On objectivity in art criticism

George Bernard Shaw is best known as a playwright but he was also, especially early in his career, a critic of plays and operas that he wrote for newspapers and periodicals. He tended to favor the avant garde. As a theater critic, he did not think much of Shakespeare and was an early advocate of the playwright Hendrik Ibsen, at a time when Ibsen’s work was not fully appreciated in the UK. As a music critic (where he wrote under the pseudonym Corno Di Bassetto), he was an early advocate of Wagner

His reviews were fun to read and as a boy in Sri Lanka I enjoyed reading them even though they had been written long before I was born and he was writing about plays and operas that I knew nothing about, had never seen, and likely would never see. They would often make me laugh out loud. That is a sign of a good writer.
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Political developments in the UK and Italy

I did not know much about Liz Truss who was elected as the new leader of the UK Conservative party, replacing Boris Johnson and thus becoming the prime minister. Jonathan Pie says that she is the most right-wing ideologue to occupy the premiership, even more so than Margaret Thatcher, and that is saying something. And she has started off by doing what right-wingers love to do, and that is give a massive tax cut for the wealthy.

Pie thinks that the right-wingers are going for broke, trying to give away as much as they can to their rich friends as long as they remain in power.
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Cynically exploiting human beings

The current Republican party seems to have just one policy and that is to ‘own the libs’, whatever the cost to real, live people. The appalling publicity-seeking stunt by Florida governor Ron DeSantis in luring Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, has aroused widespread condemnation as a cruel and cynical example of such thinking, that having to deal with asylum seekers would make liberals reconsider their humane approach to desperate people seeking better lives. Texas governor Greg Abbott has done something similar, sending busloads of asylum seekers to Washington, DC. However, the residents of those areas have responded by helping out the arrivals.

This idea of sending people to other places to ‘teach the residents of those places a lesson’ has a sordid antecedent in the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’ of the civil rights era, where white segregationists in the south sent busloads of poor black people, especially women and children who were likely to need public assistance, to Northern states, luring them to accept the rides by promising them all manner of good things. The southern segregationists were hoping to change northern opinion against desegregation. It seems like DeSantis and Abbott see no shame in looking like the segregationists of a previous era. It is part, I suppose, of their goal of returning the US to the 1950s, which they bizarrely see as some sort of golden age ideal.
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Betray friends or betray country?

In his 1938 essay What I Believe that can be found in the collection Two Cheers for Democracy, E. M. Forster wrote the following:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy – they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.
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Was there a coup in the last days of Trump’s administration?

During the period of turmoil just before and after the 2020 election, when an increasingly belligerent and angry Trump kept insisting that he could only lose if there was cheating and would not state that he would go along with the peaceful transfer of power if he was declared the loser, there was increasing alarm that he would try and stage a coup rather than leave office. I personally thought that this was unlikely and said so in June before the election and in November just after the election.

The reason for my skepticism was that in order to carry out a coup, Trump would need the support of the military and I could see absolutely no upside for the US military to get involved in such an attempt. Other than so-called palace coups where a group of insiders edge out a leader by some means and replace them with another insider, most coups require actions by the military to seize the major organs of power and the media, arrest opposition leaders, and patrol the streets to quell any nascent opposition. A simple cost-benefit analysis would tell the top US military brass to steer clear of any such move. The potential cost is very high, since if the coup attempt failed, all the officers would be charged with treason. The potential benefits are nowhere close to being worth the cost since the US military already does very well in terms of broad public support. The top military brass get treated very well and have all manner of desirable perks. Both major parties fall over themselves to see who can be more generous in funding the military, sometimes giving them even more than they ask. Why would they risk a very cushy gig by breaking all prior norms and coming down on one side, especially when that side is led by an utterly erratic, irrational, and narcissistic person like Trump? This situation is quite different from that in countries where successful coups have taken place, where the military thinks it has much to gain by taking over the government or aiding a politician in taking it over.
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Film Review: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

This British documentary directed and narrated by Mark Cousins looks at the history of film making around the world starting from 1888, looking at them from the point of view of the social context of films, the times in which they were made, what they were trying convey, their innovations, the techniques that were used, and how they influenced each other. The scope of the documentary is of the entire history of film over the entire globe, and includes explorations of the work of lesser-known (to me at least) directors, including those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The documentary lasts 15 hours in total that are spread over 15 episodes. It is interspersed liberally with clips from many films in order to make its points. Despite its length, some selectivity is of course essential. Cousins focuses on the creative aspects of films and thus the work of directors and, to a lesser extent, screenwriters and cinematographers. Cousins is clearly partial to the realist school of filmmaking and to those directors who took risks and made experimental films that pushed the boundaries of the craft or showed their societies in a realistic and hence unflattering light and thus risked repercussions from their governments. Such directors are less well-known outside the cognoscenti because their films were usually not box office hits. You will find few mentions of the big Hollywood blockbusters unless they used some innovative techniques or are used to contrast with more realistic depictions.

The documentary is presented largely chronologically, except when jumping from one era to another in order to show connections. I think that the more attuned you are to the aesthetic of cinema, the more this will appeal to you. Even though I am somewhat of a low-brow film viewer, I still found the documentary engrossing.

Here’s the trailer.

The pandemic is over – or not

President Biden created a bit of a stir when he said in an interview that the pandemic is over but “We still have a problem with covid”. Is he correct? And what exactly does he mean? Public health experts have criticized his remarks as premature, saying that it might discourage people from getting vaccinated or boosted and encourage risky behavior, thus possibly triggering the emergence of yet another variant.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization has also been optimistic, saying that the end “is in sight” but refrained from declaring the pandemic over.

It is undoubtedly true that the public is tired of taking pandemic precautions. Also, many have got covid and that may make them feel that they have paid their dues in some way and are now past it and are entitled to live normal lives, though one can get covid again, and some have had it multiple times. The problem is that the definition of a pandemic is not unambiguous so that there is no marker that will indicate that it is formally over. Hence each person will decide for themselves whether it is effectively over and whether they will continue taking precautions or not, which will be the ultimate determinant of whether the pandemic is ‘over’. But the transition to that state will be gradual.

The numbers of deaths and infections in the US are dropping but still a little too high for me for comfort. The US is averaging 400 deaths and 60,000 new cases per day. Covid is still the fourth leading cause of death in the US, after after heart disease, cancer, and accidents, but ahead of stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and flu. If it reaches the level of flu, that would be a good indicator that the pandemic is over.

So right now, I am still in the pandemic frame of mind and avoid as much as possible indoor public places and if I cannot, wear masks when I enter them. I am not sure when I might give up masking. I will be taking the omicron booster in a couple of weeks and will decide after that depending on the numbers, whether for me personally, the pandemic is over.

John Oliver on the weirdness of the funeral coverage

Seth Meyers asked this anti-royalist for his reaction to the news coverage of the funeral. Oliver describes an innocuous but wry comment he made that was censored by Sky TV that broadcasts his show in the UK. He also says that a supermarket chain there muted the beeps that its scanners make as a mark of respect. He was pretty funny.

Incidentally, whenever I ridicule the absurd extent of the coverage and its hagiographic nature of non-news like Queen Elizabeth’s death and funeral, I inevitably get comments to the effect that by writing thus, I am contributing to the coverage, implying that I am being inconsistent. This puzzles me. Of course I am referring to the same event. That is obvious. But there is a difference between covering an event and making fun of that coverage. The point of making fun is to try and ridicule such coverage out of existence. It may or may not work but staying silent will definitely not bring about any change.

When confronted with pompous nonsense, the best thing to do is laugh at it.

Two more cases brought against Trump

Letitia James, the attorney general for the state of New York has announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump and his family and associates for fraud.

In a statement, the attorney general said the suit was filed “against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, senior management and involved entities for engaging in years of financial fraud to obtain a host of economic benefits.

“The lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump, with the help of his children Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, and senior executives of the Trump Organization, falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to induce banks to lend money to the Trump Organization on more favorable terms than would otherwise have been available to the company, to satisfy continuing loan covenants, induce insurers to provide insurance coverage for higher limits and lower premiums, and to gain tax benefits, among other things.”

James also said investigators believed “the conduct alleged in this action also violates federal criminal law, including issuing false statements to financial institutions and bank fraud”.

She said: “We are referring those criminal violations that we’ve uncovered to the United States attorney for the southern district of New York and the Internal Revenue Service.”

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