What is happening today that could relate to the Salem witch trials?

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In order to answer the question accurately, one has to first delve deeply into the dynamics of the Salem Witch Trials and their historical context. Here, we can only skim the surface.

We want to make comparisons based on what actually happened, not based on some popularized, potentially inaccurate or...

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In order to answer the question accurately, one has to first delve deeply into the dynamics of the Salem Witch Trials and their historical context. Here, we can only skim the surface.

We want to make comparisons based on what actually happened, not based on some popularized, potentially inaccurate or fictionalized narrative. The nature of historical knowledge is necessarily tentative and conditional, so it's a good idea to avoid overly ambitious or sweeping comparisons. Furthermore, the present is sometimes difficult to examine through an analytical lens, because the dust has yet to settle, and objective analysis is elusive, particularly on politically and emotionally charged topics.

That said, a basic understanding of the Salem Witch Trials based on judicious examination may allow us to make some cautious observations about their similarities with other events, both in history and in the current day.

In 1692, more than two hundred people were accused of witchcraft in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and twenty were executed. The frenzy started in Salem Village. A group of girls made accusations against Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. The three women were easy targets: a black indentured servant and two women that were, each in her own way, outliers in the community. It is not clear why the girls made the accusation of witchcraft, but what is more remarkable is the community's reception of those accusations.

This witch hunt was not without precedent. There had been executions for witchcraft in other New England communities in preceding decades, such as that of Margaret Jones, a midwife in Charlestown, in 1648. Matthew Hopkins, a self-proclaimed “witch-finder” in England, was responsible for the execution of over three hundred women in 1644–1646. In other words, witch hunting existed in the broader English culture.

There were also local circumstances in Massachusetts Bay and Salem to be taken into consideration. First, there was some anxiety and fear caused by political developments. In 1684, King Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s royal charter; in 1686, James II established the Dominion of New England under royal control; and in 1691, the dual monarchs William and Mary issued a new, more anti-religious charter, further limiting the autonomy of the colony. Would the loss of autonomy lead to religious persecution?

Second, there was the Puritan worldview. The Puritans were communalists, not individualists. They saw themselves as elect, or “saints,” and the world as wicked. There was an expectation of punishment from God for compromise with the wicked world. These circumstances demanded vigilance.

Third, at that time, Salem was essentially a frontier area. There was a constant threat from the native tribes to the West.

Fourth, there had recently been a devastating smallpox epidemic.

Fifth, there was a recent influx of refugees from Canada and Upstate New York, owing to a conflict between New France and New England.

Finally, there was an economic downturn.

All these factors could have contributed, and likely did, to a climate of fear, anxiety, insecurity, and scapegoating in Massachusetts Bay.

Based on this brief description, you might begin to draw parallels with more recent or contemporary events. You may find elements of the Salem Witch Trials in things you witness today. For example, there was a history of Russophobia (i.e., fear of Russia) before the current "Russia scare," much like there had been fear of witches in Massachusetts and more generally in English culture before the Salem trials. In any case, I would encourage you to thoughtfully examine things and draw your own conclusions based on your own analysis.

If we use the Salem Witch Trials symbolically, to convey the phenomenon of scapegoating or persecution based on fear and irrationality, it becomes a whole different exercise. We may find comparisons at almost every step.

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The Salem Witch Trials were a time of mass hysteria.  People in Salem were finding witches everywhere and accusing their neighbors of being witches.  This mass hysteria finally burned itself out but not before many deaths and many more ruined reputations.  Historically, McCarthyism has been compared to the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Arthur Miller even wrote a play about the Salem Witchcraft Trials called The Crucible.  

Today, there is little that can compare to the witchcraft trials of Salem, but one could say the search for meddlers in the last election is turning into a search for "witches."  Both major parties have made accusations of meddling, and there have been countless documents presented that both prove and disprove the charges.  There have been Senate hearings, and there is still a lot of material out there waiting to be examined.  One gets a feeling that some lawmakers will receive soiled reputations from all of these investigations.  While it is hard to make comment on an ongoing investigation, this is the closest comparison that I can make to the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  

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