My critical thinking class will begin reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible this week, a play that is as relevant today as it was when it opened on Broadway in 1953.
While Miller wrote his drama of the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693 as an allegory to the McCarthy Period of the 1950s, its emphasis on the irrational fears prevalent in both eras makes it an ideal teaching tool in a class such as this.
The play is especially appropriate as we go through the 2020 election season, where belief in conspiracies and irrational fears are the driving forces behind how many Americans are going to vote.
“No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village,” says Reverend Hale. Fear stalks Salem, and no one questions the reality of the supernatural. Mrs. Putnam accuses Rebecca Nurse of sending out her “spirit” to murder seven of her children. Reverend Hale speaks of “witches that go by land, by air, and by sea.” When Abigail claims to see Mary’s “spirit” in the form of a bird on a beam, only the doomed John Proctor refuses to believe it.
Three centuries later we can scoff at this and express our amazement that anyone took it seriously. And yet we live in a time when a sizeable number of Americans believe in ideas that will someday be regarded with the same scorn and sense of wonder that we place upon the Puritans of Salem.
“I think it’s all overblown,” an attendee at a political rally said recently, referring to the coronavirus that has, at last count, infected over 8 million Americans and killed 220,000, with no end in sight. Many Americans believe there is a “deep state conspiracy” determined to ruin Trump’s presidency. Some believe a cabal of Satanists, pedophiles, and child sex traffickers —whose members include Hillary Clinton, Pope Francis, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks — are out to control the world, disarm Americans, and invite MS -13 to the United States. Others say that Joe Biden is “controlled” by “people in dark shadows” who wear “dark uniforms.”
How can anyone believe such nonsense?
According to psychologists, people turn to conspiracy theories when they feel stressed, threatened, and uncertain about the future. Conspiracy theories enable people to make sense of a world that often seems to make none. They help people to feel less frightened and more in control.
The lessons of the past show that conspiracy theories are no joking matter. The irrational beliefs of the citizens of Salem resulted in 19 people being hanged and another crushed to death. Fear of witches led to the witch hunts of the late Middle Ages. The belief that “international Jewry” was conspiring against the German people helped propel Hitler to power. The irrational fear of communism during the McCarthy period led to mob violence, false accusations, and dozens of ruined reputations.
People turn to conspiracy theories for the same reason the Native Americans once turned to the Ghost Dance: In a world where threats and uncertainty are everywhere, people who feel their way of life threatened are going to look toward the supernatural to help them cope.
The people of Salem clung to their irrational fears and their belief in the supernatural in order to feel safer and more in control of the world they lived in. Living at the edge of a vast continent inhabited by “heathens,” their beliefs helped sustain them. As long as people fear the unknown and look to the supernatural to help explain it, The Crucible will continue to be relevant.