Digested week: Greta Thunberg gives a masterclass in the art of protest | Emma Brockes
In a headline to sink one’s already dismal January spirits, the New York Times presents a study into the effects of drinking with the alarmist summary Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. This finding, contrary to previous scientific studies – clung to by many of us as to the edge of a cliff – asserts that, in fact, moderate red wine intake may not be good for the heart. Scrap that, says Dr Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “Alcohol,” he says, “is harmful to the health starting at very low levels.”
This information falls into the category of something-highly-negative-one-instinctively-knows-to-be-true-and-will-therefore-fight-to-the-death-to-deny. It’s also killingly unambiguous, going after the tradition of public health bodies issuing per-week unit guidelines on the understanding they are irresistibly easy to twist. For example, storing up unused units from a dry week to spend in large fashion on a Saturday night is frowned on by Naimi’s research. In his and other recent studies, you can’t average out units over the course of a week without triggering an “excessive drinking” red flag. A list of grim cancer warnings and the words “DNA damage” sharply follow.
All of which, in roiling discussions on social media on Monday, has been received as rather unsporting of the scientific community. Don’t we go through a version of these U-turns every few years around the effects of coffee, or dairy, or eating deli meats while pregnant? Does Naimi even live in the world? Must we have our minds as well as our bodies poisoned? How dare he bring his fact-based buzzkill to our slipshod and ever so slightly slurred self-justifications.
Three new productions trigger further outrage online: the recently published Roald Dahl biography, the movie Tár, and the new Scooby-Doo TV spin-off, Velma. Two of these – the Dahl biographyby Matthew Dennison, and Warehousethe Todd Field movie starring Cate Blanchett – provoke flurries around whether one can enjoy good art by bad people. The third, Velmawhich launched last week on HBO, moved critics to hammer Mindy Kaling for harmfully stereotyping Indian women.
Velma is unwatchably bad. It’s not funny, or even coherent. The tone is self-satisfied. The jokes are dishonest to the extent that they reap a dividend from the bigotry they claim to be spoofing. Kaling, who provides the voice for Velma and executive produced the show, is prolific and often haphazard in her characterisations. The question asked by Buzzfeed on Wednesday, soon to echo across other platforms – “why mock Indian girls?” – seemed, however, oddly wide of the mark.
To state the obvious, mockery as a tone is as legitimate as any other if the author is fully in control of the effect. In the Dahl biography, he comes across as a mixed bag rather than a hero or villain, but his relative villainy, well documented, is problematic in his books only when it curdles the work. (I’ll die on the hill that Dahl doesn’t know how to do endings.) All criticism of the politics of Tár – primarily, that there are so few female conductors in the world that to create one who is an abuser is unfair – is moot given the film’s brilliance. It doesn’t have to be fair, it just has to be true.
Madonna, above reproach in every way, announced her global greatest hits tour this week, causing a scramble among Madge fans. Short of signing on for a season at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, nothing could be more exciting than the prospect of Madonna’s greatest hits live, something she always swore she’d never do. In New York, mid-level tickets – halfway to the back and up the side at Madison Square Garden – that were $500 (£405) on the day of the announcement were, by midweek, already going on StubHub for $1,100. And while I couldn’t bring myself to spend anything like that kind of money, I felt fleetingly sad to have lost the zeal of several superfan friends who, moments after the announcement, were shrugging off middle-aged inertia and the interference of young children to book tickets at venues in three US cities, for the ultimate back-to-back groupie experience.
Greta Thunberg, carried off feet first by German police in the abandoned village of Lützerath this week, demonstrated the deadweight method of protest, lately gone out of fashion thanks to members of Extinction Rebellion clogging up major roads at rush hour. Thunberg, a keener politician than this, joined thousands of other campaigners protesting against the expansion of a coalmine in a way that posed no inconvenience to others, while providing instant visuals that flew around the world. The three officers carting her off knew their role, too, and stuck to it. Despite the global fame of the 20-year-old human cargo in their hands, Thunberg was detained for several hours while undergoing the same ID check as everyone else. On release, with a self-possession that, if it appears remarkable at 20, reminds one how other-worldly she was at 15, Thunberg calmly returned to the site to lead a sit-in.
I bought 10 caterpillars at Christmas as part of a “junior entomologist” kit that included a butterfly cage and a feeder. Now we have, in various stages of the life cycle and named by my eight-year-old: Cake, Sweetie, Jarry, Ella, Tom, Gloria, Baby Tim, Pie and Hart, and Harty. Six of them have hatched, two appear to be dead, and there’s a runt with a hole in his wing, Baby Tim. After a long ethical discussion on Friday morning, we decide to hang on to Baby Tim when we free the rest of the butterflies in the afternoon. On the one hand, Tim will never taste freedom. On the other, he will have a longer life, feeding on bits of banana in the safety of our living room while the others, after a brief, exhilarating afternoon in the wild, will probably drop dead from the cold. Time for a large end-of-week drink.
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