Charlie Campbell: Keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled

by dollydelightly

“This is essentially a book about stupidity,” Charlie Campbell writes in the introduction to Scapegoat, his book about the cultural history of blame. In the book, Campbell explores a particular kind of human stupidity, the kind “that hits us after disaster, when we single out one person for blame, and hold them responsible for everything”. This practice, Campbell says, extends to almost everything from world-changing disasters to personal failures, the one thing that doesn’t vary is our need find someone or something to blame. “Marx blamed the capitalist system,” writes Campbell, “Dawkins religion. And Freud thought it all came down to sex. Larkin blamed our parents, Akins the potato and Mohamed Al-Fayed still says it’s all Prince Philips fault.” The subject of Campbell’s book could very easily grow wearisome, but the writer is impressively erudite and tells many an interesting story with flair and enthusiasm, which lends itself immediately to the reader. Campbell’s consideration of scapegoating commences with the word’s derivation (coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the bible to describe a Jewish Day of Atonement ritual, which included the sacrificing of two goats) and concludes with one of the most hapless instances of the practice in history (an innocent man convicted and hanged for the Great Fire of London), with numerous riveting facts and anecdotes along the way.

One might wonder about the importance of the subject, but in fact as Campbell points out, “the ritual of scapegoat goes back right to the beginning of mankind”. It is also something that has bound different cultures and religious denominations throughout the ages; this idea that “sin was a definitive entity that could be transferred from being to being or object and that wrongdoing could be washed away”. Campbell goes on to illustrate this point by citing similar absolution rituals from various beliefs systems  and societies, and shows how over time the animal scapegoat came to be replaced by a human one, which makes for very interesting reading. The book contains a chapter on animal prosecutions, which Campbell points out is one of the instances when human stupidity excels itself. The writer gives some hair-raising examples of animals being put on trial for such crimes as homicide and sorcery. “In Falaise, Normandy, in 1386 a sow was charged with killing and infant… ” writes Campbell, “In Bale in 1474 an old cock was put in the dock, accused of laying an egg…[and]…There was a case in 1478 in Switzerland involving an insect known as inger, which was devastating the local crop. ” For a time this practice also applied to inanimate objects. Indeed.

In order to understand our need to always find a culprit, Campbell looks to the nature of man “essentially a meaning seeking creature” incapable of accepting the fact that “much of life is inexplicable”.He goes on to show  how we use “myth, art and religion” to try and makes sense of seemingly arbitrary events . “Through them,” he writes, “we tell stories to dispel this frightening notion that the universe is a violent and senseless place where anything can and will happen to us. We listen most carefully to those who tell us that this isn’t actually the case, to those who can offer and explanation. And this all too often turns into blame. Blame tells the most comforting story, one in which there is a villain who seeks to thwart us, the heroes, at every turn.” Our need for explanation is thus directly connected to our fear of the unknown. This fear has been written about for decades, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s narrator in Demons, for example, described it as “the gravest, most tortuous fear of something I cannot define, something unknowable and absent from the order of things”. This was also the topic Friedrich Nietzsche gave some consideration to in Twilight of the Idols. “To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating,” he wrote, “soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.”  This “cause-creating drive,” as Nietzsche referred to it, “conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear” is something that Campbell traces back through history to show how it has led man to find solace in the scapegoat, a usually innocent thing or person “demonised to justify persecution” and to bestow on the act an “illusion of rationality”.

But of course there is nothing rational about it, certainly not the different prototypes of scapegoat. Campbell identifies the following: literal, religious, communist, financial, sexual and medical, all of which have their own purposes and causes. The Christian scapegoat, for example, says Campbell, serves to rationalise evil and “to account for the terrible things that happen in the world”. This is because the religious establishment cannot otherwise justify their putatively omnipotent deity’s failure to safeguard humanity from tragedy and misfortune. The devil is therefore identified as the responsible offender, but this is a rather flawed philosophy because “if we cannot accept the idea that there is evil in our God, there is a danger that we will not be able to endure it in ourselves”. The Communist scapegoat, however, surpasses even the religious one. “Totalitarian regimes moved it up a gear,” writes Campbell, “the self-styled perfect form of government could not be seen to brook any form of failure and so it appointed blame with extraordinary ferocity. They used propaganda to create and enemy, demonising them…creating the idea of this shadowy force responsible for every mishap.” But the worst of these is the Sexual scapegoat; an appellation ascribed to women who were believed to be witches and the trials of whom, Campbell says, serve as “the most spectacular and disturbing examples of blame being misdirected onto the vulnerable,”  tens of thousands of whom were burned, hanged and drowned in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The writer of this slight but comprehensive book has certainly done his research. Every chapter and idea is carefully consider and conveyed, with great historical, social and cultural insight. Campbell skilfully carries the subject from past to present day, where scapegoating seems to be flourishing more than ever because “we are faced with more choice than before” thus “we have a greater number of things to blame”. This notion that evil forces conspire against us has always been a popular one but never more so than in the age of internet and conspiracy theory. And let’s not forget that “every conspiracy theory has a victim”. Campbell chooses one of the most disheartening examples of victimisation in history to show the scapegoating practice at its worst. In 1870, a young French army officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was suspected of spying for the Germans. The accusations were based on conjecture but Dreyfus was imprisoned, tortured, his name smeared, largely due to his “Jewishness and family wealth” . Eventually, Dreyfus was cleared of the charges but even after being released from prison he remained a popular figure of blame and died a very unhappy man, after a very unhappy life.  Scapegoat is a marvellous little book written by a fine raconteur, who keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled throughout.

Publisher: Duckworth 
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 208 pages
ISBN: 9780715643785