Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist?
[This started as a response to Morgan's post, here. I didn't want to overrun his comment section so I put it here. It's my answer to the question, "why are we still hating Sarah Palin -- who totally doesn't matter -- five years after she ran for office?"]
It’s another heresy hunt.
(I prefer that to “witch hunt” since “witch hunt” has been so overused, it’s meaningless, but if it helps, switch it in as needed. Anyway….)
The point of a heresy hunt is to prop up a ruling power that’s on the verge of collapse. Since we moderns don’t believe in God anymore, whenever we read about witch burnings and religious persecutions we think it’s one of those incomprehensible medieval arguments about theology. “Is Jesus co-equal with God, or somehow less, because He was created? Wow, and they killed people over this?”
But heresy hunts are always entirely secular. When things are going well — when institutions are strong and cultures are stable — they disappear. In England, for example, which had strong institutions and remarkably stable government, there were hardly any heresy trials, no witch burnings, and none of those evangelical rebellions that plagued less strong, less stable regions like southern France. In Germany, where institutions were close to nonexistent, heresy hunts and witch burnings were industrial scale (all the famous apparatus of witch-hunting — the Malleus Maleficarum etc. — were developed in Germany). Only when the old order began collapsing — in England, under the Tudors and Jacobeans — did you see that kind of thing in other places.
You’ll notice, too, that the reaction is way out of proportion to the crime. If you read up on the Salem Witchcraft Trials, for instance, you’ll notice that they rarely mention what the witches actually did. What was the maleficium for which they were killed? Even the worst witch in the most frenzied trial had a lower body count than the typical village judge. (It’s interesting to note that the Salem Witch Museum’s FAQ page doesn’t even say what the girls did). Similarly, the actual beliefs for which most “heretics” were burned were bizarre but harmless.
That’s because the crime isn’t the point.
You burn witches and heretics because they are witches and heretics. The assumption is that their very presence pollutes the social order. The reasoning is NOT “our crops failed; a witch must’ve done it.” That’s modern thinking, conditioned by 400 years of the scientific method. The reasoning is “our crops failed; there must be a witch here.”
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s vitally important. In a very real sense, witches don’t do; witches are.
Most people who observe the Left for any length of time eventually remark on how atavistic their thinking is. I’ve done it myself (rather poorly). I used the word “feudalism” there, just as I’m using the words “heresy” and “witchcraft” here, because I like history and the comparisons seem obvious to me. But if that doesn’t work for you — and medieval / early modern history is really, really weird — try this one: ideological autism.
As everyone knows, you can’t reason someone out of leftism. Their fundamental propositions are self-contradictory — “one can only see the world through the lens of one’s race / class / gender, but somehow I can see it all, since I’m telling you that you can only see the world through the lens of your race / class / gender.” But that doesn’t bother them at all. The Ishmael Effect only works on conservatives.
Are you seeing where this is going? Logically, Sarah Palin is harmless. She’s a gadfly with a Facebook page. I’ve never even heard a conservative start a conversation with “you know, Sarah Palin has a really good idea about ____.” But if you think of her as The Heretic or The Witch, it starts to fall into place. Like modern-day autistics, pre-modern Europeans had great difficulty grasping nuance. They were baffled and frightened by the concept that a person could act one way, but actually be another way. Indeed, at bottom that’s what witches and heretics are – they look just like you and me, but they’re really in league with the Devil.
The social order must be maintained at all costs, in other words, because that’s the only way the world makes sense to them.
Our ideological autists / heresy hunters can’t stand Sarah Palin because she screws up their heuristics. They function in the world by assigning a certain set of beliefs and behaviors to the category “woman,” and they literally don’t know how to behave if their mental picture doesn’t match up with external reality. So they fall back on the only thing they know how to do: Burn the witch!
This has been characteristic of the Left for a long, long time. I led with an Orwell quote. Here it is in context:
By 1937 the whole of the intelligentsia was mentally at war. Left-wing thought had narrowed down to ‘anti-Fascism’, i.e. to a negative, and a torrent of hate-literature directed against Germany and the politicians supposedly friendly to Germany was pouring from the Press. The thing that, to me, was truly frightening about the war in Spain was not such violence as I witnessed, nor even the party feuds behind the lines, but the immediate reappearance in left-wing circles of the mental atmosphere of the Great War. The very people who for twenty years had sniggered over their own superiority to war hysteria were the ones who rushed straight back into the mental slum of 1915. All the familiar wartime idiocies, spy-hunting, orthodoxy-sniffing (Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist?), the retailing of atrocity stories, came back into vogue as though the intervening years had never happened. Before the end of the Spanish war, and even before Munich, some of the better of the left-wing writers were beginning to squirm. Neither Auden nor, on the whole, Spender wrote about the Spanish war in quite the vein that was expected of them. Since then there has been a change of feeling and much dismay and confusion, because the actual course of events has made nonsense of the left-wing orthodoxy of the last few years. But then it did not need very great acuteness to see that much of it was nonsense from the start. There is no certainty, therefore, that the next orthodoxy to emerge will be any better than the last.
As the orthodoxies change — as the old regime crumbles — the heresy hunters redouble their efforts. The good news is that witch hunts always end, usually with the witch-hunters themselves on the rack. The bad news is that a lot of people suffer needlessly before it’s over. At the very least, we owe Sarah Palin a small debt of gratitude for taking so much of the venom that might well be directed at us.