Sunday, January 13, 2008

Witch Hunts

One of the few pieces of literature they threw at me in high school that actually helped me understand the human condition was The Crucible, a play by Pulitzer-prize winner Arthur Miller. If you've never read it, I highly recommend it.

Miller wrote of the Salem witch trials of 1692, not a very bright moment in the history of our country, to illustrate the harm being done by Senator Joseph McCarthy and The House Un-American Activities Committee during their tireless pursuit of Americans they believed to have pro-Communist sympathies. Miller helped me understand why fear of persecution encourages group hostility, and results in condoning outrageous things like burning women at the stake simply because someone's cow dropped dead.

Miller always believed that he had been targeted by the HUAC because he refused to allow a member of the committee to be photographed with his wife, Marilyn Monroe. Hell hath no fury like a rebuffed fan, I suppose. His subsequent refusal to cooperate with the HUAC -- he wouldn't give them a list of names of writers they wanted -- resulted in him being labeled a pro-Communist.

Imagine, losing your writing career because you wouldn't pick up a torch and set another helpless writer on fire in front of a screaming mob. Not that something like that could ever happen or even be suggested in today's enlightened, fair-minded and intelligent publishing industry.

There is no doubt that Arthur Miller's silence cost him, because one of the most effective group control tactics is to use fear of persecution: the "If you're not with us, you're against us" threat of reprisal. He took a big risk, refused to cooperate with the HUAC, and was made into an example by them, at least until a judge overturned the unfair conviction in 1958.

When the president finally shut down Joe McCarthy and the committee, I imagine Arthur Miller was one of the few people involved who didn't have to wash the writer soot from his hands, bury the burned-out torches and pretend it never happened. His hands stayed clean.

Thank heavens we no longer live in the era of witch hunts, of the women or writer variety.

26 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:33 AM

    Let me just say that whatever he may have done, McCarthy was never involved with the HUAC (think about it: _Senator_ Joe McCarthy in the _House_ Un-American Activities Committee?), and never had anything to do with the persecution of Arthur Miller. McCarthy may have been overzealous and a bit of a jerk, but he never went after someone unless he was genuinely convinced that they were a threat to security, and he was a good deal more discerning than the HUAC.

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  2. I assume you're being sarcastic when you say, "Thank heavens we no longer live in the era of witch hunts, of the women or writer variety."

    After all, George W. Bush used the phrase, "if you're not with us, you're against us," shortly after 9/11.

    Witch hunts are appalling, but at this point we can't assume humanity has matured beyond them. That's why Miller's "The Crucible" remains a classic. His play is a reminder of something Thomas Jefferson once said, "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

    This is my first time visiting your site. I find it inspiring, thought-provoking, and, well, just generally worth my time. Glad to have found your blog. I'll be back.

    Ciao from Italy! :)
    Tui

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  3. Anonymous wrote: Let me just say that whatever he may have done, McCarthy was never involved with the HUAC

    I never said he was. Senator McCarthy was chairman of another, senate committee, which is why I posted separate links on him and the HUAC.

    . . . and never had anything to do with the persecution of Arthur Miller.

    Again, I never said he did. I was specific in citing the HUAC as the source of Arthur Miller's undeserved persecution.

    McCarthy may have been overzealous and a bit of a jerk, but he never went after someone unless he was genuinely convinced that they were a threat to security, and he was a good deal more discerning than the HUAC.

    I can't share your opinion. However, there's a good article over at the Huffington Post about a biography that supports and supposedly vindicates Senator McCarthy here that you'd probably enjoy reading.

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  4. During my long and illustrious (koff koff) television career (koff), I worked with one of the children of the Hollywood Ten and another offspring of an extremely talented blacklisted screenwriter. Those wounds run deep. Very deep.

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  5. McCarthy may have been overzealous and a bit of a jerk, but he never went after someone unless he was genuinely convinced that they were a threat to security, and he was a good deal more discerning than the HUAC.

    Wow--this scares me. When one is in a position of power and proves he is a zealot, the world should stand up in protest. McCarthy's words and actions destroyed many, many people's lives and careers.

    Here's another way to look at it: for all of the good things he initially did for Germany, Hitler later erred, but [he] never went after someone unless he was genuinely convinced that they were a threat to [Germany], and he was a good deal more discerning than [Mengele].

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  6. Word. Thank you for this post. Your timing is impeccable.

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  7. That's not sarcasm I'm reading at the end, is it?

    If it isn't, that's fine, but I happen to believe it's all too possible -- which is why awareness of the possibility and the history is so important to me.

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  8. Jean wrote: That's not sarcasm I'm reading at the end, is it?

    Why, Jean, when have you ever known me to be sarcastic?

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  9. Rob in Denver: that was the first thing that came to mind.

    Lynn: as always, pure eloquence!

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  10. Thank you Lynn.

    This is the most logical post I've seen all week about this whole mess.

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  11. Whew! I was afraid you might be...well...being too influenced by John and Marcia.

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  12. Subtlety, thy name is Viehl.

    Thank you. As far as I'm concerned, this is the last word on the subject.

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  13. Amateur photographers are having a hard time of it in Britain lately. But as you say, nobody being accused, however wrongly, of being a paedophile particularly wishes to speak out--and not only because of the 'no smoke without fire' mentality.

    And I so used to enjoy my hobby....

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  14. Anonymous7:35 PM

    PBW, you walk "where angels fear to tread."

    Thank you!

    well written.

    Rebecca

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  15. I absolutely loved that play in High School and the movie was good, too. When I watched the documentary and learned about the story behind the story, I had a new respect for that man. He did a brave thing.

    Heh heh, great post Lynn.

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  16. I imagine there is definitely some mobbing going on, but I have a hard time staying silent, even though I honestly pity the person behind the current headlines.

    My difficulty staying silent arises from so many of the comments I've seen in both public and private venues that 'nothing' wrong was really done. More, when some unhappy readers decide they'll boycott entire publishers... uh, innocent bystanders? Definitely don't care for that.

    While there's definitely some personal attacks going on that I don't approve of, most of what I've seen is honestly condemnation of the act, not the person.

    There are also many who don't seem to 'understand' why the ethical issue is frowned upon. And yet more readers get upset when others try to brush it under the rug and act like nothing wrong happened.

    I don't believe in public lynchings.

    I don't believe a person's career should necessarily be over because they made a mistake... or in this case, a pattern of mistakes. We all do screw up.

    I don't like people enough in general to worry about joining in some group thang.

    However, one thing I do believe in is personal accountability. At this point, IMO, it's rather obvious from the writer in question exercised poor judgment at least.

    The responsible, adult thing to do is own up to it. As hard as that may well be, often when people step up and admit they screwed up, people get bored quicker and move on to something else.

    As to the staying silent, I think some people are seeing it either as a 'writer wall of silence' or a 'if it doesn't hurt me, what do I care'... but some of the discussion of late has shed some light on some of the reasons that may lay behind that silence. Some are quiet because they have nothing to add, others are quiet because they have use a 'don't say anything unless it's nice' rule ~which I understand~ and others are quiet because not everybody pays as much attention to web as others.

    It has nothing to do with the 'if you are not with us, you're against us' mindset and I think some people understand that a little better now.

    Most of this has arisen out of outright dismay or disenchantment.

    Yes, there are those pulling out the marshmallows, but there are also those who are trying to help some good come of this. And if it this deters future cases, even just a couple, then that's a positive.

    I won't attack one person over a mistake they made. But I also won't close my eyes to the wrongness of it just because it doesn't affect me.

    Those who are jumping into the fray just to roast marshmallows, well, if that's their best way to get attention, then I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for the writer being roasted. That has to be a depressing way to live.

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  17. azteclady10:18 PM

    Ms Viehl, perhaps you would like to chime in on a conversation at Suzanne Brockmann's message board on this topic--particularly this comment:
    (snip) I can't understaad how you cannot see the difference between background and detail and literary elements. Viehl's new book Evermore has a series of quotes by Michael explaining the time from which he came from and how castles were overtaken, that CLEARLY came from a history book without any attribution whatsoever. It sounded like a history book, but apparently she changed enough dots and adjectives to make it acceptable. Again the ideas are clearly not hers. She did not live during the time to know this unless she has overtaken a castle recently, it was in a history book somewhere. But what doese it matter? It's DETAIL. It's BACKGROUND. (snip)
    link: http://members2.boardhost.com/brockmann/msg/1200276620.html

    It is a scrolling board, so the post may not be up for long.

    And for the record--whether this comment is published or moderated/deleted: my point is not stirring the pot but educating readers who don't seem able to grasp the difference between research and plagiarism. I would definitely appreciate your input.

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  18. azteclady wrote: Ms Viehl, perhaps you would like to chime in on a conversation at Suzanne Brockmann's message board on this topic--

    I try not to inflict myself on readers when they're discussing me or my novels on other authors' boards, but if you'd like to cut and paste the following information, feel free.

    I've been fortunate to be able to personally tour a number of medieval castles in Europe, most in France, so I have some first-hand knowledge of how they're constructed, the layout, how they appear, etc. Lots of photographs, too. It's true, I've yet to lay siege to one, but I have many wonderful books on how that was accomplished.

    On page 59 of Evermore, Michael offers the following lines of dialogue, which is what I believe you're referring to:

    "In our time, beseigers force storming the castle could be caught and trapped between two portcullises." As Phillipe drove in, he pointed to the openings in the walls and ceiling. "The castle's archers would used these murder holes to shoot the trapped men."

    I had taken a tour of one medieval castle back in the 80's during which the tour guide had pointed the murder holes to us. I was fascinated by them. Twenty years later, when I decided to mention this particular defensive castle feature in my story, I read up on them using three different sources of information: The Medieval Fortress (a fantastic book on castles of that era, btw) by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann, ISBN#1-58097-062-1, Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies, ISBN#0-7607-5913-8, and The Medieval Castle by Philip Warner, ISBN#1-56619-458-X, page 62-63.

    I use at least three reputable sources of information for any research reading I may need to do. My method is to read, let it all percolate, and then write it out in my own words (exception: I don't often coin new words for archaic terms, so if they're called murder holes, that's generally what I call them, too.)

    I always document my sources of research, because you never know when someone will challenge you on the authenticity of the specifics. Even if no one else cares, I like to make sure that I have the facts straight. I also like having the notes so that I know where I got it from in the event I need to go back and get more info on the topic.

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  19. azteclady12:24 AM

    Thank you!!!

    For me the key issue is that you percolate what you have learned through research vs lifting passages.

    Since you are so kind, I'll post both that bit, and a link to your comment.

    Again, thank you.

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  20. Just to add on to my comment above, the pages of research that pertain to Michael's dialogue and the design of Knight's Realm in the Kauffman book are 31, 36 - 37 and 41, and the Gies book are 17, 33-39 and 97-103. The whole Warner book was a terrific read and helped me a great deal in understanding not only the how but the why of the medieval castle, so I'd count every page of that one.

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  21. Hmm, I haven't read that play, but now I somehow feel like I should. Here's to an end of witch hunts, may it someday come.

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  22. SandyW10:07 AM

    Let’s look at this from another point of view. What if Arthur Miller really had been a ‘Communist?’ What if an overwhelming body of evidence had pointed to him being involved with ‘Un-American’ activities? Would it have been wrong for the Committee to have made this public? Would it have been all right for no one to believe the Committee’s evidence, just because the people on the Committee were ‘mean?’ Should the Committee have only released the first piece of evidence, and then kept quiet about the rest, no matter how much more was uncovered?

    There’s been an amazing amount of backlash against the whistle-blowers in this whole mess. I’m just curious as to how people think it should have been handled.

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  23. SandyW wrote: What if Arthur Miller really had been a ‘Communist?’

    If Arthur Miller had been brought before the committee to address charges of his being a pro-communist, your question would make sense. He wasn't. He simply refused to give them the names of other writers they wanted to persecute, and was persecuted for not cooperating.

    Rather like being a writer whose research methods have never been questioned once in ten years, but who is called upon to defend them the day after she writes a post about two historic instances of very effective group hostility and how they can be manipulated into persecuting the innocent.

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  24. I rarely close comments on posts, but I've said everything I care to say about this topic, I've got books to write, and Tom really doesn't need to handle more hostility than he already does. So this post is now closed. If you care to make your feelings known to me on the post, send an e-mail to LynnViehl@aol.com. I'll try to respond to as many as I can.

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