Source: Judy Wallen

As I grew up in a California suburb that was largely colonized in the latter half of the 20th century with the hope of many upwardly mobile young families, I am often reminded by fellow Californians of my good fortune in spending those years between cradle and teenage wasteland nourished and sheltered by privilege.  Up until high school, I even had the rare benefit of experiencing pre–Proposition 13 California public schools, a Golden Age of Education rivaling Athens, the Renaissance, or Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Self-Love.  When I confess how I have trouble remembering what or if I learned much of anything during this utopian period, the wistfulness of the young Californian liberals turns to disappointment, disbelief, and rage.  Yet cancel culture’s recent occupation of our zeitgeist has given me a renewed appreciation of the advanced multi-year curriculum that I received during that time when occupants saturated the school with the insatiable primal energy of the id while adults were not looking.  Almost all I really needed to know about witch-hunting I learned in middle school.

Witch-hunting is the biomimicry of junior high school at its peak Lord of the Flies.  When I left my relatively uniform class stratum outside school, I found inside those hallowed walls of lower education a caste system so rigid and unforgiving that third-world dictatorships could complain of cultural appropriation.  A hierarchy formed based on fickle pubescent popularity in a system of unearned privilege for the higher strata and soul-crushing oppression for the lower strata innocents, intimidated into a silence that prevented the truth from reaching both the apathetic guardians inside and the concerned ones outside.  The fawning and fearful mobs were happy to join in the persecution to improve their own position in the hierarchy, as the level of freedom and safety from persecution was proportional to one’s distance from the top.  There was a longing for power, for the protection and thrill and decadent benefits it bestowed.  The power carried its own justification, but the augmented treachery and sophistication of maturity would require justification — virtue would be enlisted to justify persecutions so devoid of virtue.  Once the witch-hunting moves beyond the confines of teenage tyranny into the adult arena, what takes place is not just the Disneyland for the id but one with entrance tickets generated by the superego.

Sometimes when we struggle with the arrogance, envy, greed, rage, and insecurity accumulated just by living, we are victorious, gaining character and wisdom, but the battles do not always end so favorably.  The societal danger occurs with the improper misdirection and unreflective nature of such impulses.  If self-awareness and a conscience do not stop the malicious actions of our anguish and delusions, the social stigma or the justice system often will.  The power-hungry demagogues will essentially make a symbiotic deal with these powerless lost souls to grant them a safe space enveloped in virtue to release their demons, as long as those demons are directed at the ruling elites’ adversaries.

Cultivating fear and discontent increases a sense of dependency in search of a rescuer, a sense of victimhood in search of a perpetrator, a sense of rage in search of an outlet, a sense of inadequacy in search of a culprit, and a sense of moral insufficiency in search of heroism.  A suitable scapegoat is the harvest that feeds all these hungers.  Identity politics, with its collectivist outlook and group identities and cult-like veneration of identity-related “trauma,” will both inflame primal impulses and provide the required scapegoats.  Identity politics is a factory churning out victims while polluting the social order with fear, entitlement, resentment, division.  When there are victims, there are victimizers who must be thwarted.  When they are immobilized with ruthless persecution, the persecutors are heroes — free of blame for their failings and inadequacies, moral and otherwise, regardless of political power hierarchy position.  It is a vicious cycle, each cycle weakening the existing more unifying moral codes and historical attachments with their emphasis on liberty, responsibility, independence, and individuality.  The old symbols and language, whether from the Bible or the Constitution, will still nevertheless be coopted to bolster the appeal of the new morality and inserted with Orwellian glee into proposed oppressive political policies.

To maintain the witch-hunting mechanism, there is a distinctive toolbox, consisting of the flashlight, magnifier, and connectors.  An imperfection or outlier will first be identified with much fanfare and repetition by the propagandists (flashlight), the offenses distorted and exaggerated (magnifier), and then linked with ruthless imprecision to the targeted individuals (connectors).  With intersectionality’s handy group identities, an attack on one becomes an attack on many, and an attack by one becomes an attack by many.  This is how George Floyd, Charlottesville, the Big 1/6 Trespass, or a lone neo-Nazi in the middle of nowhere becomes an indictment on an entire group of individuals completely uninvolved in any wrongdoing.  A Republican or conservative becomes a right-winger becomes a far-right-winger becomes an extremist becomes a Nazi.  Once the witch-hunters successfully affix labels such as “white supremacist” (or aligned with), “domestic terrorist,” and “Nazi” on an individual, the individual’s life is rendered forever worthless.

At a recent conservative conference, Antifa distributed flyers labeled “Nazi scum off our streets!” containing the statement “the far right should never be allowed to spread their genocidal ideas.”  The real Nazis also used self-defense as a justification for their own genocide, proclaiming that they had no choice but to eliminate the Jews before the Jews eliminated them.  It seems incomprehensible that a largely marginalized, powerless, harmless minority could be convincingly characterized as a threat.  To convince people of an absurdity, first incite their primal impulses, and then convince them how much the absurdity will satisfy those impulses, enough to crush any occasional surge of rationality and conscience.  A touch of malice may require just some little white lies, but a lot of malice requires big lies wearing big white hats.

While under the rule of adolescent authoritarianism, popularity was the elixir that promised to absolve one from all sins and bestow the blessings of power, while rendering those other lives worthless.  For the persecuted or persecuted adjacent, I recall two distinct groups.  One group genuflected both publicly and privately, while the other group genuflected publicly but not privately.  There was theoretically the other group that genuflected neither publicly nor privately, but there were no members in that group, none whatsoever, despite the fact that such a group could have easily outnumbered all others.  So instead we waited, waited for divine intervention in the form of an omniscient adult, waited for the warriors to tire or the victims to be inspired, waited for time to transport us or magically fix the problem we begged time to fix.  Because we would grow and they would grow up, into those adults who would not delight from the suffering of others, who would not make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent, who would mete out punishments and rewards in proportion to the level of offense or good deed, who understood that life was sacred and that every life had value.  We waited for the witch-hunting to stop.  We waited.