The Halloween season brings to mind the witch hunts that peaked in the United States in the late 19th century in Salem, Massachusetts. Today that campaign seems wrong-headed and even ludicrous. The people who sought out, tried and burned “witches” were irrational and hysterical, and motivated by their prejudice against and fear of women.
That kind of lunacy remains with us, though it is directed at different groups and the flames are figurative, not literal. Here are three of the most popular targets for people who need someone to hate.
1. The Liberal Media
Accusations that American journalists and media outlets are biased against conservatives have a long history and remain entrenched today. The right wing uses this canard to sow skepticism among voters towards accurate information journalists convey. Meanwhile, the radically right-wing Fox News brands itself as fair and balanced.
Conservatives call out individual reporters, networks and newspapers with accusations of slanting the news against them. For instance, Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the story of Edward Snowden’s leaks from the National Security Agency and himself a critic of Republican George W. Bush’s administration, has accused Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin of liberal bias. BizzyBlog argues that the Associated Press, an information source widely used by the media, is a platform for the Democratic administration. The Media Research Center publishes a book-length instruction manual for identifying liberal bias in the media.
Journalists’ credo is objectivity. They run scared from the “liberal media” canard because if they are seen to be partial to one side they are not credible, so they overcompensate in the other direction. The result is misleading reporting, like the coverage of the current government shutdown and debt ceiling fracas. The situation is entirely the Republicans’ fault: they single-handedly created it and they could unilaterally stop it. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the news on television or reading mainstream papers, because the crusade against the liberal media has conditioned them to give equal weight to both sides’ arguments even when one side is clearly in the wrong.
A Google search of “government shutdown republicans fault” brings up a bevy of news stories about opinion polls assessing how the public apportions blame. Reporters shy away from accurately reporting the facts they gather and instead tell the public what it already thinks.
The right wing’s smearing of the media, and the media’s reactive misleading of the public in the name of objectivity, is one of the conservatives’ most successful strategies to trick voters into supporting them.
2. Freeloaders Who Mooch Off the Rest of Us
In the last presidential race, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said that 47 percent of Americans feel “entitled” to free housing, food and health care, and believe that the rest of us should pay for it. The comment harkened back to Ronald Reagan’s excoriation of “welfare queens,” an allegedly large but largely imaginary cadre of women who lived lavishly through welfare fraud.
The two stories, separated by decades, reflect one theme: that good, upstanding, working Americans are getting fleeced by lazy people who will stop at nothing (short of honest work) to steal their hard-earned money.
This is a fundamental Republican belief that underlies many of the policies they endorse today to punish poor people. Their salt-the-earth campaign against the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) assumes that the millions of people who can’t afford health care coverage don’t deserve it. The Republican House’s version of the Farm Bill included a cut to food stamps, representing a majority vote to sentence poor children to chronic hunger. Right wingers in various localities have passed laws to make homelessness a crime punishable by imprisonment.
If they can’t kill the needy by fire like the witches of the 1690s, conservatives will kill them more slowly with untreated illness, hunger and onerous punishments.
3. The Overweight
One witch hunt that bridges the partisan divide is the battle against fat. There are some good reasons for a public health campaign encouraging weight loss, like lowering fat-related fatalities, but it feeds into widespread, sometimes rabid hatred of people who are overweight. This socially sanctioned contempt finds expression in fat-shaming and, more concretely, in government actions like New Zealand’s refusal to renew the work visa of an overweight immigrant based on his size.
Those who target fat people justify themselves both with public health arguments and with financial fear-mongering that the overweight will empty our pockets to pay for their extra medical needs. They also argue that they are not being prejudiced or unfair because fat is a choice founded on laziness and greed, and helping the overweight overcome these deadly sins is in the sinners’ interests.
The venomous rhetoric against the rotund ignores evidence that overweight does not always correlate with poor health or higher medical expenses, and that many people physically cannot lose weightÂ because of genetic or bacterial factors.
A witch hunt is a broad tide of hate and punishment based on myth that soaks the virtuous along with those who truly are blameworthy. Undoubtedly some reporters are biased, some recipients of government entitlements don’t need them (like wealthy elders, all of whom get Social Security and Medicare benefits), and some fat people could lose weight and do strain the medical system. “Some” doesn’t mean “all” or even “most.” The dragnets against these groups reveal more about the hunters than the hunted. Modern day witch hunts should be scrutinized just as closely as the travesty that put Salem on the map.
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