In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the entire GOP is following the fear-based pathway Donald Trump first blazed against undocumented immigrants from Mexico, in which all manner of different fears get jumbled together as if they were all just parts of one grand conspiracy against “real Americans.” The idea that Syrian refugees pose a mortal danger that Obama is nefariously ignoring (or possibly even aiding) is symptomatic of a more general tendency to arbitrarily weave together the most unlikely combination of real and imaginary threats into a pseudo-coherent whole whose logic bears no resemblance at all to anything in the real world, while preserving one constant — the central focus on the self-identified victims and their struggle to maintain holy virtue.
But there's nothing new in this. In fact, it taps into a deep foundational aspect of our national psyche, forged in colonial times in Puritan New England, given form specifically by Cotton Mather, building on the early popular narrative form of captivity narratives, as described by historian Richard Slotkin in his 1973 book "Regeneration Through Violence." Captivity narratives were America's first popular literary genre, based on the capture of colonists by warring Native tribes, which claimed more than 1,000 victims in 17th and 18th century Puritan New England. Mather — based on his encounter with Mercy Short, a 17-year-old captivity survivor — took the captivity framework, and used it directly to explain witchcraft-induced demonic possession (“captivity by specters”), as well as a host of other threats facing Puritan New England at the time.
To understand what Mather did, we need to begin with the captivity narratives he generalized from. Mary Rowlandson's "The Soveraignty & Goodness of God...a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration" (1682) was the first and by far the most widely distributed book devoted to a single captivity,” Slotkin notes, but its cultural potency inevitably led to its narrative appropriation over time. “By the late 1740s the captivities had become so much a part of the New England way of thinking that they provided a symbolic vocabulary to which preachers would refer almost automatically in any attempt at stirring a revival of religious sentiments. Even Jonathan Edward's 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,' [text here] the most perfect of the revival sermons, employs images from the captivities.”
The cultural resonance of the narratives has a straightforward explanation: On the one hand, the fear of capture was objectively quite realistic, on the other hand, the interpretive framework deployed throughout profoundly reflected both the broad assumptions of Puritan theology and the specific inflections of spiritual anxieties that developed in the New England Puritan community at the time. These resulted from their experience after having gained a foothold in the New World, establishing a degree of comfort and complacency that leaders like Mather, particularly, found deeply troubling.
“Mrs. Rowlandson's captivity begins typically, with the heroine-victim in a state of relatively complacent ease,” Slotkin wrote. “She is only vaguely troubled by her easy situation, vaguely wondering why God does not 'try' her in some way. Others of her acquaintance have been so tried, and some had fallen, the Bible promises that all will be tried and should be prepared." She knows this in her head, as it were, but not in her heart, she “has forgotten the true meaning of these warnings and portents.” Falling into captivity, she then experiences trials she once vaguely wished for, only to be dramatically traumatized, tested and transformed by them, ending up in a place she was always meant to be, in one sense, yet, at the same time subtly alienated from the bosom of her community, purportedly based on that very worldview she now most fully realizes.
The threat of captivity was more vivid and varied than merely the threat of death:
Indian captivity was almost certain to result in spiritual and physical catastrophe. The captives either vanished forever into the woods, or returned half-Indianized or Romanized, or converted to Catholicism and stayed in Canada, or married some “Canadian half-breed” or “Indian slut,” or went totally savage. In any of these cases, the captive was a soul utterly lost to the tents of the English Israel.
The ease Rowlandson experienced before her captivity represented a falling away from the “very reason that the Puritan emigrants had come to America, seeking a hard way to do the Lord's work,” a falling away that greatly troubled their leaders, more than anyone else. Hence, the captivity narrative was, in its own culturally specific way, a restoration narrative: it articulated a restoration of the state of self-evident risk and peril — entrusting their fate to God's hand — which the Puritans embraced in departing the Old World for New England in the first place. As Slotkin writes, “the captivity experience, with its pains and trials, brings a forced end to comforts and pleasures. The cross is thrust upon the Christian—to love it, accept it, and be saved; or to rail against it and perish.”
The combination of being grounded in a real world threat on the one hand, and in their own shared theology and group psychology on the other, made for the incredibly potency and coherent internal logic of the captivity narrative form. It both made sense of the the real world threat they faced, and demonstrated the proof of their theological outlook at the same time—a self-reinforcing double confirmation. Because of this, it was only logical that the narrative “about” the outside world could then be turned inward as well to make sense of the witchcraft experience, as a form of “captivity by specters,” particularly in the case of Mercy Short, who had already been through the actual captivity experience, two years earlier, at the age of 15. Her parents and siblings were killed in the process, a harrowing experience which could easily give rise to prolonged traumatic episodes afterward, two of which she indeed experienced, and Mather interpreted, after his fashion:
Mather clearly regarded Mercy Short's case as an archetype of New England's condition, and he presented it as such in "A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning" [text here]—a narrative of his dealings with the girl that was widely circulated in manuscript. The structural pattern invoked in this account is clearly that of the captivity narrative; but here it is transformed into a ritual exorcism of an Indian-like demon from the body of the white, female “Saint.”
But Mather went even further than this in his systematic integration, which he had been groping toward for some time:
Mather had long been preparing for just such a confrontation with the devil. He was then at work on the gathering and systematizing of historical and theological materials that was to culminate in his masterwork, the Magnalia Chrisi Americana. That massive work was to be the history of New England “under the aspect of Eternity”; it would explicate the New England experience in terms of a total world view in which Puritans and Indians would find their true valuation and be placed in the context of the divine drama of history, as it unfolds from Eden to Calvary to Boston to Apocalypse.
Puritans like Mather were not just confronted by Native Americans, however. They were hemmed in by a whole panoply of enemy others:
His confrontation with Mercy Short's devils clarified issues for him and enabled him to draw connections between the several “assaults” on pious New England that he and his father had resisted for years: the assaults of the Indians and of frontier paganism, the assaults of ministerial frauds and heretics, the assaults of the Quakers, the assaults of the royal governor on colonial prerogatives, and the final assault of the witches and the Invisible Kingdom in 1692. Mercy Short helped Mather discover that the common pattern in each of these assaults was precisely that of the captivity narrative: a devilish visitation, an enforced sojourn in evil climes under the rule of man-devils, and an ultimate redemption of body and soul through the interposition of divine grace and the perseverance of the victim in orthodox belief.
Of course, the Quakers, in particular, really didn't come anywhere close to fitting into this narrative framework in any realistic sense. But given the intensity of captivity experience, the fears it generated, and the relatively straightforward logic of transposing it onto “specters,” who was really going to be in a position to question the logic or point out its flaws when applied more generally, or to Quakers in particular? After all, if you did raise questions, you were probably a hidden Quaker yourself! And so, as Slotkin goes on to say:
In the years following his treatment of Mercy Short, Mather's several books on the witchcraft trials, his study of the Indian wars (Decennium Luctuosum, 1699), and his Magnalia translated the myth-structure inherent in the captivity narrative into a coherent vision of his culture's history.
Although it's objectively true that Quakers didn't really fit his template, that doesn't mean he couldn't craft a compelling and coherent narrative implicating them in a larger web of villainy:
He makes it clear that, for him, the Indian wars are one phase of the continuing war between Satan and Christ. In the strategy of that war Indian attacks, the “visitation” of specters, devils, and witches in 1692, and the growth of “heretical” sects on the frontier are related phenomena, are pieces in Satan's grand design of conquest. Thus he concludes his study of the Indian attacks with a diatribe against the Quakers. He equates them with the Indians, partly because of their opposition to English usurpation of Indian lands, but primarily because of their doctrine of human freedom and the inner light—their tenet that Christ is contained within each man [not to mention woman!] and that pure introspection, without inhibition by books and creeds, can yield personal revelation. This tenet Mather equates with the beliefs of the Mohamedan sect of Assassins, or “Betenists,” “who were the Enthusiasts that followed the Light within, like our Quakers; and on this principle... did such Numberless Villainies.”
Radical Islamic terrorists! As I live and breathe! I told you that there was nothing new in the GOP's current tendency to arbitrarily weave together the most unlikely combination of real and imaginary threats into a pseudo-coherent whole.
In fact, Quakers in that time were actually somewhat analogous to today's secular humanists, at least in regard to matters of religious tolerance—which was part of the reason they had much better relations with Native American tribes than the Puritans had. (They also didn't steal land.) To associate them with Islamic terrorists was thus eerily similar to today's conservatives' efforts to portray American secular liberals as allies of the terrorists who attack us, supporters of secret Sharia law, etc., particularly given that there was zero Muslim presence in New England at the time. But religious intolerance was key to their faith, so open-mindedness was as threatening to it as any other contrary faith, perhaps even moreso.
I've only just touched on certain highlights of Slotkin's account; there's a great deal more from that time of early American terror that seems eerily relevant today. I'd like to mention just four more, to help expand the sense of how much we have in common with them, how little we've changed at some deep level, and how much there is to question in what we've come to take for granted.
First, there are two points made by Susan Faludi in her 2007 book, "The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America." First, Faludi homes in on the blame-shifting dynamic, something particularly apt to keep in mind, given who was in charge on 9/11, and who launched the endless “war on terror” in response:
Associating colonial defeats in the Indian wars with witchcraft served many purposes, notably among them the elision of another, more worldly explanation. The colonial leaders, including a number of judges on the Court of Oyer and Terminer who prosecuted the witches, were themselves complicit in the Second Indian War's disastrous outcome — through unpreparedness, avarice, mistaken strategy of sheer ineptitude. And eager to deflect attention from their own failures and locate the cause of vulnerability elsewhere.
Second, Faludi points out that the blame-shifting is deeply gendered — “the leadership ducking its culpability was entirely male, its newly identified antagonists overwhelmingly female”—and that threats to male supremacy and reactions to them permeate the entire subject of New England witchcraft. First, she notes:
Before the recent onset of feminist scholarship the various speculations [on causes of the witch trials] made little of the overwhelming presence of women among the defendants: 11 of the 18 people accused, 52 of the 59 tried, 26 of the 31 convicted and 14 of the 19 hung were female....
She then goes on to note “there was a definite character to the women singled out for witchcraft accusations in New England,” contrasting the European tendency to target “poor villagers, easy to scapegoat because they were without resources” with the relatively high status of the New England accused, as first documented by Carol Karlsen in "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman." Moreover, “they were beyond the dictates of patriarchal family and society and, especially damning, were inclined to defend their unfettered state. A substantial majority of the accused were older women who had no brothers, sons, or children; of the executed female witches, 89 percent were women from families with no male heirs. That is to say, they stood to inherit and so disrupted male control of the purse strings.”
Faludi has a good deal more to say on the gender dynamics surrounding the warfare/witchcraft connection. The fact that male protection so often failed and female initiative proved vital, even heroic was profoundly unsettling, but hardly surprising given the realities of frontier life. Traditional female role models require a far more secure social setting in order to be even superficially plausible. No matter what century, frontier women have to be brave, resourceful, at times even heroic. It comes with the territory, whether men like it or not.
Third, there's something else Slotkin doesn't mention, but that should be obvious: that the Puritan's captivity fears were in some sense a matter of “envious reversal,” as I've written about recently, a switching of roles of victim and aggressor. It was, after all, the Puritans who were capturing the Native Americans' whole world, the entire continent on which they lived. This is far more obvious to us today, of course. But they were in the early stages of an ongoing genocide of unprecedented proportions, a genocide that America continues to habitually ignore, and so it seems a bit rich, to say the least, that the Puritans built up an entire worldview based on themselves as victims in this situation.
Which isn't to deny the obvious: Puritans often were victims of specific horrific acts. Mercy Short, in particular: “She had been captured by the Indians at her home in Salmon Falls when she was fifteen. Her father and mother and three of their children were murdered before her eyes, and she herself was carried to Canada.” Yet, the Quakers managed to avoid the whole war experience almost entirely, primarily by not waging war themselves.
What's more, this also isn't to say that Native Americans didn't already take one another captive, which brings us to our fourth and final point: They had a profoundly different way of dealing with captivity trauma, which in turn sheds light on the Puritan approach as a form of eliminationist psychoanalytical technique, in turn reflecting seeds of genocidal ideation. Contrasting the two psychological approaches more broadly, Slotkin writes:
Mather entered the wilderness of the human mind bent on extirpating its “Indians,” exorcising its demons. These Indian-demons were the impulses of the unconscious—the sexual impulses, the obscure longings and hatreds that mark parent-child relationships, the proddings of a deep-rooted sense of guilt. The goal of his therapy was to eliminate these impulses, to cleanse the mind of them utterly, to purge it and leave it pure. In much the same way he wished to purge the real wilderness of Indians, to raze it to ashes and build an utterly new world, uncorrupted by a primitive past, on the blank of the old.
The Indian attitude toward the mind likewise resembled their attitude toward the wilderness. Just as they worshiped every aspect of creation and creaturliness, whether it represented what they called good or what they called evil, so they accepted every revelation of the dreaming mind as a message from a god within, a world spirit manifested in the individual. They responded to the dreams of the individuals as a community, seeking to assimilate the dream-message into their own lives and to help the dreamer accept the message of the dream for itself.
Their way of dealing with captivity nightmares was thus a form of psychodrama, an acting out of the traumatic experience, in the safe shared space of consciously engaged-in ritual. Rather than being primitives, they were far more sophisticated in their self-understanding than the Puritans like Mather were. In fact, it's we, today, still trapped in similar patterns of imagining vast conspiracies against us, who are the real primitives, utterly lacking the sophisticated self-understanding we so desperately need.
In colonial times, the tide of historical forces was at the Puritans' backs, although they could not fully know it at the time, or else, perhaps, they might not have been quite so profoundly driven by their fears. As a result, they could afford to believe all manner of foolish things, and yet they would still survive, and even prosper. But now, this time, that may no longer be the case. We may actually need to understand the world, beyond our own inner world of recycled fears, in order to survive, and perhaps even prosper in it. We need to finally confront those demons as our own, not aspects of a shadowy other whom we can utterly annihilate. They are, rather, aspects of ourselves we need to have the courage to face up to. There is no vast conspiracy of diverse deadly enemies out there—only the endless outward reflection of our own unfaced inner fears.