Abandon hope all ye who enter here

“Read her book if you want your blood to freeze.”

Northwestern film professor Laura Kipnis has a new book – Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus – which is at #1 on Amazon even before the release date (in the categories of “Sociology of Abuse” and “Education and Reform Policy”).  The Guardian interviews her.

“All that stuff Kafka wrote about,” she says, “is true: the inner sense of guilt that even an innocent person can feel. I would imagine myself in this interrogation situation – which, by the way, is pretty much what happened.”

The tone of the article might give one hope – a liberal newspaper commiserating with a liberal feminist professor about surviving a Kafkaesque trial put on by liberals – that the day has finally come when people can “look back at this officially sanctioned hysteria with the same bemusement that they look back on the Salem witch trials.”

Trials in which “the authorities seem to be unwilling to object to the relatively low standard of proof” and “don’t even allow the accused person to present a defence.”

But you’d be well advised to exercise that most middle-class of values, deferred gratification. Not only because not all today’s witches are in the relatively protected classes of females or feminists, but also because Kipnis herself still has not fully accepted that liberals have moved past “increasingly authoritarian.” In this territory where show trials are the norm, she still believes there are “certain allies” who are unacceptable.

“The people supporting free speech now are the conservatives. It’s incomprehensible to me, but it’s the so-called liberals on campus, the students who think of themselves as activists, who are becoming increasingly authoritarian. So I’m trying to step carefully. It’s not like you want to make certain allies, particularly the men’s rights people.”

As Mike Pence once wrote about having dinner within 100 miles of Wellesley, which he wisely avoided, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Bill Ayers Lied, Students Died

In 2006, American domestic-terrorist-turned-education-professor Bill Ayers said this: “Venezuela is poised to offer the world a new model of education – a humanizing and revolutionary model whose twin missions are enlightenment and liberation. This World Education Forum provides us a unique opportunity to develop and share the lessons and challenges of this profound educational project that is the Bolivarian [Communist] Revolution.”

Almost exactly 10 years later, a spokeswoman for Venezuela’s Movement of Organized Parents said this: “This country has abandoned its children. By the time we see the full consequences, there will be no way to put it right.”

What has happened to Venezuela is criminally insane, and anyone who believes anything Bill Ayers says or writes should be morally ashamed to the brink of suicide. His books on American education have been in print for decades, and Teachers College Press says he has been “inspiring” teachers nationwide “to follow their own path” and that his books are “essential reading amidst today’s public policy debates and school reform initiatives that stress the importance of ‘good teaching.'”

“Good teaching”? The kind that Ayers said would liberate and enlighten Venezuelan children? The reality could not be more different.

An Associated Press article from June 2016 puts it this way: “No food, no teachers, violence in failing Venezuela schools. … In reality, Venezuelan children have missed an average of 40 percent of class time, a parent group estimates, as a third of teachers skip work on any given day to wait in food lines. At Maria’s school, so many students have fainted from hunger that administrators told parents to keep their children home if they have no food. And while the school locks its gate each morning, armed robbers, often teens themselves, still manage to break in and stick up kids between classes.”

The Sin of Truth

Artwork by Duncan Long

Artwork by Duncan Long

The novel is finished, but not yet published. Many thanks to Duncan Long for the cover art.

The story is a historical adventure that crosses two continents and the borders of four empires. The Ottoman Sultan Murad IV is invading the empire of Persian Shah Safi. In Russia, the first Tsar of House Romanov, pressured to accept the throne at a young age, consolidates power in the Baltic states and fights off the Ottomans in the south. In continental Europe, the Holy Roman Empire is being torn apart by the Thirty Years War.

The Renaissance and the Reformation, underway for two hundred years, have changed everything: science, medicine, trade, religion, politics, art, and war. Against this historical backdrop, three unique individuals fight to survive and flourish in a world that is struggling to be born anew.

Mina: A young Hungarian girl, enslaved by the Ottoman Turks in 1630, escapes from Istanbul with an ancient manuscript. She makes her way to the Caspian Sea and joins a German trade mission on its way home up the Volga.

Jens: A Swedish trader, formerly of the Hanseatic League and now the wagonmaster of a German mission trying to open a new Silk Road to Persia.

James: His parents killed by Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, James is raised by his uncle, a Protestant military officer.

Can a slave girl learn to be free? Will an old Hansa trader, grieving the loss of his wife and daughters, learn to accept new ways? Can a Protestant boy raised on war forgive the faith which murdered his parents?

And underneath it all, will an ancient truth finally be revealed, or will it sink back into obscurity?

Why your dildo makes me nervous

I was the man in that bookstore, and this is my side of the story.

Two kids come running in, a panting woman close behind. I think nothing of it at first: “Mom can’t keep up. Been there, done that.”

When I was a kid, I trapped crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, before my family moved to Cedar Rapids. Nowadays, I take my kids fishing on the Mississippi every chance I get. It can be tough to keep up with them.

But the woman stops a few feet from the entrance and stares at me, then moves sideways in to the nearest stack of books, her eyes on me the whole time.

I’ve seen crabs that look less suspicious.

I get distracted by the package in my jacket – an anniversary present for my wife – and try to adjust it without looking uncomfortable. My kids, besides being blabbermouths who will rat me out the first chance they get, are voracious readers and they forced me to stop at this bookstore before heading home. It would be nice if I could surprise my wife just once.

My movements don’t go unnoticed. The woman comes out from behind the bookshelf. Her nervous crablike eyes swivel around the room and settle on me.

I look for the two kids she came in with. And then it hits me. “Those are her kids, right?”

She’s doing something with her purse. Rotating it around until it hangs down in front of her vagina. Then she pats her purse and gives me a knowing look, one eyebrow raised.

“What does that mean?” I think. I catch her eye and smile, hoping she’ll just go away.

But her odd behavior makes me wonder what’s in her purse and if those really are her kids. Maybe she’s stalking them. I remember that article from Utah about the female teacher with a secret life as a sexual predator. Four kids have come forward so far.

Behind her, in the historical fiction section in the corner, my kids are waving to me.

I have to walk by crab-woman to get there, and I notice she’s been standing by the display of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

She scuttles out of the way. Her hand is in her purse, and she’s sweating. I tell myself to breathe, and inadvertently catch a whiff of her: perfume over body odor.

Things start to add up. Harried single mom, standing in the erotic book section, sweating, giving me the eye.

The dildo in her purse makes me nervous, and I want to run, to get my kids as far away from her as possible.

But I don’t, because they each have a book in their hands, and that pleading look in their eyes that says they already spent their allowance on something else.

By the time we get up to the register, the woman is gone. I pay the clerk, my kids are suitably thankful, and we walk out the door.

As we leave, I look for the woman and her kids. They’re a block down the street, walking fast, and I find myself hoping that she gets whatever it is she needs.

Machiavelli, the Great Recession, and the Cloaks of State

Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli. Source: USA Today book review.

Author’s note: In preparation for publishing a collection of essays and short fiction, this post has been edited.

The year 2013 was the 500th anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince. One might think that the arguments it introduced have long since been settled, but there will never be an end to this ancient debate: What are the rules of political power?

The question had an urgency for me as I worked on the next-to-last draft of my first novel. What does “freedom” mean to a slave girl who has escaped from the theocratic Ottoman Empire of the 1600’s? And what does it mean for a boy whose life so far has been waged on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years War, whose family has been killed by forces of the Holy Roman Empire?

But there was also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over surveyed the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.

So I looked back at The Prince, the treatise that helped launched the modern absolutist state. Written in 1513 after its author was exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, it was first published posthumously in 1532.

Before Machiavelli, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a sense, it was thought that rulers did well when they did good; they earned the right to be obeyed and respected inasmuch as they showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.”

As St. Augustine asked in City of God, “If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?”

After Machiavelli … well, here’s where it gets interesting. Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia:

“For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power. … Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.”

It should be obvious to us all that rulers before Machiavelli were rarely virtuous or moral. It was that very fact which led him to write The Prince. In today’s parlance, we call his philosophy realpolitik, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.” Again, from the Encyclopedia:

“Without exception the authority of states and their laws will never be acknowledged when they are not supported by a show of power which renders obedience inescapable. The methods for achieving obedience are varied, and depend heavily upon the foresight that the prince exercises. Hence, the successful ruler needs special training.”

Now, regardless of what the modern citizen of Western Civilization thinks of these ideas – and they elicit an almost universal hatred, at least in public discourse – Machiavelli himself was not the personification of evil. He had a wife and kids, he wrote poetry, and, as a book review of Miles Unger’s biography notes, “Rather than planning to write an ageless best-selling book, Machiavelli hoped to impress the new ruler of Florence, so that he might regain a salaried government job.”

If the book had stayed within Italy’s borders, history would be different. But the ideas spread, as ideas are wont to do, and the German princes took hold to disastrous effect. German historian Friedrich Meinecke, whose The Doctrine of Statism in Modern History was published in English in 1957, wrote that Machiavelli’s ideas were nothing new to Italians; he simply confirmed what already existed.

“In Italy the theorists’ doctrine, that raison d’état stood above statute law, had not really said anything new, but had only confirmed an existing situation. For here Roman Law, which was saturated with the spirit of the ancient raison d’état, and which absolved the rulers from being bound by the laws, had continued to remain alive; and the early decline of the feudal system, the early appearance of violently energetic city-tyrants and rulers, had not permitted here the formation of that tough crust of law founded on custom and privilege, which in Germany obstructed the rise of the modern State. Whatever rights and customs there were seemed to someone like Machiavelli so much the reverse of dangerous, that his raison d’état was capable of recommending that they should be respected as much as possible.”

So what if the Germans had a “tough crust of law” that “obstructed the rise of the modern State”? The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) destroyed old customs and laws, and Teutonic princes justified their will-to-power by invoking a different idea of justice: the public welfare. Thus, notes Meinecke, “it was perfectly permissible for the demands and necessities of the ‘public good’ to violate statute law and the laws which the State had made” and Machiavelli’s ideas “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”

The results – after much progress toward “enlightened despots” – were the American and French revolutions. In 1774 the First Continental Congress was established in the British colony of America, and Americans embraced an idea called “the consent of the governed.” In 1789, French revolutionaries introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming “liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression.”

As the Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…”

Once again, war destroyed old customs and laws.

1) Machiavelli insisted that citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power; that the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”

2) Americans insisted that the State is granted power by citizens, which it shall use to secure certain natural rights that belong to all human beings; and the State’s powers can be revoked by citizens who no longer consent to be governed.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

After more than 200 years of “progress” by “enlightened” socialists – including an epic world war with Soviet Socialists on one side and National Socialists on the other – Socialist Europe finds itself on the brink of another revolution.

America, thanks to “enlightened Progressives” like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Hussein Obama, has become Socialist enough to entertain the idea of a Socialist president.

But in what direction has this “progress” taken us? In the era of “open borders” and “undocumented immigrants” can ordinary citizens still consent to be governed? Or is citizenship a moral and political anachronism, while the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is the “public good”?

In America, the State has upheld a Constitutional right to privacy, but the “public good” demands CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, police drones over your neighborhoods, and “stingray” devices that police use to intercept your cell phone calls.

The State has upheld the Constitutional right to personal protection, but the State can also arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) for the “public good.”

What about the pursuit of happiness? If your “happiness” is a freezing cold 32-ounce soda on a hot and humid New York summer day, the State can ban the sale of sugary drinks in the name of the “public good.”

Let us end with a look back at 1666, from Gustav Freytag’s 1859 reprint of “Images from the German Past”, a cutting satire on “the woes of the German people in the seventeenth century and its lifelessness and rigidity after the Thirty Years War.”

In the book (as described by Meinecke), a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.

Pretend that you are this young counselor, and look closely at the cloaks of State. Beautiful on the outside but shabby on the inside, they are embroidered with phrases like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Politicians wear these when meeting with constituents. Another – labeled “good intentions” – is worn while voting for new insupportable taxes, infuriating citizens with endless regulations, starting unnecessary wars, or declaring eminent domain for the “public good.”

Try on the eyeglasses of State. Gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.

Observe, but do not taste, the iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers so they can swallow great pumpkins.

Finally, a ball of knotted wire, furnished with sharp needles and heated by a fire within so that it draws tears from the eyes of the beholder, represents the Principles of Machiavelli. The politician keeps this in hand too; but she does not use it while her constituents are docile, because she does not wish to publicly ruin her good name unnecessarily.

Then naturally too, the politicians are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly.

Having looked behind the curtain of 1666, can you deny that what you see are the same tools of power used by our new absolutists? Some of the details are different, but their will-to-power remains the same. The pendulum is swinging back toward Machiavelli, and our modern princes are brandishing his weapons “with full conviction and with a good conscience.”

The Kidnappings that Launched a Thousand Ships

As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.

In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.

Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.

But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.

The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…

“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.

“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.

“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.

“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.

“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.

“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.

“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.

“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.

“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.

“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.

“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

APE, Benny Profane, and Me

APE: How to Publish a Book Following some advice from APE, I’ve posted the first two chapters of my novel on WattPad. The “artisanal publishing” experience gets more interesting all the time.

I picked up the Kindle version of the book a few days ago, and I’m about a third of the way through. Most of the mechanical advice is old hat — in former lives I’ve been a reporter, editor, managing editor, professional desktop publisher, photographer, corporate communicator, webmaster, and IT help-desk geek. But it’s all solid advice, and I’m especially enjoying the sections on social media and e-book publishing.

Despite my past experience, I’ve discovered that approaching these subjects as a novelist is strikingly different from consulting for other authors, or putting a newspaper to bed five nights a week — even though the required technical skills are very similar.

One huge difference is that … well, let me stop and consider.

[Stops and considers.]

When I was in college, one of my favorite books was Thomas Pynchon’s V. It was published in 1961, the year I was born. It begins like this:

Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. … Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about. East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.

I feel like Benny. I’ve been working the district for years, honing my technical chops, telling others how it’s done. Now I’m out of the business, so to speak, coming back to it from a different direction, and it’s all lit up with strange mercury-vapor lamps.

I’m leery of streets like this.

Which is but one reason that APE is such a good resource. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can’t go wrong with it. Just ignore the part about buying a MacBook Air.

Whence comes the witch?

So asked Jules Michelet in his 1862 book, La Sorcière. His answer: “I say unhesitatingly: from times of despair.”

In 1971, Henry Kamen, writing in The Iron Century: Social Change in Europe, 1550-1660, put Michelet’s contention into modern terms:

Sorcery, Michelet argued, took its origin in times of depression, both economic and personal. Sorcery would come in times of war, of famine, of economic and social crisis, of loss of faith, certainty and orientation. Hence the great witch hunts during the civil wars in France, during the Thirty Years War in Germany, and during the oprichnina in Russia.

Cover of The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

Cover of The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

My interest in the subject is mostly literary. A character in my forthcoming novel watches a young girl burn at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. I also just finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter, a fabulous novel by Oliver Potzsch about a witch scare in the Bavarian town of Schongau in the year 1659.

But today the idea took a dramatic turn as I read of the witch-burning in Papua New Guinea, which reminded me that such incidents are not mere relics of the past.

Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Whence comes this witch? In 1998, Gabriele Stürzenhofecker published Times Enmeshed: Gender, Space, and History among the Duna of Papua New Guinea. “Witchcraft,” she wrote, “is conceived of as a predominantly female power, and men see it as threatening their control over women.”

The Associated Press reported that the woman killed on Friday “had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before.” The victim’s husband has been described as “the prime suspect.”

She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, Kakas said.

Why such a heinous crime occurred is almost irrelevant. The fact that it occurred at all in the 21st century is revealing. Stürzenhofecker’s findings are academic, but interesting nonetheless. In Chapter 6, The Enemy Within: Witchcraft, Consumption and Agency, she writes:

The overall control of relations between the sexes has become characterized by a pervasive uncertainty, largely created out of the collapse of ritual sanctions that in the past men were able to impose on the actions of women. … [Men perceive] that they now have no means of effectively countering the activities of witches, still less of utilizing them for their local political purposes against their enemies.

She goes on to describe the deep existential fear experienced by the people she studied: that “their very selves, their individualities, may be destroyed by a witch.”

This fear is symbolized by the idea that the witch may eat one’s vital inner organs, such as the heart or the liver. It is signaled even more strongly in the notion that a witch may carry away a person’s tini, which expresses his or her individuality as well as the source of his or her life.

Such ideas are foreign and repulsive to us “enlightened” westerners.

Or are they? As I read about the poor woman burned alive half a world away, I was reminded of something that began less than a day’s drive from where I live: the Kern County child sex abuse scandal.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, describes the case which began in 1980.

From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005.  In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.

The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.

In 2004, the New York Times published an account of another scandal that erupted in Bakersfield in 1983.

One June afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy named Conny Ericsson, along with Velda Murillo, a social worker with the county’s Child Protective Services, came to Eddie’s house to talk to him about a possible neighborhood sex ring. … That day, Ericsson and Murillo told Mr. and Mrs. Sampley that they needed to speak to their son alone. As Karen Sampley tried to listen through a heating vent in the kitchen, the investigators asked Eddie about John Stoll. They told him that other boys said Mr. Stoll did something sexual to Eddie and that Eddie had seen Mr. Stoll do bad things to other kids, too. ”I kept telling them no, that nothing happened,” Sampley remembers. ”I didn’t understand what they were talking about.” Murillo and Ericsson described sex acts that embarrassed the 8-year-old boy, and he started crying. ”I kept telling them, ‘No, no,’ but it wasn’t working,” he now says.

From California, a wave of prosecutions swept across the country. Says the Times, “within two years the investigations of Stoll and the McMartin teachers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., were under way. The hysteria began creeping across the country, to Maplewood, N.J. (Wee Care Day Nursery), to Malden, Mass. (Fells Acres), and to Great Neck, Long Island, where the documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ takes place.”

I wonder: Except for the immediacy of Friday’s gruesome death, what separates the hysteria in Papua New Guinea from the hysteria in America? Not much.

In New Guinea a woman, accused of killing a 6-year-old boy with witchcraft, died on a trash heap. In America, men and women convicted of satanic sexual abuse of children died in prison.

Whence comes the witch? Maybe there is no answer to that disturbing question, but I have no doubt that we’ll be asking it again in the future. No matter what anyone says, human nature hasn’t changed much since the dawn of history.

The Times interviewed James Wood, a psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso “who studies interview techniques used with children.”

Still, discredited child-sex rings like McMartin actually may not be a bogeyman of the past. Some parents, therapists and child-protection professionals continue to believe ritual sex abuse took place at McMartin preschool. “In 10 to 15 years, there will be an attempt to rehabilitate the ritual abuse scare,” Wood says. “You can bet on it.”

Today is February 9, 2013, about eight and a half years since the Times ran their story.

Whence comes the witch?

The Cat-Brokers of Ardabil

From An Ottoman Traveler: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi.

By God’s wisdom, because cats in Ardabil have short lives, there are very many mice, more than in other regions. The mice chew up the people’s clothing — their woolen cloaks, for example. So this city has a royal auction for hirre, i.e. gurbe, i.e. kutta — i.e. cats. There are professional cat-brokers, much in demand, who sell cats in cages. The Divrigi cat is a particular favorite, fetching a price of up to 100 gurus; still, it does not live long here. When the brokers cry their wares, this is the patter they sing, in a loud voice, in the beyati mode:

“You who seek a feline,
A cat to hunt your mice:
To rats it makes a beeline,
but otherwise it’s nice;
An enemy to rodents,
And yet it’s not a thief;
A pet to share your grief.”

Read more about Ardabil, its famous carpets, and Divrigi.