Moral panics are not moral crusades

Moral panics are not moral crusades March 3, 2021

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
— W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939

Here are two sentences, written back-to-back in a way that is intended to be reassuring. I would suggest that these two sentences, back-to-back, cannot be read in any way that is reassuring:

They want wrongs to be righted and they want justice to be done. But eventually, they will move on.

This is from historian Daniel Gulotta’s piece at the Bulwark, comparing “QAnon and the Satanic Panics of Yesteryear.”

It’s a workmanlike overview of the last high-water mark of the (never ending) Satanic Panic, framed with a general theme of Don’t worry too much — we’ve survived this before and we’ll survive it again. Hence that reassurance that “Eventually, they will move on.”

Except, again, that sentence follows one insisting that moral panics are motivated by a genuine desire for “justice” — “They want wrongs to be righted and they want justice to be done.” Moving on from that would seem like a bad thing — like a dispiriting surrender that no longer wants wrongs to be righted or justice to be done.

I don’t think that’s what Gulotta intended to say about those who “move on” after moral panics, but I think it’s actually closer to the truth than the rest of the paragraph in which these two strangely juxtaposed sentences appear.

Here’s that paragraph in full, which conveys the essence of what I think Gulotta gets wrong here:

Third, we have reason to hope that QAnon will eventually spend itself out. If the Satanic panics of the past can teach us anything, it is that many of these individuals — including many whose beliefs are bizarre or seem like they must be ironic — are sincere in their convictions and mean well. They want wrongs to be righted and they want justice to be done. But eventually, they will move on. We don’t know when that will be; it’s entirely possible that the climax of QAnon already came on January 6, or perhaps the movement will linger on for years in ever-shifting forms. But Satanic panics tend eventually to peter out, and to be looked back upon with some mix of shame and horror.

This comes at the end of Gulotta’s essay, which includes a lengthy discussion of the very long history of earlier variations of Satanic Panics. He — correctly — links the hysteria of the 1980s-’90s to:

A well-established pattern of Christian theology concerning conspiracies dating back to the medieval church and the witch hunts of the early modern era. The fear that children are being morally corrupted, sexually abused, and physically harmed is one of the most recognizable Satanic conspiracy tropes. In the witch trials of early modern Europe, accusations of killing infants and harming young children were common. For centuries, Jews throughout the Holy Roman Empire and Reformation Europe were accused of ritually murdering Christian children for magical purposes and cannibalism. Under stress and torture, both men and women — but mostly women — confessed to such Satanic crimes as using babies’ blood for spells, murdering children at witches’ sabbaths, and having sex with the devil.

… America’s most infamous witch hunt had its origin in the fear of Satanic harm befalling children. Beginning in 1692, Salem minister Samuel Parris and his wife Elizabeth were alarmed at their daughter Betty and niece Abigail’s declining health. The Reverend John Hale suspected a Satanic attack: “These Children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents.” Believing them bewitched, fears of a Satanic conspiracy against the colony took hold — ultimately costing twenty lives.

I do not think we can look at centuries of pogroms, massacres, and ethnic-cleansing of Jews, or at the witch hunts of New England or of Europe in the early modern era and truthfully say that those who carried them out were “sincere in their convictions and [meant] well.” Nor do I think we can say that they were motivated by a desire to see wrongs righted and justice done.

This is why spikes in the ongoing Satanic Panic, in all its historical forms, are not described as moral crusades, but as moral panics. The driving factor is panic — fear. Specifically, moral panics are driven by the fear that wrongs will be righted and that justice will be done. And where we gonna run to, oh, on that day?

The clearest illustration of this was an outbreak of Satanic Panic a generation after the Salem witch trials, one which lasted longer and was far deadlier and more gruesome in its toll: the New York Conspiracy Panic of 1741. The purported cause of this panic was a massive Jesuit conspiracy to lead New York City’s 2,000 enslaved persons in a revolt. There was never any evidence that such a conspiracy or revolt was really being planned, but mass hysteria seized white New Yorkers nonetheless because they all knew, with utter clarity and certainty, that a lethal slave revolt was what they deserved — what they had earned and what justice itself demanded if the most evident wrongs in their city were to be righted.

Moral panics are not sparked by sincere, well-meaning convictions of those who wish to see wrongs righted and justice done. They are sparked by the sincere, inescapable conviction that, in the words of the prophet Amos, the day of justice would be, for them, darkness and not light. The recognition that justice would not mean well for us.

Gulotta’s earlier discussion of the 1980s Satanic Panic also undermines the idea that it was driven by “sincere convictions”:

Memoirs began to be published concerning supposed Satanic cults and survivors of demonic possession, the most famous being Michelle Remembers (1980). Crimes with supposed connections to Satanic activity began to emerge, with the only evidence derived from the (subsequently discredited) practice of “recovered memory.” There arose a shocking, and frankly implausible, volume of accusations of child abuse by devil-worshipping cults at day cares, like those in Kern County, California. Soon an industry of so-called Satanic cult experts emerged, ready to offer their “expertise” to law enforcement and in courtrooms, as well as offering seminars and classes for the masses. For example, Dale W. Griffis offered his testimony as an expert on Satanic cults in the notorious trial of the West Memphis Three, despite having received his degree from an unaccredited university.

None of the drivers of the Satanic Panic mentioned here were sincere. Michelle Remembers was a hoax. Dale W. Griffis was a money-chasing disciple of Mike Warnke — another brazen, deliberate grifter. The Kern County cases were cooked up and exploited by shamelessly ambitious prosecutors in pursuit of higher office.

None of these people “really believed” in any of the Satanic conspiracies they were creating and propagating. They just had dollar signs in their eyes.

As someone once wrote:

So money was one motive for those who first created and began to spread these rumors. Theirs is the easiest case. Greed is relatively mundane and uncomplicated. But what of the others, what of those who pretended to believe these rumors and enthusiastically spread it to others without the possibility of financial benefit?

Theirs is a far more complicated, and more interesting, situation.

But if it was more complicated and interesting than the naked financial greed of the grifters, it was still a far cry from “sincere and well-meaning.”


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