Roving thoughts and provocations

Why the Pope Wears Red Shoes

Massimo Gatto

Getty Images

Romans knew that the timetable for the papal conclave would be a quick one when the three sets of vestments prepared for the new pontiff—in small, medium, and large sizes—had already disappeared from the display window of Gammarelli, the ecclesiastical tailors, on Friday, March 8. The three white wool satin cassocks had appeared on March 4, along with one scarlet capelet, the mozzetta, trimmed in white ermine, versatile enough for one size to fit any aspiring pontiff, a single pair of red kangaroo-leather shoes in a medium size, and a white moiré silk zucchetto, the pontifical skullcap. Though they are loaded with Christian significance, many of these articles of clothing actually have a far more ancient pedigree.

Does the Pope Matter?

Garry Wills

With the election of a new pope, the press will repeat old myths—that Christ made Peter the first pope, and that there has been an “apostolic succession” of popes from his time. Scholars have long known that Peter was no pope. He was not even a priest or a bishop—offices that did not exist in the first century. And there is no apostolic succession, just the twists and tangles of interrupted, multiple, and contested office holders. It is a rope of sand.

Chasing the White Rabbit

Francine Prose

Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life. Kafka never tells us what Gregor Samsa was dreaming when he awakens as a giant insect, except that the dreams were “uneasy.” Likely they were not as uneasy as the morning he wakes into. By the end of the first paragraph of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor has noticed his arched, dome-like brown belly, his numerous waving legs. “What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.”

The Last Caudillo

Alma Guillermoprieto

Dante Fernandez/Getty Images

Hugo Chávez was not the first president to fail, or to remain popular while failing. But it was his Peronist brand of popularity that so many found disturbing; the passion with which his name was roared at enormous public gatherings, the hatred he brought forth in his followers when he denounced the imperialists, the sharks, the would-be assassins of Venezuela, the traitors, the sneaking cowards who dared to disagree with him. And now we see the desperate weeping of millions of Venezuelans who feel that they have lost not a president or a politician or a great leader but something else: a father, a savior, a protector and soother of the orphan who lives in fright inside us all.

The Sequester’s Hidden Danger

Jeff Madrick

Felix Vallotton

The sequester is dangerous, but not for the reasons we think. Contrary to what some alarmists predicted, there is little evidence that the automatic, across-the-board cuts to the US budget that went into effect on Friday are causing cataclysmic harm. The stock market has risen slightly to near record heights, and most economists agree that the $85 billion down payment this year on about $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten will not trip the economy into recession. Recent polls, meanwhile, indicate that a large part of the electorate has no opinion on the sequester. But the real danger lies in the misguided deficit-cutting mania that created it in the first place. It is exactly the opposite of what the economy needs both in the short run and the long term.

My Invisible Sea

Tim Parks

Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

In 2006, despairing of doctors and official medicine, I went to see a shiatsu practitioner. The shiatsu man heard my story, invited me to lie down on a futon, took my right foot in his hands, contemplated it for some time, then having chosen his spot, pushed a thumb in hard. Immediately a line of tingling pain lit up between foot and bladder. It was extraordinary. The line was sharp and continuous—oddly electric—but faded away the instant he removed his thumb. The “water meridian,” he commented, as an ordinary doctor might say, Your appendix, your kidneys. Then he said, “I suppose you dream a great deal about water.”

A Papal Surrender?

Paolo Flores d’Arcais

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Ratzinger’s decision to resign has the momentous effect of desacralizing the Papacy, reducing it, in the minds of the faithful, to the office of a great religious leader and nothing more. In short, the Catholic Church now has to contemplate the coexistence of an Emeritus Pope and a Pope-Pope. The new Pope will certainly exercise the full powers of the Papacy (on the assumption that the ex-Pope will truly withdraw to a life of seclusion and prayer), but he will no longer have a divine aura.

Chekhov in Data-Entry Hell

Francine Prose

HBO

Compared to flashier series such as Girls and Homeland, Enlightened, now finishing its second season, has been slow to find its audience. People complain—understandably—that the show makes them anxious, and few viewers may want to admit to having anything in common with a forty-year-old, divorced, basement-level coporate worker, living at home with Mom. But what’s most surprising about Enlightened is the intensity with which Amy and her friends get to us, how much of ourselves we may see in them, if we only have the temerity to allow it.

The Roberts Court vs. Voting Rights

David Cole

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Voting Rights Act is the most successful anti-discrimination law in US history. It has transformed a nation in which minority voters were routinely and systematically denied access to the ballot box, through literacy tests and the like, into one where registration and voter restrictions are the exception. And the Act has also defeated many attempts by states and local jurisdictions to gerrymander minority voters into districts designed to minimize or negate their influence. But conservatives in some of the southern states have long complained that the law gives the federal government too much power, and now, Shelby County—a largely white suburb of Birmingham, Alabama found guilty of racial discrimination in voting as recently as 2008—has sued the US government to get it annulled.