The NPR review highlights that this is more than just an interesting trawl through history; the past has resonances in the present, particularly with regards to the reasons behind the witch hunts (in addition to a hatred/fear of women):
“Many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.
And the most haunting truth that emerges in The Penguin Book of Witches is that there’s no such reassurance to be found. The reasons behind the accusations were certainly varied, but in their simplest form, the witch hunts happened when government seized the chance to prove its authority by persecuting those outside community protection.”
The review also touches on the difficulty of mounting a nuanced, counter-narrative to propaganda and critiquing government institutions, which made me think of the immigration and welfare debates.
I rant and rave all the time on these two topics because the government’s tone in these “debates” is downright offensive. It promotes the message that people on benefits (the majority of whom are pensioners or working poor) are “on the take” or lazy is a horrid throwback to a Victorian-style morality on poverty.
When it comes to immigration, government agencies – the Home Office in particular – paint caricatures of immigrants in much the same way, except they are able to steal jobs and welfare at the same time. Anecdotes are presented as trends or facts. Evidence is suppressed if it is inconvenient or misconstrued wherever possible.
That it’s the government doing this, with its resources and ability to influence and distort the media and public agenda, is truly dispiriting. It presents a real challenge to marginalised communities and civil society organisations to battle against, as the public mood is stoked and soured.
What I find revealing about both of these debates is that they are on issues that the government is struggling to assert its authority on. Some of this is out of its control. Globalisation means that people are on the move around the world, and despite the anguish of UKIPpers, it’s not one-way traffic (ask the Spanish about the transformation of places like Costa del Sol into British enclaves).
When it comes to welfare, you can’t look at that without looking at the world of work and the fact is that too many people aren’t earning enough to live with dignity without a top-op from the government. I’ll leave it to economists to ascertain how much control the government has over that – but I’m leaning towards the fact that it has a big lever that it can use to make the markets work better for people – no, for me the real striking similarity on both issues is that the government will not (cannot?) be honest with people about the issues.
Let’s go with “will not”.
They won’t say that we can’t (if that’s your gripe) stop immigration, but we can prepare better and make it work for the country, equipping local councils to deal with changing populations and the pressure on public services.
They won’t say that it has helped to build Britain as we know it and is key to continuing this.
They won’t say that most of the welfare budget goes to pensioners, and they are the ones who vote, so they try to tread gently there and come down harder on everyone else.
They won’t say that for some people, work doesn’t pay more than benefits and this is a problem with the WORK, not the benefits, if the assessment for what you need to live with dignity is a figure higher than what the private sector is offering in some cases.
They won’t say that benefit fraud is a tiny amount, compared to tax evasion.
They won’t admit that blame for the crash lies with the financial sector but that the public is paying for it – that they are the biggest benefits recipients of all, and they still get to profit and gamble with the blank cheque that we’ll always pick up the bill with a bail-out.
And so if you don’t diagnose the problem properly, your solutions won’t hit the mark. Furthermore, when your solutions inevitably fail (immigration cap as a case in point) you doubly disappoint and further undermine public trust in politicians. At the same time, you’ve talked up the problem to the point that it’s a perpetual crisis – a crisis that you now can’t address because the solutions (stop immigration!) are impossible in the real world.
So….you assert your authority. The best way to do that is a modern-day witch hunt.