Roving thoughts and provocations

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


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.

Obama: Failing the African Spring?

Helen Epstein

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

For years, observers have wondered what the US administration’s policy toward Africa really is. Then, three years into Obama’s first term, the White House finally released its first Africa strategy document. It states that the US will “promote strong democratic norms” and “support civil society actors who are creating vibrant democratic models….” But as the situations in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda make clear, little has been done to further these aims. While continuing most of the development and public health initiatives of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has given priority to US military aims.

The Sweet Troubles of Proust

Colm Tóibín

Proust’s handwriting is bad; it is the handwriting of a novelist rather than a dandy, and visitors to the Morgan Library who can read French will have much fun making out the words and the many untidy emendations on the pages of the manuscript. In a letter to a publisher, as Proust seeks to explain what his novel is about, one word, however, stands alone and is written with a rare exactitude. In a letter to Alfred Vallette, editor of Le Mecure de France, in 1909 Proust described his work-in-progress: it “is a genuine novel and an indecent one in places. One of the principal characters is a homosexual.”

We Couldn’t Stop Looking

Charles Simic

Courtesy George Peet

I worked for Aperture magazine between 1967 and 1970 and played a small part in the production of eleven issues of the magazine and a few books. I recall rainy afternoons with nothing to occupy me in the office but some photograph by Dorothea Lange, Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, or by a complete unknown that I couldn’t stop looking at, because it seemed to grow more beautiful and more mysterious the longer I kept looking. Then, abruptly, a phone would ring with some irate subscriber shouting that his issue arrived damaged in the mail, and the spell would be broken.

Scrapbook Nation

Christopher Benfey

Everyone seems to have kept scrapbooks during the nineteenth century. Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers. During the Civil War, one Northern scrapbooker was “struck by the vast amount of information, on all points and of every grade of quality, which flowed in a continuous stream” from the telegraph-aided daily papers. Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life. Emily Dickinson, a hyperactive cutter and paster, also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work.