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Conflict in The Crucible Essay


Conflict brings out the worst in people

Most of us consider ourselves pacifists and try to avoid conflict whenever possible. However circumstances and chance often intrude themselves into our idyll and draw us into situations where we are faced with conflict. The philosophers teach us that it is precisely such events where the steadfastness of our characters is put to the test and our better qualities are revealed. History however has proven quite the opposite as humans, when in fear, often instead revert to our natural defensive instincts, which sadly enough and all too frequently tend to supersede reason.

In the 1950s the mercurial American Senator Joseph McCarthy singularly embarked on a crusade to free Americans from the spectre of Communism. Whatever the misguided and opportunistic imperatives which so fuelled his passion, McCarthy managed to turn Americas post World War 2 concerns about domestic security into a national hysteria to sniff out Communists and their supporters. He particularly suspected notable figures in Hollywood of harbouring Communist inclinations and he feared their ability to spread insidious propaganda through the medium of films and literary works. In his paranoia he perceived a subtle and seductive Communist agenda in almost every mass media. His crusade was to stifle and effectively censor what Americans should or should not be reading, listening and watching. And woe betide anyone who challenged the authority of the State. For the penalty of non-conformity was to be tarred and feathered as a Red. A Red tag destroyed reputations and careers as surely as anyone today who might be accused of supporting Terrorism.

One of McCarthys targets was the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Arthur Miller who later married the equally famous movie star, Marilyn Monroe. In Millers case, his status as a celebrity did not confer immunity from suspicion. Quite the reverse actually. Millers repugnance and revulsion at the practices of the House of un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by the ubiquitous McCarthy, motivated him to pen the novel The Crucible as an allegory of that sad epoch.

In The Crucible Miller skilfully wove together the 17th Century Puritan religious fervour and superstitions with that of Americas hysterical and paranoid suspicion of Communism as the modern day Devil Incarnate in the 1950s. The forums of suspicion and hatred in which trials were staged left the accused with little recourse to natural justice or legal redress. Americas hitherto sacrosanct individual rights, freedom of speech, association and beliefs were all abrogated under the pretext of national exigencies.

It was McCarthy who now assumed the role of a Grand Inquisitor hiding behind the cowl of Senatorial privilege while he conducted his thuggish prosecution or more accurately, persecution. His instruments of torture were insinuation, character assassination and vilification. The emotional and mental torture inflicted on his victims left their spirits broken in as much the same way the Churchs inquisitors of the Middle Ages broke their victims on the wheel and extracted confessions through hot irons. They experienced all the horror, anguish and the same suffocating sense of helplessness before a spectacle of the impossible coming to pass inasmuch the same way as the character of John Proctor in The Crucible.

What Miller found so disconcerting and inexplicable was the willingness of ordinary Americans to sacrifice their individual rights and participate in McCarthyism even though the practices flew against all the principles on which America itself was founded. In that highly charged atmosphere, Americans allowed their fear to completely cloud their judgment and bring out the worst of their personalities. Their fear of the phantasmagorical evil of Communism brought out their baser instincts of aggression and violence. Americans abandoned all their morals and values and began to devour each other instead. The cycle of denouncements and accusations created a vicious vortex which drew in innocent parties around them into the abyss.

Miller correctly perceived that this was exactly how intelligent, decent and hard working Germans allowed themselves to be deceived and marched off to the anti-Semitic tunes played by a Pied Piper like Hitler. After Germanys defeat, Germans who had embraced Nazism out of a misguided love for their country were labelled with the unsavoury term Fellow Traveller. It was ironic that Americans themselves were now Fellow Travellers of a different sort, being led astray by another Pied Piper like the delusional Senator McCarthy whistling an anti-Communism tune.

What is even more ironic and horrifying is that Americans today are once more sacrificing their principles on the altar of new hysterics i.e anti-Terrorism and anti-Muslim. Fear has triggered their insecurities and brought to the surface all the latent racism and bigotry which they have tried to hide behind the veils democracy and freedom. This new paranoia has spawned their intolerance which was spelt out so eloquently by their totally inept ex-President George W Bush either you are with us or against us. By closing their eyes and hiding behind legalistic terms of effective rendition to disguise torture, by callously dismissing the people their bombs have killed as collateral damage, by condoning the kidnapping, imprisonment and torture of others under the exigencies of the Patriot Act, Americans have begun to slide down that moral precipice once again as they did in the 1950s. What is even more tragic is that Australians themselves seem to be sliding down that same dark sewer.

The unfortunate truth is that fear or conflict tend to bring out the very worst of our baser human instincts. And like animals, we tear each other apart without hesitation despite all our proclamations of humanity. Throughout human history, we have seen horrifying wars and examples of mans inhumanity to man. Its ultimate epitomisation was in a place called Auschwitz where the unimaginable was made possible and Hell was truly created on Earth. There in Poland the world truly lost its innocence. Man finally ceased to deceive ourselves and accepted that, despite all the veneer of civilization, human beings have proven beyond all doubt that we are the lesser of Gods creations.

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