March 26, 2019

When Writers Were Dangerous

“American exceptionalism kicked off with a defining statement from John Winthrop, the first governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early decades of the 17th century. Surveying the wilderness in front of him – the eastern edge of a continent that was the ultimate terra incognita – Winthrop vaingloriously noted: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

How ironic that the most platitudinous of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, chose to cite Winthrop’s commentary in one of his most oft-quoted speeches. Did Reagan’s preferred scribe, Peggy Noonan, realise she was borrowing a statement from the head of a puritanical hierarchy; a group that thought nothing about clapping non-believers in the stocks, hanging heretics for preaching the benign tenets of Quakerism, burning witches, and running its highly theocratic colony in a manner not dissimilar from the Taliban several centuries later? The Grand Guignol grotesqueries of religious fanaticism are indeed timeless.

No wonder that those men of the enlightenment who wrote the American Constitution – Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin – were so insistent on the separation of church and state. Because they knew of the pious monomania (and the tendency toward mob zealotry) that were ingrained from the start within the national body politic. No wonder that the first truly landmark American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), examined the public shaming of a New England innocent, Hester Prynne, forced to wear the letter A around her neck after being falsely accused of adultery in Puritan-era Massachusetts. No wonder that, 100 years after Hawthorne published his daring riposte to that very American need for communal moral self-righteousness, the absolute evil of the McCarthyite witch hunt commenced. Spearheaded by the deeply dipsomaniac and demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, it insisted on its victims wearing the metaphoric equivalent of a red C (for Commie) around their neck.”

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