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

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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.

Public Television in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Pittsfield is a small city located in Western Massachusetts on the Housatonic River, bordering close to Connecticut. At one point in time, this small-scale Rust Belt city could boast a population of nearly 60,000 residents back during the 1950s and 1960s, but has since declined to a population of around 44,000 residents.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, General Electric operated a large industrial plant in Pittsfield where they manufactured and serviced electrical transformers. Employing nearly 14,000 people at its peak during the 1940s and 1950s, General Electric manufactured and serviced these electrical transformers through a process containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that led to the contamination of the local environment. By 1977, testing conducted by the EPA  had revealed that not only were the Housatonic River and the town’s groundwater heavily contaminated with PCBs, but the chemical was also present in the soil and materials of the schoolyards and backyards of the very families living in the city.

Since 1977, there has been a ban on fishing from areas of the Housatonic River. Since 1997, Pittsfield has been designated an official SuperFund site by the EPA.

In this context,  Pittsfield Community Television was formed in 1986. A public access television station, PCTV allows anyone from the Pittsfield area the ability to make a program or broadcast of their own. PCTV is also the only locally based source of regular television programming for Pittsfield, making it an important democratic hub for a city in decline.

Broadcasting from the environmentally and economically degraded Rust Belt, these voices were unleashed upon the airwaves. Since PCTV is not supposed to impose restrictions on content, creative freedom was rich in the decade before the rise of internet media. Thankfully collected for posterity in video tapes from the 1990s, the results are bizarre and surreal.

By 1992, General Electric had reduced its workforce in Pittsfield to 530 employees and one small GE Plastics plant.

In 2000, the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut won a settlement with General Electric for $250 million dollars to sponsor a clean up of the Housatonic River area.

It continues. In 2014, the EPA deemed that the most bare minimum clean up would need to continue for at least 13 more years. The most extensive would take 52.

In Search of Our Better Selves – Themes of Mad Max: Fury Road

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Mad Max: Fury Road was my favorite movie of 2015 and maybe my favorite personal experience in a movie theater of all time. It’s excellent on its own merits as an action movie, with George Miller having had spent nearly 15 years or so developing the plot, characters, and world of Fury Road, with an attention to detail especially for stunts, sets, costumes, and the sort of classic analog special effects that have been long supplanted by CGI in Hollywood movie making. The result is a very intense visual experience and a fully realized cinematic world that I think would stand on its own merits even if it were just that.

All that said, a common criticism of Fury Road is that it is seemingly threadbare in plot, little more than a giant, long car chase dressed up as a full-length movie. In reality, Fury Road is rich in symbolism and subtext, some of which is very blatant and in other cases more subtle. I think it’s worth-reviewing, so as I understand them, here are my summaries on some of the most important themes of Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Trauma and Redemption

The two largest themes of Mad Max: Fury Road are trauma and the seeking of redemption. These themes are typified specifically by the film’s two leads: Max and Furiosa. Both are characters who are reflections of each other. These characters start at polar opposite points in their respective lives, with both of them having chosen a different path to follow in order to survive their world.

When we first meet Furiosa, she is a tool of power and an enforcer of hierarchy.  She is an Imperator, a leader in the death cult society that Immortan Joe has established at the Citadel. Having obtained this role makes her a hardened and ranking member of what remains of post-apocalypse society. We are not given an extensive amount of Furiosa’s backstory or how she came to be an Imperator but from what we do know about her past, we can piece together a few important facts about who she is: Furiosa was originally born in the fertile land of the Green Place and kidnapped as a child, though we do not necessarily know by whom. We do know that at whatever point in time she came to reside at Immortan Joe’s Citadel, where she has stayed for a large part of her life.

The few women who live in the upper reaches of the Citadel exist to either bear Immortan Joe children, service him sexually, or to produce milk. Since Furiosa seems to have had no use as a mother for Joe’s children and is a warrior in his cult, there’s the implication that Furiosa is most likely sterile. Spared from being a member of Immortan Joe’s harem or one of his brides, Furiosa has become a participant in Immortan Joe’s society and hierarchy, distinguishing herself by doing his dirty work in exchange for privileges that allow her easy access to shelter, water, food, and prestige. She climbs and commands a place in the social hierarchy in order to escape the harsh life of the huddled underclass we see clamoring for water near the beginning of the movie.

Naturally, in order to maintain her position, she has most likely done terrible things. The world of the wasteland is harsh enough as it is, but in earning the title of “Imperator”, she has distinguished herself in an already brutal land. We know that, however, by the beginning of the movie Furiosa’s hardened nature has broken down once introduced to the company of Immortan Joe’s Brides. Her time guarding the Brides and observing their innocence and abuse reignites Furiosa’s guilt, own traumas, memories, and hopes for the future. In rescuing the Brides away from Immortan Joe and trying to find the Green Place, a nostalgic place free of men like Immortan Joe and their cruelty, Furiosa seeks to redeem herself for the atrocities she has committed and seen, she fights for her own absolution from a society that is unjust.

Max has responded to his experience of trauma, the loss of loved ones and the death of the world, by shedding society and other people as much as possible. Haunted by the failure of those he has failed to protect, he begins as a man reduced to a feral state, withdrawn, and solely focused on survival. He has lost a wife, a daughter, and countless others.

As is common with victims of trauma, Max disconnects and dissociates. He compartmentalizes. Getting close to no one means he can at least focus on something else besides old loss and the potential for new loss. Max falls in with Furiosa and the Brides initially with just the intent of preserving his own life, but as Max spends more time with Furiosa and the Brides and begins to join their hopes for a better future, Max’s own personal barriers break down. By finding something beyond himself to fight for, by allowing himself to have something to live for beyond his own survival, Max rediscovers (if only for a little while) his humanity and a sense of community that he has lost.

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Sacrifice and Community

Max and Furiosa’s traumas, guilt, and failures are their own. Their redemption is not. The focus Fury Road places on community and shared burdens is important and a message that can be taken to heart. Max and Furiosa do not absolve their inner demons alone. They overcome them by rejecting being individualized or atomized or focused solely on themselves and their own survival. They learn to cooperate. The struggle and emphasis of Fury Road is importantly a shared one, a communal one. This is essentially the story of a loose-knit family forged in the face of adversity and bonds between people who struggle together that make them willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.

Nux the War Boy spends the entire first half of the movie trying to win the approval of a society and a patriarch that sees him as disposable. The War Boys are actively encouraged to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Immortan Joe and personal glory. By the film’s end, Nux has indeed sacrificed his life but not for some personal Valhalla. Nux dies historic on the Fury Road and sacrifices himself not for the individual honor and glory that is encouraged by the society of the Citadel, but because he has found a group and a person (the bride, Capable) that mean more to him than the Citadel and its promises of immortality ever did. His death has only one witness and it is fittingly the only witness he could ever care about.

After sharing mutual distrust after first meeting, Max and Furiosa eventually come to build a respect and trust with each other. They risk their lives for each other and symbolically at the end of the film, Max literally bonds himself by blood to Furiosa, saving her life. In the emotional climax of the movie, after having given her his blood, Max movingly offers Furiosa the most intimate thing he has: his name. Their significance to each other is now permanent. The taking of the Citadel seems to be Furiosa’s glory but meeting Max is the most significant occurrence in her life thus far, changing everything. His presence allows her to build and succeed on his haunting failures.

Case in point: Fury Road is not a movie about individual heroics, it is a story about collective triumph.

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Gender and Hierarchy

Who killed the world? The question proposed by the graffiti scrawled in Immortan Joe’s lair seems to having a pretty damning answer: men. Or at least their societies. The nuclear war and the battles over resources have torn up the world and left a waste. The civilization that has emerged from the ruins is horribly oppressive and aggressively macho. The women in the society of the Citadel are generally stripped of their agency to serve its patriarch or they are among the huddled, thirsty masses below.  The men are drafted into a personal army that encourages treating your life with recklessness for the glory of a distant and uncaring father figure.

Fury Road lays blame for the death of the world at the feet of a macho, resource guzzling, war-mongering society.

Though feminist in bent, this is not a utopian or moralistic film. It is notable that the paradise that Furiosa sets out to find, a green utopia free of men, has literally wasted away by the time she arrives. The comments by the older women who stayed behind suggest that Furiosa’s dream was probably untenable or temporary in the first place before falling apart. Her escape attempt is pinned on vague hopes and nostalgia. Without Max’s knowledge, Furiosa most likely would have led her party to their deaths in the salt desert after discovering the dream she hoped to find was dead.

The solution that Fury Road does suggest is inclusive. Nux and Max prove themselves to be men that Furiosa and the other women can trust. Nux is by his nature, naive and young and preyed upon in his own way by the macho society that has raised him. Once he has shed his pretenses of glory, he is accepted into the fold.  Max earns their trust as he slowly humanizes himself. Furiosa’s crusade and society eventually becomes open to those who are willing to become participants. The societies of men may have killed the world, but the men themselves are not irredeemable.

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Hope and Empowerment

When Max stops Furiosa and the convoy from journeying off into the desert and suggests they take back the Citadel, it’s an important subtext. It is at this point that Furiosa must come to terms with the fact that there is no Green Place that she can run to. Max lays bare the fact that the world she is looking for has been under her nose all along. It’s just that it must be taken and built.

The message of Fury Road is empowerment. The resources and infrastructure to build the world you want are already there. The people who can help you confront your problems are closer than you think. And a better future may just be one or two rebellious acts away.

All of this applies as much to our own world as much as the apocalyptic one depicted in the film. As the epigraph of Fury Road questions: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The world we inhabit now is its own metaphorical wasteland, filled with injustices. The hope is that we confront it.

Ewing Man Accidentally Crosses Border Into Trenton, Lives To Tell About It

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Chaos and heartbreak erupted in a McDonald’s parking lot this morning as local Ewing resident, Dan Smith, was horrified to discover that he had crossed the border into Trenton city limits by accident. During a routine morning trip to a McDonald’s located on Olden Avenue, Smith was shocked to have his smartphone inform him that his parking spot actually placed him within the technical border of Trenton. Thirty minutes later, police were able to successfully rescue the incredibly shaken and distraught, but alive, Smith away from his car and his harrowing ordeal with deadly inner-city life. “Well, technically, only the back part of the McDonald’s parking lot is in Trenton, so we were able to move him up to the drive-in window and into safety”, Lt. Ryan Moore told reporters. At press time, in between mournful bites of a McMuffin, sheltered local man Smith went on to describe his experience away from the safety of suburban life as “unnerving but eye-opening”.