The definitive word about those 'witches'

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Samuel Damren

Ron Weiser, the head of the Republican Party in Michigan, stepped in it recently.

While speaking before the Oakland County Republican Party, he referred several times to the “three witches” of Michigan politics: elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer, elected Attorney General Dana Nessel and elected Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.  Weiser, also an elected official as Regent of the University of Michigan, was caught on tape. He later apologized saying that he should have chosen his words more carefully.

In reflecting on his word choice, Weiser might look for guidance to another graduate of the University of Michigan who did choose his words carefully and also knew something about witches.

Playwright Arthur Miller graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938.  Among his celebrated works is “The Crucible,” published in 1953. 

“The Crucible” is a fictionalized version of the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.  More than 6 million copies of the play have been sold, it has been performed thousands of times on stage, and in 1996 was released as a movie with Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, Winona Ryder and Paul Scofield in the cast. 

When “The Crucible” was first performed, America was in the midst of the “McCarthy Era.” The “witches” of the time were “Reds.” The play was a plain and obvious reference to the poisonous political craft then sweeping the nation under the guise of patriotism.  Writing and publishing it in those times was not without significant risk, especially to a 38-year-old playwright. But, as later recounted in an October 1996 issue of The New Yorker, Miller read about the witchcraft trials when attending college and felt compelled “to write about the period.”

To help create characters, events and conversations, Miller visited Salem and read transcripts of the witchcraft trials and histories. “But,” as he recounts in The New Yorker article, “as the dramatic form became visible, one problem remained unyielding: so many practices of the Salem trials were similar to those employed by the congressional committees that I could easily be accused of skewing history for a  mere partisan purpose … Of course, there were no Communists in 1692, but it was literally worth your life to deny witches or their powers, given the exhortation in the Bible, Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Innocents, both men and women, were branded witches and hung in Salem in the 1690s just as many innocent lives were ruined by Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare tactics in the 1950s.  McCarthy was  ultimately discredited, disgraced and drank himself to death. But did the Republican Party learn any longstanding lessons from Salem, Joe McCarthy, and “The Crucible?”

Based on the Weiser video, they did not learn much.  The video includes a question from the audience asking “what can we do about the witches in our own Party?” Weiser responds that you have to put up candidates to oppose them and then quips “other than by assassination, there is no way to get them out.”  The audience laughs.  And yes, it was a joke, but that is telling in its own way.

The Party of Lincoln, as Republicans consistently claim birthright, is now reduced to telling assassination jokes. One might expect better or at least a sense of their diverging path from the Party’s roots. That  being said, Regent Weiser still has the opportunity to show the courage and moral leadership his fellow Michigan alum demonstrated in publishing “The Crucible” during a troubled and dangerous time.

Georgia’s new voter suppression laws are a plain and obvious 21st century re-tread of the post-Civil War Jim Crow era.  Arthur Miller had the courage to call out McCarthyism for the political poison that it was in the 1950s. He did so by comparing those politics to the unjust witch trials in Salem. Ron Weiser can follow Miller’s lead by calling out the newly enacted Georgia voting laws for the Jim Crow racism they are and the authoritative white rule those laws envision. 

As a starting point, the University of Michigan Regent might borrow a line from “The Crucible” – “We vote by name in this society, not by acreage.”



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