Almost paralyzed by the rush of bad news at year’s end — mass shootings in Paris and California, followed by a backlash against Muslims, a zealot killing innocent victims at a Colorado Springs clinic, a white supremacist shooting protesters in my hometown — I turned to witchcraft. Specifically, I decided to read “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” Stacy Schiff’s exceptional account of the trials in Massachusetts that led to the execution of 14 women, five men and two dogs for witchcraft.
Ironically, what I intended to be my escapist broomstick ride over the treetops of 17th-century New England landed me smack-dab in the middle of Minneapolis, USA, at the dawn of 2016.
The connection wasn’t obvious at first because it’s not easy to relate to the Puritans who settled Salem. They were all work and all pray, and looked down on anything that suggested pleasure or leisure. Their world revolved about the common meetinghouse presided over by stern ministers, who regularly heaped fire and brimstone onto their congregations. (This may be one reason the Puritans, in spite of their religious fervor, seemed to have often “forgotten” to pay the ministers.) With single-minded focus they sought to carve out of the wilderness what they envisioned as a shining city on a hill.
It was a dangerous world — on the edge of the big woods, where at any moment they might face an attack from Indians, the French, or, they believed, exotic adversaries like witches. The anxiety was so great that Schiff describes a 3-year-old in a crib warning parents about an attack from the French.
With the threat of terror so near, anything out of the ordinary could instill panic. Did your prized pig follow you as you walked into the woods to hunt? It must be possessed. Did a neighbor in a rainstorm come to your door with a cloak over his head? The devil himself must have arrived; hunt down the nearest suspect.
An unsuspecting resident of Salem could wake up innocent, find herself accused by mid-morning, and in jail by afternoon — all in a single day or, as we see it today, in one news cycle.
Some of those threats in Salem were real: Indian tribes were (understandably) trying to regain their land; the French were, in fact, attacking vulnerable English colonies. Salem’s best defense against both was to stay united but, ironically, that’s exactly what their fear prevented them from doing.
So the first real test of building that “city on a hill” in the New World was a colossal failure. Sensing fear, they turned from finding a common purpose to finding a common enemy within. Often it was someone a bit different: a widow raising children alone, a slave, someone who was homeless, someone who hadn’t been seen praying like everyone else in town.
Maybe by now you’ve begun to see the parallel that I saw, what made those long-ago settlers start to sound familiar. The tidal wave of year-end bad news in 2015 — fear of immigrants, racially motivated shootings, killings over a difference in reproductive politics — sounded as fresh as today and as old as the earliest days of our country. Listen to the Puritan preacher blaming their troubles on the “other” in their flock and you can hear Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Listen to their description of a demon to be blamed for everything that is wrong, and their broad brush stains every person of the Islamic faith.
The sorry tale of Salem shows that from our earliest days Americans have struggled in a war between a common enemy and a common cause. The choices are not simple, and never have been, but generations of descendants from that city on a hill have battled our demons and fears to remain open to the new and the unfamiliar. So many times we have gotten it right. Facing enemies on two fronts, the country came together and won World War II. Then the truly remarkable happened: We found it in ourselves to rebuild both Germany and Japan, which, in turn, became our stalwart allies and business partners, and keys to our own prosperity.
Sometimes we have gotten it wrong, which rang home when I failed, again, to find escapist holiday entertainment by taking the family to the movie “Trumbo.” This story of one of the Hollywood’s most brilliant screenwriters takes a sharp turn when Trumbo is accused of being a communist and is blacklisted. Thousands of others — less famous than a Hollywood screenwriter — were accused and hundreds were blacklisted; many never recovered.
Our family had time for one more bit of escapist entertainment: the new TV show “The Man in the High Castle.” The premise of this fascinating drama is an alternate United States that lost World War II and is divided between the victorious Germans and Japanese. The heroes of the series are hiding films of what the United States would be like if we had won the war — in other words, just like it is today. They believe this image of a truly united United States would be so inspiring that it would cause the defeated Americans to rise up, put aside their fear of each other, and, together, retake their country.
We only saw the first couple of episodes of “The Man in the High Castle.” Fittingly, I don’t yet know how it will turn out.
My attempt to get away from our troubled country and world didn’t turn out so well, but maybe we have already had enough escapism these days. In fact, the only way we have ever succeeded is when we have made clear-eyed, conscious efforts to be the best of what Americans can be.
We failed when we interned Americans of Japanese descent in World War II and we succeeded when, in the wake of 9/11, we managed not to target all Americans of the Islamic faith. In the AIDS crisis, we started by targeting each other — isolating and demonizing the victims — but now, with common purpose, we are winning the battle. What part of our national character will we see today?
In a country based on common purpose, facing extraordinary inequities, how do those in the majority, those with power and living comfort, see those who are not? Do we see that child struggling to master English slowing down my child’s class or exposing my own child to the second language she will need to compete in a global world? Do we see the child from a high-poverty neighborhood across town embodying values that disrupt a homogeneous class or teaching everyone valuable life lessons they will need to navigate an increasingly diverse society?
The feared “other” can take many forms — Indians seeking to take back their land in Salem, communists under the bed during the Cold War, immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and today. Fear is often understandable, but as it grows it most often entraps the innocent, and all too often the young: The American girl only beginning to understand the stares as she walks down the street in her headscarf, the son of Mexican immigrants explaining to his teacher why those men came to the door to talk to his father last night, the young African-American boy seeing the look on his father’s face as he waits for the police officer to explain why he stopped their car.
What part of ourselves will we show in 2016?
One of the greatest blessings of this holiday was the return of a true Minnesota winter. As snow began to fall, we celebrated with a nighttime walk. The wind picked up, the wet flakes pelted our faces and it was tempting to just close our eyes. But I knew something that serves us well in a Minnesota snowstorm, and in our country today:
The only way to find your way home in a storm is to face the prevailing wind and keep your eyes wide open.
R.T. Rybak is executive director of Generation Next. He is the author of “Pothole Confidential,” an upcoming book about his 12 years as mayor of Minneapolis.