A few examples of mass hysteria in US history (and a new addition)

An American Tradition

A few months ago, a friend asked me my opinion as to how the right-wing craziness we’re witnessing in this country came about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t marshal a coherent response at the time, and fell back into pounding on the table, hollering and cursing. It bothered me that I didn’t give him a decent rundown of what I consider the history of mob madness in the US, and I’ve finally gathered a few examples of a true American tradition – Fear of The Other.

1) The Salem Witch Trials (1600’s) (burning of a “witch” pictured above)

One of  the defining examples of the American character, this collective seizure of Puritan colonists in the New World by the hysterical belief of Satanism in their midst truly set the example for what came after. A few pre-teen girls began to have “visions,” and were “seized by the Devil,” who was summoned to mess with them by…  the people they didn’t like. These people were then “tried,” tortured, and, usually, burned at the stake.

An American Inquisition, which prepared the way for many movements that came after.

2) Lynching in the United States (1860 – 1960)

Briefly, the Confederate states – after losing the Civil War – had visited upon them the ultimate indignity: Reconstruction, which gave freedmen (former slaves) the rights of human beings. That is to say, desegregation. That didn’t go over so well in the South (and still doesn’t, to some extent, anywhere in the US), and for about 100 years, any black person in the South accused (not convicted of any crime) of looking at a white woman, whistling at a white woman, touching a white woman, talking back to a white person, refusing to step into the gutter when a white person passed on the sidewalk, or in some way upsetting the local crackers was liable to be hauled from their house or jail cell by a mob, mutilated in a ghastly fashion, hung, and then burnt to a crisp. All governments – state or federal – and their agencies (like the cops) simply ignored this. You could buy picture postcards from proud local merchants of notable area lynchings.

A labor union's headquarters after a Palmer raid

3) The Red Scare and The Palmer Raids (first 1919 – 1920)

Besides an abiding fear of people of color, the greatest mass hysteria in the US has been generated by fear of Communism. Any sort of collective effort by people not in power – the efforts of laboring people to form unions, for instance – has been tarred with the epithet “Communist.” Free speech, the right of assembly, the right to privacy, the right to earn a living – none of that stands up in the tide of anti-communist madness. The Palmer raids were essentially the illegal kidnapping and deportation of any “radicals” (i.e.; labor and union leaders) who appeared on a list compiled by the US Attorney General.

4) Japanese American internment during WWII (1942)

After Pearl Harbor, xenophobia towards everything Asian spread through the US, leading to the building of a series of domestic concentration camps for the confinement of thousands of Japanes and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the US. Without trial, these people had their businesses confiscated and their homes stolen (permanently) while they were moved to godforsaken settlements hundreds or  thousands of miles away from their homes.

Waving his lunch list and calling it the names of Communists in the federal government

5) The Second Red Scare (1940’s – 1950’s) – McCarthyism, Joe McCarthy, and the blacklist

One of the truly wild (and modern) forms of manufactured political hysteria (see what I’m getting at?) was the rise of an alcoholic Senator named Joseph McCarthy after the end of WWII. To condense a long story, the Republican party was fading into insignificance after FDR and the Democrats managed to drag the country out of the Hoover/Mellon Great Depression and then engineered the US victory in WWII. What to do? Joe McCarthy and his never-verified-even-once accusations that the US government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communists – that’s what he said, yo – managed to plunge the country into a cesspool of paranoia and fascism the Republicans exploited to the hilt. Thousands of people – teachers, public workers, anyone really – lost their jobs because they either wouldn’t sign “loyalty oaths,” or because they wouldn’t “inform” on their friends and neighbors, or because someone saw them actually reading a book (it’s true).

He was aided in his disgusting efforts by none other than Roy Cohn, who became a famous political fixer and all-around sleazebag in New York. Nixon trailed along after them, waiting for his time in the spotlight.

There’s a lot of great stuff on YouTube showing this guy’s successful efforts to derail civil society; this is an excerpt from an Edward R. Murrow broadcast on CBS (back when the network wasn’t complete trash, if you can believe it) refuting McCarthy’s lies:

YouTube Preview Image

The difference, of course, is that today, rather than stand up to this pig, the networks would be in a bidding war to hire him as an “analyst.” His spirit hovers over Fox; in fact, Glenn Beck is channeling him.

6) Satanic Day Care Scandals (1980’s)

In a situation with certain distinct resemblances to the American witch trials (see #1, above), some day care providers in the US were, during the 1980’s, accused of abusing children in satanic rituals. Their accusers? Children who had been coached by traveling “experts” to “remember” satanic child abuse by day care centers. No cross-examination of the children was allowed; most of them weren’t even present in the courtrooms. A national moral panic, fueled by trash like the book above and dozens of unbalanced fundamentalist parents ensued. Trials were held all over the US. One trial, the McMartin preschool trial, turned into the most expensive criminal trial in US history.

Was there satanic abuse? Hell no. Almost all of the people accused were acquitted, and successfully sued their accusers for millions of dollars in damages and settlements. But the newspapers and TV networks reported this garbage with straight faces, in the same “he said – she said” fashion they report any accusation today.

So this is by way of apology to my friend. I couldn’t organize my thoughts so many months ago when he asked me my opinion, and it’s been bothering me ever since. I suppose my point is that the haters in right-wing media, Sarah Palin, and the Tea-Partyers are part of a long American tradition of hysterics. What they say and believe elevates illogic, patriotism, hatred, paranoia, and fundamentalist religion over democracy and reason. That’s the way hysteria works, and it’s a basic part of The American Way.



Paul Krugman’s column on “Pretending To Be Crazy As A Career Strategy.”


6 thoughts on “A few examples of mass hysteria in US history (and a new addition)

  1. Great article, Steinski. But what makes me think (and shudder) is that the right can so firmly get their claws stuck in when America, as a nation, is one of the most technologically and constitutionally forward thinking entities on the planet.

    Surely if the internet as we know it today had been around in 1939 it would not have taken long for the Polish to let folks know what was going on and the rest of Europe to let people in Germany know the real deal about their leader.

    The very fact that the most ubiquitous communication tool mankind has ever known hasn’t stopped the (very global) right-wing craziness you mention from spreading is a mystery to me.

  2. err…great info, but a very strange conclusion.

    The fact is, mass hysteria is not caused by a large group of people saying strange things, it is cause by a large number of people believing them. If you look hard enough, similar types of mass hysteria have also been caused by lef-wing ‘craziness’. The root cause: ignorance (most likely).

    Mass hysteria seems to be caused just under the right conditions. You will find, especially as the US ‘progresses’ that left-wing and even moderates will be the cause of more and more cases of mass hysteria. What we must take a very careful look at is our own ideologies.

    As for the internet, it will only be the cause of future out breaks of mass hysteria in the future. Faster access to information only means faster access to misinformation.

  3. I once visited a Black Church in Seattle, and this post is not racist. Towards the end of the service two Ministers approached the microphone as a sort of doube-act, they had impressive bass voices, and both chanted words to the effect that ‘if members of the congregation truly believed in the Lord, then they would see him, that he would appear, I was amazed when about 6 young girls average age I’d guess 18, started shouting out ‘I can see you Lord, I can see you’, moments later they fell to the floor and appeared to be taking an epileptic fit, it was 10 minutes before they recovered, came out of the trance and went back to their seats. We all know you can hypnotise people, I’d say the loud microphone played an important part here, and the Ministers message was delivered in a sort of very loud – “I order you to see the Lord” voice, and they did. Maybe this is common, maybe many others know about this, but it was a first for me. Your lynching photos were upsetting to see, so may I a white person sincerely apologise for the criminal acts done then and committed today against any black person or oppressed person. A human being is a human being is a human being and skin colour is immaterial.

  4. So this is a political piece…

    Well as one of those right-wing hysterics that you seem to loathe quite a bit, let me tell you that your information on McCarthyism is wrong. You bought into the “lets blame everything on him” idea. He was actually right with i believe 90% of his accusations. And the rest of the things that you stated were actually done by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Which SENATOR Mccarthy had nothing to do with, because it was a House committee.

    Youre actually helping spread this new wave of mass hysteria in America, a movement of people who believe everything at face value and take the popular opinion without forming your own.

    And I think that it’s funny that the FDR internment camps, which were hell for any person of Oriental descent, not just Japanese,and were more racist than any immigration laws Arizona could ever conceive, gets less of your attention than your conclusion that Republicans are crazy hate-mongers.

  5. Good article, but one thing is that, during the salem witch trials, no witches were burned at the steak. That was however going on in Europe at the time. In Salem Massachusetts “witches” were hung.

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