Today, we make a quick return to Cultural Mondays. Recently, I watched the first episode of WGN's Salem. I had sort of hoped (why, I know not) that maybe the show would be done with some degree of historical accuracy, maybe even present some sort of political perspective to the Salem witch hunts. Needless to say it did neither.
WGN apparently is living in the late 1600s. I guess they represent the moderates who while they find Cotton Mather and his Puritan buddies a bit much, are not to enamored with those monstrous witches either.
In the real world, the one we live in (or our ancestors lived in), there were real women and a few men who were tortured and executed during the witch hunts in Salem. However, none of them were working with the devil, none of them had some sort of super powers that they used to control people (something which WGN apparently doesn't know). In fact, Satanism is not part of the Wiccan religion. There is no such being in the Wiccan religion; only in the Christian traditions. Don't tell WGN. And don't tell them their show is also racist.
As Zack Handlen writes at TV Club:
Salem uses real life to prop up its shallow theatrics, and the result is too distractingly tacky to be enjoyed as pure foolishness. The premise isn’t simply that witches are real—it’s that these witches are, in fact, controlling Salem just as their accusers believed them to be, and their aims are far from noble. The closest the first episode gets to moral ambiguity is the implication that nearly everyone, from the supposedly pure to the thoroughly corrupted, is up to something less than wholesome. This doesn’t excuse the fact that the show’s seemingly sole minority character is introduced performing the sexiest backwoods abortion in the history of television, or a dozen other sins besides.
The real witch hunts were actually not about any of that supernatural stuff anyway. They were about controlling women, about land grabs and enclosures, about the birth of capital.
But on WGN its about the witch Mary and her plot to orchestrate the Salem witch trials to her own advantage and to use them to essentially destroy the community so the witches can take over. Who can blame the Puritans for being upset.
Did I mention that the obvious hero is a guy named John? A white male savior of sorts. A man who went off to defend "his country" against the Indians (and the French), who was captured, has some good things to say about Indians, some bad things to say about Puritans, is mad that "his" woman didn't wait for him, but still loves her (I think), and who even thinks nature isn't so bad. Kind of a liberal, I would say.
Meanwhile, back to the real world again. Silvia Federici author of the great book "Caliban and the Witch - Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation," makes the point that the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century were instrumental to establishing a new capitalist order through 'the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce.' The Church, the State, the early capitalist's were the enforcers. She says the witch hunts were not some oddity of history, but were central to the formation of capitalism. To get there, the power of women had to be broken. The witch became the,
...embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt.
In her account she highlights:
...the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce,' [...] 'the construction of a new patriarchal order based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men' [...] and 'the transformation of the female body into a machine for the production of new workers.
Federici doesn't once mention toads coming out of the mouths captive old husbands as WGN shows us.
The witch hunts were no joke. In a review of Federici's book, Alex Knight writes and I will quote here at length:
During the 15th – 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruellest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” .
In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society.
...The Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) – excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men."
The author goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. This assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls it an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children.
... For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164). She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.”
...For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm – based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors’ “guns, germs and steel” to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6 Federici’s analysis is that, “Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.
Tituba, black (which is what I and WGN think she was), Indian, both, whatever, was subjected to the same gender restrictions placed on Puritan women...and upon blacks. And Puritan men had only two views of women: the good wife and the bad witch. And we know what they thought of blacks...and Indians.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes at The Root:
In any case, the winter of 1691-92 is when Tituba—the Tituba of Salem—first appeared in the historical record. By then she was likely in her late 20s or early 30s. The reason for her appearance: accusations of witchcraft. Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, were suffering repeated episodes of falling down, shaking and babbling. Speculation, even by their doctor, swirled around a supernatural source, perhaps even a curse.
Tituba is forced to confessed with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques available at the time that she was a witch. Tituba was known throughout Salem to tell tales from her African folklore tradition that both frightened and fascinated children and adults alike, stories later seen as evidence of her personal witchcraft. She was not merely forced to confess. Her jailers wanted more and eventually a license to hunt and kill witches with a religious fervor and zeal.
Mary Sibley ...Confronted with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by her beau John Alden (Shane West) who left her for war, Mary relies on her mysterious confidante, Tituba, for help. Tituba and Mary decide on abortion in return for power from the devil.
But as they head into the dark forest to commit the deed, Mary hesitates, “I've changed my mind. I want to go back.” Tituba warns, “There is no place for that child in Salem,” and questions what the town’s leader might “do to you when he finds out you're pregnant with John's baby?” She continues, “Do not fear the woods. The woods are gonna take care of that little soul. And you.”
Against Mary’s repetitive pleas, Tituba threatens more harshly, “You want to live? Lie still.” and pushes, “You don't have a choice, Mary.”
When Mary cries at the sight of her flat stomach after the ritual filled with a dark demons, flesh-eating beetles and black ooze crawling up her spread legs, Tituba consoles, “All the world shall be yours in return.”
Unfortunately, Salem will have a following. I watched it and I assure it will have a following. People will view it for entertainment, but they will absorb a message and the message is not a good one.
If you ask me, its as if WGN decided to do a story on the Holocaust in which they failed to mention the reasons for the rise of nazism, failed to mention anti-Semitism, did present the Nazis as not such good folks who went overboard, but added that the world of the Jews really was the one presented in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and in Mein Kampf. .
The Witch House is the only historic site left that was an absolute witness to the conversations and phenomena [of that time]. It is our responsibility to dignify and intellectualize that history.