The “Inferno” brought human complexity to the medieval conception of the afterlife
September 30, 2021
What is hell? For Plato, it was Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades where those who had sinned against the gods suffered eternal punishment. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of existentialism, hell was other people. For many travelers today, it is airport security.
No depiction of hell, however, has been more enduring than the “Inferno,” part one of the “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, the 700th anniversary of whose death is commemorated this year. Dante’s hell is divided into nine concentric circles, each one more terrifying and brutal than the last until the frozen center, where Satan resides alongside Judas, Brutus and Cassius. With Virgil as his guide, Dante’s spiritually bereft and depressed alter ego enters via a gate bearing the motto “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”—a phrase so ubiquitous in modern times that it greets visitors to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
The inscription was a Dantean invention, but the idea of a physical gate separating the land of the living from a desolate one of the dead was already at least 3,000 years old: In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2150 B.C., two scorpionlike figures guard the gateway to an underworld filled with darkness and dust.
The underworld of the ancient Egyptians was only marginally less bleak. Seven gates blocked the way to the Hall of Judgment, according to the Book of the Dead. Getting through them was arduous and fraught with failure. The successful then had to submit to having their hearts weighed against the Feather of Truth. Those found wanting were thrown into the fire of oblivion.
Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the ancient Persians, was possibly the first to divide the afterlife into two physically separate places, one for good souls and the other for bad. This vision contrasted with the Greek view of Hades as the catchall for the human soul and the early Hebrew Bible’s description of Sheol as a shadowy pit of nothingness. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire swallowed both Persia and Judea, and the three visions of the afterlife commingled. “hell” would then appear frequently in Greek versions of the New Testament. But the word, scholars point out, was a single translation for several distinct Hebrew terms.
Early Christianity offered more than one vision of hell, but all contained the essential elements of Satan, sinners and fire. The “Apocalypse of Peter,” a 2nd century text, helped start the trend of listing every sadistic torture that awaited the wicked.
Dante was thus following a well-trod path with his imaginatively crafted punishments of boiling pitch for the dishonest and downpours of icy rain on the gluttonous. But he deviated from tradition by describing Hell’s occupants with psychological depth and insight. Dante’s narrator rediscovers the meaning of Christian truth and love through his encounters. In this way the Inferno speaks to the complexities of the human condition rather than serving merely as a literary zoo of the dammed.
The “Divine Comedy” changed the medieval world’s conception of hell, and with it, man’s understanding of himself. Boccaccio, Chaucer, Milton, Balzac —the list of writers directly inspired by Dante’s vision goes on. “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “There is no third.”
September 17, 2021
Nearly two centuries earlier, the founders of the U.S. penal system had intended it as a humane alternative to those that relied on such physical punishments as mutilation and whipping. After the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin and leading members of Philadelphia’s Quaker community argued that prison should be a place of correction and penitence. Their vision was behind the construction of the country’s first “penitentiary house” at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in 1790. The old facility threw all prisoners together; its new addition contained individual cells meant to prevent moral contagion and to encourage prisoners to spend time reflecting on their crimes.
Walnut Street inspired the construction of the first purpose-built prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened outside of Philadelphia in 1829. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and slept, worked and ate in their cells—a model that became known as the Pennsylvania system. Neighboring New York adopted the Auburn system, which also enforced total silence but required prisoners to work in communal workshops and instilled discipline through surveillance, humiliation and corporal punishment. Although both systems were designed to prevent recidivism, the former stressed prisoner reform while the latter carried more than a hint of retribution.
Europeans were fascinated to see which system worked best. In 1831, the French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to investigate. Having inspected facilities in several states, they concluded that although the “penitentiary system in America is severe,” its combination of isolation and work offered hope of rehabilitation. But the novelist Charles Dickens reached the opposite conclusion. After touring Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, he wrote that the intentions behind solitary confinement were “kind, humane and meant for reformation.” In practice, however, total isolation was “worse than any torture of the body”: It broke rather than reformed people.
Severe overcrowding—there was no parole in the 19th century—eventually undermined both systems. Prisoner violence became endemic, and regimes of control grew harsher. Sing Sing prison in New York meted out 36,000 lashes in 1843 alone. In 1870, the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline proposed reforms, including education and work-release initiatives. Despite such efforts, recidivism rates remained high, physical punishment remained the norm and almost 200 serious prison riots were recorded between 1855 and 1955.
That year, Harry Manuel Shulman, a deputy commissioner in New York City’s Department of Correction, wrote an essay arguing that the country’s early failure to decide on the purpose of prison had immobilized the system, leaving it “with one foot in the road of rehabilitation and the other in the road of punishment.” Which would it choose? Sixteen years later, Attica demonstrated the consequences of ignoring the question.
The blow to abortion rights is shocking, but this fight is nowhere near over
September 7, 2021
The pro-life movement in America finally got its wish this week: a little before midnight on Wednesday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against temporarily blocking a Texas state law passed in May, known as Senate Bill 8 (SB8), banning almost all abortions once a heartbeat can be detected by ultrasound — which is around six weeks after conception. The bill will still eventually return to the Supreme Court for a final decision, but by being allowed to stand unchanged it becomes the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation. There are no exceptions for child pregnancy, rape or incest.
But this isn’t the reason for the national uproar. SB8 goes further than any other anti-abortion bill yet crafted because of the way it allows the ban to be enforced. Under the new Texas law, a $10,000 bounty will be awarded to any US citizen who successfully sues a person or entity that helps a woman to obtain an abortion. “Help” includes providing money, transport, medicines or medical aid.
To speed up the process, Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion organisation, has already set up an anonymous tip line for “whistleblowers”. That’s right, the second-largest state in the union by size and population is turning family against family, neighbour against neighbour, to create its own spy network of uterus police. Welcome to Gilead-on-the-Rio Grande. Cue outrage from all Americans who support legal abortion — and, according to recent polls, they amount to 58 per cent of the country.
There is no doubt that SB8 is a huge victory for the pro-life campaign. Texas joins 24 countries worldwide that have a total or near-total ban on abortion. Outside the big cities, large swathes of America are already abortion-free zones: only 11 per cent of counties have a hospital or clinic that provides such services.
In the short term the outlook for that most basic of human rights, a woman’s control over her body, is dire in America. The combination of a Republican-packed Supreme Court, thanks to Donald Trump’s last-minute appointment of Amy Coney Barrett following the death in September last year of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and SB8’s sneaky bypassing of federal authority has closed down the obvious routes for legal redress. Moreover, the Senate is tied 50-50, making it impossible for Congress to pass a law mandating a woman’s unrestricted access to abortion. The Texas Talibanistas have gained the upper hand. Similar laws to SB8 will no doubt be passed in other Republican states.
The Texas appeal to vigilantism should also offend everyone who believes in democracy and the rule of law. But — and this may be hard to accept in the heat of the moment — SB8 is a gift to the pro-choice movement.
Pro-life Texans thought they were being clever by avoiding both the Supreme Court and Congress to slip through an abortion ban. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. “Lawfare” is a two-way street. Critics of SB8 point out that there is nothing to stop California passing a similar bill that enables citizens to bring civil lawsuits against people who utter “hate speech”, or to stop New York deputising bounty-hunters to sue gun-owners. Nor does the legal chaos stop there. SB8 could open the way for railways, car companies and airlines to become liable for providing travel assistance to an abortion-seeking woman, or supermarkets for selling the disinfectant Lysol and other substances that induce abortion. Forget about boycotts for a moment; the threat of a lawsuit is a powerful deterrent to corporations seeking to do business in Texas.
History is not the best predictor of the future. Nevertheless, the disastrous dalliance with prohibition, which lasted for 13 years between 1920 and 1933, offers a salient lesson in what happens when a long-held individual right is taken away from Americans. The non-metropolitan parts of the country forced their will on the urban parts. But drinking didn’t stop; it just went underground. Some states wouldn’t enforce the ban, and other states couldn’t. In Detroit, Michigan, the alcohol trade was the largest single contributor to the economy after the car industry. Prohibition fostered the American mafia, led to a rise in alcoholism, alcohol-related deaths, mass lawlessness and civil disobedience and brought about extraordinary levels of corruption.
There is every reason to believe that abortions will continue in America no matter what anti-abortion zealots manage to pull off. It just won’t be pretty. A recent study published in The Lancet Global Health revealed that the countries with the greatest restrictions not only have the highest termination rates in the world but are also among the least economically successful. This is the club that awaits pro-life America.
The strangulation of women’s rights has been so slow that supporters of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion legal, were lulled into a false sense of security. They assumed the minority of Americans fighting for a repeal would never overwhelm the will of the majority. SB8 has changed all that. Its underpinnings threaten so many constitutional rights that abortion is going to be front and centre in every state and federal election.
Democracy does work, even if, as with prohibition, it takes to time to roll back injustices. Last year the Virginia state legislature voted to remove more than a decade’s worth of abortion restrictions. This is the body that in 2012 stood accused of “state-sanctioned rape” for passing a bill that required any woman seeking an abortion to submit to an ultrasound first, not by the usual external method but with a transvaginal wand.
Despite what anti-abortion fanatics believe, the US is a pro-choice country. The fight for women’s rights will go on, and on, until the people win.
“The libraries are closing forever, like tombs,” wrote the historian Ammianus Marcellinus in 378 A.D. The Goths had just defeated the Roman army in the Battle of Adrianople, marking what is generally thought to be the beginning of the end of Rome.
His words echoed in my head during the pandemic, when U.S. public libraries closed their doors one by one. By doing so they did more than just close off community spaces and free access to books: They dimmed one of the great lamps of civilization.
Kings and potentates had long held private libraries, but the first open-access version came about under the Ptolemies, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt from 305 to 30 B.C. The idea was the brainchild of Ptolemy I Soter, who inherited Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great, and the Athenian governor Demetrius Phalereus, who fled there following his ouster in 307 B.C. United by a shared passion for knowledge, they set out to build a place large enough to store a copy of every book in the world. The famed Library of Alexandria was the result.
Popular myth holds that the library was accidentally destroyed when Julius Caesar’s army set fire to a nearby fleet of Egyptian boats in 48 B.C. In fact the library eroded through institutional neglect over many years. Caesar was himself responsible for introducing the notion of public libraries to Rome. These repositories became so integral to the Roman way of life that even the public baths had libraries.
Private libraries endured the Dark Ages better than public ones. The Al-Qarawiyyin Library and University in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 by the great heiress and scholar Fatima al-Fihri, survives to this day. But the celebrated Abbasid library, Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), in Baghdad, which served the entire Muslim world, did not. In 1258 the Mongols sacked the city, slaughtering its inhabitants and dumping hundreds of thousands of the library’s books into the Tigris River. The mass of ink reportedly turned the water black.
By the end of the 18th century, libraries could be found all over Europe and the Americas. But most weren’t places where the public could browse or borrow for free. Even Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731, required its members to subscribe.
The citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire, started the first free public library in the U.S. in 1833, voting to tax themselves to pay for it, on the grounds that knowledge was a civic good. Many philanthropists, including George Peabody and John Jacob Astor, took up the cause of building free libraries.
But the greatest advocate of all was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Determined to help others achieve an education through free libraries—just as he had done as a boy —Carnegie financed the construction of some 2,509 of them, with 1,679 spread across the U.S. He built the first in his hometown of Dumferline, Scotland in 1883. Carved over the entrance were the words “Let There Be Light.” It’s a motto to keep in mind as U.S. public libraries start to reopen.
Bush’s war supremo brought about his own worst fear: another Vietnam
July 4, 2021
The last bit was true then, and it continued to be until his death. Rumsfeld’s critics on his refusal to commit sufficient fighting troops in either Afghanistan or Iraq could fill a football pitch. (The first of many damning appraisals appeared in 2007, entitled Rumsfeld: An American Disaster.) But the claim he benefited from criticism was so laughable to anyone who knew him that it only highlighted the catastrophic deficiencies of the man. Rumsfeld was incapable of listening to anyone who didn’t already agree with him. He was the wrong man for the job at the most inopportune time in America’s history.
As several obituaries of Rumsfeld pointed out, his first stint as defence secretary, under Gerald Ford in 1975-77, happened under arguably worse circumstances. A survivor from Richard Nixon’s administration, where he stood out for his unwavering commitment to civil rights, Rumsfeld was the White House chief of staff during the last days of Saigon in April 1975. Appointed defence secretary shortly afterwards, Rumsfeld regarded it as his mission to keep the military ready and competitive but essentially inactive. This wasn’t cowardice but good Cold War strategy.
Rumsfeld’s reputation as a strategic thinker was subsequently borne out by his wildly successful transition to the business world. He was also a clear, no-nonsense communicator, whose fondness for aphorisms and golden rules became the stuff of legend. When Rumsfeld left the White House for the first time, he bequeathed a memorandum of best practices, Rumsfeld’s Rules, 11 of which were specific to the secretary of defence. They began with the reminder: “The secretary of defence is not a super general or admiral. His task is to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander-in-chief [the president] and the country”, and included such important pieces of advice as: “Establish good relations between the departments of Defence, State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and Budget.”
When Rumsfeld returned to the White House in 2001, aged 68, he broke almost every one of his own rules. Not only did he allow relations between the departments to become utterly dysfunctional but he so alienated the generals and joint chiefs of staff that it was widely assumed he “hated” the military. The serving chairman of the joint chiefs, General Hugh Shelton, complained that Rumsfeld operated “the worst style of leadership I witnessed in 38 years of service”. Rumsfeld treated all soldiers as boneheaded grunts, and the generals simply as boneheaded grunts with the medals to prove it.
His planned military transformations suffered from an overly technocratic mentality. He believed that the army was costly and lacked efficiency — what army doesn’t?— as though bottom lines apply equally in business and fighting. Rumsfeld wanted to remake the military as one that relied more on air power and technical advantages and less on soldiers with guns. The charge against him is that he eviscerated the military’s ground capabilities and reduced its fighting numbers at precisely the moment both were paramount to American success in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What was going through Rumsfeld’s mind? Millions of words have been spilt in the effort to explain why the defence secretary doggedly pursued a losing policy in the teeth of protests from the military. In his last year in the job six retired generals publicly rebuked him. Part of the answer lies in his character: he was a micromanager who failed to engage, a bureaucrat who despised professionals, an aggressor who disliked to fight. But the real driver of his actions can be traced back to 1975. More than anything else, even more than winning perhaps, he wanted to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam War, with its “limited war” rhetoric that was belied by the fact it was the first of what the US media have dubbed America’s “forever wars” — metastasising conflicts without a clear end in sight.
Rumsfeld emerged from his first period in the White House blaming the military for having misled successive administrations into committing themselves to an unwinnable and unpopular war. Hence, he believed that nothing the military said could be taken at face value. He was not going to allow himself to be taken prisoner by the top brass. Unlike Robert McNamara, the defence secretary most associated with US involvement in Vietnam, Rumsfeld was determined to stick to quick, in-and-out military objectives. There would be no quagmires, mass body bags, forever wars or attempts at nation-building on his watch.
Yet he was a prisoner all the same. Even though the causes and conditions were different, the Vietnam War remained the lens through which Americans judged the Iraq war. A few months after the coalition’s initial victory in Iraq in 2003, Senator John McCain, who spent five years as a PoW in Vietnam, warned the Bush administration that stopping the army doing its job, as interpreted by McCain, would risk “the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam”. By 2004, Democrats were saying: “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam”. Rumsfeld ended up being directly compared to McNamara, even though, by winding down, rather than ratcheting up, the US presence in the Middle East, he was doing the opposite of his predecessor. A 2005 column in the Washington Post intoned: “Just as Vietnam became McNamara’s war, Iraq has become Rumsfeld’s war”.
The successful troop “surge” in 2008 appeared to erase Rumsfeld’s Vietnam legacy. Only it didn’t. Barack Obama’s foreign policy — summed up as “leading from behind” — was Rumsfeldian in its horror of American military entanglement in foreign affairs. The Trump administration’s was even more so. More than six trillion war dollars later, with countless lives lost, if Rumsfeld leaves anything behind, it’s the lesson that America’s forever war syndrome is a state of mind, not just a reality.