In a headline to sink one’s already dreary January spirit, the New York Times presents a study on the effects of drinking with the alarmist summary Even a little alcohol can harm your health. This finding, in contrast to previous scientific studies – which many of us hold on to the edge of a cliff – claims that, in fact, moderate red wine intake may not be good for the heart. Delete it, says Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Research on Substance Use. “Alcohol,” he says, “is harmful to health from very low levels.”
This information falls into the category of something-highly-negative-one-instinctively-knows-to-be-true-and-will-fight-to-the-death-to-deny-it. It is also fatally ambiguous, in the tradition of public health bodies issuing unitary guidelines on a weekly basis with the understanding that they are irresistibly easy to distort. For example, storing unused units from a dry week to spend largely on a Saturday night is frowned upon by Naimi’s research. In his and other recent studies, you can’t average units over the course of a week without triggering a “binge drinking” red flag. A list of grim cancer warnings and the words “DNA damage” follow sharply.
All this, in heated discussions on Monday on social media, was considered rather unsportsmanlike for the scientific community. Don’t we go through some version of these U-turns every few years around the effects of coffee, or dairy, or eating deli meat while pregnant? Does Naimi even live in the world? Should we let our minds as well as our bodies be poisoned? How dare he bring his fact-based buzzkill to our ploy and ever-so-slightly vague self-justifications.
Three new productions are sparking 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 biopic, by Matthew Dennison, and Tár, the Todd Field movie starring Cate Blanchett – are raising questions about whether one can enjoy good art through bad people. The third, Velma, which premiered on HBO last week, moved critics to slam Mindy Kaling for the harmful stereotyping of Indian women.
Velma is unlikely to be bad. It’s not funny, or even coherent. The tone is smug. The jokes are dishonest to the extent that they reap a dividend from the bigotry they claim to deceive. Kaling, who provides the voice for Velma and is the show’s executive producer, is prolific and often haphazard in her characterization. The question Buzzfeed asked on Wednesday will soon reverberate across other platforms – “why make fun of Indian girls?” – however, seemed strangely wide of the mark.
To state the obvious, mockery as a tone is as legitimate as any other if the writer is in full control of the effect. In the Dahl biography he appears as a mixed bag rather than a hero or villain, but his relative villainy, well documented, is only problematic in his books when it shrinks the work. (I’ll die on the hill that Dahl doesn’t know how to do endings.) All criticisms of the politics of Tár – primarily, that there are so few female conductors in the world that it is unfair to create one that is an abuser. – is moot given the movie’s brilliance. It doesn’t have to be fair, it just has to be true.
Madonna, by all accounts above reproach, announced her worldwide greatest hits tour this week, causing a frenzy among Madge fans. Aside from signing on for a season at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, nothing could be more exciting than the prospect of performing Madonna’s greatest hits live, something she always swore she would never do. In New York, mid-level tickets – halfway to the back and along the side at Madison Square Garden – which were $500 (£405) on the day of the announcement, were already on StubHub for $1,100 by mid-week. And while I couldn’t bring myself to spend anything like that kind of money, I felt briefly sad that I’d lost the zeal of several superfan friends who, moments after the announcement, shrugged off the middle-aged indolence and meddling of young children has. to book tickets at locations in three US cities, for the ultimate back-to-back groupie experience.
Greta Thunberg, who was carried feet first by German police in the deserted town of Lützerath this week, demonstrated the deadweight method of protest, which has recently fallen out of fashion thanks to members of Extinction Rebellion blocking major roads at rush hour. Thunberg, a sharper politician than this, joined thousands of other campaigners protesting against the expansion of a coal mine in a way that did not inconvenience others while providing instant footage that flew around the world. The three officers who drove her away also knew their role 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. Released, with a self-possession that, if it seems remarkable at 20, reminds one of how otherworldly she was at 15, Thunberg calmly returned to the yard 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, at 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 is a spot with a hole in its 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 hand, he will have a longer life and eat bits of banana in the safety of our living room, while the others, after a short, exciting afternoon in nature, will probably drop dead from the cold. Time for a big end-of-week drink.