The mainstream media, and various popular blogs, have had a lot of fun with the news that Romania would start taxing the practice of witchcraft. Most treatments (including mine) focused on the anger of various Romanian witches, as though they were some sort of mystical European analog to our own anti-tax activists. So it’s admirable to see The New Republic trying to dig a little deeper than the newswires to find out why witchcraft is being taxed now, and what its ramifications might be.
“But, to start, how did witchcraft—subject throughout continental Europe to persecution and prosecution from roughly 1400 to 1800—become business as (not-so) usual in Romania in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the level of superstition that persists even in modern-day Romania. In 2009, following the presidential elections, the leader of the Social Democrats—a man who had previously served as the ambassador to Washington and was expected to make a strong showing at the polls—blamed his surprising demise on an occult attack. In 2010, after the release of a nationwide study, the English-language Romanian newspaper Nine O’clock wrote that fortune-telling and evil-eye precautions play a large role in many Romanians’ lives, and that three-quarters of the population “believes” in horoscopes. And lawmakers reportedly backed down from a similar act to tax witches last September out of fears that they would be cursed. Meanwhile, people claiming to be witches have capitalized on public superstition. The exact scale of the witchcraft economy in Romania is difficult to gauge, but, ten years ago,the BBC reported on “Romanian witches’ roaring trade,” and business seems to have boomed in the meantime.”
Writer Chloe Schama ventures into the possibility that this new tax may mask some latent (and not so latent) anti-Roma feelings in Romania, and she quotes Romanian-born poet/writer Andrei Codrescu, who sees it as “a cheap populist, nationalist move.” Schama also touches on those Romanian witches who see this as a positive development, one that will validate their profession in the eyes of the law.
“From my point of view, this law adopted now is very good and I’m very happy because the Romanian government considered that our magic skills, which are recognized and accepted worldwide, are now authorized in Romania too.” – Mihela Minca, Romanian Witch, interviewed by NPR
Where I part company from The New Republic is the closing paragraph, where Schama talks with Brian Pavlac, author of “Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials”, who opines that this move of validation and recognition might carry unintended negative consequences. These hypothetical consequences aren’t really dealt with, other than a somewhat snarky closing line about vampire hunters (a topic touched on in a recent issue of Harpers). I don’t see validating or legalizing fortune telling or witchcraft as something that is inherently irrational or backward. Instead, I think placing these activities and professions into the light of day will dispel some of their worst excesses, and force a greater accountability to those who practice these arts.
Witch-hunts and persecutions happen when we allow disinformation and marginalization to prosper. Removing some of the mystery and secrecy might damage the potency of some Romanian witches, but I also think it will help inoculate the populace against moral panics. While I disagree with the closing of this essay, I do give credit to The New Republic for taking this story (for the most part) seriously, and looking beyond the “News of the Weird” angle.