Thursday, October 18, 2012

About Justice at Salem

I knew when I was writing Justice at Salem, that the book would be controversial and would provoke some criticism. I also knew that it was bound to be misunderstood, by some at least. I could have written some parts differently to make a few of my points more clear, but I did not want to change my writing style. I like incorporating a fair bit of wit and sarcasm in my writing, even if it is at my peril.  

Since this is the case, it may seem odd that I appear bothered enough to respond to some comments about my book. Nevertheless, I never like the record to be unclear about my opinions. So I thought I would use this space to explain my book in more detail and to address some of the attacks.
 
When writing this book, I was not interested in general condemnations of the officials of the time, but rather in their motives, I attempted to get into the heads of the authorities to see if there was any plausible argument that could be made for the guilt of the accused. While many of the cases relied entirely on shaky evidence, there was evidence that some of the accused might actually have practiced witchcraft.
 
Whether or not this evidence would have held up if subjected to cross-examination by a competent lawyer or the other protections of our current judicial system is unknown. But under the standards of the day, I argued that there could have been enough evidence to convict some of them.
 
It is apparent that witchcraft was practiced in the past and still is today. For example, archaeologists have discovered witch bottles and other objects used to keep away witches in homes from this period and long after. This attempt to use magic to fight against witches was essentially a form of witchcraft. Local witches were known to exist around this period. Whether healers, midwives, or others, some people were known to have a stronger connection with nature and the spiritual world. Some of these people may have been malicious in nature or used their perceived powers to benefit themselves in the community.
 
The modern Wiccan community appears to take the view that many of the accused at Salem were victims not because they were innocent, but because they were oppressed for their unorthodox, but misunderstood, religious views. I do not believe that there is a strong connection between modern Wiccans and the witches of old, but there may be some similarities. I argued that there was evidence that the convicted witches were generally malicious in their deeds and came to the attention of the authorities because of some harm they had inflicted, either psychologically or directly, but likely not spiritually.
 
The arguments in my book are not always simple and at times I played mental games to make a point. The readers who paid close attention were able to appreciate what I was trying to do. I did realize that others, who perhaps live busy lives, would not be able to appreciate my arguments. Perhaps lacking an abundance of time or a generosity of understanding caused some to denounce my effort.

For example, one reviewer on Amazon wrote, in part:
 
My main issue with this book, however, is that it drifts off topic. In the middle of talking about Tituba being beaten by her master, it drifts off into talking about John Proctor's allegations of torture by the authorities, then suddenly to the accusations of torture--specifically water-boarding--in the modern United States. This had nothing to do with the book, and the author even admitted to straying off track, but he continued to talk about how "everyone knows that the US doesn't use torture because torture is illegal" and how water-boarding, therefore, is not torture.  
 
I intentionally made an argument that appeared to go off topic. But the argument was linked back to the original point. The events of the Salem witch trials have been used as a historical metaphor and have been compared to other incidents in history. The Red Scare comes to mind. So my attempt to link something from the trials to today is not unheard of. 

The reviewer was completely oblivious to the fact that I was actually mocking the arguments about “enhanced interrogation” not being torture. I argued that it was torture, produced unreliable information, and was immoral. It does take a little bit of work to see my point, however.
 
Another reviewer on Amazon responded to a positive review by writing, in part, that Justice at Salem was a “mean little book that strays so often into credulity of the worst kind, as when it refers to ‘no torture in America.’” Again, this person completely missed by point. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that some readers would miss the point of my torture rant. I did not actually believe that someone would take my statements in defense of “enhanced interrogation” seriously. I suppose it says something more about the state of our current politics where arguments in defense of torture are taken seriously. Perhaps I cannot completely blame the reviewers for missing my argument against torture.

That torture was practiced, albeit on a very limited scale, at Salem does not distract from my main argument, that there was actual witchcraft as well. The fact that the American government has used torture does not distract from the reality of terrorism either. My argument is that they responded to the witchcraft accusations poorly, but that there was actual witchcraft being practiced. I also argued that these trials should not have taken place, but they did because the people in colonial New England lacked our current, and correct, understanding of religious liberty.

Many people have an emotional attachment to the Salem witch trials and to the people involved in them. This book challenges them in a way. It challenges them to see the situation as the judges and jurors would have saw it. I do not pretend that every one of my opinions is correct or that I could not have been wrong in some of my judgments. But I also ask the reader to consider if he or she could also be mistaken.



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