Stability v rights
Mr Xi talks about people’s rights
Jan 18th 2014 | BEIJING | From the print edition
“THE relationship between maintaining stability and defending legal rights must be properly
handled.” Mentioning the importance of people’s rights may not be controversial in many
countries. But in China this was new—the statement was made on January 7th by President Xi
Jinping, and it hints at a shift in the priorities of the nation’s legal system.
Whenever China’s government is criticised for harsh policies or actions, it tends to reply that its
priority is “maintaining social stability”, known for short as weiwen. Now, scholars say, Mr Xi
down a notch and ending its absolute primacy. But there are competing seems to be taking weiwen
theories about Mr Xi’s motives. Taken at face value, the rest of his speech offers one answer: that
social stability is best served if people believe in the legal system’s ability to protect their
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Other explanations involve the intrigue that continues to swirl in China’s elite-level politics. Zhou
Yongkang, a retired member of the Politburo’s standing committee, is widely believed to be under house arrest and the subject of an investigation into corruption. Before his retirement in 2012, Mr Zhou was in charge of domestic security, a leading proponent of weiwen and a supporter of Bo
Xilai, a purged Politburo member. Some believe Mr Xi is as interested in striking at Mr Zhou’s power base as he is in expanding civil liberties.
There is one step Mr Xi could advocate that would help defend people’s legal rights: an end to the political-legal committees by which the party controls every element of China’s legal system. That would be as unambiguous as it is unlikely.
The Economist explains
Can you win an acting Oscar without appearing in a film?
Jan 15th 2014, 23:50 by T.W.
THE Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce its nominations for this year’s Oscars on January 16th. One of the most talked-about performances of recent months is that of Scarlett Johansson in “Her”, a romantic drama in which Samantha, Ms Johansson’s character, begins a relationship with bookish Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Ms Johansson’s
performance has been praised by critics; some have tipped her for a “best supporting actress” nomination. There’s just one problem: she doesn’t appear in a single frame of the film. Can she still win a prize?
The snag is that Samantha is not a person but a computer operating system. Ms Johansson provides Samantha’s voice (imagine a husky Siri with a sense of humour), beguiling shy Theodore, who takes her out on dates in his shirt pocket. The pair share jokes and tender moments like any other couple. There is even a sex scene. Ms Johansson’s ability to bring Samantha to life has won her enthusiastic reviews and, in November, a “best actress” award at the Rome Film Festival. But not every judging panel was impressed: soon after the Rome episode the Hollywood Foreign Press Association let it be known that voice-only performances were not eligible for the Golden Globe awards, which it organises.
In theory, Ms Johansson could have more luck with the Oscars. The Academy says that voice-only roles are eligible for acting awards, since there is nothing in its rules prohibiting them. But no-one has ever been nominated for an Oscar for a voice-only role: from Douglas Rain as HAL in “2001:
a Space Odyssey”, to Robin Williams in “Aladdin”, actors who don’t appear on screen have been overlooked. (Oddly, the Golden Globes made an exception for Mr Williams, presenting him with a “special achievement award” for providing the voice of the genie.) If anything, it seems easier to win an Oscar for a role in which the actor is seen but not heard. In 1999 Samantha Morton was nominated for her mute role in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown”, and two years ago Jean
Dujardin won the “best actor” Oscar for his performance in “The Artist”, a near-silent film. The
Academy rules out roles which are dubbed—unless the dubbing is of singing, in which case the
actor is forgiven.
Until now, Oscar-worthy voice-only performances have been rare enough for the issue to be of little consequence. That is now changing. Leaps forward in computer graphics mean that ever more roles involve actors’ faces and bodies being blotted out and replaced by computer-generated
features, using motion-capture technology. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in “Lord of the
Rings” and the chief chimp in “Planet of the Apes”, describes his on-screen transformations as
mere “digital makeup”. The Academy does not explicitly ban such roles from consideration for
awards. But it has yet to nominate any actor for a motion-capture performance, in spite of campaigns by fans (not to mention film studios). Soon it may have to. The three hours' worth of makeup daubed onto Nicole Kidman every day for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Virginia Woolf, in “The Hours”, will surely one day be easier to do digitally. Then the line between appearing in a film and being only half there will become even more blurred—and Oscar nominations more
Death of a film mogul
Kung fu fight king
Sir Run Run Shaw made his mark on Hollywood and the wider world
Jan 11th 2014 | BEIJING | From the print edition
Do Run Run
IF HE had made a film of his own life, Sir Run Run Shaw might have called it “The Last Mogul”.
From a stylised opening scene in the late-Qing dynasty Shanghai of his childhood to his death in
Hong Kong at the age of 106 on January 7th, it could have been a trademark production of Shaw
Brothers, the studio that created the Hong Kong action-movie industry.
It would be full of action itself, as when he and his brothers buried $4m worth of gold and
jewellery in Singapore during the second world war to protect it from the Japanese. Before the war
they had produced films in South-East Asia, but in 1957 Sir Run Run moved to Hong Kong. There
he built the studio that would produce hundreds of films—such as “The One-Armed Swordsman”
and “Five Fingers of Death”—that began a global craze for martial arts.
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A Shaw film would feature stars on strict contracts. One actor complained that working for Sir
Run Run’s Hong Kong television company, TVB, was like putting an orange into a juicer: the
juice belonged to TVB, and whatever remained belonged to you. Nevertheless, many went into the juicer and came out better for it—Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung and Wong Kar-wai among them.
Bruce Lee, refusing to work under Shaw Brothers’ strict terms, achieved fame with a rival studio, but that too was started by a former Shaw associate. “Everybody owes a debt to the Shaw brothers and Run Run Shaw,” says Bey Logan, a Hong Kong film producer. Sir Run Run also helped
produce some American films, such as “Blade Runner”.
“The Last Mogul” would also make money, because that is what his films did (he said movies that made money were his favourite kind). And then the proceeds would go to charity, just as Sir Run Run gave millions to good causes, increasingly in mainland China.
Perhaps his subtlest influence may have been to provide, at the height of Mao’s rule and beyond, an alternative vision of China to the world. For many, the Qing dynasty and Republican-era tableaux of Shaw Brothers films were the images that endured long after the Red Guards had gone.
Johnson: Lexical clean-ups
Jan 13th 2014, 13:04 by R.L.G. | BERLIN
LAST week Johnson picked his Word of the Year for 2013. And now that the holiday guests are gone and the house is finally clean again, it’s time to look at the mess left behind, and do a little sorting of the lexicon.
People rather like end-of-the-year "Worst Words" columns, it seems. Timothy Egan chipped in “Words for the Dumpster” in the New York Times on December 28th. There are 1,123 comments,
nearly all nominating the commenter's own least-favourite words. At the bottom of this present column are the first few hundred of them. Memorise them, strike them from your vocabulary, and then read on.
Now we can turn to a bit of analysis of what annoys people.
Pause-fillers. Huge numbers of people nominated like for banishment. Young people, in
particular, pepper their language with this. But the educated use a lot of content-free filler, too. A number of the Times’s commenters voted to ban So… at the start of a sentence, calling it
portentous waffle. Other pseudo-meaningful phrases that annoy include at the end of the day, so to
speak, simply said, simply put, to be perfectly honest, the thing is (is), that being said, the fact of the matter is. Never use one of these. If you must pause while searching for a word or rethinking what you want to say, observe a strict, awkward silence.
Logic. It is what it is irritates quite a few. What could be more empty of content? If you say something, it must be understood on a strictly logical level and must contribute a novel logical proposition. It is what it is cannot be understood as any other kind of comment. In a similar vein, since everything you say must be logical, novel and meaningful, to be
honestand frankly necessarily imply you were lying before.
Overly intense words. Awesome, epic, amazing, brilliant, fantastic, incredible and many others
are for the chop. If your latte is not the Grand Canyon, awesome is impermissible.
All right, Johnson must confess to being a little sarcastic there. The above are minor sins. 1) Everyone has a pause-filler, and if you’re disciplined enough never to say erm, like or I mean,
you probably say that is to say, in point of fact, or something else like it. In live speech, everyone
needs to pause and re-plan from time to time. About the only alternative to using some form of meaningless filler is to speak extremely slowly and with occasional long gaps. It’s not obvious that this is better than leaning on basically or the thing is.
2) It is what it is. This isn’t a logical proposition of the form a = a; that would be silly. It means
that an unpleasant fact must be accepted, since it can’t be changed. Much of language isn’t logical
proposition, but serves instead a "phatic" function, not to convey information but to signal something else to the listener, like affection, respect or sympathy. This goes for how are
you? when passing an acquaintance in the hall, another surprisingly common peeve. This shouldn't bother people as much as it does. There’s nothing wrong with phatic communication—in fact, our
linguistic lives would be unrecgonisably weird without it.
3) Everyone needs a catch-all word for something quite enjoyable, and whether you usebrilliant,
terrific, epic, genius, awesome, fantastic, amazing or incredible, you’re taking a word that once
had a much more powerful and specific meaning (with roots like awe, terror andfantasy) and
using it for something more workaday. People like exaggerating a bit when they’ve enjoyed
something. If your highest form of praise for a delightful experience is rather good, well, please
don’t invite Johnson to your parties.
Once you invite them to “banish” words, people jump so eagerly that you soon need an
unabridged dictionary to find those few still allowed. George Bernard Shaw once said, speaking of accents, that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” This goes for vocabulary too, and is no more limited to England
than class snobbery is.
So is Johnson peeve-free, a believer that anything goes, so long as the point is made? No—because he shares a fourth category of complaint. This is the euphemism too far; the dressing up of ugly facts in fluffy language, especially with the purpose of obscuring their ugliness. Nobody speaks of problems anymore. Instead, it’s issues all the way down. So theFinancial
Times’s Lucy Kellaway uses her year-end column to hand out the “Golden Flannel” awards to
companies that demise employees, or transition them out of the company. These do the truth (and
the language) a disservice. I particularly loathe services companies trying to dress up a screw-up. The estimated departure time is now scheduled for 10:37 means we’ll be an hour
late. And the company that is always currently experiencing extraordinarily high call
volume really means we haven’t hired enough call-centre staff.
So forget “banishing words”. But do use them with care. Be clear, brief, honest and stylish. It’s
not easy, but it’s worth the attempt. And when you turn from speaking to listening, don’t forget to
Words to ban from your vocabulary, according to this column and its commenters:
adversity, fan base, artisan, brand, world-class, gluten-free, whatever, 24/7, end of the day, best practices, it’s all good, awesome, no problem, infused, sourced, life is good, so [to begin a sentence], that being said, robust, amazing, epic, blessed, incredible, price point, no way, it is what it is, lessons learned, rescue, perspective, have a nice day, food insecurity, selected (as in “selected
cities”), at the end of the day, grow (the economy, a company), the ask, OK, at this point in time, first world problem, simply said, on second thought, to be perfectly honest, just saying, reach out, circle back, the thing is is, that being said, the fact of the matter is, kick the can down the road, how are you? (from a non-friend), on-boarding (as in new employees), will be landing momentarily, knee-jerk, God bless, no worries, fun (as an adjective), partnering, like, you know, issues, going forward, scalable, monetize, baby bump, my bad, literally, utilize, I’m walking down the street when…, whatnot, erstwhile, prior to, other alternative, back in the day, somewhat unique, I’m good, re-imagine, tasked, conferenced, incentivized, incented, eyeballs, mistakes were made, frankly, believe you me, trust me, seamless, I’m not going there, it’s in my DNA, journey, could care less, I mean, sweep, breaking news, exclusive, the bottom line is, gifting, went missing, ___ is the new black, the new normal, wrap your mind around, controversial issue, obviously, bandwidth, organic, surge, thought leader, from the ground up, reason why, gut feeling, internationally recognized, blood and treasure, to the next level, a whole host of reasons, brilliant, viral, target, middle age, anonymity, best in class, restructure, pivot, curate, signature (as adjective), thinking out of the box, back story, narrative, trending, exponential growth, iconic, fusion, craftsman, as it were, all things being equal, best (to sign off an e-mail), double down, thank you for your service, sort of, kind of, need to, practice (for a studio or a business), arguably, safe haven, final destination, to better serve you, inconvenience, inform (for “influence”), got a lot on his plate, surreal, sustainable, firestorm, have a blessed day, let’s do this thing, wheelhouse, plating, actually, basically, skill set, in any way shape or form, boots on the ground, touch base,
re-group, shoot me an e-mail, patriots, gaining traction, try and do something, as it were, gift (as verb), miracle, pay it forward, healing process, as well, premium, core values, closure
La Maison Blanche
Our wildest fantasy: if only the French ran America…
Jan 18th 2014 | From the print edition
THE citizens of the world’s most powerful country have recently been distracted by a piece of meaningless tittle-tattle. The current issue of People magazine has revealed
what le toutWashington knew anyway: that Barack Obama has been having an affair with Jennifer Aniston. This intrusion took place despite the president’s creditable attempts at discretion: putting aside the normal trappings of office, he travelled to Ms Aniston’s flat in the evening and left in the morning (after bagels had been brought by the Secret Service) on a scooter, wearing a helmet with the visor down to conceal his face.
This reprehensible scandalmongering has focused attention on Mr Obama’s private life—which,
as befits a man of stature, has been active and varied. His long-term partner was Hillary Clinton, whom he never married but with whom he has four children. Their political rivalry, alas, damaged their personal relationship, and he took up with Katie Couric, whom he installed as First Girlfriend in the White House. She has now been admitted to hospital—upset, as any journalist would be, at
the publicity surrounding her beau’s latest amour.
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It is now sadly unclear whether Ms Couric will be at Mr Obama’s side during his forthcoming
visit to France, whose inhabitants, driven by puritanism or impertinence, may ask unreasonable
questions. Outside America there is a regrettable degree of public prurience. Fortunately,
Americans are more sophisticated than foreigners: 77% of them believe that the president’s
private life is his own business. When, at a press conference, a reporter from Fox News asked
whether Ms Couric was still First Girlfriend, and Mr Obama said briskly that the matter was
private, journalists moved swiftly on to the more pertinent question of the medium-term fiscal
While amorous adventures are not a problem in Washington, they should not be flaunted. The
publicity surrounding George W. Bush’s divorce from his wife Laura and ostentatious marriage to
but also unpopular. Far better was the stealthy approach Beyoncé, a singer, was not just arriviste
of the previous president, known as “trois minutes, douche comprise”—three minutes, including
the shower—who was driven quietly to his mistresses’ houses by the official chauffeur, or that of
his predecessor, whose illegitimate daughter lived at the taxpayers’ expense. The White House
press pack politely kept his secret for 13 years, revealing it only the year before he left office.
Would America be a better place if its public figures behaved like François Hollande, Ségolène
Royal, Valérie Trierweiler, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand, and if its
people took as relaxed a view of sex as the French do? Probably more talented Americans would
go into politics if they did not think they would be roasted alive for normal human frailty. There
would be more Jack Kennedys and fewer Mitt Romneys. On the other hand, if France’s politicians
were not protected by the law and a quiescent press, perhaps the National Front’s anti-elitist
message would not go down so well. The answer, of course, is to follow the example of Britain,
whose near-saintly politicians are gracefully monitored by the famously dignified denizens of
Jan 16th 2014, 18:22 by N.L. | CHICAGO
THIS year anyone with any interest in education will find it hard to ignore the growing, and often nonsensical, row over the common-core standards, due to be fully introduced in the 2014-15 school year. As anxiety has grown over the introduction of these new performance measures, critics from both the left and right have piled in to attack them. These complaints range from fair critiques over some botched implementations, hysterical nonsense and downright lies. And as the year progresses, parts of the right will continue to wage a campaign against the common core, hoping to gain influence and even to move forward a more radical agenda.
A bit of background is useful to fully appreciate this particular row in all its glory, and in particular how it is possible for a fairly innocuous bit of bipartisan policymaking to become such a punchbag for some on both the left and the right.
The new standards were released in June 2010 and say what all students, from kindergarten through high school, should know in mathematics and English at the end of each year. The nation's governors and education commissioners created them so that all children had a clear set of expectations, and a prescription for the skills they were expected to master at different ages, from learning how to read to drawing a bar graph.
In the past, states set their own standards on their own and these were often terribly low. The new standards, which 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed up for, are set high. This will help tackle the problem that American children are falling behind in international comparisons. This means that states, schools and children will see a drop in student scores, which has many up in arms. But the case for having one set of high standards is clear: students will have realistic expectations about their performance throughout their career and will know exactly what to do in order to do well. Also there will be no nasty shocks later in life when second chances may be difficult to come by. Moreover, early adopters of the common core, Tennessee and Washington, DC, are seeing enormous gains in career and college readiness.
Although the standards have quite a wide base of support, the politics in an election year are tricky. Many right-wing groups have seen the core standards as an opportunity to stir up some anxiety about big-government meddling, as if expectations for what students should know upon graduation tramples the toes of state and parental freedoms. Indeed the lie that these standards are imposed by the federal government finds its best evidence in the campaign the right is waging for states to pull out of them. States may, indeed, decide to do so. But conservatives pushing for states to abandon the standards have yet to be convincing. Only the Republican governors in Indiana and Pennsylvania have put the standards on hold. To help defang critics, Massachusetts decided to delay assessing the standards until 2015. More states may follow.
Parts of the far right are also trying to use the core as a rallying cry for conservative ideas about education, as Politico recently reported. One group, FreedomWorks, has a campaign for