Socrates, Salem, and Senator McCarthy

The term, “witch hunt,” is fairly common and usually refers to the act of accusing a person of committing a crime while having no evidence, or very questionable evidence for your claims. Whenever I hear the term I am reminded of the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a scene in the movie in which a medieval town is convinced that a woman is a witch, so they cry out in determination, “BURN ERR!” However, when the townsfolk bring the “witch” to Sir Bedevere, who represents the town’s nobility and is the local knight (played by Terry Jones), he is suspicious of the claims against the woman. He asks for proof of the crime and one man (John Cleese) replies, “She turned me into a newt… but I got better,” thus proving that the massive mob has no absolute evidence.

I bring up this scene because it’s hilarious, but it also represents how gullible crowds can be when their safety or way of life may be threatened. This in turn will lead to quick decision making and rambunctious actions that may seem fair at the moment, but upon further inspection turn out to be horribly misguided. Such is the case of the famous Salem Witch Trials. Very similar to the Monty Python movie, the Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions in 1692 Massachusetts. The trials led to the deaths of at least 25 people, 19 by hanging and one, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. These people were accused of conspiring with the devil and haunting the town. The only evidence to support these claims were testimonies from townspeople that sited visions, nightmares, and convulsions as proof of witchery. Thus, much like in the movie, there was no substantial proof for the accusations. Also Salem was a Puritan community, a very strict sect of Christianity, and the hysteria of witchery was not an unfathomable idea to many people back then. This environment and the fears of people in the community led to the death of at least 25 innocent people, showing that if fear is growing within a community, irrational decisions will soon follow.

Tying into our game, the Cold War was a period of suffocating fear for many Americans. The threat of nuclear war was as tense as ever before. Cuba contained missiles that could reach the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was looking to spread communism and destroy capitalism. All of this led to mass hysteria in the U.S. that is known as the “Red Scare.” This tense and fear-driven environment led to more “witch hunts” in the U.S. almost identical to those of Salem. This time they were led by the fear of communism within the U.S., a threat that was preached by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy made numerous accusations against people within the U.S. government and CIA, citing treason, espionage, foul play, disloyalty, and every other term that could label a person a trader or a “commie.” While most of these claims flung out of his mouth as effortless as breath through his lungs, and they contained no sense of evidence or support, people fell for his trick because they were so afraid of communism within their government. McCarthy knew this and he used it to his advantage to gain popularity and votes throughout his time in office. His endless accusations eventually coined the term McCarthyism as “a campaign or practice that endorses the unfair use of allegations and investigations.” The practice of McCarthyism throughout the Cold War led to many irrational decisions, most notably the cases of Julian and Ethel Rosenberg. The two were accused of heading a spy ring that informed Soviet forces about nuclear technology that the U.S. possessed. On June 19, 1953, the two were put to death via the electric chair. Although it was never proven that they committed these very serious crimes, new evidence suggested that the accusations of a spy ring were true and thus they were assumed guilty. However, it is plausible that had this case not been during the Cold War, these two would have not been put to death, especially due to the fact that at the time of their deaths they had not been proven guilty. Much like the trials in Salem, the circumstances of the trial played a key role in the punishment of the accused. Both Salem’s religion-dominated society and the nuclear tension during the Cold War led to the fear-based, irrational decisions that killed many people.

We plan on using the idea of McCarthyism in our game while also drawing on the example of Socrates. Socrates was an Ancient Greek philosopher who was charged with treason because his teachings of an organized state, as taught in theĀ Republic, defied the Greek model of democracy. He was accused of treason and sentenced to death for his teachings, much like our character. But what I want to highlight about Socrates was his environment. Socrates always taught that an organized state should be led by “philosopher kings” instead of run by the masses, because the masses are subject to irrational decisions similar to Salem and McCarthyism. At the time of his own execution Greece had just lost to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War which caused great strife within Greece. So when Socrates praised Sparta on systems of government, the masses looked to punish his disloyalty. In a way Socrates predicted his own death because he fell subject to the whims of the masses and the irrational decisions they made, much like the victims in Salem and the Rosenbergs.

All of these examples were taken into account when we decided to make our main character a teacher. Our main character will be accused of corrupting minds similar to Socrates. Our character will also be overwhelmed with the sense of helplessness that comes from being prosecuted with no substantial evidence similar to the victims of the witch hunts of Salem and Cold War McCarthyism.