More the witch burnings
Some other readers of the witch burning story at Salon also took offense at Miller's attempts to minimize the causes of witch burning, though they mostly criticize her not for her minimizing of misogyny's role but for minimizing the church's role. That bugged me, too, but for obvious reasons I examined the attempts to discredit feminism instead. But a couple of readers make good points that I want to share here about witch-hunting and consolidating power. From Stephen Bottomly:
The church used its far-reaching power to institutionalize marriage and codify the laws of primogeniture that systematically denied women of their civil and property rights. Popes, bishops and kings were not one bit shy about flexing their muscle to oppress the working class. Remember, this was a time when one could be hung for stealing food or hunting on the king's land. Severed heads on spikes would often greet visitors at the city gates. Don't underestimate the chilling effect the foul stench of burning hair and flesh of the not so occasional "witch" burning would have on political speech. One only has to look at the backlash today on those who had the temerity to speak out against George Bush and the invasion of Iraq to get the slimmest of peeks at the hammer and anvil effect of the wedding of church and state on the individual.
This letter demonstrates how a feminist understanding of the witch hunts is pretty much a given to anyone who really gets it. Yes, witch hunts often erupted due to petty rivalries between women, but those petty rivalries happened in a society where the moral degeneracy of women was taught by the church to the ordinary people, making the situation ripe for getting quickly out of control. Mary C. McFadden:
The core of the argument in this psychological analysis of witch hunting is that individuals across cultures and continents reacted the same way to personal threats. You presume the psychology of past people would be as it is today, with envy at health or anger at loss. Certainly any small community can become a tangle of distrust and dysfunction, but I don't see how this negates the role of churches or other powerful figures. Nor does it account for the fact that once the interdependent system of small communities is broken by betrayal the communities tend to fall apart, as does accurate record keeping.
It's important to remember how powerful power really is. Power doesn't necessarily need to come in itself to individual communities to enforce its will on people. All that it needs to do is communicate its desires to the population and most of the time, individuals will enforce it on their neighbors. You see this in the medieval witch hunts when powerless women appealed to the dictates of those in power in order to get community support for their side in petty rivalries. You saw it in the Cold War era when you could smear someone by simply hinting that this person had communist sympathies. (A tactic that some are loathe to get rid of, as one can see in the comments at my earlier post on witch-hunting.) And now of course we live in a time where millions of supposedly independent citizens have turned into the unpaid thought police for BushCo, ready to suggest that anyone who disagrees with the Shrub a) hates Jesus, b) hates America or c) likes terrorism.