April 15, 2021
Twenty years ago this spring, the Taliban completed their obliteration of Afghanistan’s 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan. The colossal stone sculptures had survived major assaults in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the Persian king Nader Afshar. Lacking sufficient firepower, both gave up after partly defacing the monuments.
The Taliban’s methodical destruction recalled the calculated brutality of ancient days. By the time the Romans were finished with Carthage in 146 B.C., the entire city had been reduced to rubble. They were given a taste of their own medicine in 455 A.D. by Genseric, King of the Vandals, who stripped Rome bare in two weeks of systematic looting and destruction.
Like other vanquished cities, Rome’s buildings became a source of free material. Emperor Constans II of Byzantium blithely stole the Pantheon’s copper roofing in the mid-17th century; a millennium later, Pope Urban VIII appropriated its bronze girders for Bernini’s baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.
When not dismantled, ancient buildings might be repurposed by new owners. Thus Hagia Sophia Cathedral became a mosque after the Ottomans captured Constantinople, and St. Radegund’s Priory was turned into Jesus College at Cambridge University on the orders of King Henry VIII.
The idea that a country’s ancient heritage forms part of its cultural identity took hold in the wake of the French Revolution. Incensed by the Jacobins’ pillaging of churches, Henri Gregoire, the Constitutional Bishop of Blois, coined the term vandalisme. His protest inspired the novelist Victor Hugo’s efforts to save Notre Dame. But the architect chosen for the restoration, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, added his own touches to the building, including the central spire that fell when the cathedral’s roof burned in 2019, spurring controversy over what to restore. Viollet-le-Duc’s own interpolations set off a fierce debate, led by the English art critic John Ruskin, about what constitutes proper historical preservation.
Ruskin inspired people to rethink society’s relationship with the past. There was uproar in England in 1883 when the London and South Western Railway tried to justify building a rail-track alongside Stonehenge, claiming the ancient site was unused.
Public opinion in the U.S., when aroused, could be equally determined. The first preservation society was started in the 1850s by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina. Despite being disabled by a riding accident, Cunningham initiated a successful campaign to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon from ruin.
But developers have a way of getting what they want. Not even modernist architect Philip Johnson protesting in front of New York’s Penn Station was able to save the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece in 1963. Two years later, fearing that the world’s architectural treasures were being squandered, retired army colonel James Gray founded the International Fund for Monuments (now the World Monuments Fund). Without the WMF’s campaign in 1996, the deteriorating south side of Ellis Island, gateway for 12 million immigrants, might have been lost to history.
The fight never ends. I still miss the magnificent beaux-arts interior of the old Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan. The 109-year-old building was torn down in 2014. Nothing like it will ever be seen again.
From the Incas to the College Board, exams have been a popular way for societies to select an elite.
March 11, 2021
Last month, the University of Texas at Austin joined the growing list of colleges that have made standardized test scores optional for another year due to the pandemic. Last year, applicants were quick to take up the offer: Only 44% of high-school students who applied to college using the Common Application submitted SAT or ACT scores in 2020-21, compared with 77% the previous year.
Nobody relishes taking exams, yet every culture expects some kind of proof of educational attainment from its young. To enter Plato’s Academy in ancient Athens, a prospective student had to solve mathematical problems. Would-be doctors at one of the many medical schools in Ephesus had to participate in a two-day competition that tested their knowledge as well as their surgical skills.
On the other side of the world, the Incas of Peru were no less demanding. Entry into the nobility required four years of rigorous instruction in the Quechua language, religion and history. At the end of the course students underwent a harsh examination lasting several days that tested their physical and mental endurance.
It was the Chinese who invented the written examination, as a means of improving the quality of imperial civil servants. During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, China’s only female ruler, in the 7th century, the exam became a national rite of passage for the intelligentsia. Despite its burdensome academic requirements, several hundred thousand candidates took it every year. A geographical quota system was eventually introduced to prevent the richer regions of China from dominating.
Over the centuries, all that cramming for one exam stifled innovation and encouraged conformity. Still, the meritocratic nature of the Chinese imperial exam greatly impressed educational reformers in the West. In 1702, Trinity College, Cambridge became the first institution to require students to take exams in writing rather than orally. By the end of the 19th century, exams to enter a college or earn a degree had become a fixture in most European countries.
In the U.S., the reformer Horace Mann introduced standardized testing in Boston schools in the 1840s, hoping to raise the level of teaching and ensure that all citizens would have equal access to a good education. The College Board, a nonprofit organization founded by a group of colleges and high schools in 1899, established the first standardized test for university applicants.
Not every institution that adopted standardized testing had noble aims, however. The U.S. Army had experimented with multiple-choice intelligence tastes during World War I and found them useless as a predictive tool. But in the early 1920s, the president of Columbia University, Nicholas M. Butler, adopted the Thorndike Tests for Mental Alertness as part of the admissions process, believing it would limit the number of Jewish students.
The College Board adopted the SAT, a multiple-choice aptitude test, in 1926, as a fair and inclusive alternative to written exams, which were thought to be biased against poorer students. In the 1960s, civil rights activists began to argue that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT were biased against minority students, but despite the mounting criticisms, the tests seemed like a permanent part of American education—until now.
Winston Churchill made the term famous, but ideological rivalries have driven geopolitics since Athens and Sparta.
February 25, 2021
It was an unseasonably springlike day on March 5, 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Fulton, Missouri. The former British Prime Minister was ostensibly there to receive an honorary degree from Westminster College. But Churchill’s real purpose in coming was to urge the U.S. to form an alliance with Britain to keep the Soviet Union from expanding any further. Speaking before an august audience that included President Harry S. Truman, Churchill declared: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Churchill wasn’t the first person to employ the phrase “iron curtain” as a political metaphor. Originally a theatrical term for the safety barrier between the stage and the audience, by the early 20th century it was being used to mean a barrier between opposing powers. Nevertheless, “iron curtain” became indelibly associated with Churchill and with the defense of freedom and democracy.
This was a modern expression of an idea first articulated by the ancient Greeks: that political beliefs are worth defending. In the winter of 431-30 B.C., the Athenians were staggering under a devastating plague while simultaneously fighting Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The stakes couldn’t have been higher when the great statesman Pericles used a speech commemorating the war dead to define the struggle in terms that every Athenian would understand.
As reported by the historian Thucydides, Pericles told his compatriots that the fight wasn’t for more land, trade or treasure; it was for democracy pure and simple. Athens was special because its government existed “for the many instead of the few,” guaranteeing “equal justice to all.” No other regime, and certainly not the Spartans, could make the same claim.
Pericles died the following year, and Athens eventually went down in defeat in 404 B.C. But the idea that fighting for one’s country meant defending a political ideal continued to be influential. According to the 2nd-century Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Empire had to make war on the “lawless and godless” tribes living outside its borders. Fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall in northern England weren’t just defensive measures but political statements: Inside bloomed civilization, outside lurked savagery.
The Great Wall of China, begun in 220 B.C. by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, had a similar function. In addition to keeping out the nomadic populations in the Mongolian plains, the wall symbolized the unity of the country under imperial rule and the Confucian belief system that supported it. Successive dynasties continued to fortify the Great Wall until the mid-17th century.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British considered themselves to be fighting for democracy against dictatorship, like the ancient Athenians. In 1806, Napoleon instigated the Continental System, an economic blockade intended to cut off Britain from trading with France’s European allies and conquests. But the attack on free trade only strengthened British determination.
A similar resolve among the NATO allies led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and withdrew its armies from Eastern Europe. As Churchill had predicted, freedom and democracy is the ultimate shield against “war and tyranny.”
Roman emperors and modern dictators have feared the social and spiritual penalties of excommunication.
January 28, 2021
Nowadays, all it takes for a person to be condemned to internal exile is a Twitter stampede of outrage. The lack of any regulating authority or established criteria for what constitutes repentance gives “cancel culture,” as it is popularly known, a particularly modern edge over more old-fashioned expressions of public shaming such as tar-and-feathering, boycotts and blacklists.
But the practice of turning nonconforming individuals into non-persons has been used with great effectiveness for centuries, none more so than the punishment of excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. The penalties included social ostracism, refusal of communion and Christian burial, and eternal damnation of one’s soul.
The fear inspired by excommunication was great enough to make even kings fall in line. In 390, soldiers under the command of the Roman emperor Theodosius I massacred thousands in the Greek city of Thessalonica. In response, Bishop Ambrose of Milan excommunicated Theodosius, forcing him to don sackcloth and ashes as public penance. Ambrose’s victory established the Church’s authority over secular rulers.
Later church leaders relied on the threat of excommunication to maintain their power, but the method could backfire. In 1054, Pope Leo III of Rome excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, the head of the eastern Church, who retaliated by excommunicating Leo and the western Church. Since this Great Schism, the two churches, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, have never reunited.
During the Middle Ages, the penalty of excommunication broadened to include the cancellation of all legal protections, including the right to collect debts. Neither kings nor cities were safe. After being excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1076, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood barefoot in the snow for three days before the pontiff grudgingly welcomed him inside to hear his repentance. The entire city of Venice was excommunicated over half a dozen times, and on each occasion the frightened Venetians capitulated to papal authority.
But the excommunication of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, by Pope Leo X in January 1521, 500 years ago this month, didn’t work out as planned. Summoned to explain himself at the Diet of Worms, a meeting presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Luther refused to recant and ask forgiveness, allegedly saying: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In response, the Emperor declared him a heretic and outlaw, putting his life in danger. Luther was only saved from assassination by his patron, Frederick, Elector of Saxony, who hid him in a castle. Luther used the time to begin translating the Bible into German.
Napoleon Bonaparte was equally unconcerned about the spiritual consequences when he was excommunicated by Pope Pius VII in 1809. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently frightened of public opinion to kidnap the pontiff and keep him out of sight for several months. In 1938, angry over Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried to persuade Pope Pius XI to excommunicate the German dictator Adolf Hitler, a nonpracticing Catholic. Who knows what would have happened if he had been successful.
Charting the southern continent took generations of heroic sacrifice and international cooperation.
January 14, 2021
There is a place on Earth that remains untouched by war, slavery or riots. Its inhabitants coexist in peace, and all nationalities are welcomed. No, it’s not Neverland or Shangri-La—it’s Antarctica, home to the South Pole, roughly 20 million penguins and a transient population of about 4,000 scientists and support staff.
Antarctica’s existence was only confirmed 200 years ago. Following some initial sightings by British and Russian explorers in January 1821, Captain John Davis, a British-born American sealer and explorer, landed on the Antarctic Peninsula on Feb. 7, 1821. Davis was struck by its immense size, writing in his logbook, “I think this Southern Land to be a Continent.” It is, in fact, the fifth-largest of Earth’s seven continents.
People had long speculated that there had to be something down at the bottom of the globe—in cartographers’ terms, a Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”). The ancient Greeks referred to the putative landmass as “Ant-Arktos,” because it was on the opposite side of the globe from the constellation of Arktos, the Bear, which appears in the north. But the closest anyone came to penetrating the freezing wastes of the Antarctic Circle was Captain James Cook, the British explorer, who looked for a southern continent from 1772-75. He got within 80 miles of the coast, but the harshness of the region convinced Cook that “no man will ever venture further than I have done.”
Davis proved him wrong half a century later, but explorers were unable to make further progress until the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century. In 1911, the British explorer Robert F. Scott led a research expedition to the South Pole, only to be beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who misled his backers about his true intentions and jettisoned scientific research for the sake of getting there quickly.
Extraordinarily bad luck led to the deaths of Scott and his teammates on their return journey. In 1915, Ernest Shackleton led a British expedition that aimed to make the first crossing of Antarctica by land, but his ship Endurance was trapped in the polar ice. The crew’s 18-month odyssey to return to civilization became the stuff of legend.
Soon exploration gave way to international competition over Antarctica’s natural resources. Great Britain marked almost two-thirds of the continent’s landmass as part of the British Empire, but a half dozen other countries also staked claims. In 1947 the U.S. joined the fray with Operation High Jump, a U.S. Navy-led mission to establish a research base that involved 13 ships and 23 aircraft.
Antarctica’s freedom and neutrality were in question during the Cold War. But in 1957, a group of geophysicists managed to launch a year-long Antarctic research project involving 12 countries. It was such a success that two years later the countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and the USSR, signed the Antarctic Treaty, guaranteeing the continent’s protection from militarization and exploitation. This goodwill toward men took a further 20 years to extend to women, but in 1979 American engineer Irene C. Peden became the first woman to work at the South Pole for an entire winter.
The cocktail was invented in the U.S., but it soon became a worldwide symbol of sophistication.
December 18, 2020
In 1887, the Chicago Tribune hailed the martini as the quintessential Christmas drink, reminding readers that it is “made of Vermouth, Booth’s Gin, and Angostura Bitters.” That remains the classic recipe, even though no one can say for certain who created it.
The journalist H.L. Mencken famously declared that the martini was “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet,” and there are plenty of claimants to the title of inventor. The city of Martinez, Calif., insists the martini was first made there in 1849, for a miner who wanted to celebrate a gold strike with something “special.” Another origin story gives the credit to Jerry Thomas, the bartender of the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, in 1867.
Of course, just as calculus was discovered simultaneously by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, the martini may have sprung from multiple cocktail shakers. What soon made it stand out from all other gin cocktails was its association with high society. The hero of “Burning Daylight,” Jack London’s 1910 novel about a gold-miner turned entrepreneur, drinks martinis to prove to himself and others that he has “arrived.” Ernest Hemingway paid tribute to the drink in his 1929 novel “A Farewell To Arms” with the immortal line, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”
Prohibition was a golden age for the martini. Its adaptability was a boon: Even the coarsest bathtub gin could be made palatable with the addition of vermouth and olive brine (a dirty martini), a pickled onion (Gibson), lemon (twist), lime cordial (gimlet) or extra vermouth (wet). President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so attached to the cocktail that he tried a little martini diplomacy on Stalin during the Yalta conference of 1945. Stalin could just about stand the taste but informed Roosevelt that the cold on the way down wasn’t to his liking at all.
The American love affair with the martini continued in Hollywood films like “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis, which portrayed it as the epitome of glamour and sophistication. But change was coming. In Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel “Live and Let Die,” James Bond ordered a martini made with vodka instead of gin. Worse, two years later in “Diamonds are Forever,” Fleming described the drink as being “shaken and not stirred,” even though shaking weakens it. Then again, according to an analysis of Bond’s alcohol consumption published in the British Medical Journal in 2013, 007 sometimes downed the equivalent of 14 martinis in a 24-hour period, so his whole body would have been shaking.
American businessmen weren’t all that far behind. The three-martini lunch was a national pastime until business lunches ceased to be fully tax-deductible in the 1980s. Banished from meetings, the martini went back to its roots as a mixologists’ dream, reinventing itself as a ‘tini for all seasons.
The 1990s brought new varieties that even James Bond might have thought twice about, like the chocolate martini, made with creme de cacao, and the appletini, made with apple liqueur, cider or juice. Whatever your favorite, this holiday season let’s toast to feeling civilized.
From Homer to Edgar Allan Poe, ghost stories have given us a chilling good time
October 23, 2020
As the novelist Neil Gaiman, a master of the macabre, once said, “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.” In this respect, we’re no different than our ancestors: They, too, loved to tell ghost stories.
One of the earliest ghosts in literature appears in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus entertains King Alcinous of Phaeacia with an account of his trip to the Underworld, where he met the spirits of Greek heroes killed in the Trojan War. The dead Achilles complains that being a ghost is no fun: “I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another…rather than to be lord over all the dead.”
It was a common belief in both Eastern and Western societies that ghosts could sometimes return to right a great wrong, such as an improper burial. The idea that ghosts are intrinsically evil—the core of any good ghost story—received a boost from Plato, who believed that only wicked souls hang on after death; the good know when it’s time to let go.
Ghosts were problematic for early Christianity, which taught that sinners went straight to Hell; they weren’t supposed to be slumming it on Earth. The ghost story was dangerously close to heresy until the Church adopted the belief in Purgatory, a realm where the souls of minor sinners waited to be cleansed. The Byland Abbey tales, a collection of ghost stories recorded by an anonymous 15th-century English monk, suggest that the medieval Church regarded the supernatural as a useful form of advertising: Not paying the priest to say a mass for the dead could lead to a nasty case of haunting.
The ghost story reached its apogee in the early modern era with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which opens with a terrified guard seeing the ghost of the late king on the battlements of Elsinore Castle. But the rise of scientific skepticism made the genre seem old-fashioned and unsophisticated. Ghosts were notably absent from English literature until Horace Walpole, son of Britain’s first prime minister, published the supernatural mystery novel “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764, as a protest against the deadening effect of “reason” on art.
Washington Irving was the first American writer to take the ghost story seriously, creating the Headless Horseman in his 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He was a lightweight, however, compared with Edgar Allan Poe, who turned horror into an art form. His famous 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher” heightens the tension with ambiguity: For most of the story, it isn’t clear whether Roderick Usher’s house really is haunted, or if he is merely “enchained by certain superstitious impressions.”
Henry James used a similar technique in 1895, when, unhappy with the tepid reception of his novels in the U.S., he decided to frighten Americans into liking him. The result was the psychological horror story “The Turn of the Screw,” about a governess who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The reviews expressed horror at the horror, with one critic describing it as “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.” With such universal condemnation, success was assured.
Sylvia Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes, review — finally having her moment.
Her mother and sister were once better known, but this fine biography shows just how remarkable the women’s rights activist was.
September 22, 2020
After decades of obscurity, Sylvia Pankhurst is finally having her moment. This is the third biography in seven years — not bad for a woman who spent much of her life being unfavourably compared with her more popular mother and sister.
The neglect is partly owing to Sylvia’s rich, complex life not being easily pigeonholed. Although she played an instrumental role in the suffrage movement, she was first and foremost a defender of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. Her political choices were often noble, but lonely ones.
Despite financial troubles and career disappointments, the Pankhurst parents were a devoted couple and the household a happy one. Sylvia was born in 1882, the second of five children and the middle daughter between Christabel (her mother’s favourite) and Adela (no one’s favourite). She craved Emmeline’s good opinion, but was closer to her father. “Life is valueless without enthusiasms,” he once told her, a piece of advice she took to heart.
Sylvia was only 16 when her father died. Without his counter-influence, the three sisters (and their brother, Harry, who died of polio aged 20) lived in thrall to their powerful mother. After Emmeline and Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 — having become frustrated by the lack of support from the Independent Labour Party — there was no question that Sylvia and Adela would do anything other than sacrifice their personal interests for the good of the cause. Sylvia later admitted that one of her greatest regrets was being made to give up a promising art career for politics.
She was imprisoned for the first time in 1906. As the tactics of the WSPU became more extreme, so did the violence employed by the authorities against its members. Sylvia was the only Pankhurst to be subjected to force-feeding, an experience she likened to rape.
“Infinitely worse than the pain,” she wrote of the experience, “was the sense of degradation.” Indeed, in some cases that was the whole point of the exercise. While not widespread, vaginal and anal “feeding” was practised on the hunger strikers. Holmes hints, but doesn’t speculate that Sylvia may have been one of its victims.
Ironically, Sylvia suffered the most while being the least convinced by the WSPU’s militant tactics. It wasn’t only the violence she abhorred. Emmeline and Christabel wanted the WSPU to remain an essentially middle-class, politically aloof organisation, whereas Sylvia regarded women’s rights as part of a wider struggle for revolutionary socialism. The differences between them became unbridgeable after Sylvia founded a separate socialist wing of the WSPU in the East End. Both she and Adela, whom Emmeline and Christabel dismissed as a talentless lightweight, were summarily expelled from the WSPU in February 1914. The four women would never again be in the same room together.
Sylvia had recognised early on that first-wave feminism suffered from a fundamental weakness. It was simultaneously too narrow and too broad to be a stand-alone political platform. The wildly different directions that were taken by the four Pankhursts after the victory of 1918 proved her right: Emmeline became a Conservative, Christabel a born-again Christian, Sylvia a communist and Adela a fascist, yet all remained loyal to their concept of women’s rights.
Once cut loose from the Pankhurst orbit, Sylvia claimed the freedom to think and act as her conscience directed. In 1918 she fell in love with an Italian anarchist socialist refugee, Silvio Corio, who already had three children with two women. Undeterred, she lived with him in Woodford Green, Essex, in a ramshackle home appropriately named Red Cottage. They remained partners for the best part of 30 years, writing, publishing and campaigning together. Even more distressing for her uptight family, not to mention society in general, at the advanced age of 45 she had a son by him, Richard, who was given her surname rather than Silvio’s.
Broadly speaking, her life can be divided into four campaigns: after women’s suffrage came communism, then anti-fascism and finally Ethiopian independence. (The last has received the least attention, although Sylvia insisted it gave her the greatest pride.) None was an unalloyed success or without controversy. Her fierce independence would lead her to break with Lenin over their ideological differences, and later support her erstwhile enemy Winston Churchill when their views on fascism aligned. She never had any time for Stalin, left-wing antisemitism or liberal racism. In her mid-seventies and widowed, she cut all ties with Britain by accepting an invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to emigrate to Ethiopia. She died there in 1960.
The genius of Holmes’s fascinating and important biography is that it approaches Sylvia’s life as if she were a man. The writing isn’t prettified or leavened by amusing anecdotes about Victorian manners, it’s dense and serious, as befits a woman who never wore make-up and didn’t care about clothes. To paraphrase the WSPU’s slogan, it is about deeds not domesticity. Rather than dwelling on moods and relationships, Holmes is interested in ideas and consequences. It’s wonderfully refreshing. Sylvia lived for her work; her literary output was astounding. In addition to publishing her own newspaper almost every week for over four decades, she wrote nonfiction, fiction, plays, poetry and investigative reports. She even taught herself Romanian so that she could translate the poems of the 19th-century Romantic poet Mihail Eminescu. It doesn’t matter whether Sylvia was right or wrong in her political enthusiasms; as Holmes rightly insists, what counts is that by acting on them she helped to make history.