On hell, handbaskets, and politics

Joanne Palmer

Sometimes it seems that we are going to hell in a handbasket.

All you have to do is watch news shows, read the internet, listen to podcasts or the radio, or even read our own opinion pieces, and you’ll find that a hard conclusion to avoid.

And to be fair, I share that feeling, although I will work rigorously to keep from disclosing in this space exactly in which handbag and on what road.

But Cassandra-izing, while it might be accurate — after all, the point of Cassandra is that no one believed her, but she always was right — gets tired in an editorial, particularly when it’s surrounded by many other Cassandras, even if they’re convincingly argued.

What to do?

Well, I started to divert myself by imagining going to hell in a handbasket? Where did that image come from? What could possibly have given birth to such an odd phrase? I imagine Miss Gulch pedaling furiously down the dusty black-and-white road in Dorothy Gale’s Kansas, with Toto yipping from her bicycle basket and finally escaping from it. Soon, Toto and Dorothy are on their way to Oz.

So I googled it.

No one’s exactly sure, it seems; there are a lot of guesses. Some say it’s at least partly from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called “The Haywain,” which does have a large basket, filled with hay and sinners. Others associate it with the gold rush; miners were send down shafts in hand-operated baskets. Needless to say, that was a risky business and often ended very, very badly. The phrase was used with great abandon throughout the 19th century.

Now I know a bit more than I used to about hell and handbaskets, but it got me thinking about rabbit holes, the joy of curiosity, and the wonders of the internet. We can find out just about anything online. That, of course, poses real dangers — it might have been okay for Alice Liddell to fall down a rabbit hole, at least as Lewis Carroll imagined her to have tumbled, but it’s bad for the rest of us. Paranoia and conspiracy theories lie in that dark, downward direction.

But the internet! Once you know enough to know what obvious scams and bits of illiteracy not to fall for, you have the entire world open for you on your screen.

I think about how much easier it is for me to do my job when I can do something as necessary but possibly time-consuming as checking how to spell names. Just on these opinion pages, Elise or Elyse Stefanik? Lindsey or Lindsay Graham? Hillary or Hilary Clinton?

And then the spelling of the Russian and Ukrainian names in our Angry Dwarf series? All those many consonants and improbably combined vowels would be all wrong, entirely wrong, without the internet and then cutting and pasting.

And then, without even thinking about what I’m not thinking about, I’m miles away from the ghastliness and actual danger of this political moment. And that’s a good thing.

If we’ve learned anything from living through this tension-filled time, with controversial elections and outcomes not only here but in Israel as well, it’s that we have to figure out both how to pay attention and how not to pay so much attention that the rest of our lives get covered with ash.

It’s winter now. When you’re finished exploring online, bundle up and go outside. Look at the evocative shapes of the trees, now that they’re not hidden by color. Look at their brown against the sky. Look at the bright sharpness of the light, and how quickly it fades; also notice how it’s already getting light a bit earlier every morning, and dark a big later every evening.

Odd discoveries and small-scale daily delights are the best antidotes to gloom. And then we can go back to paying attention to the rest of the world.


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