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A Hollow Play of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Emily Alford Sep 27, 2019. 16 comments

“How may I live without my name?” John Proctor asks in the climactic scene from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The play, which centers the 1692 Salem witch trial narrative on Proctor, is more concerned with how accusations will affect his name rather than the fact that they might end his life.

“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he cries. In the play, Proctor has been accused of witchcraft when his real crime was having sex with a teenager, one he doesn’t see as so bad that it should sully his reputation.

Long understood as an allegory for the blacklisting that happened in Hollywood during the Red Scare, The Crucible is also a pretty accurate playbook for the ways that powerful men defend themselves when their bad behavior is made public. John Proctor stands accused by a scheming girl and is wrongfully punished for an imaginary crime by a corrupt system. Miller is the reason the words “witch hunt” and “McCarthyism” are now synonymous: In the early 1950s, when the Red Scare had Americans terrified their neighbors were secret communists on the Kremlin’s payroll, Joseph McCarthy made a career out of exacerbating those fears for attention and political gain. But The Crucible uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which did not directly involve McCarthy. While McCarthy focused on political enemies, HUAC went after Hollywood, demanding writers, directors, producers, and actors either confess, repent, and name names or face permanent blacklisting, losing their livelihoods in the process. Over time, the witch hunts of The Crucible have come to encompass all the communist hunting of the era, most notably, the scores of hearings conducted by McCarthy.

But Republicans have long avoided the allegory, remaining insistent that the hearings, in which McCarthy questioned hundreds of “witnesses” to root out communists at the government level, served some purpose beyond advancing McCarty’s career. Official documents from the U.S. Senate admit McCarthy’s “browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government.” Yet defenders on the right insist McCarthy himself was the real victim of a witch hunt, equating the mean things people have said about him since his death with the actual economic punishments and permanent stigma faced by those he persecuted.

Ann Coulter, who wrote Treason, a book lionizing McCarthy as a misunderstood hero, summed up a longstanding party line: “ [McCarthy] was exposing the Democratic party for collaborating with a regime as evil as the Nazis,” she said in a 2003 C-Span interview to promote the book. “It was devastating to the Democratic party,” she said. “So they had to fight back. They had to make his name mud.”

Her championing of McCarthy is just as focused on his reputation as John Proctor’s monologue. Coulter is hardly alone in her defense. In 2002, The Washington Post sympathetically covered an exhibition in McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin called “Joseph McCarthy: An American Tragedy,” describing the ruinous hearings as simply “zealous.” A similarly sympathetic look at McCarthy in 2005 published by the Chicago Tribune described him as a “popular hometown boy of humble origins,” keening at the fact that he didn’t not live long enough for a “second chance.” But even right after McCarthy’s death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1957, a reporter eulogized the senator by comparing him to Christ, according to The Washington Post:

One local Republican newspaperman even compared McCarthy to Jesus, condemning the ‘thousand Pontius Pilates’ who crucified McCarthy ‘because of his efforts to expose the communist conspiracy designed to destroy the United States.’

As powerful men increasingly begin to face accusations rather than make them, the meaning of the witch hunts has shifted. Republican leaders are now willing to sacrifice McCarthy’s good name in defense of their own. During Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, Donald Trump, a longtime friend of McCarthy’s henchman Roy Cohn, invoked that old twofer of Salem and McCarthyism to defend himself, tweeting that the proceedings were a “rigged witch hunt” in which Mueller “and his gang” made “Joseph McCarthy look like a baby.” Another tweet read “Study Joseph McCarthy.”

Just as MeToo unearthed thousands of stories many didn’t want to hear, Republicans latched onto to Trump’s ramblings about McCarthyism, at last decrying witch hunts as unfair now that they are on the opposite end of the accusations. This new concern over “McCarthyism” frames unpleasant truths as having equal weight to undeserved punishment. The male-centric witch trials in The Crucible provide a perfect metaphor for those looking to write off women’s experiences as hysteria. A 2015 RealClearPolitics piece about the conversation around sexual assault on college campuses describes McCarthyism as a failed response to communism “grounded in real danger” while dismissing “‘rape culture’ in 21st century America” as “no more real than the devil in the 17th century colonies.”

The idea of wrongfully accused men as the victims of 21st-century witch hunts got a poster boy in Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh after his former classmate, Christine Blasey Ford, came forward during his confirmation hearings to accuse him of holding her down in an attempt to sexually assault her 30 years before.

Like John Proctor, Kavanaugh is a man faced with accusations of misconduct that the right feels are a product of hysteria. And in the role of “scheming woman looking to destroy an honest man,” the right cast Christine Blasey Ford. MeToo provided the perfect stage dressing as powerful men labeled the movement the same kind of mass hysteria that led to the Salem witch trials

During Kavanaugh’s hearing, Senator Lindsay Graham made it clear that he believed questioning Kavanaugh about his alleged actions was worse than having lived through the assault Ford described. “This is not a job interview,” Graham told Kavanaugh. “This is hell.”

During deliberations, Mitch McConnell likened Blasey Ford’s testimony to the inquiries of McCarthy on the Senate floor, railing against the dangers of allowing a woman to speak about her lived experience:

“This institution has seen before episodes somewhat like what we’re now seeing from some of our colleagues across the aisle,” the Kentucky Republican said Monday on the Senate floor. “Back during the McCarthy era. In fact, in 1950. Character assassination and uncorroborated allegations were being utilized in a very different debate in that era.”

The “very different” thing about the McCarthy hearings is that they benefitted Republicans. Suddenly the unfounded allegations of communism made by an opportunistic man more than 50 years ago became incredibly dangerous now that a woman was suggesting a man whose good name they were depending on for a Supreme Court seat once attempted to sexually assault her.

The new allegory also appealed to men in the public writ large, looking for a way to mask their fear of women’s truths with historical context. In the Orlando Sentinel, columnist Larry Pino lamented, “It was a low moment in American history. Individuals were branded by the bare mention of being involved with communists. The presumption of innocence evaporated in a polemic witch-hunt... We survived McCarthy... but alas here we are again.”

Kavanaugh’s self-defense also echoes the same old fears about what words can do to a man’s name. In his opening statement at the Senate hearing, he begins his rebuttal with the assertion that something intangible had been irrevocably damaged by accusations.“My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations,” Kavanaugh said in the tearful diatribe against Blasey Ford and the confirmation proceedings that the Chicago Tribune labeled his “Have you no decency” moment.

But McConnell, Trump, and the op-ed writers quick to dismiss MeToo as a witch hunt only seem to know the definition offered by The Crucible, one that focuses on accusations leveled at a white man by a group of women who are clearly lying. In the real Salem witch trials, the majority of those accused were women, whose property was forfeited and whose lives were taken by a system that assumed that they were liars. Of the 20 people who were executed during the trials, 14 were women, all sentenced to death by men who held the power to decide which stories were true and which were false. Their names live on as a testament to what happens to women when a system is designed to discredit them.

A year after the Kavanaugh hearings, the systems operating on the assumption that women are lying function exactly as they were always meant to. Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice. If the powerful men exposed by MeToo has resulted in any sort of “blacklist,” the list certainly doesn’t hold many names. Louis CK is back on the road doing standup, famous actors are still defending and working with Woody Allen, and convicted child rapist Roman Polanski just won an award for his new film about a wrongfully accused man.

Blasey Ford, on the other hand, has lost many things. The barrage of death threats that followed her testimony against Kavanaugh meant she was unable to return to her job as a professor at Stanford, she had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for private security detail, her family was forced to move at least four times. She’s not on television bloviating about her good name because the things she has lost are tangible, unlike whatever Kavanaugh, Trump, and McCarthy defenders think is lost when men are criticized, questioned, and in the end, given great power regardless.

Our most popular witch hunt narratives always center men as the seekers and guardians of truth, losing their good names in the battle. But when the narrative involves women who lose their homes, their jobs, or even their lives, our allegories fail us. The Sentinels and the Tribunes are not publishing opinion pieces about the broader historical context of what happened to Christine Blasey Ford in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, perhaps because women being punished when they’ve done nothing wrong isn’t in any way exceptional. It’s a boring story for its predictable ending—a hollow play to manipulate fears and anxieties, full of sound and fury signifying absolutely fucking nothing.

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