“Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem recounting the Florentine’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, remains the go-to guide to the afterlife, the world’s most famous travelogue for the great beyond. But Dante matters more than that. Dante’s encounters with the dead offer enduring lessons for the living, including one that speaks with vital urgency to us today.
“Consider California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press conference on June 5, 2020, as a Dantean case study. The governor insisted that ‘we’—institutions and the community at large—must change to combat systemic anti-Black racism. Urging individuals to ‘take a stand,’ he quoted the medieval Italian poet: ‘Dante infamously said that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those in a time of moral crisis that maintain their neutrality.’ The lesson drawn by Gov. Newsom? ‘This is not the time to be neutral.’
“This might be the place for me to stop, tear out my hair (or what’s left of it), and object, ‘Dante never said those words! They imply that neutrality is the worst sin for Dante, but treachery is, and the punishment for that sin isn’t fire but ice!’ But I won’t do that, because the complicated life of this fictitious quotation is so deeply embedded in U.S. history that the correction is pointless.” –Guy P. Raffa, “There’s a Special Place in Dante’s Inferno for Wafflers and Neutral Souls,” Zócalo Public Square (August 31, 2020)