Top 10 XCOM2 Tactics for Beginners

XCOM2 title card.

I love XCOM.  I came to it via the iPad, and played XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the couch, watching TV, on a plane, basically everywhere.  It is, in my opinion, the best game available on the iPad except for the expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, which significantly enriches its predecessor.

In the original XCOM, you manage a secret government military strike team dedicated to combating a slow alien invasion.  The game has two dimensions: tactical, turn-based combat and team/base management, where you determine what facilities to construct, how to manage your budget, garner the  support of critical allies, and balance your strategic goals against urgent missions, all against the backdrop of a ticking doomsday clock.

The drama, of course, comes from the customization, the leveling-up, and the difficulty.  As characters survive missions,  they are promoted through the ranks, given new abilities and stats.  You grow attached to them, you choose thier weapons and upgrades, their color palette, psychic or cybernetic abilities, their name, codename, even their hairstyle (or hat/helmet).  You come to rely on them, understand which are fast, which are lucky, which are good or bad shots, and which should close the deal with a sword.  You come to rely on them.  Then, in moments of high drama, they are inevitably killed, to be replaced with the next up-and-coming rookie.  This can be heart-wrenching, especially if, like me, you try to keep the number of saved games to a minimum.  (For you stalwarts, the Ironman mode disables the ability to save games entirely, but I don’t think I could take it, emotionally.)

XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.
XCOM operatives saddened by an empty chair on the ride home.

So, I’ve followed it closely and was thrilled when XCOM2 became available for XBox One (not yet on iPad, of course.)   And now, XCOM2 has its own expansion  advertised on social media: War of the Chosen.

One thing that wasn’t available when I first started playing XCOM2 was a tactical guide for beginners.  I’m at best a very part-time gamer and don’t have a ton of experience with turn-based strategy, but XCOM is less about ground strategy– moving heavy units around a board, but more about small unit tactics.  So I wrote this for people like me, bearing in mind that I expect these rules to continue to be perfectly serviceable to War of the Chosen.

Obviously, this guide will make no sense if you don’t play XCOM.

Here are the Basics, for new players:

  1. Thou Shalt Protect Thyself First.
    A Ranger opts for full cover.
    A Ranger opts for full cover.

    That means the primary goal of each turn should be to make sure the character is provided with the best cover available.  That means even if you have a kill-shot lined up, take care of protecting yourself first, otherwise you’re just lining up someone else’s kill-shot.  If it takes a few turns to put down the enemy, fine.

  2. Seek the High Ground, Seek the Flank.
    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.
    An enemy heavy MEC is successfully flanked by a grenadier.

    Look, your odds can increase by as much as 50%.  Snipers should always be seeking high ground and should be as far away from the battle as is practical– use Spider Armor to help with this.  Everyone should always be seekeing the flank.  Seriously, the main point of the game is to flank your enemies.  That’s really it.

  3. Don’t Follow Turn Order.  One of the great features of XCOM’s turn-based combat is that anyone on the team can go first or last, there is no fixed order.  That means although Frank is set to move next, you can defer Frank, and have everyone else move first, coming back to Frank’s move last.  This is your single most important move.  Your most powerful weapon is your ability to determine when a turn is used, when a special weapon is deployed, when a movement is made, who gets the kill-shot.  Always give kill-shots to rookies, where possible, so they can level up faster.  Turn order is tyranny, and you don’t have to follow it.
  4. Watch Your Loadouts.
    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.
    Preparing to choose the best loadouts for a mission.

    Loadouts should be catered to the objectives of the mission, and anticipate the enemies you expect to find.  If you think there will be a Sectopod, a decoy will save your life.  If you anticipate Vipers or Arachnids, you will be poisoned.  Lots of robots?  Heavy armor?  Armor-piercing rounds.  Pack accordingly.

  5. Stick Together.
    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.
    A tight squad grouping as the team moves toward the action.

    When you are moving across the board, keep the group tight.  The single worst move you can make is to unintentionally reveal an enemy squad that you aren’t ready for.  This can be avoided by moving tightly (and using battle scanners!).  If you encounter enemies, stop moving.  DO NOT press on beyond that point!  Remember what the Navy SEALs say about swim buddies: two is one, one is none.”

  6. Recover friends and weapons.  An advancement in XCOM2 is that wounded or unconscious friends can be carried.  While it’s not usually useful to carry dead operatives, if it is possible in the constraints of time and distance, this is the only way to recover armor, weapons and utilities, which are otherwise lost for good.  Carried soldiers limit the amount of actions you can take, but they don’t restrict your movement.
  7. Use the element of surprise.
    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.
    A Viper and an Andromedon are caught in a trap.

    When attacking an unsuspecting enemy, the attacking move should be the last move in the round.  All of the previous turns should be to set-up the position of your squad (ideally a mix of flanking and elevated positions) and set their moves to “overwatch.”  When the final shot is made, usually by a sniper, the enemies will run– triggering overwatch fire.  With enemy squads of three basic enemies, this will often take out as many as two enemies, sometimes all three!  Other enemy units are not necessarily notified, so if you kill all three, you are still concealed.

  8. Watch the Clock.
    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.
    A ranger sets the explosive charges to complete the mission.

    Each game type (set the bomb, rescue/assassinate, retaliation strikes, protect the device, hack the device, etc.) have different rule constraints.  Some types have a turn clock: 10 turns to accomplish this task, or something similar.  You live and die by this clock.  You should know how you plan to move, every single turn.  However, do not let this feeling interfere in other game types: if you aren’t on the clock, take your time and position yourself as advantageously as possible.

  9. Know when to fight, know when to run.
    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac'ing from the combat zone.
    A grenadier opts for the better part of valor by evac’ing from the combat zone.

    Another typical rookie move is to think every battle has to be fought.  Many battles will make obvious that this is not the case: look for time clocks or enemy reinforcements, which often signal that the point is not to win by killing all opponents– if you try, you will be killed.  In many cases, reinforcements will keep coming every three turns or so.  Get the message and complete the actual objective.  A critical point is: learn how to call for evac.  A good trick is to call for evac if a squadmate is certain to die within a few turns, such as by poison, or acid, and to just evac them.  Come back to that planted evac point when the objective has been completed.  Another good strategy is to send back wounded rookies who have been promoted but are likely to be killed.   They will keep the promotion!  Many objectives can be completed without securing the area.  While the Mission is considered a “Failure,” the Objective is considered completed, and usually that’s all that is needed.  (The Chairman will still be pleased.)

  10. Protect Your Veterans.  This is so, so important.  Rookies come and go.  Squaddies come and go.  But veterans represent a substantial investment of time and energy, they have significant battlefield advantages that Rookies can’t match, and they unlock squad bonuses in the Guerrilla Training School.  So give the rookies the shit jobs. Put them in front.  Make them prove themselves.  And do your best to get your veterans off the field alive.  You can’t do this all the time.  You can’t even do it most of the time.  But consider it a priority.

What are your best tactics? Share in the comments!

From Power Man to Iron Fist: Netflix’s Newest Marvel Show Looks Lame as Hell

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The latest in Netflix’s roster of Marvel TV show heroes, The Defenders, is almost here.  Netflix’s Defenders were intended to be four: Daredevil, Luke Cage (Power Man), Jessica Jones and now Iron Fist, so we’ve finally rounded out the roster.

The trailer looks underwhelming.  Without some notable changes, Marvel could drop the ball on one of their more underrated characters.  The show won’t be released on Netflix until March 17th, 2017, so here’s what I anticipate based on the trailers released so far, Netflix’s approach to previous shows, and the comics history of the character.  In short, this one could bomb.   Let’s talk a little about the history, problems, and possibilities of this character.

So who is Iron Fist?

Iron Fist's first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.
Iron Fist’s first appearance, in Marvel Premiere #15.

The classic Iron Fist backstory follows Danny Rand, wealthy heir of  Rand Enterprises, as he returns after many years from an ill-fated trip to Asia with his mother father, and Harold Meachum, his father’s business partner.  As we come to learn, Rand Sr. was murdered by Meachum on the slopes of the Himalayas, leaving young Daniel the sole survivor of the journey.  Meachum alone survives to walk down out of the snow, where he is finally able to return home and assume sole control of the company.  The younger Rand is rescued by monks and taken to the mystical Himalayan city of K’un Lun, to cross a bridge into the heart of Sino-American Mythology: Chinese-flavored, American-grown, very Marvel.

Iron Fist originally was one of Marvel’s answers to the the Kung-Fu craze of the 1970’s, along with Shiang-Chi (basically a super Bruce Lee) and a few others.  There was even a Fu Manchu. Really.

In the 70’s and 80’s, Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) shared a  shared a monthly comic with Danny Rand called Power Man and Iron Fist.  PM&IF was originally written as Power Man’s title; he alone was the original Hero for Hire: a jive-talking (no, really; he actually uses the word ‘jive’ a fair deal) blaxploitation-era ex-con.  In terms of the style of the period, with Cage, Marvel were really going for it, he had a black power afro and a steel headband and actually had chains as a part of his costume.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to assume that writers at Marvel started with a character named “Black Power Man” and just sort of worked their way backward, trimming words.  He regularly assailed pimps, superpowered gang hoods with names like “Comanche” or “the Big Boss,” even slumlords with evil robots.  A favorite image is of Cage punching a pimp’s leopardskin Cadillac head on, which should basically tell you everything you need to know.

The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.
The battle is joined: Power Man and Iron Fist #50.

When Power Man solo couldn’t make sales targets, Iron Fist was added in to make it a buddy-title– Iron Fist himself being another C-lister of the time.  Together, the thinking went, they had enough star power to carry the title.  The combination of these two themes: overseasoned Kung Fu alongside urban blaxploitation swagger, and you had a pretty distinct flavor.  By issue #50, they joined forces, presumably making a single, unified trope out of many lesser ones.

The Heroes for Hire were unique for a couple of reasons: first, that their identities were publicly known, and second, that they charged for their services.  PM&IF lasted until issue #125 issues, concluding with the third unique feature: the series ended with Iron Fist’s bizarre, friendly-fire death.  I’m going to go ahead and spoil it: Iron Fist punched through a wall by a deluded loser named “Captain Hero” who was trying to wake him up from a nap and he dies.  The End.  If you think that sounds stupid now, imagine how unsatisfying that was to read at the time.  It was absolutely inexplicable, you could feel the writers’ fatigue and frustration steaming off the page,  glad to just get the whole thing over with.  I came to PM&IF late, just towards the end of its full run, and my impression was that it was decent, if inconsistent.  By that time, the monthly stories alternated from character-to-character, as if they didn’t share the spotlight so much as pass it back-and-forth, with no real underlying continuity.  It didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, the way X-Men or Spider-Man or even Daredevil were loaded with front stories, backstories, unresolved potentials, burning revenges, collective history.  On the other hand, the last two issues, #123, “Getting Ugly,” where Cage battles a racially-motivated super-serial killer and #124, where Rand single-handedly takes on the Ninja clan callled The Hand, were excellent.  They caught their mojo just a few months too late.

Remarkably for Marvel, Iron Fist actually stayed dead for a while.  He was eventually brought back to life with some half-assed explanation that the guy who died was not the real Rand, but actually an alien impersonator.  This is the standard Marvel go-to when someone dead needs to be brought back (see also: Jean Grey/Phoenix), although robots do that job from time-to-time– practically a joke where Nick Fury is concerned, he’s ‘died’ so many times, only to turn out to have been a robot.  That’s actually what Marvel should have done with Nick Fury to start with.  Is there anyone who doesn’t prefer the Samuel L. Jackson version? No. The solution: “I was black the whole time!  That other guy was my white robot!”  Meanwhile, Cage rotated in and out of the occasional super team and even had his own title at various times, moving from C-lister to B-lister.

Luke Cage was Netflix’s previous show, and it performed respectably, gaining a decent buzz.  The plan had always been for Iron Fist to follow, leading into the Defenders, with all of them together.

A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist.
A previous incarnation of the Iron Fist battles the Huns on the steppes of Asia.

So, what can Iron Fist do?  He is a master of the mystical martial arts of K’un L’un, a mystical city in the Chinese Himalayas.  His name, the Iron Fist, is actually a conferred honorific that one attains by beating a dragon, named Shou Lou the Undying, in combat.  This means that the Iron Fist is a role that is earned, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Rand is merely the latest in a long line of Iron Fists, and arguably one of the least interesting, given some of the stories of previous Iron Fists that occasionally pop-up in historical flashbacks.

The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.
The Immortal Iron Fist, cover.

The Iron Fist has the power of the dragon Shou Lou the Undying permanently embedded in his chest.  So, the thing to know here is that in any given plot-clinch moment, drawing on the Chi of this mystical creature is the sole superpower the Iron Fist possesses. It’s what brings him from unpowered-but-amazing-fighter to full-on Superhero, in league with A-Class hitters like the Avengers.  Other than his ability to punch, Iron Fist is just a really well-trained guy.  But he punches very, very hard.

We can all see the issue that Netflix is going to run into with Iron Fist.  We’ve already watched Bruce Wayne hike to the top of the Himalayas to be trained in Secret Martial Arts.  We then watched him come home to try and re-take his father’s company.  According to the trailer, this looks to be exactly the same storyline Iron Fist is going with. You’re telling me another white trust fund kid hiked off into the mountains to become a ninja, and we are supposed to care, well, why, exactly?  How is this different, really?  No pointy ears?

The show isn’t out yet, but if there’s no credible, stylish and distinct answer to that question, that sound you are hearing is Netflix’s Marvel’s star finally crashing to Earth.   The blogosphere was aghast to learn that Marvel was playing this one straight with no modifications to the origin or casting.  This seems somewhat tone-deaf given the current social media climate, where an outrage-of-the-week seems predictable here, and the tendency of modern fans to feel they are somehow entitled to direct input into the art that will be produced for their consumption.  For example, a specific request has been made: Why can’t he be Asian this time?

The answer is, there’s no good reason.  Sure, retrofitting existing characters into new ethnicities always feels something like a ham-handed capitulation to momentary pressure.  While some on Twitter will groan, audiences do accept retrofitted characters, especially when played by real, bankable stars such as the aforementioned Mr. Jackson.  However, they prefer exciting originals. Another variation can be the re-use of a name by a new entity entirely, such as John Stewart’s Green Lantern [he’s black], or Miles Morales’ Spider Man [Afro-Latino].  I’d call Kemala Khan’s Ms. Marvel [Muslim] an original, since she has a different set of powers entirely compared to the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel, though they do share a name.)  Given that we don’t have the requisite twenty years to get a new brand hammered into the public consciousness, the retrofit approach can have some merit.

Here are the facts: Marvel has pitifully few leading Asian characters.  It does seem like, at best, an oversight, when the character best-suited to Asian representation (Chinese, in this case) doesn’t get one.  Okay, sure, Danny Rand is white.  Danny Rand has always been white– that was the whole point of the black-white superhero buddy team.  But in 2017 he’s a white guy playing at Asian mythology in a field full of white guys who have already done this.  Staying filial to the character as envisioned might not just be insensitive, or appropriationist, or whatever. It’s worse than that: it might be, well, kind of boring.  This character really needs some spice.  Revised casting doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, especially if it’s someone who understands and can perform the martial arts necessary for the role.

What makes Rand interesting is that he is a perpetual fish-out-of-water, neither at home in China (remember, he was in the land of the Gods: China is a place he never actually visited, Chinese a language he doesn’t speak) nor in the USA.  It might have been interesting to have him be half-Chinese, half Anglo-American.  Remember, his parents died when he was quite young.  This offers writers the additional character-driven dimension of Rand learning to re-acculturate in both the  Western and Eastern worlds, driving home the point that he’s at home in neither.  This type of dimension is interesting, modern, and has something to tell us.  It updates the character without changing much.  It also allows the story to achieve operatic, family drama notes.  Perhaps Rand’s arrival in K’un L’un wasn’t as accidental as it seemed? Perhaps the forces of mystical China were claiming a price of their own for debts prior to Rand’s arrival, and the enemies he thought he had to face are backed by other, far older and more powerful enemies?  And finally, not to put too fine a point on it, it may increase the likelihood of being able to make some money back selling the show in Asia.

Secondly, I would lean heavily on the ‘Immortal’ lineage of the Iron Fist.  The Fist has endured for centuries and watched the decline of empires and colonies.  He’s battled Huns on the steppes of Asia, gangsters in the alleyways of 1920’s Hong Kong and the Japanese invaders in WWII.  Use this.  Bring in other stories, flashbacks, interweaved stories, places and times.  This is, stylistically,  incredibly rich territory to be able to mine, unique and distinct from Batman, Daredevil, or Cage, and also allows for a number of other interesting characters to be seeded.  Nothing shown in any of the press or video suggests they’ve taken on anything like this.  I’m guessing that this was too deep, too expensive and too far afield of the prime directive at this point, which is “set up The Defenders.” Too bad.  Season two?

The Immortal Weapons of K'un L'un.
The Immortal Weapons of K’un L’un.

Finally, and this is something I expect to see a lot of– issue #124 with him taking on the Hand solo comes to mind as classic, perfect Iron Fist– we will need fantastic mystical kung-fu battles.  Wildly-dressed antagonists with bizarre names like “Mother of Spiders,” “Crane Mother,” “Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter,” and so on.  Mystical allies like “Lei Kung the Thunderer.”  Alternate dimensions and martial arts tournaments.  Elaborately named, quasi-magical Kung Fu moves should be expected, as well as bright costumes and superhuman enemies.  But as far as the trailers go, this isn’t what I’m seeing.  More regularly-dressed people walking the streets of New York city.  Once again, Netflix is playing it too realistic and bleaching out the elements that made the property fun in the first place.  Where are the armies of Ninjas?  Reminder: this is a guy who got his powers by beating a dragon in hand-to-hand combat.  This should feel like a world that at least has dragons in it.  It doesn’t.

I’ve argued a similar case for Daredevil, which needs aerial, rooftop parkour battle as one of its essential flavors.  Iron Fist is a little different: picture Iron Monkey plus Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon plus Mortal Kombat plus Big Trouble in Little China.  It shouldn’t take itself too seriously, or get too dark.  Marvel’s K’un L’un is to China the way Marvel’s Asgard is to Norway.  That is, no relation.  Long on spectacle, if short on truth.  Daredevil was streetbound superheroics.  Jessica Jones is the woman on the trail of a mystery from her past.  Luke Cage is the protector of the streets.  Iron Fist has to be magic, has to bring something new.

If they can pay these elements out, the show may be something special indeed. If not, well, we’ll finally know what peak super hero looks like.

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher and the Troll-King: James Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos in the Age of Social Media and Liberal Decline

James Baldwin (Postal Stamp)
Copyright: konstantin32 / 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve had a peculiar confluence of two names that have re-arisen in popular consciousness: Milo Yiannopoulos and James Baldwin. Yiannopoulos, the disgraced now-former Breitbart Editor, for his outlandish and self-aggrandizing remarks, and Baldwin, for his popular rediscovery in the Oscar-nominated documentary currently in Cinemas entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Below is a video of a famous encounter between the late James Baldwin, known then as a famous author and essayist, and the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and one of the last in a long line of conservative intellectuals that appear to have, in the main, stayed quiet recently, or perhaps abandoned the Republican Party to its curious fate altogether, in the age of you-know-who.

To have read Baldwin is to have been captivated: his voice displays the unique, seething intelligence that often comes from people who have been forced to live outside multiple boundaries and spheres of protection, which he did as a gay black man in mid-20th century America. One suspects he must have been compelled, as he writes and speaks about frequently, to confront and digest the outlandish and contradictory hypocrisies that so obviously prove the fuel for much of his writing and speaking.

Curious too, that Yiannopolous also makes similar claims of his own race,  ethnicity, and orientation, that of a gay Jewish man (or half-Jewish, if these distinctions are critical.) And yet, in Baldwin’s case, this outsider’s perspective seemed to fuel his test of spirit, in which he has come out victorious, immortal, a voice for the ages.  In Yiannopoulos’ case, we see that the ingredients were insufficient, the product half-baked.  (Indeed, any comparison is indecent and unmerited, and so I will not tarry long, here.  Yiannopoulos is no Baldwin. He’s not even a Mailer.)

There is no more obvious trait of Baldwin’s, in his writing and speaking, than something that can only be called a spiritual maturity, a shockingly gentle yet strident reckoning with the past and implied future that so clearly preoccupies him. He appears wiser, more complete and self-reflective than any of his antagonists, serene but immovable, willing to reckon with their blind spots like a patient teacher. In Milo’s case it’s the reverse: despite his most deft turns of phrase, his cleverest slip of the cuffs, the one impression you aren’t left with is a sense of his sincerity. This goes beyond the uncanny feeling that he simply doesn’t believe what he says. We intuit, on some layer just beneath the veneer of insouciance and bad posture, that he dislikes who he is, has not yet earned comfort in his own skin.

The first time I saw it, the Baldwin/Buckley debate video exploded a new world for me: a vigorous sustained debate between intellectually matched (or perhaps outmatched) opponents.  Though Baldwin did not have what you might call a “home field advantage” at the Cambridge Union, he does claim clearly to some degree going in, and then finally and fully by the force of his arguments, the support and adulation of the crowd.  I’m not going to give it the play-by-play, I will simply ask you to watch it.  There is a remarkable feeling that descends on the proceedings around the 38:00 mark, where the entire crowd spontaneously rises to their feet and offers Baldwin sustained applause, the television announcer breathlessly relaying that “this is the first time this has been recorded in the history of the Cambridge Union,” and Baldwin, clearly surprised and very suddenly the only one still seated, breaks into an unscripted, victorious grin.  This moment is as invigorating as any in the history of cinema.

This was the force of his ideas.  This is the force of ideas.

So hearing that Yiannopoulos, seen by many as the new direction, if not the new face, of the Trumpist movement, has been invited onto Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO weekly program with a weekly viewership in the millions (in which I include myself) I see a challenge and an opportunity.

A moment to reflect on what Yiannopoulos is: Though he self-styles as a kind of conservative gadfly who targets liberal cultural pieties like modern third-wave feminism, #BlackLivesMatter, gender identity, campus activists/so-called ‘social justice warriors (SJW’s)’ and other familiar cultural flashpoints and somewhat-easy targets, he is mainly famous for embodying a kind of grimy, take-no-prisoners approach to argumentation with his adversaries that encourages below-the-belt tactics such as ‘doxxing’ (publishing personal information about his enemies), tweetstorming, brigading and encouraging his legions of very loyal followers (so-called “trolls”) to personally harass and attack the targets he names online. This was most recently done to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones for the crime of being what Milo found unattractive.  Jones reportedly has since withdrawn from Twitter, but his style of attacks certainly have not been limited to her.  The list of victims is long, and the list of tactics is shameful and absurd.

Another point I find it important to make: this person is an editor at Breitbart, a website with visitor numbers in the dozens-of-millions per month, and was kicked off of Twitter having had 300k followers, surely by now he would have more.  You can choose to ignore him, but his stature is, unfortunately real.  Our task is to help it remain brief.

Because Milo interweaves legitimate and hard-hitting criticism of fair-game topics, this provides him with enough cover to perform his shtick as a presentable and sincere opponent.  He volleys specific and cited claims in-between ad-hominem remarks and stabbing insults, so the switches in register and content can be difficult to follow, the fact-checking delayed.  Many close examinations of his claims simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Accordingly, the media hasn’t really known how to handle him, and this is where he has been at his most deft and manipulative.  He understands the way technology and new communications platforms work.  Social media doesn’t lase, it ricochets.  It’s functionally impossible to hold any kind of serious debate in 140 characters or less, you can only trade jabs and generate attention, ricochet from one platform to another, a 5-minute media appearance here, 140 more characters there, article here, YouTube video here, a Podcast appearance there, a college tour here, with riots, and a Hannity appearance there, this time with video of the riots in hand to make the point about his radical and uncontrolled opposition, the true antagonists to free speech. Repeat sequence.

Given the tools, the trained fracturing of attention, the inability to hold conversations – this is simply the best moment in history to generate attention through controversy.  I submit that Milo is one of a new kind of media creation, what I call a “Troll King,” supported by a pyramid of followers, covered by the wreckage of his guerrilla-style podcast and YouTube appearances and remarks, surprisingly bereft of substance and easily confronted and revealed head-on.  A reality TV star with no reality show.  A smoke monster.  Famous, but mostly just on the internet.

A word on classification: it also seems clear that Milo depends, to a great deal, on the response of his opponents as the engine of his fortunes, and having been (mistakenly, in my view) grouped in with the hard Alt-Right movement as a fascist has done more for his fortunes than anything he has personally said or written.  In a recent Chapo Trap House interview, writer and scholar of the Alt-Right Angela Nagle points out that although his entire shtick is about lashing out at SJWs, he depends on liberals, he loves liberals, and he would be nowhere without them. Like a Satanist without the Christian Church. He isn’t actually a Fascist or even a member of the so-called Alt-Right.  (“Those people have me on a hit list,” Milo has observed out loud.)  “They all love Trump,” says Nagle, “that’s one thing that unites them completely, but they are bitchy and sectarian… Spencer and Yiannopolous hate each other a lot.”    “He’s not Alt-Right, he’s [what some call] “Alt-Light.”  “Basically they don’t have a program that concentrates on race, whereas the hard Alt-Right includes segregationists and really stresses race.” Milo has no platform.  Richard Spencer and his group’s interests are by contrast political and long-term.  “The Alt-Right is identity politics for white people,” Yiannopoulos says, and I’m against any kind of identity politics, so you should drop them.”  Clearly, Milo is as confused as anyone that he is grouped as a member of an ideology that he claims to reject and whose members clearly reject him.  The Chapos point out that the Alt-Light: the Gavin McInnes-es, the Milo Yiannopouloses are basically a reaction to modern liberal sanctimony, a punk-Howard Stern reaction they call a “transgressive lifestyle brand.”  On Maher, Milo casually referred to himself as “just a pop star.”

So liberals do Milo favors by making him into a Fascist Lex Luthor figure that is fully unearned.  He has laid some addressable arguments at the feet of liberals and progressives, and a fact that we ignore at our peril is that for many, these punches have landed.  You don’t just gather up millions of followers by targeting feminists with doxxing attacks.  Some of what you say has to make recognizable sense, if the message is to take. The one thing I will credit Milo with, in fact, is that he is remarkably clear on his positions, disarmingly honest about what he perceives as what his weak points are. He does liberals the very good turn and on many an occasion, of explaining exactly what charges they would need to answer in order to prove him wrong. And millions apparently agree with him, beyond just finding him entertaining. This is something liberals need to contend with, beyond just de-platforming and protesting, which merely defers the same ideas to the next, more cleanly presented avatar of conservative rage:  diseases aren’t cured by quarantine, only delayed. This is where I return to Baldwin’s example of substantive intellectual demolition. Will there be another Milo, after Milo is gone? Yes. But notice no one is debating the question “Is the American Dream Presented at the Expense of the American Negro” anymore. That one’s been answered. It is indeed possible to close a conversation, it is possible to win.

So Yiannopolous’ willingness to appear on Real Time sounded to me like the basis for a debate, of at least a confrontation constrained by the norms of conversation, the opportunity for a takedown of his ideas.  Corner him, leave no room to fire a tweet and leave. Here’s that appearance:

Now: I know this sounds old-fashioned,  the equivalent of “I’ll-have-my-seconds-call-for-you-at-dawn” in the social media era, and perhaps even wishful thinking that the Troll King should play by the rules of conversation. Practically speaking, outside of PBS and YouTube, we don’t have long-form discussions that anyone on the left or right watch with any frequency. But Bill Maher’s is an hour long panel show (which I’ve made mention of in this column before) augmented with a YouTube-only segment called Overtime. With the right presentation, this could provide a stage for such a conversation, and it would inevitably be excerpted (and re-excerpted with the word ‘DESTROYS’ in the title) on YouTube. The salient bits would be available to be searched in perpetuity, in the same place and same way that made Milo famous in the first place, and allowed me to share the Baldwin/Buckley debate with anyone reading this.

Debates can be lost in real time and won over the longer term. The truth will always come out. Once the fact-checking is done, someone is right. People love a jab, a joke, a good set-up. But in the end, most (but certainly not all) follow who has the facts, over time. This may not be in time for an election, by the way.

At first, it appeared this confrontation wasn’t going to happen.   One of the scheduled panelists, leftist author and conflict reporter Jeremy Scahill retracted his attendance, offering a hangdog letter that explained why he could not share the stage with a person like Milo. While I agree that Scahill has every right to manage his career, brand and frankly, ethical commitments, the only way I’d see this as useful was if Scahill knew the person who would replace him was at the rhetorical level of a Baldwin or a Hitchens. In my humble opinion, the left isn’t producing a lot of these right now, for precisely these reasons: we have shied away from the intellectual battles that would have sharpened us. So as Bill pointed out in his response, this was Scahill’s loss. Ceding the territory doesn’t put you above the fray. We have a word for this, and the word is ‘forfeit.’

Maher responded to Scahill’s charges insisting that the truth would come out, and that there could be no better response than to have Milo ‘exposed.’  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he would later say.

That said, almost everyone agrees that Bill went too light on Milo that night.  The Washington Post even called it a “Bromance.”  I’m going to give Bill a slight pass on this one: he needs to have guests on his show who are willing to come on without anticipating an ambush or unfair treatment. The smart move for Bill is to outsource the actual combat to his panel. To the extent that he can ringmaster it, he should have guests on that are going to challenge each other while he maintains his ability to keep the conversation moving.  But yes: Bill seemed unprepared, without specific arguments of Milo’s that he wanted to tackle or controversies he wanted an answer about.

If one were to take that appearance as the basis for criticism, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about: for the most part, Bill failed to illuminate Milo’s controversies, and Milo himself was, for the most part, on his very best behavior.  Bill pushed Milo on going after individuals (the aforementioned Ms. Jones, who Milo called “barely literate,” saying she “looks like a man”) and agreed that if it’s warranted to make a point, he’ll go there, but he gave Milo only small grief here.  Milo also deliberately pushed boundaries while talking about an unnamed transsexual woman he had publicly collided with as “a confused man,” and taking a conservative hard line on gendered bathrooms. The most abusive he became during the live broadcast was when he made an off-note pair of jokes that he hires neither women nor gays.  Certainly, anyone new to Milo might have been caught thinking, “He sounds like most Trump voters.  Was that all?”  Nothing to set fire to a university over.  Certainly not as bad as some of the things Buckley says during the course of the Baldwin debate, and Buckley was seen as respectable.  Milo, while popular, is not.

And this is where, I suspect, most TV critics failed to do their homework.  It was after the show stopped broadcasting, but the cameras continued rolling, in the “Overtime” segment posted to YouTube the following day, that the promised fireworks finally emerged.  Guests Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance were left to challenge Milo, as overseen by Maher.  In the Q&A format, Milo was able to really let loose, and become provoked into far more specific baiting and leading.  When the conversation once again veered towards where transsexuals should use the bathroom, Milo was only too happy to take it further, going after Caitlyn Jenner, calling trans people victims of a “psychosexual disorder,” and finally levelling the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes (true, but only if you mean as victims).  When Wilmore pointed out that these were the same unfounded charges generically made against homosexuals (like Yiannopoulos himself) years before, that they were perverts and that homosexuality was a disorder, Milo replied, “Maybe it is.”

This is where Maher did seem to lighten up on Milo, and perhaps give him too much of a break. However, it did seem that he was trying to pull him back from the precipice when he said, “You remind me of a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens, but you gotta lose that shit.”  “People are just beginning to hate you,” he continued.

Again, the defining, remaining image was not that Milo was particularly incisive, or hard-hitting, or really leveling anything like a real challenge to anything but the well-worn excesses of zeal on the left; beating on a tired strawman.  By virtue of the protests, the editorials and controversy, he had been made to seem bigger than he was.  Laid bare in conversation with B- and C-level celebrities, he seemed to reach no greater classification than “classic prick.”  If anything, it was so obvious, that one wonders how he got on the show on the first place.  And that’s the point.  It’s one thing to suspect that the dark emperor has no clothes, it’s another to lay it out.

And yet, consider all of the heat that Maher took, before and after, for having the temerity to have this person on the show. Liberals and progressives were winding themselves into knots to confess how they never liked Maher, have been suspicious of him and his lunatic crusades, that he was too easy on Milo, that in having Milo on, Maher “mainstreams hate,” he’s no longer liberal, that he’s failed to change with the times, and on, and on.

What happened?  We used to be the party of debate.  Maher scanned the crowd of liberals for a champion and unfortunately, came up short.  Our response, once again, was to respond to the invitation with calls for intellectual quarantine.

Liberals used to see an opportunity like this and glove up for the fight, not for the fight that prevents the fight from happening.  Am I the only one who sees an opportunity like this and doesn’t think “stop mainstreaming hate,” but rather “I can take that guy.”  Who from the liberal side should have, could have, would have been the knight on the progressive side to meet Yiannopolous, jab for jab, in the field of open discussion?  Jon Stewart?  Is there anyone we would have tolerated attending in the first place?  Or are we just above it now?  Why do we shy away from, de-platform, contest, protest and simply avoid that which we should run to assert: an opportunity to declare, finally, and forthrightly, what our values are, assertively, dominantly, conclusively?  Or are we just out of practice?

Watch the Baldwin debate. This is who we were. This is who we need to be, again.

We have ceded the territory.  There are no more Baldwins.  Only Yiannopouli.

 

 

 

 

The Way Forward 1: The Rust Belt

I. Context

For a period of time in the mid to late 80’s we lived in Northern Virginia, an area called Fairfax county, just south of Washington, D.C.

Coming from a five-college liberal stronghold in the northeast, Virginia appeared, to our eyes, to be inexplicably conservative and  WASPish, festering with poorly-concealed racism and class separation.  The Fairfax of today is of course, quite different.  By the standards of America at large, however, Fairfax county of the 80’s was politically centrist, essentially the suburban bedroom communities of the government apparatus, both Democratic and Republican.

Many years later, my brother returned from a visit there with a tale from this early-warning system.

“Obama’s going to win,” he claimed.  “The number of lawn signs, on the homes of people we thought were Republicans, shows it.”  Ten years ago we’d never have believed it, but the world had turned.  A black man could indeed be president.  Of course, Obama won, for the first time.

Likewise, I have my own early-detection systems.  I spent a few years traveling back and forth to Detroit, Michigan, where I became friendly with many people with a different political orientation than my own.  I’d listen to union radio shows in my rental car, and politely decline invitations from my Republican colleagues to go to the shooting range at lunch.  Michigan is officially purple, but was taken by Trump in ’16, so I called some up recently to get the read of the man on the street.  I was convinced that in my northeast echo chamber, the analyses I was hearing were incomplete, lacking in layers or nuance.  Some of the rationales I heard seemed overheated, more a case of shock and awe, wish-fulfillment and a statement of intent to factionalize.  “Whitelash.”  Another: “in a word: sexism.”  So I asked, literally, “What’s the word of the man on the street in the Detroit area?”

“Most people are either happy to have a job or are looking for one.  There isn’t so much ‘on the street talk’ as I think you guys get at your marches.

But I can tell you, I know a lot of people voted for Trump.  When he came here and he said to Ford, ‘If you move any factories to Mexico, I’m gonna tax your ass,’ well, that was exactly what people around here wanted to hear. Immigration is a big concern.”

I asked about the allegations of racism, sexism, what he said about immigrants.

“Let me tell you something.  When I was eighteen, I made $18/hour laying bricks.  A bricklayer makes half that now.  You can drive around and take a look at who’s manning the construction crews now and see the reason.  Sure, some people’s jobs went overseas, got automated, you name it.  But that’s not what people see.  Some guys I know have been out of work, literally, for years.

“So when you hear people chant ‘build a wall,’ are there racists in the crowd? Sure, I mean I think there have to be.  But when we hear you guys just say us wanting to build the wall is just racist, we think, ‘these guys aren’t listening to us at all.'”

And the sexism?  The ‘locker room’ remarks seemed to be a big line-drawer for some people.

“The things he was caught saying made me think less about him and more about how everything we say in public and private conversations is recorded now.   It was hard to take seriously– it just made me realize no one I know could ever be president, given all the raw shit we say.  I mean, I’ve been offensive to everybody.

“My daughter– she’s in college, after that, she just kind of tuned him out, just said to me ‘Dad, please, let’s just not talk about him anymore.’  My wife said ‘I don’t want to hear about that disgusting man in this house.'”  But neither of them marched, I don’t think they even voted for Clinton.  I think they just didn’t vote at all.”

II. Strategy

Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan
Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez.  Distributable with attribution.

Candidate Clinton lost for specific tactical reasons that I believe can be repaired in the fewest moves by concentrating on the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ states: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20).  She won Illinois, which brought 20 electoral votes, for a total of 75 additional electoral votes, well more than were needed to augment her final count of 232.  (Please note that in this analysis I’m omitting traditional rust belt regions such as Baltimore (Maryland) and Buffalo (NY) as both are geographically disparate or attached to solid-blue states that would have gone Democrat in most contests.)

So sure, had she only won another five states, she would have won. An easy thing to say, of course– if only if she had won, she would have won.  But I concentrate on these states because this is a very specific corridor of America with easily-identified and broadly shared economic concerns, not culturally southern, many are historically Democrat in presidential elections, most have vital union presences, and most are very possibly inclined to vote more on economic lines than cultural ones.  Hillary didn’t fail to win them.  She lost them.

This means in that region Democrats can address economic concerns without moving from their key positions, especially given that there are no cultural concessions open to Democrats, no going back on hard-won victories.  Although it would unlock desirable southern states, we can’t offer up gay marriage or women’s choice, and no one is saying or would say anything like that– but that would be the only way to win those states, to suddenly become another party.  By contrast, the rust belt could have been won with messaging we were already using and positions democrats already held.  It probably goes without saying that yes, it is my belief that Bernie Sanders would have won here.

Let’s take a look at how Hilary/Trump polled in the Rust Belt prior to the election and how they performed thereafter. (Source: RealClearPolitics.com)

State Electoral Votes Pre-Election Polling (%-pt lead) Final Election Results (%-pt lead) Johnson, final Stein, final
IL 20 +11.5, C +16.0 C 3.8 1.4
IN 11 +10.7 T +19.0 T 4.9 N/A
MI 16 +3.6, C +0.3 T 3.1 1.1
OH 18 +3.5 T +8.1 T 3.2 0.8
PA 20 +2.1 C +0.7 T 2.4 0.8
WI 10 +6.5 C +0.7 T 3.1 1.0

Please note, that’s a total of 95 electoral votes on the table.  At the close of the election, Clinton had only accumulated 232 of the required 270, meaning she needed at least another 38 to win.

What is the fastest way to accumulate an additional 38 electoral votes in the fewest possible moves?

March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950.
March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950. Corey J. Shupp: http://via.library.depaul.edu/mom/29/

The most efficient combination is done in two moves: take PA + OH for 38 votes exactly.  In OH, however, Trump held a 3.5 point advantage going in and an 8.1 point advantage coming out. That situation does not improve if we swap OH for IN, where, with Trump having a 10.7 point lead in November which later converted to 19 points on election day, Clinton had no shot whatsoever.

The most achievable combination is PA + MI + WI.  All three showed Clinton winning handily, according to polls. And all three went for Trump, albeit none with more than a 1 percentage point lead.  I find this achievable in that 1% may have been reclaimed with a single well-placed media buy, had anyone known in time.  This literally came down to hours.

A few other points about the data leap out immediately:

  1. She didn’t lose by a lot in this region.  In fact, in most cases in these states, she lost by vanishingly small margins.
  2. That said, we are talking about states that used to be blue in almost every case. Wisconsin last voted red for Reagan.
  3. Assuming Stein votes would have otherwise been absorbed by Clinton, (which seems plausible as Stein is considered left of Clinton, so they wouldn’t have gone to Trump, though they may have stayed home) Stein was indeed a spoiler in WI, MI, PA, and those combined 46 electoral votes would have ensured a decisive Clinton win nationally. Note that Gary Johnson’s votes would have been absorbed by both Clinton and Trump and are thus harder to predict; the key takeaway is that the Democratic party can afford (and should encourage) a Gary Johnson but could not, in this contest, afford a Jill Stein.
  4. Something happened between the polling date and the election date in which all of these states (besides Indiana) switched sides.  I’m partial to Michael Durkheimer’s analysis in Forbes that yes, the non-announcement by the FBI over the weekend played a small part (and these are very small lead numbers), but he also claims that there were also simply more Trump voters than were accounted for. Durkheimer’s thesis is that they just stayed quiet, having seen the social penalty for self-identifying as a Trump voter.  Naturally, this blind spot did not help Democrats.
  5. There is no Democrat winning combination without Pennsylvania’s 20 votes.  Pennsylvania must be won.  I would prioritize this right after Florida (which could be won, as pointed out by Van Jones, by Democrats gaining a legislative win that allows felons to vote.)
  6. Likewise, Michigan’s 16 votes are critical, and usually reliable with less effort than Ohio’s 18.
  7. Illinois is approximately as solid blue as Indiana is solid red.  That means IL can probably be relied on with the current script, likewise essentially no energy or resources need to be spent on Indiana until more of a Democratic beachhead is established.  We just can’t win there, at the moment.
  8. I feel like the case for sexism as the sole driving rationale for Clinton’s loss is undermined by the scores immediately pre-election: many of the pre-election scores showed Clinton winning from data collected as late as Friday.  Something happened over the weekend to dent her polling, and it wasn’t everyone suddenly realizing the candidate was female.  To the contrary, there really is a strong argument to be made that the FBI’s disclosure tipped the scales.
Sugarman, Detroit.
Sugarman, Detroit. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez. Distributable with attribution.

III. Forward

So what now for Democrats in these states?

Focus on the unions.  Here’s something that needs to be one of the top-three talking points for all go-forward Democratic communications: this is our plan for the blue-collar worker.  In Democrat terms, this has always been done by partnering with the unions.  This plan needs to be put forward as an economic issue, a jobs issue, and a cultural issue.  Meaning: strategic communications and creative briefs all must have imagery and iconography that speak to how the blue collar worker can expect to see a transformation and a vision for the next two decades.

UAW leadership endorsed Clinton.  UAW members went off script, and an internal poll showed 28% planned to back Trump.  That kind of defection was expected at other unions as well. Given the narrow margins of victory shown, that was more than enough to get us a 1% creep.

Now, here’s a fact.  I’ve worked in technology for twenty years.  I’ve never been in a union.  I’ve never needed one, no one I know in the industry has ever wanted one.  We work at the edge of the future, and the startup world’s tech and culture (offshoring, onshoring, automation, telecommuting) is usually followed by other industries, in their own time.

So it may be that the role of the unions themselves and their value proposition itself needs to change.  I’ll write about those specific prescriptions later, for now, the core message is simply that this is a conversation that Democrats and Progressives need to be involved in, need to guide.

We need to have everyone who has heard the message be able to answer this question for themselves: “What will you do to get me a job, and to protect it?”

Trump addressed this.  His solution wasn’t the right solution, but it answered the question: “I’m going to take your job back from the Mexicans that took it, and I’m going to tax your bosses who try to send it anywhere else.”  Take issue with the answer if you like (and I have an issue, here and there), but it’s an answer.

Sanders also had an answer to this question. “I’m going to take the investment from the rich people who are robbing you blind and pour it back into this country to create jobs for people like you.”  Also an answer.  Also has its own issues and presuppositions.

What was Clinton’s answer, again?

Right.

 

History is Blind

Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti, #50

I used to have a book that I kept in the bathroom called “The 100”, which made the case for the 100 most influential people in history.

When people heard I had this book, they’d inevitably guess that position #1 was held by Jesus of Nazareth. Not so.  Position #1 was actually Mohammed. As the author explained, Mohammed merits making the list in two completely separate areas of human endeavor, yes, as a spiritual leader but also as a military one who campaigned hard and took an astonishing amount of territory for his time, the equal of any of the great empires. Jesus himself would not appear until position #3, right after Isaac Newton.

Conspicuously, however, many artists were simply overlooked. Authors, painters, performers– none except for the truly immortal made the cut. Shakespeare is given the #31 spot and named “Edward de Vere” to tackle two controversies at once. Michelangelo slides in at #50, Bach at #72, and Da Vinci merits a mere honorable mention alongside Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and others.

My instinct is to suggest that this lightness in the arts demonstrated a bias on the author’s part. His bio shows a man with three advanced degrees in Law, Physics, and a Ph.D in astronomy. Clearly, a lot of his very limited time has not been spent on art appreciation. However, the author is quite clear about his reasons. In short, he doesn’t think the arts have done as much to change human history as, say, discovering how to leverage radiowaves (Guglielmo Marconi, #38). I suppose I agree: of what historical import is the song, alongside the ability to share it widely?

I propose an alternate hypothesis: while these so-called Great scientists and generals changed human history through victories and inventions, these are dramatic, world-changing moments. The arts are no less influential, but the degree to which they inflict change is expressed in microunits, hundreds of times a day. This doesn’t mean that the ability of the arts to effect change is weaker so much as the change they do create is more gradual, designed, like any good story mechanic, to evade perception and impossible to identify in hindsight.

There is an interesting meme going around at the moment where the participant lists the favorite albums that influenced them during their teen years. I’ve seen a lot of versions of this. Many people can tell you where they were when they heard a specific song, say, “Champagne Supernova.” Very little of that thrill transferred to the joy of getting the MP3 player itself, which is, on balance, probably more historically influential than Oasis.

Still. We live our lives as subject to the peaks and valleys our emotional lives, and the arts are the only inventions that exist on a scale that can inject into and redirect that flow.

I love hearing the stories of how people discovered Fugazi in art class and that it opened up a new world of possibility for them, or kissed on a Ferris wheel to the Rolling Stones, or decided to get their shit together with the pitiless encouragement of Gang Starr.

Here’s mine. I remember very clearly laying in the bed of a female classmate. We had spent the night together (sleeping) and everything felt right. We were still circling each other, trying to decide if we would take this further and farther than either of us had been.

“Blind” by the Sundays was playing. We lay there, listening to the whole album, from ‘I Feel’ to ‘Wild Horses.’ (Later, we also listened to Oasis.)

The Sundays, Blind.
The Sundays, Blind. Released October 19, 1992.

“This is nice,” I thought. Something in Harriet Wheeler’s voice said, “this is a place you can stay.” Something in it created the space to get to know one another. The CD remained in our house, on a dusty shelf, for thirteen years.

Was this Great Art? I kind of doubt it. But it was timely, specific and helped to set the trajectory of the life that followed as readily as any invention I can think of. Had we not heard that record, would the world have come to meet my daughter? Who can say?

Furthermore, I’m a music lover. What other details might have sent me in motion had the art been something different? Perhaps if I found a book I found meaningful on her shelf?  More prosaically: how else might I have spent this morning, had I not seen these facebook posts about people’s favorite bands? (For the purposes of this post, I’m qualifying FB posts as art.)

Jane's Addiction - Ritual De Lo Habitual
Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De Lo Habitual. Uncontested winner of many late night college bull sessions as the record most likely to endure. You be the judge.

History is made by people, yes. And those people are animated by words, books, films articles, music. Wouldn’t you like to know what music Genghis Khan (#29) would have had in his iPod? How Marx would have read Kundera? If Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins had not been Bill Clinton’s favorite author, our first “black president?” If Barack Obama was unsympathetic to Hip Hop? If Paul Ryan was? (No, I mean really was.) Something about the fact that most Tank commanders in Desert Storm agreed that Megadeth was the most commonly played band in tanks seems significant.  History writ large may not feel it, but certainly, in the life of an individual, the right art at the right time is what creates the trajectories of your life. Whether you’re seeing it, or not.

Designated Survivor: Alternate Show Concepts

Designated Survivor

Some hastily-generated shows developed for sale to networks trying to duplicate the success of Designated Survivor with Kiefer Sutherland:

  • Eminent Last Guy
  • Second-to-Final Bro
  • The Thirteenth Groomsman
  • Governmental Spotter
  • Just-In-Case Jim
  • The Dude of Last Resort
  • Break in Case of Gary

Eating the Elephant – BJJ Year One

Blue belt earned.

A number of years ago I watched an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By now there have been dozens if not hundreds of UFC matches. The brand is a global juggernaut. But in 1993, this was the very first outing of what would come to be elevated to the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. While I had originally set out to write this essay on the topic of ‘what I’ve learned’ in this phase of my martial arts journey, let the record show that the first thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually old enough to refer casually to a martial arts tournament that is now twenty-three years old and that I watched on a VHS tape. Wow.

The rules were hazy: there was something about no biting or eye-gouging, everything else, it appeared, was on the table. There were no restrictions on styles, the event appeared designed to throw as many styles into collision as possible. Dumbfoundingly, there were no weight classes. The whole thing felt very hastily-rigged and danger prone. Unbridled injuries seemed inevitable.

Victory in the ring could be achieved in one of two ways: a knockout or submission. Submissions were typically achieved through a painful joint lock maneuver or oxygen deprivation. Yielding would be performed by “tapping out” or verbally giving up to the opponent. A referee would be in the octagonal cage, patented as “The Octagon”, to enforce these rules and ostensibly protect the fighters. Critically, the matches would occur in succession, meaning a winner would continue on to the next match, would very likely still be bearing the fatigue and injuries that the previous match had cost him.

It was chaos. I’m talking about Sumo wrestlers tossing Karate guys in a locked cage. Western Boxers trading blows with Kickboxers. Greco-Roman wrestlers versus Kung Fu. Street brawlers versus everyone. Total anarchy. And there was drama, upsets. For example, the 650-lb Sumo lost to some biker-looking Karate guy because the biker beat him into submission with his own visibly broken arm. These must have been the kind of hand-to-hand battles not seen since the Roman Coliseum. There were bloody faces, competitors spitting out teeth. Bedlam.

It’s important to note, this was amazing not least for the spectacle it provided, but because there was an academic, martial-science aspect to the proceedings that answered some of the oldest questions known to man: who would win in a fight? The boxer? The wrestler? (Probably the wrestler.) Does karate even work? (Yes!) Is Muay Thai everything they say? (Yes!) Is a black belt enough? (No!) Does the Title “Grand Master” necessarily mean you are any good? (No!) Many of these matches or combinations had just never been broadcast. Now, here it was.

And finally, the biggest question of all: given that we’ve found contenders from varied martial arts all over the world, what is the answer? Which is the most effective martial art?

The shock of shocks turned out to be not that one scraped its way to the winning spot but rather, the surprise was in how clear and unambiguously this question was answered. For its time, this question was resoundingly answered: the answer was, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it wasn’t close.

In 1993, few of us in the USA had heard of the Gracie family, now a globally recognized Brazilian martial arts dynasty. When they entered the arena, several brothers and cousins in white hoods walking hands-to-the-shoulders of the brother before them like a clan of warrior monks, the effect was one of intrigue. Who were these guys? They seemed to pass in order of size, biggest-to-smallest, so that the smallest one in the lead to which all hands pointed, Royce (pronounced ‘Hoyce’) was being presented to the Octagon like an offering. They seemed to know something that we didn’t know. Indeed, entering Royce, not even their heaviest or most accomplished guy, seemed to be a defiant gesture of its own. “You don’t need our best guys,” it said. Any one of us can win this thing.”

Their style was, to the eyes of the broader world, new and self-invented, though this wasn’t really true. It was an offshoot of one of the oldest Japanese Martial traditions, Jiu-Jitsu, which came from feudal Japan. The Gracie family professed to have mastered a reinterpretation of the style local to their country, so-called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” or BJJ. In practice, it seemed to bear very little relation to the original Jiu-Jitsu, combining stand-up Judo with a kind of martial wrestling that focused on grappling from the ground to achieve arm- and leg-locks, holds, and painful submission techniques. One of BJJ’s signature positions, the Guard position, inverted the principle that the man on the bottom was losing, as BJJ practitioners seemed to dominate from the bottom, occasionally even submitting their opponents from had been considered, until then, a submissive position. The keys to this style appeared to be the BJJ practitioner’s ability to a) take their opponent to the ground, b) establish their dominance when on the ground, and c) their patience in achieving this goal. Once an opponent was taken down, however, the match looked a lot like a guy in a karate uniform struggling with a man-sized Anaconda. Valiant, sure, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The only question is how long it’s going to go on.

Over several matches, Gracie dominated his category. While there were matchups for the history books up and down the card, Royce cooly drilled through his opposition, making his way to the finals with an icy determination that made his ascendancy inevitable. Early on the question became, not ‘could he win’, but almost immediately, ‘who will be fighting Royce?’ Clearly, if he intended to stand and exchange punches and kicks, he would be destroyed, but this wasn’t his plan. Many times he took punches and kicks– some that would have KO’d any other fighter– but he was able to still establish the lock and take his opponent to the ground, where he could take all the time he needed, play his game. No one seemed to have the tactics available that would stall his assault.

This was a signal moment in the history of the martial arts. For historical and geographical reasons, most styles had been constrained to fighting other people from the same style or nearby styles for hundreds of years. While there were inter-style tournaments, these were few and far between, and the early-90’s was still in many ways a pre-Internet era. There is also an uncanny effect when one trains with partners of the same style, in which they start to move and operate alike. Having different styles in direct contest is both invigorating and can be psychologically quite dispiriting for the loser. One of these people really has learned a skill that works. And the other is at least made to feel as if they have wasted what is probably a considerable amount of time perfecting something that is demonstrably inefficient to its purpose.

It became apparent almost immediately that certain arts had flourished perhaps because they had never been challenged. Equally, that others (BJJ and Thai Kickboxing come to mind) have been through the crucible and within the rules of their practice, “just work.” One of the first outcomes of the Gracie dominance over the next few UFC contents was the merging of these winning styles into a composite: Greco-Roman wrestling, BJJ and Sambo for the ground, Dirty Boxing, Muay Thai and Western Boxing for stand-up striking. This became sanded down and optimized into what is known as modern Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, to which BJJ contributes a significant amount of DNA. (MMA isn’t a fixed category, and continues to incorporate material from all catalogs.) Accordingly, in this cross-pollination, the past 25 years have been as vibrant as any in the history of the martial arts.

The events I describe above are now part of the historical record, written about in a few books, told and retold in dojos the world over, available to see on youtube and in documentaries. The field has changed. Most arts have by now incorporated techniques to defend against the tactics used by Gracie; certainly, no serious contenders stand to be surprised by them anymore.

I should say that the UFC has long since instituted a series of sweeping changes intended to protect the fighters and their careers, such as weight classes, rounds, and banning a significant number of dangerous or unsporting moves. I’m not interested in competing in the UFC. I’m too old, I’ve got too much else going on. Still, the results seemed inarguable. Whatever it was the Brazilians were doing would now need to be studied by any serious martial artist. I and many others would need to get up to speed.


If you are interested in learning about what BJJ looks like when practiced, view this video.

All this to say, it was then that I knew I would come to train in this style, but I wouldn’t return to it for another 22 years.

***

I love to train, it’s how I go to the gym. For the last ten years I’ve been training near-continually if I wasn’t going to the gym instead, and like other athletes and martial artists, when I don’t, my life starts to fall apart at the edges. I’ve trained now in Kenpo Karate, Hapkido and Arnis, Western Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and Russian Systema for 5 years. I’ve sampled Sambo and (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I saw Royce Gracie’s maneuvers in UFC 1, I knew I’d end up at least trying BJJ when the opportunity presented itself, but I had a lot of other arts that I wanted to investigate in the meantime; basics to be covered. What it meant to punch, kick, how to protect your head and body, gain loose hips and strong legs, what it meant to manage one’s breathing, take a hit. How to stand. Where to stand. How to move.

When I divorced, I spent the first year getting up early in the morning to visit my daughter and get her ready for preschool. By the time I arrived at her house at 7:30, I was coming from a 5am boxing class. I was running on fumes, reorganizing my life, bouncing from apartment to apartment and survived on credit. There were a lot of times I could have fallen down; in many ways, that boxing class was the only thing that held my life together when everything else was cracking. Yes, because of training I’ve saved myself from injury by falling or flipping the right way, yes, because of training I was able to fight off physical opponents, yes because of training I’ve been able to protect women from being assaulted on the subway. But that year, boxing saved my life. You must train as if your life depends on it, because sometimes it does, but probably not in the ways you think.

Over a year ago I joined a BJJ Club in Brooklyn. I was freelancing from a home office for the summer, and it looked like I’d be continuing that arrangement for the near future so I was able to attend a dojo that is not only in Brooklyn, but also, critically, close to my apartment. While this is a very trivial point and shouldn’t be the basis of how to choose a school, you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible, because you will start to get tired, comfortable, you’ll start to plateau, and you just want attending to be easy (class itself should not be easy, but getting in the door should be). Half of winning is in the architecture. Also, most of the arts I quit were due to changes in my life circumstances or geographic changes that made attending the school impractical, such as traveling overseas, moving or switching jobs.

When I joined, I resolved to follow the practice I learned when training martial arts that didn’t offer belts. That is, commit for a year, don’t question the course but just keep going, then take stock, review a year later and then check-in at intervals thereafter. Part of this is because without belts there was no way to know when you were leveling up, but also because belts are artificial, time is not, and finally because there is a built-in insecurity behind training in the martial arts. You’re never really sure this stuff ‘works’, and if you aren’t careful you can spook yourself into thinking that what you are doing is valueless and leave before you are actually qualified to assess what you’re doing.

Some suspension of disbelief is necessary. A lot of material that comes to us from previous generations is simply untested, a lot of it is suspect (e.g. knife defense) and some of it is, from a modern self-defense standpoint, kind of superfluous (e.g., forms, ancient weapons, etc). When I moved on to train in Systema, I conferred with previous instructors. While none had much opinion on Systema, citing mixed reviews, I was explicitly told, “Go to Renzo Gracie’s BJJ academy in NYC. While I can’t tell you about the other stuff, his is a system that works.”

Five years later I left Systema not least because I had reached a plateau, but also because given the amount of time I had put in, I simply should have been a better fighter. I wasn’t sure that what I was learning worked, and I became increasingly concerned that I was wasting my time. Having left that practice, I’m able to assess that 40-50%% of what I was learning there was very useful indeed, and another 50-60% was at best partially effective. To tighten up that 60% I would need instruction that wasn’t locally available, which meant I had hit a plateau. I started looking for other schools, that was when I tried boxing and came to BJJ a few years later.

In the case of BJJ, I needn’t have worried. The curriculum clearly works and is tested in stress situations every class.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own martial arts since starting BJJ was a reduction in the amount of force, but a corresponding increase in the output or effect. Efficiency has improved.

Another element I was looking to change was to be able to rely on more technique and less strength in training. I never wanted to use strength in my martial arts, this is because, on the one hand, strength is momentary or illusory. You age, you get injured, you gain and lose weight. Part of the purpose of training in the art is knowing that you’ll grow old with it and that strength won’t always be there for you. But the other side is that mere strength and force are a reliable indicator that you are doing it wrong; you are inefficiently positioned, you should move to a position where less effort is demanded. You’re fooling yourself. Timing, precision, relaxation, are better goals. BJJ is great for developing these characteristics, and I’ve seen an improvement over the past fourteen months.

Correspondingly, strength’s little cousin, aggression, is also something that I thought I had mostly pushed out of my martial arts practice, which I was surprised to discover had returned when I started to practice BJJ. The working hypothesis is that this is because of BJJ’s proximity to wrestling, which trained a lot of aggression and explosive speed into my muscle memory, you just need this intensity to be able to step into the ring, let alone to win in a competition. This just had to be unlearned to allow a lot of the softer sensitivity-training to sink in. This is a tough one: once you start to get moving with somebody it becomes hard to not go for open moves that become apparent, and one must learn to suppress the competitive instinct in favor of opportunities for better movement, but it’s worth the effort because it allows your body to memorize the movements without the background noise of trying to ‘win’, and so significantly accelerates the learning process.

I haven’t escaped this, but I see it, I look for it, I try to work around it. Sometimes it creeps in as simply as feeling my own mortality, knowing I’m in an exercise class, and just wanting to really get the most out of this body, see what it can do and use the aggression as a way to push myself, and that’s great, but my long-term goals are softer. (So to anyone who I messed up while getting there, sorry.)

The times I’ve lost sight of this even for a moment– those are the moments in which I’ve injured myself, and this is mostly-but-not-just a coincidence. Tension, reliably, leads to injury. Twice this has happened, and both times put me out for multiple classes. Not a lesson my ankle, elbow, or knee need to relearn.

My confidence on the ground has gone up a good deal, and as a former wrestler, that’s a big thing to say. I feel like I know something about the shape of my partners’ bodies the way your feet know the stairs to your apartment, this hip will tend to be here, that joint should be there. I don’t need to search for these things as hard as I used to anymore, I can feel them by touch and see them with peripheral vision. This is clearly the product of practice, and I wasn’t able to do it when I walked in the door (unless I was standing up).

Earned.
Earned.

Most of all, the single facet of the practice most taken to heart is the way the dedication that BJJ demands translates. The school tracks white belts’ attendance with stripes in a way that is not canonical to most BJJ schools but to remind the student of their commitment and their progress. I can look at my white belt (now tinted dark gray from the mat) with nine red stripes and a few black stripes and know that this means there were ninety-odd occasions that I thought I had something else to do and still walked into the dojo and got my thing done. I didn’t see improvements as they happened, no single time was the one that got me over. But It’s proven that I can point myself at a goal that is well out of view and just keep coming at it. I can, as the saying goes, eat the elephant, bit by bit. This is the discipline that one needs to finish a novel, learn an instrument or to get that promotion. And this is a kind of discipline that is impossible to fake or come to unearned– you know you can do it because you know you can do it.

See you in a year.

The Lisa Simpson Problem

nelson
Clinton and Trump get to know each other after the debate.

The New York Times seems to have caught on to what I have been saying all along: that candidate Hillary Clinton has a Lisa Simpson problem.

For those of us who watch The Simpsons, this rings true almost instantaneously.  Lisa is brilliant, she’s insightful, she is tireless, she is optimistic.  She can be relied on to come up with the most sensible plan.  She’s always done the reading, she’s always hunting for the extra credit.  She transcends the term kiss-ass because her interests coincide with the teacher’s, and she couldn’t give a damn what the teacher thinks because she doesn’t have to.  She knows she’s right. Lisa seeks progress, not out of a need for self-aggrandizement, but out of love. She is, truly, surrounded by idiots.

This is also what makes her irritating.

Lisa courts controversy on the Simpsons not because what she wants is wrong.  The problem is that she makes everyone else feel worse about themselves.  She swims through their malaise unaware, their desire to pull her down to earth, to knock her down a peg, buoyed only by her optimism and goodwill.  Everyone usually knows she’s right, and it isn’t the point.  Her idealism isn’t just inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.

What they need from her isn’t a plan, what they need is for her just be one of them, to stop acting so high-and-mighty.  This is Springfield,for God’s sake.  There’s no room for greatness.  What you must do, to survive here, is accommodate yourself to mediocrity.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Here’s a favorite quote (heavily paraphrased):

Principal Skinner: “Finally, Lisa falls from her high horse!”

Lisa Simpson: “But, if I change the plan this way, we can still do what I proposed!”
Skinner: “Aaaaand up she climbs.”

Feels reminiscent of Clinton being bombarded by a non-scandal, doesn’t it?

This is what Trump understands.  So long as he can keep her boxed-in to the role of the class nerd, he has half a leg to stand on, or at least, some ready roles that the audience understands.  As Krugman puts it at the top,

“I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Mr. Gore.”

I tend to agree.  The sexism that turned against Hilary Clinton was absolutely unmistakeable.  But the core of the problem that she was made to bear wasn’t that she was a woman, it was that she was a nerd: out of touch, clueless, trying too hard, uncool.  (She was also,  variously, an evil genius, corrupt, a shrew, a harpy, a neoliberal hawk,  and so on, given the variety and wide scope of the insults, probably all too much to cram into this metaphor.)

Trump, meanwhile, is the classic bully.  Seeing him play the role of Nelson Muntz was obvious, without too much embellishment.

The question really is, which Simpsons  character was Bernie Sanders?

Super Fly! Where Daredevil Went Wrong

dd-2011I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”

Where did they go wrong?

How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero

Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns.  Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.

Costume
Daredevil's red costume.
Daredevil’s red costume.

Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity.  The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular iconic language.  If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern.  Color also does a lot of work here, and Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color.  From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page.  Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.

Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema  is the comic convention of white eyes.  Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face.  In DD’s case, they used red glass.  The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind.  It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.

Daredevil's 'ninja' costume.
Daredevil’s ‘ninja’ costume.

In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1.  Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode.  Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly,  knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.

As a plot-point, it works.  The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor.  But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.

Weapon

This is critical.  The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style.  Does he fight hand-to-hand?  With a sword?  A gun?  A boomerang?  A shield?

In Daredevil’s case,  his weapon is his billy club.  Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon.  Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length.  It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets,  but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town.  So far so good.

Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season.  I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time.  Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon,  and a TV show is the easiest.  And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch.  What are you saving the ammunition for?

Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch.  Had  Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for,  we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’  the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.

Travel

Heroes travel in style.  James Bond has his Aston Martin.  Batman has the Batmobile.  Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon.  On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.

Even Superman.

Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course.  He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”

Daredevil cover.
Daredevil cover.

Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed.  But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission.  With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip.  This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.

Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?

Flavor

Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties.   He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done, and re-done. You’ll notice that each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware aspect with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of  villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses.  The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.

Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.

For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70’s-80’s. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for the Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s, as well as Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.

What is the flavor?

The Street.  This is one area where he really has it down.  Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham.   Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders.  Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place,  and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of  strain.

Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973.  Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.

Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s  just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.

The senses.  Yes, Daredevil is blind.  More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club.  That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette.  It should be tactile and raise the skin.  Is should happen,  not bounded but peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up.  He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new creative executions.

This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like an chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun.  Whoops.

Ninjas.  by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’  One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand,  but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker).  These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills.  The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.

Typhoid Mary
Typhoid Mary and Daredevil lay down their arms.

Sex.  The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man.  The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales.  Elektra,  Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen.  Somehow, things never work out.

Sacrifice.  Characters in Daredevil die.  Sometimes they are broken before they die.  Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose.  Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too.  This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from,  although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show.  Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not die in the comics,  whereas in the Netflix show, he does.

Righteousness.  Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity.  He sees a problem,  he punches it.  He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing.  He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger.  He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a  misconceived attempt to reduce crime.  He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’  So far as I know,  Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control,  chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves.  This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring.  He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings.  It is not a coincidence that Daredevil  is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic.  Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.

As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat.  The Netflix series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance.  The resulting product is too dark.

The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread.  Exhilaration– as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism,  daring, unbounded physical restraint– against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins.   That victory against all odds– even for the poorest,  the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated– victory is possible if you have the heart,  the will, and the fearlessness.  The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead.  The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.

There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved.  But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck.  There’s still season 3.  I guess.