Amon Saga (1986)

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This 1986 OVA sword-&-sorcery adventure’s main draw-in point is to act as a showcase for the famed illustrator Yoshitaka Amano’s style and characterization, coming after his collaboration with author Hideyuki Kikuchi on his original series of Vampire Hunter D novels but before his work on the Final Fantasy video game series. Indeed, Amon Saga borrows very heavily from the established Vampire Hunter D imagery of a dying earth inhabited with satanic or undead creatures, and even features a cameo by a character who is essentially the titular Vampire Hunter D in everything but name.

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Comparatively, Amon Saga is a much more standard and thoroughfare fantasy presentation to Vampire Hunter D’s vampire science fiction. The story revolves around a young loner, rendered in Amano’s flowing and feminine style, determined to reap revenge on a villainous warlord. There are no surprises or meaningful twists in this very traditional pulp story but it benefits from an array of interesting set-pieces and attractive animation influenced by Amano’s style. The Dracula-esque villain’s fortress is mobile and seated upon a giant turtle which stomps across the landscape. Old, frail wizards duel with their shimmering familiars. The main characters fights off skeletal horses. There is a “dragon ape”.

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Overall, Amon Saga is an entertaining and mindless bite of mid-80s anime pulp, retaining much of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s murky, gothic atmosphere and cartoonish fantasy violence while cleaning up a bit by shedding some of the original Vampire Hunter D’s latent misogyny (playing around with helpless princess tropes instead). A minor and seemingly forgotten affair that would probably be totally forgotten outside of Amano’s namesake, that laden with all of the typical fantasy cliches and awkwardness but worthwhile as a low-stakes viewing.

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80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (1979)

In the summer of 1979, Gary Weis was a television director mostly known for his work directing the non-studio segments for Saturday Night Live. While looking for programming content that might fill the hour and a half television block that was necessary while SNL was on summer hiatus, he read a 1977 Esquire article by Jon Bradshaw detailing the violent and grimy lives of the various gangs ruling the rubble of the South Bronx during the height of New York City’s infamous fiscal crisis and Fear City era. Inspired, Weis pitched the idea of turning the Esquire article into a feature-length documentary to NBC and SNL showrunner Lorne Michaels, for which he got approval. The result is 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, an incredibly organic and intimate look at New York City’s gangs of the period as they lived and existed at the time, from an unobtrusive perspective that mostly inhabits the point of the view of South Bronx residents.

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s focuses on two predominantly black and Puerto Rican South Bronx gangs, the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads, during the period just following the famous 1977 blackout but before the emergence of hip hop. At this time gang life seems heavily woven into the fabric of the community, with the Skulls and Nomads acting out a number of roles ranging from scoundrels to community mentors to thieves and social protectors. A civilian community activist for the neighborhood talks about her experiences with a mixture of amusement and something approaching parental exasperation. The gang members themselves intone about their loose moral code; being a member of the Nomads or Skulls is not an invitation to be ruthless or a trouble maker and you are expected to do something resembling keeping the peace. All of this community posturing is of course punctuated by shockingly offhand confessions of violence, sexual assault, theft, and prominent displays of Nazi symbolism. Gang members often speak about the even more decrepit and unhinged lives many led before finding each other.

The easy acceptance of gang life in the neighborhood extends from its residents to its police and business owners as well. NYPD detective Bob Werner carries on a conversational relationship with most of the gangs. He confiscates their weapons and books them when they are caught doing something serious, but he also comes to their neighborhood cookouts and gang members seem to have an odd professional respect for their local detective. A business-owning couple actively goes out of their way to befriend gang members and wakes up the morning after the 1977 blackout to find their shop is the only one on the block that wasn’t looted, having been zealously guarded by the Savage Nomads through the night. The different women gang members or girlfriends and wives are also given a fascinating spotlight, at times they are highly feared in their own right, at others they are doing a yeoman’s work in humanizing their boyfriends and husbands away from violent and disordered lives.

80 Blocks At Tiffany’s ends on a transitional note during a neighborhood block party, which features the embryo of the DJing and music culture that would mark the birth of hip hop in the next coming years. All hands from gang members to the local cops are on deck to participate and the event features glimpses at the softer side of gang life as the men and women members deal with fleeting romantic feelings for each other, a reminder of just how young the people sucked into this life are as they try to construct something out of the chaos and the rubble of a part of New York City that was lawless and ignored for nearly 30 or 40 years. Life in the South Bronx is cruel, violent, harsh and the social refuge such gangs offered to teenagers and young adults at the time cannot be mistaken as noble or reconstructive, but it is something.

And for the South Bronx, during a period when it was essentially an American favela teeming with unemployed desperation and social disorder, having at least something was in some cases the most you could count on.

further reading


In a Cult Bronx Film, Hints of Hip-Hop

Director Gary Weis on His Influential, Long-Lost Doc ’80 Blocks from Tiffany’s’

 

Devilman Crybaby (2018)

Manga auteur Go Nagai casts an incredible shadow over the realm of Japanese animation and illustration. He has been a strong crafting hand for the two mediums since the 1960s, boasting a creative influence and figure of something equivalent to Stan Lee. Since 1967, Go Nagai has helped plant the formative seeds in the realm of what have become very familiar genres in Japanese popular media: mecha, magical-girl, horror, and the pornographic. By far, his most controversial and possibly most enduring creation is Devilman, a darkly subversive manga and anime series that originally ran in 1972 – 1973 in Japan and ignited a storm of controversy due to its frenzied depiction of violence, sex, and the occult.

The plot to the Devilman series is such: two boys (Ryo and Akira) find discover the existence of demons in the world, and seek to combat them, by having pure-hearted Akira become a powerful half-demon (a devilman) without losing his conscious. This eventually sprawls into a full blown war between the demon and human species that consumes the world and Akira and Ryo’s friendship.

At the time, Devilman pushed the boundaries of what was possible in popular manga, in both visceral and thematic content. Not only did the series distill Go Nagai’s hyperactive energy through over-the-top violence and sex, but lurking under all the juvenile posturing were more adult themes, with deeper allegories between the conflicts of the demon and human worlds to the many different conflicts within our own. The original manga ended as an explicitly anti-war series, with Go Nagai emphasizing an atmosphere of paranoia and societal destruction in conjunction with the ongoing Cold War. It is also notable for being one of the first series to display a fascination with Christian mythology.

The original 70s anime adaption of Devilman was a much toned-down series aimed at children.  The 2018 Netflix adaptation Devilman Crybaby is the first full-length adaptation of the series that is faithful to the original manga, helmed by Masaaki Yuasa, the creator of such similarly offbeat shows such as Kemonozume, which also features an occultist/demonic centered plot. Being an internet original series, Devilman Crybaby is freed to pursue an even more hyperactive depiction of sex and violent content, with an animation style that is often captivatingly disjointed and psychedelic, while exploring the original’s furtive thematic overtures.

Devilman Crybaby is first and foremost a series interested in the duality of human beings. To this point, the main characters, Akira and Ryo, are contrasting but complimentary entities; with Akira as a creature of pure human empathy, who literally cries when he senses the sadness and pain of others, and Ryo as his icy, calculating, and amoral counterpart. They are the series’ psychological centerpiece. Akira’s humanistic morality and Ryo’s cutthroat individualistic drive are competing human psyches, simultaneously inseparable and yet inevitably in perpetual, doomed conflict with each other. Their friendship, union, and downfall is the show’s most intriguing and entertaining centerpiece, with ruthless individualism eventually betraying collective morality to the destruction of both.

Similarly, the Demon and Human dichotomy is a thematic divide of impulse versus reason, desire versus discipline. The demons represent all that is instinctual, greedy, and base about human behavior. Humans stand in for reason, civilization, and all that is shared and societal. Early on in the series, demonic possession is also given some overtures to the experience of puberty. Upon being possessed, Akira begins to shed some of his previous naive innocence. His body grows and experiences changes that are often awkward and he is introduced to intense new desires for sex and violent conflict, along with a whirlwind of new emotional states. He even experiences a wet dream. As he grows into his body, he must carefully learn to balance his powers with his natural empathy lest he be overwhelmed by his demonic urges. Akira becomes a representative of a middle ground between the two extremes of human and demon, devilmen. Devilmen represent a sort of besieged ideal, embracing of  their new demonic power but able to maintain their human conscious. Liked by neither demon nor human, balancing their base instincts with a shared morality, devilmen are a lonely middleground that is not easily navigated. They only have themselves to rely on.

As the series progresses, the binary between demon and human blurs. The war between the two worlds causes the collective of humans to become rampantly suspicious of each other, fearful that everyone and anyone could turn out to be a demon, a social pariah,  a dreaded other.  In the original Devilman manga, this social paranoia was used to highlight the mutual fear and suspicion present at the height of the Cold War. In Devilman Crybaby, concerns about the Cold War and world conflict are switched out for social media and internet spectacle and outgroup derision. The main characters are all teenagers and prominently deal with struggles over peer group acceptance. Each teenager wants to be prominent or noticed, but not so prominent that they become a target. The character of Miki “Miko” Kuroda is particularly poignant in this case, as her demonic possession allows her to pursue her rawer ambitions and resentment of “reclaiming her name” against her more socially popular peer, Miki Makimura. Kuroda’s embrace of her demonic possession allows her to compete or succeed Makimura in tracking racing, but eventually renders her an outlaw.

Finally, Devilman Crybaby is steeped in something approaching a Christian gnostic mythos. Religious iconography is prevalent everywhere in the final episodes of the show. Ryo is revealed to be the reincarnation of Satan, a figure in the mold of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, eventually leading a second war against Earth and Heaven. Satan cannot understand love and despises the material world and humans but values Akira, the only creature to have ever shown him acceptance. Part of his subconscious urge to merge Akira with a demon was to create a creature possible of surviving his cleansing of the Earth. Satan completes his mission of purging the Earth but loses Akira in the process after Akira rejects his offer. Satan learns how to love and value others, and achieves enlightenment, but at too great of a cost and too late. God resets the world and Satan and Ryo are doomed to repeat the process again, possibly an infinite amount of times.

Devilman Crybaby is an eclectic mess. An exploration and celebration of various human impulses. The show and Go Nagai’s original work are obsessed with the duality of the conflicting desires of individuality and social acceptance, rationality and instinct, empathy and cold logic, and love and lust. Though they are all doomed, the main characters find redemption and solace in growing up and learning how to love and mutually support each other, no matter who they are. Fittingly, passing the baton is recurring motif in the series’ visual vocabulary. A show featuring literal demons, Devilman Crybaby is very much actually about humanity’s internal war with its own inner psychological demons.

Further Reading


Intro to Devilman, a Demonic Manga Masterwork

Devilman Crybaby: How the Better Angels of our Nature Can Constrain the Lessor So

Sympathy for the Devil: a lesson in love from Devilman Crybaby

 

 

 

Wildwood, NJ (1994)

In 1992, Ruth Leitman set out with a Super 8 camera and a small all-woman film crew to document the daily life of young teenagers and 20-somethings in Wildwood, New Jersey. Filmed during the twilight of the Reagan/Bush era, Leitman captures a  fascinating snapshot of what she describes as “the last great American blue-collar seaside carnival town”, the sort of boardwalk community on the Jersey Shore that has been in terminal decline; battered by the ghost of Hurricane Sandy and the increasing drug abuse and economic deprivation that is eroding American working class life everywhere else.

Wildwood serves as sort of a cultural Mecca for cheap thrills and escapism for the average Tristate area resident and the bulk of Wildwood, NJ is served through intimate and unobtrusive interviews with these working class subjects, mostly young women, who relay varying stories about scrapping-by poverty, regrettably losing your virginity, shitty body image, violence, deadbeat parents, fights, and a powerful sense of friendship with each other. Every summer they come to the beach resort, sometimes to flee abusive home lives or in other cases to flee boredom, where there are thrills and a therapeutic freedom from responsibility in summer flings, carnival rides, beach outings, and the sort of transitory nightlife that was being phased out of Las Vegas at around the same point in time. The town offers the comfort of anonymity and a sense of fleetingness that the visitors speak of admirably, where their summer memories of boys and fun in the sun can be left behind as they came, until perhaps they finally return to bring their own children to the resort a decade or two down the line.

A woman who dresses as a vampire for the carnival’s haunted house talks about how to make a good chunk of change working 13 or 14 hours a day. One awkward but earnest teenager shares what seems like a tall tale about putting another girl in the hospital. A guy sheepishly listens to his new summer fling drunkenly and enthusiastically ramble about Wildwood, repeating the phrase “it’s different, every night” over and over again. There are bad 80s haircuts, exaggerated Jersey accents, and religious adults that intone about the dark temptations that lurk everywhere for the girls on the boardwalk. Interviewees share dreams and ambitions about becoming a doctor, a nutritionist, a psychologist, an airline stewardess, or in the case of two go-go dancers, simply doing whatever you need to do to make a buck.

The movie’s subjects have an unscripted awkwardness and matter-of-fact way of speaking that sometimes lends itself to amusement but Leitman does not film them so they can be simply gawked at as period pieces, like in something such as in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. There is a lot empathetic intoning in each interview about struggling to get by, hating how the world makes you feel about your body, avoiding men who don’t respect you, and shouldering each others burdens and a scrappy solidarity that makes Wildwood, NJ in all its low-rent New Jersey griminess, a thematic meditation on the friendship and experiences between working class women.

Black Christmas (1974)

Several years before John Carpenter formally launched the teenage slasher genre with 1978’s Halloween, director Bob Clark managed to put together one of the genre’s strongest entries in Black Christmas. Today, Bob Clark is better known for his other hokey holiday staple, A Christmas Story, and the 80s teen trash comedy Porky’s. But in the 1970s, Clark was a part of the decade’s focus on having a gritty, realistic ethos in film-making, producing the 1976 crime drama Breaking Point, 1974 horror Deathdream, and 1979 Victorian murder mystery Murder by Decree. Released around Christmas 1974 for maximum marketing effect, Black Christmas plays with tropes that are by now well traveled in horror film: teenage co-eds being knocked off one-by-one, a killer in the attic, a “Final Girl”, point of view shots, and as far as I can tell, the earliest known use of the “the calls are coming from inside the house” staple in movies.

What separates Black Christmas from the rest of the pack is its a) focus on creating a foreboding situational atmosphere, b) solid ensemble cast who capture a classic snapshot of the 70s women’s lib era, and c) really good sound design. Black Christmas has a few intended jump scare moments but mostly it prefers to crank up the creepiness by having its suburban killer Billy remain mostly sight unseen, instead mostly placing nasty and abusive phone calls and unsettling mutterings while lurking in the shadows.  In the original script for Carpenter’s Halloween, the adult Michael Meyers was referred to as “the Shape”, in order to better emphasize the character’s mystery and unexplained nature, and that tactic is more successfully deployed in this movie as the killer not only remains mostly unseen but also rather unexplained.

In between the horror of the killer in the attic, the film explores the day to day lives of its rather charming university co-eds, who struggle with topical issues, such as abusive boyfriends, getting an abortion, overbearing fathers, underage drinking, and sexual harassment. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Marian Waldman as a drinky sorority mother are all particularly good. Keir Dullea is particularly obnoxious as Olivia Hussey’s vain and mentally unstable boyfriend, while Margot Kidder obviously had a lot of fun playing the hard-drinking and wise-cracking Barb.

Other reviewers have noted the film’s similarity to Dario Argento, and Black Christmas does indeed come off as something of a Canadian giallo film, with strong use of lighting and color, as well as typical close-up shots of quivering, murderous eyes. Specific praise must be given to the film’s ambiguous and unsettling ending, an effective use of silence and minimal sound cues that capably set a parting tone of dread and eeriness. The score composed by Carl Zittrer and sound design handled David Appleby, Kenneth Heeley-Ray, and Bill O’Neill do a lion’s share to help carry this movie’s mood and atmosphere and their efforts should be praised.

Overall, Black Christmas plays to its minimalist strengths of slow-building foreboding that make it an interesting and effective staple of 1970s horror, despite its deployment of what are now thoroughly exhausted cliches of the modern genre. Essentially, this movie is Carpenter’s Halloween beaten to the punch by four years with a different holiday framing and a more psychological edge. Bob Clark had shot horror and gritty movies as an easy way to break into the industry but he had not intended to stay as a genre director, as his later work in the 80s and beyond goes to show. An interesting entry by a rather unusual and eclectic director, Black Christmas stands well with slasher horror like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and When A Stranger Calls.


Further Reading
culture crypt
dangerous minds
canuxploitation

A Story of a Visit

I visited an asthmatic client with my coworker Ericka. We were there to educate her on how to better control her symptoms, provide her with supplies and whatever referrals for services we could offer. The client was a middle-aged black woman who had casually said she needed help with housing over the phone. When we walked into the building, the stench of mold permeated through the carpet and walls.

We later learned she had been duped into accepting an agreement with her landlord to be the supervisor of the place for cheap rent. She took it in desperation while trying clamber her way out of public housing. It was a multifamily unit with multiple floors but had no other residents, and a half-dozen rooms were empty. The catch was that he had essentially off-shored the responsibility for a building that was rotten and diseased–a pit that should have been condemned, not lived in. We were told the roof leaked in torrents. Roaches scattered as we walked through rooms, ants clambered on the stove, and later on I found out the basement floor was a flooded lake, with the water’s surface nesting a sickly white carpet of fungus.

On top of all this, the client dealt with her own asthma, took care of a terminally ill mother upstate and the two kids and infant granddaughter she lived with on the top floor of the building. In spite of all this, during our talk we found she persevered as best as she could: she had lost 50 lbs by changing her diet after a particularly bad asthma attack, she kept her room religiously clean to prevent anything that might trigger another attack and was saving money. Her son was her pride-and-joy Straight-A student, with promising scholarships being offered in basketball and she was coaching him to a free ride to college. She thanked God every day and counted her blessings, which she said were enough.

Ericka would put her in touch with a housing service. She’d probably be able to get out of there in a couple months.

On the train ride back, we sat in numb silence and I thought about her strength and resilience. I thought that there was nothing, no struggle, I couldn’t move myself past after seeing what she did. I’d continue to do what I could to better myself. To find more time and energy to scream, shout, and rail against the world, until it bent to serve the rest of us.

Later that night, Trump won the election.

Old Testament Fury

Harvey Cox, “The Market As God”, 1999:

Like one of the devouring gods of old, The Market—aptly embodied in a bull or a bear—must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its appetite may seem excessive—a $35 billion bailout here, a $50 billion one there—but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is too terrible to contemplate.

The diviners and seers of The Market’s moods are the high priests of its mysteries. To act against their admonitions is to risk excommunication and possibly damnation. Today, for example, if any government’s policy vexes The Market, those responsible for the irreverence will be made to suffer.

 

Frances Coppola, Forbes.com, 2016:

Demographic projections suggest that working age population will decline by about 10 percentage points by 2060. At the same time, Greece will continue to struggle with high unemployment rates for decades to come. Its current unemployment rate is around 25 percent, the highest in the OECD, and after seven years of recession, its structural component is estimated at around 20 percent. Consequently, it will take significant time for unemployment to come down. Staff expects it to reach 18 percent by 2022, 12 percent by 2040, and 6 percent only by 2060.

So even if the Greek economy returns to growth and its creditors agree to debt relief, it will take 44 years to reduce Greek unemployment to something approaching normal. For Greece’s young people currently out of work, that is all of their working life. A whole generation will have been consigned to the scrapheap.

 

Plundering the Deep: Ronald Reagan, the Free Market, and Deep-Sea Mining

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One of the least remembered but important environmental justice battles in the 1980s was waged between the Ronald Reagan administration, environmentalists, and developing countries for the fate of the bottom of the ocean. By the late 1970s, advances in deep sea exploration had overturned much of previous scientific thought about the possibilities of the ocean beyond 4,000 meters. Increasingly nimble submersible vehicles were able to venture into increasingly dark, crushing depths and had uncovered a goldmine of new information about what was far below the waves.

The first major discovery was that, contrary to previous scientific assumptions, the deep-sea had an incredible amount of biodiversity. Despite our relative lack of knowledge of ecosystems below crushing depths, it may very well constitute the largest overall biomass on the planet. In 1977, hydrothermal vents were discovered in the Galapagos Rift of the Pacific Ocean that supported life, most notably: species of tubeworms. This discovery was particularly important because it offered the first glimpse of organisms that could live and thrive on the heat and inorganic matter of the vents, completely independent of the sun cycle that was thought to be necessary for life on land and elsewhere.

The second major discovery was that the deep sea itself was quite literally a goldmine. The thermodynamic vents were not only discovered to be mineral rich, but it was thought that the sea bed itself now held plenty of untapped veins of valuable mineral deposits that might dwarf those more easily available on land. Science reporter William J. Broad, author of The Universe Below: Discovering the Secret of the Deep Sea, writes that:

[T]he deep’s reservoirs of copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, zinc, silver, and gold are thought to frequently dwarf deposits on land…Cobalt is used in the alloys for the high-temperature parts of jet engines and industrial gas turbines. Copper is the heart of all electrical wires. Nickel is vital for making stainless steel as well as coins, plating, and electronic circuits…All told, the sea’s inventory was estimated at trillions of tons, an astronomical sum that would take millenia of mining to start to consume. Some of the richest sites lay just off the United States.

Industrialized countries were grappling with both energy crisis and resource scarcity at the time of the late 1970s into the early 1980s, with the discovery of vast tracts of resources laying beneath the waves setting off alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. Developing nations too were also keenly aware of the growing significance of the mining opportunities available off their shores and lobbied in what ways they could to protect them. The laws governing the open ocean are tricky and notoriously hard to enforce, even for powerful industrialized nations, thus giving developing nations growing reason to be wary of the exploitation of resources in their sovereign waters by hungry Western companies and nation-states.

The United Nations had passed treaties in the early 1960s related to securing an international law for the ocean and the seabed, but nothing all encompassing. With the growing exploration of the sea floor, there was more pressure to secure a rule of law for the ocean, international waters, and sovereign waters that was fair and equitable to countries both industrialized and developing. This eventually manifested in the Law of the Sea Treaty, negotiated in the 1970s, which called for fairer terms of trade and development financing for the developed and developing nations.

Broad writing again in The Universe Below on the negotiation of the treaty, describes the development as thus:

What developed in the 1970s was a rush of preparations for deep mining, both technical and political…[C]ompanies probed the deep with increasing vigor, gathering and smelting and analyzing. Very quickly this work got caught up in a noisy political clash the United Nations as poor countries assailed the rich ones. Seabed resources, the have-nots proclaimed in a phrase that would echo over the decades, were the “common heritage of mankind”. The aggrieved pushed for a Law of the Sea Treaty, which in theory would create an international legal framework for divvying up the deep riches. The work was to benefit all countries, in particular developing ones.

As the 1970s receded into the 1980s, however, the consensus for a fair legal framework for the sea floor gave way into the market mania of the latter decade, especially in the United States. With the Reagan administration taking office in 1981, the ideological Cold Warriors who populated the administration were determined to fight off the country’s dependency on foreign resources, which they viewed as unacceptable risk that weakened them in their battle with Moscow. The continuous energy crisis and oil embargoes that had rattled the nation during the previous decade spurred an ideological fervor for national self-sufficiency and the seeking out of new sources of resources, with the growing deep-sea mining mania looking incredibly attractive.

In the early 80s, the United States (and other Western nations) sprang into action to gobble up as many ocean floor claims as it could. Using and bending the rules of the United Nations international law set in the 1960s, the United States grabbed up claims using Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which entitled a country to  explore, exploit, conserve, and manage natural resources no more than 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline. The four immediate American claims were big enough to support mining for 20 years and encompassed an area bigger than Spain. Other Western countries rushed to follow suit and soon much of the Pacific in general was carved up by the U.S., European nations, and the U.S.S.R., usually overriding indigenous populations claims in the area. Broad writes that, “the world world’s dominant states quietly carved up enormous parts of the sea, often defying the U.N.” and that “the action bore some resemblance to the colonial partitioning of Africa and the New World centuries earlier”.

By the end of 1983, the United States had made away with EEZ claims to millions of square miles of sea floor, with nearly half of the claims at least one thousand miles from the mainland United States. Legally, the United States was said to have essentially doubled in size. The Reagan administration played an active role in negotiating the pending 1982 Treaty of the Sea, in order to have a hand in legally using and detailing the framework for the EEZs as it saw fit. Then, promptly as the treaty was being ratified by member nations in December of 1982, Reagan refused to sign. This threw a wrench into the treaty and its legitimacy itself; a particularly impressive villainous heel turn. Reagan denounced the treaty as redistributionist, with an Administration memo explaining that “the United States is deeply concerned about the grave dangers of legitimizing this socialist concept by signing the LOS Treaty”. The Reagan administration did, however, continue to hold the EEZ claims it had staked out during the negotiation of the treaty and encouraged American companies to mine the claims in accordance with United States law. The Reagan administration had pulled a skillful bait and switch, ensuring it would not have to recognize or be liable to claims by competing smaller, developing countries and indigenous populations. It then offered up a feast for the free market companies salivating to get a bite. The invisible hand of the market seemed poised and ready to touch a new frontier at the bottom of the ocean, just as it had a grip on everywhere else.

As the Reagan administration prepared to offer the first commercial leasing for deep-sea mining in one of its Exclusive Economic Zones, in an area known as Gorda Ridge off the coast of Oregon, environmentalists seized upon a government environmental impact study to launch the first shot of resistance in a war of conservation. The Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the hefty potential environmental and social blowback, as described by Broad:

[D]eep mining (possibly including the use of explosives) might kill sea creatures, decimate shipwrecks, destroy hot-vent communities, rupture radioactive waste containers at two undersea dump sites, injure marine mammals, poison shellfish beds, mar coastal tourism, and even harm “Native Americans and unemployed persons in the coastal area” whose subsistence lifestyles centered on fishing.

On the defensive in response to environmental groups, as well as state and local governments who were upset at not being consulted in the original process, the Secretary of the Interior agreed to a hold on the leasing plan in Feburary of 1984. The Reagan administration later agreed to a joint military-scientific survey of the area in 1986 to determine environmental costs as well the feasibility of mining the area itself. Scientists came away not only being concerned about the environmental costs, but also with the feasibility to cost-effectively perform the sort of deep sea drilling via submersible or ships to reach the deposits.

Amidst growing overall concern for environmental and sustainable development topics nationally, growing research by academics contributed to the idea that the aftereffects of deep-sea mining would be powerful and averse.

Finally, falling metal and fuel prices in the mid-80s killed off the market interest in the underwater deposits, ensuring that the free-marketeers in the Reagan administration were undercut by the very forces they had made such overtures to. Increasing apathy by the private business interests, that had so hungrily pushed the Reagan administration earlier in the decade, and environmentalist push-back meant that the leasing out of Gorda Ridge stalled until 1989, when it was cancelled just before Reagan left office. Though the United States stranglehold on Exclusive Economic Zones remained and the country never signed the Law of the Sea Treaty,  the mania for deep sea mining subsided in the 1990s.

Still, years later, the old fights of years past have bubbled to the surface a bit. Decades after the deep-sea mining fever of the 1980s, conservative think-tanks and periodicals still rail against the United States’ commitment to the Law of the Sea Treaty. In 2012, a lingering specter of the Reagan administration, Edwin Meese, wrote an article against the treaty for the Heritage Foundation. In July of 2016, National Geographic published an article detailing renewed interest by companies in deep-sea mining, thanks to the development of technologies in the intervening years since the glory days of the mania. With Donald Trump taking office, environmentalists will be looking down an administration cut-throatly similar to the Reagan crew and all too happy to sell off ecologically delicate environments to the highest bidder. Already, the Trump administration is facing lawsuits by environmentalists attempting to tie his hands on promoting the issue:

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it has settled a federal court lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, in a move that will compel federal officials to conduct in-depth assessments of the risks to wildlife and underwater ecosystems before issuing permits for the exploration of the ocean floor for rare-earth metals and minerals.

We are facing down a reawakening of an issue that has been dormant for over thirty years. For the sake of the largest and least understood ecosystem on Earth, let’s hope we can stop another plundering of the deep.

Election 2016 Analysis: New York Über Alles

trump

New York City vomited up one of its own for the presidency on November 8th for the first time since 1944. In these increasingly unhinged times of 2016, instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, we were granted with what could  be taken as some sort of twisted parody version in Donald J. Trump. Both of them wealthy would-be populists and self-styled speakers for the forgotten man, aimed at attacking the establishment. The key differences here being in party, mission, and temperament: Roosevelt was a natural, eloquent speaker, whose calm, smiling demeanor, as history books like to tell us, helped guide the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In contrast, Trump is a vicious, short-fingered vulgarian whose penchant for ugly, unapologetic verbal hardball is his appeal and who has succeeded despite the best efforts of the press and the establishments of both parties to defeat him.

Trump comes to the presidency not only shocking the world with his victory but perhaps himself as well. Trump’s victory surprised his top campaign staff, who hadn’t even bothered to brief him on the day-to-day operations of the West Wing, and Trump himself seemed cowed at the prospect of having to be the ceremonial and administrative head of the nation’s imperial center. With little support for or from the traditional Republican Party apparatus, Trump has resorted to carving up an administration out of the die-hards who stood with him throughout his campaign. The result, as of this writing, has been a feeding frenzy for a laundry list of Republican hacks and has-beens, who have come to claim their share of the carcass. Breitbart’s Steve Bannon has been tapped for White House Strategist, unrepentant warmonger Tom Cotton is in the running for Secretary of Defense, Sarah Palin mentioned for the Interior, and Rudy Giuliani or (dear god) John Bolton are being given serious consideration for Secretary of State.

More troubling, however, is not really President Trump and his low-rent supervillain team assembling in the White House, but the locked and loaded Republican Congress, standing en masse behind him. With its sights set on not only just repealing the Obama administration’s meager reforms and accomplishments, but finally taking a hatchet to Social Security and Medicare and the very concept of public social welfare itself if it can’t help it, these are grim times for anyone looking for at least some shelter from the ravages of an increasingly automated and merciless market society.

And there’s every reason to believe they’ll be within striking distance of being able to try and do it. As Mike Konczal notes, the Republican Party can’t, say, outright repeal Obamacare without running into a Democratic filibuster, but they are perfectly capable of using the process of reconciliation to throw a wrench into the core pieces of the program so that it is completely ineffective. This is a process for which they have of course rehearsed and explicitly prepared for during their spare time in the Obama years.

Similarly, the Republican Senate could overcome a Democratic filibuster of one of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees by confirmation through installing the “nuclear option” allowing a mere 51 senate votes to confirm Antonin Scalia’s successor over filibuster. This would continue the current court status quo, which would thankfully not put Roe v. Wade immediately at risk but would make at least the next four years with two aging justices (one liberal with health issues and the other the closest thing the court has to a reliable swing vote) a nail-biting one. On the other hand, public unions are almost certainly fucked. They dodged a big bullet when Scalia died before being able to rule in the Friedrichs case, that would have almost certainly led to the Court gutting public unions as much as possible, but now Trump can place a conservative appointment to pick up where Scalia and company left off.

Finally, beyond the Congressional and Presidential level, the Republican Party has reaped a mighty taking at the state level (now controlling nearly 33 state legislatures), putting an increasingly radical party within increasing distance of being able to ratify a constitutional amendment for whatever it is they damn please.

The good news, if you can call it that, is Trump might not completely rip up the Iran Deal. This is despite his squawking about it being the worst deal ever and his bellicose neocon entourage seemingly eager to drop a few bombs on Iran as soon as possible. He has also made some noise about reneging on Obama’s thaw with Cuba but it’s hard to know how serious his intentions are in this area.

And on the other side, we have the Democratic Party.

Let’s be clear here, Trump didn’t so much win the election as much as Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment completely fucked up this election and fucked it up spectacularly. Despite all the media talk of the 2016 election being a whitelash and the white working-class decisively breaking for Trump, nationally the Republican voter share barely grew in 2016. Trump has actually hardly done better than 2012’s corporate Republican muppet, Mitt Romney. What did happen is Clinton utterly failed to turn out the electoral coalition that elected Barack Obama twice.

Clinton currently leads the popular vote by one-and-a-half million votes as ballots continue to come in from California, but she currently trails President Obama’s 2012 totals by more than 2 million ballots. Most importantly, voter turnout is down in 19 states compared to the 2012 election, including several important swing states and states that Clinton assumed would be her firewall in defeating Trump. There are of course suggestions that voter restriction laws run by the Republican Party helped contribute to seal the deal for Trump’s victory, which is in part true, but cannot really explain why say Trump beat Clinton by nearly 10 percent of the vote in Ohio (nearly 400,000 votes) in a state that Obama carried in 2012 by 3 percent of the vote (200,000 votes). Or why she lost Pennsylvania, which has gone for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since 1988, up until just now.

Another thing: at no point should anyone feel particularly sorry for Hillary Clinton or her 2016 campaign. It is clear that she and the Democratic establishment she embodies have utterly and irreversibly screwed themselves. In the postmortem of this election, reports from survivors of the Democratic campaign wreckage indicate that the Clinton campaign team generally spent most of the general election assuming it was going to win. What they thought apparently, was they just needed to work further to decide by how much. Generally, this meant abandoning campaign infrastructure and staff in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. As reported by Sam Stein in the Huffington Post, the Clinton team wanted to expend as few political resources as possible in a war of idiotic mindgames with the Trump campaign:

A senior official from Clinton’s campaign noted that they did have a large staff presence in Michigan and Wisconsin (200 and 180 people respectively) while also stressing that one of the reasons they didn’t do more was, in part, because of psychological games they were playing with the Trump campaign. They recognized that Michigan, for example, was a vulnerable state and felt that if they could keep Trump away ― by acting overly confident about their chances ― they would win it by a small margin and with a marginal resource allocation.

One has to assume the amount of resources pulled away from getting out the vote in Democratic-leaning states was being sunk into pandering to Republican women or Republican-leaning independents in states like Arizona and Georgia. This would ensure, of course, that Clinton could boast a healthy electoral landslide come election night. Notably, however, absolutely none of these potential “swing” voters came to aid Clinton’s gambit when the day was over.

They also apparently thought that any risk of losing the average Democratic voter in regular Democratic-leaning states could also be offset by this strategy. Back in July, Chuck Schumer seems to have outlined the mentality, saying that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” It is hard believe that Democratic leadership thought Clinton could bank on wrapping up any Republican of any stripe. Unless they seriously somehow hadn’t noticed during the campaign, the vast majority of Republican voters view her as a corrupt hellspawn who might possibly be an antichrist. With Clinton’s highly unfavorable personal image, it was an incredible risk to do anything but focus on ensuring that Clinton could turn out the bare minimum of the Democratic voting coalition needed for victory, and yet they took that risk.

Clinton generally ran a calculating, utterly establishment-oriented campaign suited for nearly 20 years ago in 1996. It emphasized her experience and grasp of policy in an era when voters are desperate and could care less about those things. In utter denial about how utterly fucked and desperate vast swathes of the country are, Clinton’s tone-deaf campaign slogans included things like “America Is Already Great” or meaningless pabble like “Stronger Together”. In an era of incredible social dislocation and rocketing inequality, this banal and inoffensive messaging helped reinforce Clinton’s public image: that she is an emotionally distant technocratic figure, who doesn’t really care or relate to the average person or their everyday concerns, outside of their existing as statistics or numbers in a policy brief.

She also didn’t help herself by throwing her enemies plenty of rope for which to hang her by. In 2014, for no particular reason other than to enrich herself, Clinton ran around to different Wall Street banks giving secret speeches to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She did this understanding on some level that she would be campaigning for president the next year and that the mood in the country remained incredibly anti-establishment. That she chose to do so speaks either to her arrogance or cluelessness about how these speeches and her behavior could be used against her.

Most importantly: the campaign selected Tim Kaine, a human salt-shaker and complete nonentity, as its running mate which meant, despite the campaign’s rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, it had a massive gaping vulnerability: there was absolutely no one of color on the ticket following the first black president. Accordingly, Clinton’s black voter turnout dropped more than 11 percent compared to 2012 and Trump did better than Mitt Romney among Latino voters despite his vile campaign rhetoric. Clinton took black voters and voters of color for granted, assumed they would come out to vote for her at the same rates Obama achieved, and thought all she had to sell them was that she wasn’t Donald Trump. She sold them this despite her own sorry history of inflicting damage on communities of color during the 1990s and beyond.

Finally, it is fittingly symbolic that that the Clinton campaign sank on the rocks of the Great Lakes Rust Belt states, since she has been actively helping screw over the voters in those states for 30 years. Clinton ran against Trump as the Democrat most closely aligned, outside of perhaps Al Gore or her husband himself, with passing NAFTA in the 1993. That she went on to try and negotiate the TPP in Obama’s administration did her no favors and also meant that when she cynically flipped to half-heartedly oppose free trade agreements during the Democratic primary, absolutely no one believed her. The Democrats handed Trump the candidate he could most effectively attack on job outsourcing. Despite generally bumbling the fuck out of his campaign everywhere else, he effectively savaged Clinton on free trade during the Presidential debates and on the stump, and this can’t have gone unnoticed by voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

As Clinton, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the Third Way triangulating politics they embody saunter off into the dark night, they leave the Democratic Party in general shambles, despite being handed a candidate in the general election that they wanted to run against and that would have been a cinch for anyone who wasn’t an endlessly scandal-laden member of an aspiring technocratic political dynasty to defeat.

So what now?

For those of us at the bottom, who have to pick up and build something out of the wreckage of the Democratic Party’s failures, this is going to be a very tough and very grim time. But there are reasons to hope. The Trump victory has inspired protests and resistance by young people across the country and we can be guaranteed that the Trump administration itself will supply an endless list of actions to kick and scream and shout about. The president-elect and the Republican Party itself seem as befuddled by their victory as everyone else, with a generally incompetent-looking White House, and if they start their march towards undoing healthcare, social welfare programs, or civil rights, they’re damn well not going to be ready for the blowback if they are hit hard enough. Power that is obtained and poorly wielded can be just as much of a death sentence as anything else, if the current plight of the Democratic Party has anything to teach us.

Trump himself is the most unpopular president-elect in history and as long as he remains the identifiable standard bearer of the Republican Party, he is going to be an easy, immediate target for which to rally around resistance akin to the conservative revolt Obama faced. One of the positives of the Obama presidency is that from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Sanders campaign, there has been finally something akin to actual emancipation and social justice movements incubating in this country that can operate outside of the voting booth every 2 to 4 years.

That Keith Ellison, who correctly and intelligently foresaw the threat that Trump posed in 2015 while being laughed at for it, is a leading candidate for the DNC Chair is as close to a thing you can point to as a nice start. And that even bland, inoffensive liberals have signed up in a campaign to do something about white nationalist Steve Bannon being quietly shooed into Trump’s cabinet is the budding example of a lot of the kicking and screaming people are going to have to do to be heard.

And we need to be heard. Not only are we facing down a looming climate crisis but there’s also a sinister fascist and nationalist specter brewing both here and in Europe to contend with, with Trump’s election unleashing a rise in racist harassment. With nothing left but our entire future to lose, there’s no more triangulating or moderating or negotiating to be had. At the end of 2016, New York City spit up its very own favorite orange authoritarian for the rest of the country and the world to contend with.

We should be ready to take up the fight.

Big Apple, 8 A.M.

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You’ve got to admit: you’ve really come a long way.

At work in the morning, there’s been scuffling with crazy people who want to fight you on street corners.

Then later on at night, screaming matches on the subway. With drunken Trump supporters throwing vile slurs.

Three years ago, your own legs felt too brittle to stand up on. There wasn’t enough gumption anywhere to push you into crossing swords with friends, let alone strangers.  You craved approval like it was Poland Spring and you were dying of thirst. You dodged confrontation like it was a clenched fist.

But New York City is about learning how to deal with people by the millions and assertiveness training by necessity. You get into a scrap with one grumpy old fuck, you get into another. And then you’ve finally found something to fuel with all that angry bullshit you kept compartmentalized away into your mind’s Tupperware.

Now, when the “drunk at 10:30am” shirtless guy with missing teeth comes up to tell you how much he likes “white pussy” because he saw some woman buying coffee across the street and he really just wanted to let you know, you tell him to keep fucking moving brah.

And he does.

And screams some shit about screwing your mother while he slinks away.

Because he’s a punk-ass motherfucker.

The bonus also is that now you have a real reason to go to the gym: to make sure you don’t get your ass kicked. Or at least make it not so bad when you inevitably do.


The older woman in the tacky t-shirt, with a kitten printed on it, approaches. She looks like she must be around 70 years old or so. I have a table set up for giving out flyers and informational material but I can’t be bothered to sit down at it for too long because I’m so twitchy, so I just lean against the fence and stare down at my phone, like a good Millenial, to pass the time.

“Hey there, babydoll.”

I look up and there she is looking through the table materials. The tacky cat shirt, a face with dark sunglasses, and a somewhat wrinkled hand wave hello at me. She obviously drops off her food scraps with us regularly. I can’t seem to remember her by face though. I interact with hundreds of people on this street corner every day. She asks me if there’s anything new to read on the table that she should take with her. I respond that there’s nothing really new besides flyers for fishing events on the East River that my organization sponsors. She nods and takes some of those and drops off her food scraps into the collection bin. Seeing her finish up, I smile, nod, and wish her a good day.

“Thank you, angel-face”, her voice quavers in a weird near-falsetto. A flashing grin erupts beneath her hidden eyes.

She strokes her hand against my arm as she says this. I’ve rolled up my sleeves because of the heat and she touches bare skin. I try not to instinctually raise an alarmed eyebrow as she does.

“You take care now,” and there she goes to melt in the morning rush crowd from which she spawned, just quickly and eerily as she came.

It is the spring of twenty-oh-sixteen, in the Lower East Side of New York City, and this is what my life has come to: getting successfully creeped on at work by a 70 year old cat lady with an endearingly gaudy taste in fashion, in the surprisingly strong heat of a sunny Spring day in May, at 8am in the morning. For almost no pay.

But hey whatever: just roll with it.

You’re not getting any younger. And pretty soon you’ll take whatever you can get.


In a dimly living room in our dimly lit house, Tristan has opened up his laptop.

He’s just created his first Twitter account.

Alex cranes his head and peers to look at the monster he’s helped create. He coached Tristan on registering his account.

“Uh, so I see you’re following a ton of pornstars…?”

“No, look, it’s really just Sasha Grey and Madison Ivy.”

Tristan continues unabated. Glances are exchanged between the rest of us.

“Though, to be honest, maybe this isn’t a good idea. I don’t want my exgirlfriend to see.”

This has unbearably piqued my interest.

“Of all the things, why would you care if your exgirlfriend finds out you follow porn stars on Twitter?” I interject.

“She was hot”

“…what”

“I’D LIKE TO HAVE SEX WITH HER AGAIN THANK YOU VERY MUCH”


The woman falls, face first, onto the pavement. Thump. It’s so sudden, so heavy, and she lays prone and flat for a long time. In fact, too long, and I’ve decided she didn’t trip or lose balance. Her groceries are scattered out from their bags.

“Excuse me, are you okay? Do you need help?”

The niceties tumble out of my mouth. Always ask, before helping. That’s something they drilled into you in Boy Scouts, but I’ve already crouched down to grip her shoulder and shake it ever so gently. She doesn’t react anyway.

Then I see the blood slowly pooling around her head.

A seizure?

Not the first I’ve seen in the past few months. Not even the first I’ve walked upon on a city sidewalk.

A few months ago, I stopped to help a Latino man, spread eagle on his back on the Jersey City street corner. He didn’t speak English and that made it maddeningly fumbling to help him, but a group of us had gathered and called the EMTs. One of them spoke Spanish and before they carted him off, said he had mentioned a brain tumor.

I’ve propped her over to her side. She’s much older, Chinese, with her hair greying and thinning. And she’s conscious. Her eyes stare out past me into the horizon of the Williamsburg Bridge, unblinking and glassy and glazed over, the left side of her face torn up and dripping ruby specks of blood. I prod her verbally some more but she continues to glance out far past me, though a hand waved in front of her face produces a nod.

Does she not speak English either? Or even if she could, would this be all she could say to me?

I feel trapped in not knowing and not reaching. The fear of being there, right there, with someone in need, and still having a gap.

My phone isn’t on me, it’s at the office, but a passerby calls the EMTs for me. An older Chinese man swiftly approaches from under the bridge and circles around me, speaking into his cell phone in frantic Cantonese, but doesn’t move to interfere as I hold her up on my knees and out of her own blood. I assume he is her husband but never find out.

Eventually, the EMTs arrive and strap her into the white rolling cot. Someone calling himself her son arrives as well, in his late 30s, shakes my hand, thanks me, and then having satisfied my anxiousness that I have done what I could, I head off.

Hours later, I cross the same intersection on my way home. The pool of her blood is still there, uncleaned and glistening in the Lower East Side sunset.