We all like somebody to blame when things go wrong. If it isn’t ‘the gremlins’ interfering in our vehicles, it is one of our siblings playing a joke on us. These scapegoats are relatively harmless however. What happens when people are made to suffer for being blamed for something either they didn’t do, or that influence on the outcome is vastly exaggerated that they are perceived to be entirely responsible?
At the time of the death of Lenin, two men vied for power in Communist Russia. The first was Stalin, the man who would eventually take leadership. The other was Trotsky, arguably closer to Lenin during his political career and perhaps the more popular man amongst the public and the top echelons of the Party. Yet he would suffer the most horrendous propaganda at the hands of Stalin and would later go on to become his biggest critic. Eventually, Trotksy was assassinated in Mexico by Stalinist agents.
Some would say that Rachel Carson is single-handedly responsible for the modern environmentalist movement. Her seminal book Silent Spring highlighted the growing problem of pesticide use in modern farming and it led to a large number of them being banned. However, the free market lobby in the USA has vilified her since her death as an anti-capitalist. Some even claim that she is responsible for the deaths of millions through the DDT ban (a chemical used to combat malaria-spreading mosquitoes) though evidence suggest the insects were becoming immune at the time of the ban.
There are many individual sports stars blamed for the failings of an entire team in an important international tournament but this particular instance turned to tragedy for this Colombian footballer. He scored an own goal in the 1994 FIFA World Cup against the USA and was subsequently shot dead. It is widely believed ‘ but never proven ‘ that the own goal had caused drug barons to lose a lot of money on a betting scam.
He was one of Hitler’s most trusted allies within Nazi Germany and named second in line of succession. He was tasked with ensuring peace with Britain but arrested immediately upon his landing in England. Hitler denied this mission and declared him a traitor. Hess would remain a prisoner for the rest of his life and after the war transferred to Spandau Prison where he died in 1987. His son maintained that he was a scapegoat of both sides, the allies silencing him because his real mission of brokering a peace deal had embarrassed them.
Certainly western powers are not blameless throughout history but ‘the west’ has become a popular scapegoat in modern times to deflect criticism from the failings of developing powers, particularly in the Middle East. It was also a convenient demon with which to blame all the ills of Communist society ‘ countries that traded on paranoia about the decadence and other such sins of western powers. This is no better demonstrated today than in countries such as North Korea that are persistently warning its citizens against western aggression.
Everybody knows about the holocaust ‘ the biggest act of genocide in human history. However this does not stand alone as an act of anti-Semite aggression. In the 13th-14th centuries, several medieval powers expelled the Jewish money-lenders from their countries. Edward I of England and Philip IV of France enacted decrees to remove them and at the end of the 14th Century, there was a mass slaughter of Jews in Spain.
The People of Salem
Several hundred people were charged, the overwhelming majority were found innocent or recanted and over twenty were executed for witchcraft in 17th Century New England. What most do not realise is that those prosecuted were not all female; of the twenty two executions some eight or nine were male. Many would later have their sentences revoked and receive an official pardon. The events would later go on to be popularised in a book and a film called ‘The Crucible’.
There are strictures against using products from pigs in Islam and Judaism that Christians have largely ignored. When the Swine flu pandemic broke in 2009, Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked by the Sunni Muslims in the country who used their religious strictures as an excuse to blame pigs and their Christian farmers for spreading this form of the disease. The fact Egypt had not seen an outbreak of Swine Flu did nothing to temper the plans of the Egyptian government to slaughter the entire 250,000 strong porcine population.
Mr’s O’Leary’s Cow
Not unusual in that animals are getting the blame for events (cats for example were killed en-masse as symbols of witchcraft in the middle ages) but one of the most unusual is blaming a single cow for starting the Chicago Fire and this is precisely what happened for two years following the event. The fire was adjudged to have started in the O’Leary’s barn and the reporter of the newspaper made up a story of a lantern kicked over by one of their heffers. He later admitted to making up the story for amusement.
We may laugh at our older generations for their technophobia these days but scapegoating of machinery had become so prevalent during the Industrial Revolution (the idea being that they were destroying jobs, families and people) that an entire movement grew up fight against the scourge of technological progress. Mainly made up of artisans who feared cheaper alternatives to their hand-crafted goods would put them out of work. Luddism is still a very real fear today ‘ the media regularly publishes scare stories about GM food, wi-fi and the supposed carcinogenic properties of our mobile phones and video games contributing to the obesity crisis. Technology is and remains a scapegoat.
Perhaps scapegoating appeals to the paranoia in all of us: the xenophobe or the conservative, the technophobe, the side of us that fears progress and change as we have become comfortable in our own little world. Perhaps it also appeals to our self-denial, to cling to the notion that something or somebody else is responsible for our failings or for the bad things that happen to us rather than to face personal responsibility.