“Extended School Closures Did Not Significantly Stop the Spread of Covid, While the Academic Harms for Children Have Been Large and Long-Lasting”

(p. A13) Four years ago this month, schools nationwide began to shut down, igniting one of the most polarizing and partisan debates of the pandemic.

Some schools, often in Republican-led states and rural areas, reopened by fall 2020. Others, typically in large cities and states led by Democrats, would not fully reopen for another year.

A variety of data — about children’s academic outcomes and about the spread of Covid-19 — has accumulated in the time since. Today, there is broad acknowledgment among many public health and education experts that extended school closures did not significantly stop the spread of Covid, while the academic harms for children have been large and long-lasting.

For the full story see:

Sarah Mervosh, Claire Cain Miller and Francesca Paris. “Pandemic School Closures Came at a Steep Cost to Students, Data Shows.” The New York Times (Friday, March 29, 2024): A13.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 19, 2024, and has the title “What the Data Says About Pandemic School Closures, Four Years Later.”)

Jerry Seinfeld Knows “the Extreme Left and P.C. Crap” Hampers Comedy

(p. C1) Since the attacks of Oct. 7 [2023] in Israel, and through their bloody and volatile aftermath in Gaza, Mr. Seinfeld, 70, has emerged as a strikingly public voice against antisemitism and in support of Jews in Israel and the United States, edging warily toward a more forward-facing advocacy role than he ever seemed to seek across his decades of fame.

He has shared reflections about life on a kibbutz in his teens, and in December traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with hostages’ families, soberly recounting afterward the missile attack that greeted him during the trip.

He has participated, to a point, in the kind of celebrity activism with which few associate him — letter-signing campaigns, earnest messages on social media — answering simply recently when asked about the motivation for his visit to Israel: “I’m Jewish.”

And as some American cities and college campuses simmer with conflict over the Middle East crisis and Israel’s military response, Mr. Seinfeld has faced a measure of public scorn that he has rarely courted as a breakfast-obsessed comedian, intensified by the more vocal advocacy of his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author.

. . .

(p. C4) Since “Seinfeld,” he has spoken most expansively about the art of comedy itself, framing it as a morally neutral pursuit whose highest aim is to make people laugh. (Mr. Seinfeld recently made headlines for suggesting in an interview with The New Yorker that “the extreme left and P.C. crap” had hampered comedy.)

For the full story see:

Matt Flegenheimer and Marc Tracy. “Jerry Seinfeld Is Clearly No Longer About Nothing.” The New York Times (Monday, May 6, 2024): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 4, 2024, and has the title “Jerry Seinfeld Can No Longer Be About Nothing.”)

“Everyone Just Exchanges Platitudes and Inanities Because They Are Afraid to Say Anything”

(p. B3) The younger generation has frequently called out Japan’s entrenched elders for their casual sexism, excessive work expectations and unwillingness to give up power.

But a surprise television hit has people talking about whether the oldsters might have gotten a few things right, especially as some in Japan — like their counterparts in the United States and Europe — question the heightened sensitivities associated with “wokeness.”

The show, “Extremely Inappropriate!,” features a foul-talking, crotchety physical education teacher and widowed father who boards a public bus in 1986 Japan and finds himself whisked to 2024.

. . .

The show was one of the country’s most popular when its 10 episodes aired at the beginning of the year on TBS, one of Japan’s main television networks. It is also streaming on Netflix, where it spent four weeks as the platform’s No. 1 show in Japan.

. . .

Not so subtly, the show . . . comments on the evolution toward more inclusive and accommodating offices, caricaturing them as places where work is left undone because of strict overtime rules and employees apologize repeatedly for running afoul of “compliance rules.”

Such portrayals strike a chord in Japan, where there have been complaints, often expressed on social media, about “political correctness” being used as a “club” to restrict expression or to water down television programs or films. Part of what fans have found refreshing about “Extremely Inappropriate!” is how unrestrained the portions set in the Showa era are.

While critics have called the series retrograde, some younger viewers say the show has made them question social norms they once took for granted — and wonder about what has been lost.

Writing for an entertainment-oriented Web publication, Rio Otozuki, 25, said that the series “must have left many viewers thinking inwardly that the Showa era was more fun.”

. . .

Kaori Shoji, an arts critic who was a teenager in the 1980s, said she loved “Extremely Inappropriate!” She particularly appreciated how the series illuminated the chilling effects of today’s tighter policing of workplaces.

“Everyone is just playing a game to see who can be the least offensive person that ever walked the earth,” Ms. Shoji said. “Everyone just exchanges platitudes and inanities because they are afraid to say anything. Surely that cannot be good for a workplace.”

For the full story see:

Motoko Rich and Kiuko Notoya. “In Japan, a TV Show Makes Young Viewers Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 8, 2024): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2024, and has the title “A Show That Makes Young Japanese Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.” The online version says that the print version was on page B1 and had the title “In Japan, A Flashback To the 1980s”, but my print version was on page B3 and had the title “In Japan, a TV Show Makes Young Viewers Pine for the ‘Inappropriate’ 1980s.”)

The Cholera and Bubonic Plague Vaccination Campaigns of Waldemar Haffkine Count as Evidence of “the Benevolence of British Medical Imperialism”

(p. C7) “In the end, all history is natural history,” writes Simon Schama in “Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations.” The author, a wide-ranging historian and an engaging television host, reconciles the weight of medical detail with the light-footed pleasures of narrative discovery. His book profiles some of the unsung miracle workers of modern vaccination, and offers a subtle rumination on borders political and biological.

. . .

Inoculation, Mr. Schama writes, became a “serious big business” in commercial England, despite the inoculators’ inability to understand how (p. C8) it worked, and despite Tory suspicions that the procedure meant “new-fangled,” possibly Jewish, interference in the divine plan. In 1764, the Italian medical professor Angelo Gatti published an impassioned defense of inoculation that demolished humoral theory. Mr. Schama calls Gatti an “unsung visionary of the Enlightenment.” His work was a boon to public health, though his findings met resistance in France, where the prerevolutionary medical establishment was more concerned with protecting its authority.

. . .

(p. C8) Mr. Schama alights on the story of Waldemar Haffkine, the Odessa-born Jew who created vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. In 1892, Haffkine inoculated himself against cholera with the vaccine he had developed at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. He went on to inoculate thousands of Indians, and so effectively that his campaigns served as, in Mr. Schama’s words, “an advertisement for the benevolence of British medical imperialism.”

. . .

The author notes the contrast between the facts of Haffkine’s achievements and the response of the British establishment, with its modern echoes of the medieval fantasy that Jews were “demonic instigators of mass death.” Yet Mr. Schama’s skepticism of authority only extends so far. It would have been instructive to learn why, when Covid-19 appeared, the WHO concurred with Voltaire that the Chinese were “the wisest and best governed people in the world” and advised liberal democracies to emulate China’s lockdowns.

Haffkine’s colleague Ernest Hanbury Hankin once wrote an essay called “The Mental Limitations of the Expert.” Mr. Schama’s conclusion shows the limitations of our expert class, which appears not to understand the breach of public trust caused by the politicization of Covid policy and the suppression of public debate. You do not have to be “far right” to distrust mandatory mRNA vaccination. As Mr. Schama shows, the health of the body politic depends on scientific inquiry.

For the full review, see:

Dominic Green. “Protecting the Body Politic.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 22, 2023, and has the title “‘Foreign Bodies’ Review: Migrant Microbes, Human Borders.”)

The book under review is:

Schama, Simon. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations. New York: Ecco Press, 2023.

Burning One’s Own Book Is Protected by the Right of Free Expression

(p. C6) There are few sights as alarming as a book set alight. Igniting the printed word in order to destroy the ideas contained therein runs counter to our notions of enlightenment, deliberation and reason. It can also carry a message of contempt for those who consider the burned book sacred. But while there’s no need to condone book burning and plenty of reasons to condemn it, it shouldn’t be punished by law.

That principle is now in jeopardy in Denmark, which has witnessed more than 170 anti-Muslim demonstrations in recent years, including a number of public Quran burnings. In response, lawmakers have introduced a bill to criminalize “improper treatment of objects of significant religious importance.” Offenders would face up to two years in prison. In announcing the proposed law, the Danish government cited the problem of being “seen in large parts of the world as a country that facilitates insulting and denigrating actions against other countries and religions.”

The move marks a reversal from the Danes’ approach in 2005, when the publication of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper sparked worldwide violence. Then the Danish government stood firm in its defense of free expression, rejecting calls to censor—or even censure—the paper.

. . .

The Danish government insists that its proposal is merely a “targeted intervention,” claiming it will “not change the fact that we must maintain very broad freedom of expression in Denmark.”

. . .

Yet by treating religious sensitivities as inviolate, the measure risks legitimizing the notion that vengeance may be warranted against those perceived to have denigrated the sacred.

. . .

The impulse to outlaw expression that creates unease, offense and uproar is not unique to Denmark. Censors around the world designate speech as dangerous and subversive in order to silence it. Denmark needs to reassure Muslims that it is committed to keeping them safe, protected and respected. It should do that by upholding rather than betraying the country’s core commitment to free expression and human rights.

For the full commentary, see:

Suzanne Nossel. “Book-Burning Bans Are the Wrong Way to Fight Religious Hatred.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 21, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Nossel’s essay, quoted above, is related to her book:

Nossel, Suzanne. Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. New York: Dey Street Books, 2020.

Mao’s Red Guard “Just Wanted to Beat Us to Death”

(p. C7) The Cultural Revolution is the monster that lurks behind the Communist Party’s claims of harmonious, orderly leadership in China. Under Mao’s direction, fanatical youth turned on their teachers, their parents, all figures of authority. This was an era of torture and violence, committed in many cases by mere children. Nobody was safe—perpetrators became victims, and victims took revenge. As many as two million died, and tens of millions had their lives destroyed.

. . .

In “Red Memory” the author explores how people in 21st-century China continue to process a collective trauma that the government would prefer to erase, even as the Party itself cannot put Mao behind it. The book unfolds as a series of portraits of people and settings tied to the events from half a century ago.

. . .

A music composer who was savagely tortured tells Ms. Branigan that he used to think there was some catharsis at work behind the violence, a correction of some kind to help bind people together. But there was not. “I wasn’t helping them at all,” he said of his tormentors. “They just wanted to beat us to death.”

. . .

The reporting in this book was gathered between 2008 and 2015, when Ms. Branigan was a Guardian correspondent in China. Poignantly, she observes that she could not have conducted such interviews today. In the past several years, even greater pressure has come down on those who wish to remember a past the Party wants to forget. People who spoke freely with her 10 years ago might not risk doing so today. The internet sites of commemoration have been shut down.

For the full review, see:

Stephen R. Platt. “The Chairman’s Children.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 13, 2023): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 12, 2023, and has the title “‘Red Memory’ Review: China’s Cultural Revolution Still Echoes.”)

The book under review is:

Branigan, Tania. Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

“He Lived as a Free Man and Died as a Free Man”

(p. A1) Thousands of people crowded a neighborhood on Moscow’s outskirts on Friday [March 1, 2024] — some bearing flowers and chanting, “No to war!” — as they tried to catch a glimpse of the funeral for Aleksei A. Navalny. The outpouring turned the opposition leader’s last rites into a striking display of dissent in Russia at a time of deep repression.

. . .

After a procession to the cemetery, Mr. Navalny’s coffin was placed next to his freshly dug grave. Video live streamed from the site showed his family members and then other mourners kissing him goodbye for the last time. Then his face was covered with a white cloth and the coffin was lowered to the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and then the final song from “Terminator 2,” which Mr. Navalny considered “the best film on Earth.” Mourners slowly passed by, each taking a handful of dirt and tossing it into the grave.

. . .

Outside the church, people chanted, “Thank you, Aleksei” and “Love is stronger than fear,” according to videos from the scene. As they gathered next to the cemetery, mourners cried out, “peace for Ukraine — freedom for Russia!”

. . .

(p. A8) Some people traveled from far away to attend the funeral. Anastasia, 19, had flown in from Novosibirsk, 1,800 miles from Moscow, to be present.

“I came here because this is a historic event,” she said in a voice message from the neighborhood where the church service was held. “I think that he is a freer man than all of us,” she said of Mr. Navalny. “He lived as a free man and died as a free man.”

In Russia, it is considered bad luck to give living people an even number of flowers in a bouquet — those are reserved for funerals. But Anastasia said that many mourners carried bouquets with an odd number, “because for them, Navalny lives on.”

For the full story, see:

Valerie Hopkins. “Crowds Flood Moscow Streets Over Navalny.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 2, 2024): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 1, 2024, and has the title “Thousands Turn Out for Navalny’s Funeral in Moscow.”)

3.7 Million Russians “Flocked” to Film Satirizing “Tyranny and Censorship”

(p. C1) By all appearances, the movie adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult favorite novel “The Master and Margarita,” in Russian theaters this winter, shouldn’t be thriving in President Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia.

The director is American. One of the stars is German. The celebrated Stalin-era satire, unpublished in its time, is partly a subversive sendup of state tyranny and censorship — forces bedeviling Russia once again today.

. . .

“I had an internal belief that the movie would have to come out somehow,” the director, Michael Lockshin, said in a video interview from his home in California. “I still thought it was a miracle when it did come out. As for the response, it’s hard to expect a (p. C2) response like this.”

More than 3.7 million people have flocked to see the film in Russian theaters since its Jan. 25 [2024] premiere, according to Russia’s national film fund.

. . .

State networks didn’t promote the movie the way they normally would for a government-funded picture. And the state film fund, under pressure after the release, removed the movie’s production company from its list of preferred vendors.

The antics spurred a new wave of moviegoers, who rushed to theaters fearing the film was about to be banned.

“The film amazingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing, with the restoration of Stalinism, with the persecution of the intelligentsia,” said the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who has been branded a “foreign agent” and fled the country.

. . .

“The movie is about the freedom of an artist in an unfree world,” Lockshin said, “and what that freedom entails — about not losing your belief in the power of art, even when everything around you is punishing you for making it.”

. . .

When Putin launched his invasion two years ago, Lockshin opposed the war on social media from the United States and called on his friends to support Ukraine. Back in Russia, that put the movie’s release at risk.

“My position was that I wouldn’t censor myself in any way for the movie,” he said. “The movie itself is about censorship.”

. . .

The film’s verisimilitude was unmistakable for many moviegoers.

Yevgeny Gindilis, a Russian film producer, said that he had crowded into a Moscow theater near the Kremlin to watch it, and sensed some discomfort in the hall. At the end, he said, about a third of the audience erupted in applause.

“I think the clapping,” Gindilis said, “is about the fact that people are happy they are able to experience and watch this film that has this clear, anti-totalitarian and anti-repressive state message, in a situation when the state is really trying to oppress everything that has an independent voice.”

Gindilis recounted how one of the most uncomfortable scenes for people to watch in Moscow was the final revenge sequence, when the devil’s mischievous talking cat repels a secret police squad that has come to apprehend the Master, leading to a fire that ultimately engulfs all of Moscow.

The Master and Margarita, alongside the devil, played by the German actor August Diehl, gaze out over the burning city, watching a system that ruined their lives go up in flames.

“Today the whole country is unable to take revenge or even respond to the persecution, restrictions and censorship,” Dolin, the film critic, said. But the protagonists of the film, having made a deal with the devil, manage to get even.

The film flashes to the Master and Margarita in the afterlife, reunited and free. “Listen,” she says to him. “Listen and enjoy that which they never gave you in life — peace.”

For the full story, see:

Paul Sonne. “Poking The Bear Right In His Den.” The New York Times (Monday, February 19, 2024): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 16, 2024 and has the title “Life Imitates Art as a ‘Master and Margarita’ Movie Stirs Russia.”)

Even in Chinese “Oasis” for “Dreamers,” Space to Think Critically “Is Shrinking”

(p. A8) Welcome to the Chinese mountain city of Dali, also sometimes known as Dalifornia, an oasis for China’s disaffected, drifting or just plain curious.

The city’s nickname is a homage to California, and the easy-living, tree-hugging, sun-soaked stereotypes it evokes. It is also a nod to the influx of tech employees who have flocked there since the rise of remote work during the pandemic, to code amid the picturesque surroundings, nestled between snow-capped, 10,000-foot peaks in southwest China, on the shores of glistening Erhai Lake.

. . .

But recently, Dali has filled with a different crop of wandering souls: young people from China’s megacities, fleeing the intense lifestyles that so many of them once aspired to. Worn out by the high cost of living, cutthroat competition, record youth unemployment and increasingly suffocating political environment, they have turned Dali into China’s destination of the moment.

“Young people who can’t fit into the mainstream can only look for a city on the margins,” said Zhou Xiaoming, 28, who moved from Shanghai three years ago.

. . .

. . . nowhere in China is truly immune to the tightening political climate — as Lucia Zhao, the owner of the bookstore where Ms. Chen was reading Beauvoir, recently learned.

Ms. Zhao, 33, moved to Dali from Chengdu in 2022 after being laid off from a tech company. She opened her bookstore, which focuses on art, feminism and philosophy, because she wanted to create a space where people could relearn to think critically, she said.

But in August [2023], officials suddenly confiscated all her books, on the grounds that Ms. Zhao had applied for only a regular business license, not a license specifically for selling publications. She shut down for several months while applying for the license and rebuilding her inventory.

She was now more cautious in her book selection. Local officials dropped in occasionally to inspect the store and had recently scrutinized a display of antiwar books she had put out.

“You definitely have more latitude in Dali than in cities like Beijing and Chengdu,” Ms. Zhao said. “But compared to when I got here last year, the space is shrinking.”

For the full story, see:

Gilles Sabrié and Vivian Wang. “Enclave in Southwest China Offers Oasis for Drifters and Dreamers.” The New York Times (Monday, Feb. 5, 2024): A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 5, 2024, and has the title “Welcome to ‘Dalifornia,’ an Oasis for China’s Drifters and Dreamers.”)

Palestinian Group Defaces Portrait of Balfour, Who Tried to Save Jewish Lives

Pro-Palestinian slashes portrait of Arthur James Balfour at University of Cambridge. Source: NYT article quoted and cited below.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 advocated the establishment of a Jewish homeland (Dershowitz 2003, p. 35). “In 1937, 1947, and 2000-2001,” Jewish leaders accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Palestinian leaders “each time . . . rejected the offer and responded with increased terrorism” (Dershowitz 2003, p. 159). If Israel had existed by the 1930s, “hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million or more” European Jews could have immigrated to it before the Holocaust, saving their lives (Dershowitz 2003, p. 52). Arthur James Balfour’s portrait should be honored, not “slashed and spray-painted” (article quoted below).

(p. A6) A pro-Palestinian group slashed and spray-painted a century-old portrait of Arthur James Balfour at the University of Cambridge on Friday [March 8, 2024], defacing a painting of the British official whose pledge of support in 1917 for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” helped pave the way to Israel’s founding three decades later.

For the full story, see:

Marc Tracy. “Balfour Portrait at University of Cambridge Is Defaced.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 9, 2024): A6.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2024, and has the title “Activists Deface Portrait of Balfour, Who Supported Jewish Homeland.”)

Dershowitz’s heavily referenced book, cited above, is:

Dershowitz, Alan. The Case for Israel. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

Navalny to Russian People: “Not Give Up”

(p. C1) In the opening moments of “Navalny,” the Oscar-winning 2022 documentary about the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, the director Daniel Roher asks his subject a dark question.

“If you are killed — if this does happen — what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?” the voice asks from behind the camera.

Navalny’s ice-blue eyes narrow just a little, and he sighs. “Oh, come on, Daniel,” he says in heavily accented English. “No. No way. It’s like you’re making a movie for the case of my death.” He pauses, then continues. “I’m ready to answer your question, but please let it be another movie, Movie No. 2. Let’s make a thriller out of this movie.”

. . .

(p. C8) But if “Navalny” wasn’t intended as a postmortem, it’s chilling to watch it after reports of his death. He knows what might happen but doesn’t seem scared, just determined. The day of his return to Moscow, he appears nervy and intent, but with fellow plane passengers, he makes jokes about the weather, accepts their well wishes and watches “Rick and Morty” as they descend. This is, you realize, a resolutely unflappable man.

At the end of the film, Roher once again asks Navalny what message he would leave for the Russian people if he was imprisoned or even killed. Answering in English, Navalny responds, “My message for the situation when I am killed is very simple: Not give up.” Recognizing there’s more to the sentiment, Roher asks him to repeat his answer in Russian.

“Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you,” Navalny says rapidly and fluidly in Russian, according to the subtitles. He’s looking straight into the camera and picking up steam as he goes. “You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we actually are.”

. . .

Navalny takes a breath, then continues. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.” He stares sternly into the camera, steel in his eyes.

And then his face cracks into a wide, joyful grin.

For the full review, see:

Alissa Wilkinson. “More Chilling, Posthumously.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 20, 2024): C1 & C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Feb. 18, 2024, and has the title “The Documentary Aleksei Navalny Knew We’d Watch After His Death.”)