Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I know, I know. But something’s happening. When “The New York Times” writes an editorial saying that something – anything – that has to do with this sex-offense stuff is not a good idea, then we are looking at a sea-change. And that’s what they did yesterday (

It comes just as I finished with Noman Cohn’s informatively researched “Europe’s Inner Demons”, a 1973 book that traces the very curious history of witchcraft crazes in Medieval and Early Modern Christendom.

Cohn notes that there is almost a predisposition in that (but not necessarily only that) culture to 1) accept quickly the possibility of a secret society within the larger society, and 2) that the carryings-on of said secret society (i) constitute a threat to the larger society and (ii) are comprised of acts which are in themselves abominations (having weird sex or using the ashes of dead children, for example). This sounds like Hofstadter’s presumptions in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1965); Cohn is writing not so long after him and may well be familiar with his thought; and the roots of American religion (and hence politics) certainly extend back to the Medieval era in Europe.

Cohn goes on to observe that the dynamics of the witch-craft excitements are solid fodder for psychology and for the sociology of persecution. Surely, the multiple, simultaneous gratifications of persecuting ‘evil others’ are immediate and deep: the visceral satisfactions of exercising violence; the moral satisfaction of exercising that violence against ‘evil others’ for the safety of the community; the social satisfaction of serving that community while at the same time both assuring and enhancing one’s status within it; the psychic satisfactions of ‘rescue’ and ‘prevention’; and the more diffuse satisfaction of having had a ‘high’, of having climbed – for whatever length of time – above the fog of the quotidian mediocrity and boredom of life and self. That one might purchase the compleat package with (to all appearances) very little danger of retribution or ‘blowback’ to oneself simply frosts the marvelous cake.

Interestingly, witchcraft crazes did not just spring full-blown from the early Christian/Catholic church. It started after the Early or ‘Primitive’ era of the Church, after folks had lived until the millenium in vivid expectation of Christ’s imminent and compleat return in glory. It began around the turn of the first millennium with individuals in their villages complaining of demonic annoyances; especially, women reporting the presence of an ‘incubus’ – a male demon who lay with them – in their beds. (Cohn does not pursue the verrry curious implication that there is gender distinction among demonic entities.) This type of complaint was handled by the parish priest and perhaps the local lord and his sheriff or seneschal, to the extent that it could be handled at all. It was only the woman who could attest the facts – such as they were – of the report, and the demon was only temporarily corporeal and thus subject (even if only in theory) to this-worldly jurisdiction.

In the 1200s the Church became concerned about heretics. These were not non-Christians and ‘non-believers’ but rather Christians who (perhaps out of impatience and disappointment that the End Times failed to arrive promptly) began espousing and in some cases devising their own variations on accepted Catholic doctrine.

Local bishops were authorized to start cracking down, and then after a bit Rome set up its own Inquisition, independent of and (theoretically) superior to the inquisitional efforts of local prelates. But then … but then … in Mainz one Conrad of Marburg, a fanatical type of personality with a particularly outgoing assertiveness, was appointed to oversee the local inquisition. He somehow became convinced or convinced himself that heretics had congress of some sort with the Devil or with demons – which added an entirely new twist to the proceedings: from sustained theological droning the ‘cases’ became pepperpots of accusation and ‘testimony’ and ‘evidences’, titillatingly sexual.

And, with the Devil now being involved, matters were too urgent to leave to the deliberations of theologically-inclined inquisitorial committees who both insisted on proper academic procedures in order to deliberate and legal procedures (still rather rudimentary) in order to prevent the miscarriage of God’s justice. God’s justice, for Marburg, was a quick and decisive burning. And to hasten that felicitous end, he tended to accept accusations at face-value and had no problem authorizing torture to extract confessions (extracting ‘truth’ or ‘facts’ were objectives too abstract and time-consuming for the great task before him) … but those were primitive times.

And history being as dynamic as it is, none of this took place in a vacuum. In a multiple-warhead (MIRVed) bid both to grab power and wealth within his own kingdom and take the Pope’s authority down a peg or three, Philip the Fair of France – in the first decade of the 1300s – decided to dissolve the powerful and wealthy military-monastic Order of the Knights Templar, a left-over from the Crusades that had outlived its original purposes but had set itself up in business with great success. Not having the authority himself to just break them up (only the Pope could do that), the king arranged accusations of heresy and – you can never have too many arrows in your quiver – of immorality and debauchery both sexual and more generally hedonic.

And, in a masterstroke of opportunistic creativity, the king included some witnesses to the effect that the Knights were in league with the Devil, an accusation that would force the Pope to take decisive action and which – given the difficulties of gathering ‘evidence’ - would prove either impossible to prosecute or impossible (the king’s plan) to defend oneself against.

Helpfully, the king authorized torture to extract confessions from the Knights, not a few of whom quickly admitted – now that the king was asking and the pokers were very very hot and sharp – that they had been leading monstrous double-lives of vocational betrayal for as long as they could recall.

When on top of that the Papacy moved to Avignon in Southern France under the leadership of a French pope … enough to say that the Knights didn’t have a prayer.

Before long, this or that local inquisitional court – and not at all to the Popes’ liking – was finding itself faced not with doctrinal issues but with villagers turned in by their fellow-villagers, accused of having consort with the Devil. This was hardly surprising: elderly widowed women, children, and the average peasant male, were not likely to claim that their own reading of the original sources led them to believe that Moses did not pre-figure Christ, or some such. But who couldn’t credibly be suspected of congress – even sexual – with demons? And the accused’s promotion to hell or glory meant one less mouth to feed from the village stores.

But it wasn’t until the 1500s that the final piece was put into place: witches, it was concluded, could fly invisibly. Prior to the discovery of this ‘knowledge’, it was impossible to see the occasional witchcraft accusation as more than an isolated – if authentic –instance of human debauchery and evil. After all, if this weren’t simply a matter of the occasional village crone, nor of the single, isolated village witch – then the roads of Europe should be filled with witches traveling from one sabat-gathering to another for their purportedly numerous convocations; but the roads weren’t filled and nobody reported seeing bands of traveling witches – on foot or on horse – criss-crossing the continent.

But once it was established ‘knowledge’ that witches could fly and remain invisible at the same time, then all limits were off as to the number of witches’ sabats that could be held and attended. A witch could attend one a night, from one end of Europe to other, and the ‘numbers’ of such purported sabats quickly increased exponentially. And so did the ‘threat’ they posed and the ‘crisis’ that demanded decent folks to take action. The very air above decent folks' heads was now – it was imagined – full of invisible witches flying back and forth on errands of dark and bloody purpose. And if witches could remain invisible, then where else might they be? In your home, your room? And if they – famously – ate or otherwise required the services of children, then who was safe? Decent society was suddenly made a sideshow, and an endangered one at that, forced to play second-fiddle to a demonic society busily and robustly conducting its evil affairs right - as it were - over their heads. Decent folk needed to take back the night.

And thus they were – as is said at Santa Anita – off.

So I cannot help thinking that We here in this country have undergone something of the same nature in the past quarter century. Were it to be established that some other monstrousness of the Medieval era had come back in strength to plague us – the Black Death, for example – then modern folks would be jolted into action.

But oddly – demonically? – this witchcraft dynamic has returned and remained and battened upon our society and our culture for more than 25 years, and yet it is taken as ‘knowledge’ and the very cutting-edge of scientific and psychological and political praxis.

It has deformed our society and laws domestically. And as has been noted elsewhere on this site: it cannot be coincidence that having watched Us fall for the stories of legions of rapist-priests traveling around the country and over state-lines to prey and predate upon children – and boys at that – while abetted by a secret hierarchy of bishops here and in Rome and arond the world ... then the Unitarium shrewdly (and thankfully) concluded that We could be safely relied upon to fall for the urgent claims that Saddam was a monster as great as Stalin or Hitler and that he was in possession of usable and imminently deliverable nuclear weapons. And – it would have to be said – the Unitarium was right.

So all this sex-offense stuff, and what’s going on with it as time goes on, is – I think – critically important for Us as The People: it is not only in itself a cultural disease but an agent and a symptom of an even more crucial political weakening that may well lead Us and this Republic to the Rubicon.

The “Times” is doing some very high-grade stuff in this editorial. It can’t come out and limn the full outlines of what makes this whole thing tick: that would create an uproar among sex-offense-dependents and would delegitimize the “Times” at a time when its potential for recouping its position and role is not utterly lost.

The ‘civil commitment’ aspect of the current sex-offense wave is what’s “wrong”, according to the editorial. And that’s the truth, surely – if not the whole truth.

I still find it hard to accept what has to be accepted: that in the Year of Grace 1980 or so, and up until the present Year and continuing, and while I was in possession of my majority and of a majority of what marbles I have, this country experienced an outbreak of a Medieval plague that was clearly described even back then, and available to be researched by even the modestly educated among the citizenry.

We let it get by. As We did – who can deny it? – the pre-emptive war that is now this nation’s Eastern Front.

What should give us great pause is the thought that now in these sex-offense matters, politicians with neither the wits nor the guts to explore alternatives will simply keep scraping up law after law and speech after speech to try to keep on doing what they’ve been doing and which has borne few useful results at all. The sex-offense ‘mentality’ that helped sire the Iraq War will now lock this country into a failing strategy in regard to the already dubious and newly-hatched monsters called ‘sex-offenders’.

I agree with “The New York Times”: we do not need to be going down this road. Again.

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Blogger Davidco said...

Just when you want to award the Times an 'attaboy', they turn around and do a vicious smear on Gore. See David Roberts' Alternet piece on 3-14-07 where he thoroughly fisks Bill Broad's account of An Inconvenient Truth.

4:42 PM  

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