (Act III). For this reason, such tactics cannot be dismissed. Miller intended to use this play to warn future generations of this fact, that travesties of justice recur, and recur with a greater frequency than it is preferable to believe. In order to avoid this scapegoating of people, we should evaluate prejudices towards the unfamiliar, and to look at the marginalization of those who lack power (for they may revolt), and to regard such people as much people as any other, for if there is no one to scapegoat, then people must look to themselves and to their society that they have created as the source of their discontent and the promise for their future, for any person may next fall into that category of the undesirable person and become a casualty of the cracking foundation.

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