Banter M Issue 45

In this week's issue of Banter M:

Scott Walker's Psychopathic War on Poor People - Ben Cohen looks at Governor Scott Walker's latest attempts to drug test food stamp recipients and uncovers the terrible history behind his extraordinary war on the working poor. More than that though, is a Republican strategy to enforce an insidious ideology that serves to humiliate and disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of society.

Sean Parker vs Cancer - Chez Pazienza's brother in law would have been 29 today had it not been for a deadly form of Leukemia. In a moving tribute, Chez writes also looks at tech billionaire and former Facebook founder Sean Parker's remarkable pledge to join the fight against cancer with some extraordinary advancements in medical technology.  

Settle Down With This Star Wars "Mary Sue" Nonsense, Morons - Jamie Frevele takes on the abhorrent internet meme that the female lead in Star Wars played by Felicity Jones was nothing more than a "Mary Sue." What is a "Mary Sue" you may ask? Let Jamie explain and dispel the myth. 

How Equifax Screwed Up My Life - Bob Cesca recounts going $500,000 into debt, losing his house and car, then having his life ruined by credit agencies that have haunted him ever since. Because after all, who better to control your life than unaccountable, for profit corporations? 



Scott Walker's Psychopathic War on Poor People

by Ben Cohen

Failed presidential contender and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) along with 10 other Republican governors have been touting the benefits of forcing food stamp recipients to go through drug testing in a letter sent to Republicans on Capitol Hill this week. Despite it being illegal under federal law, prominent Republicans are arguing that it is an effective way to get people back into the work place -- because of course poor people just want to sit around and take drugs all day. 

“Since SNAP and other welfare programs typically have job training requirements as a core element,” the letter says, “we write today to express our sincere confidence that drug testing recipients of SNAP benefits is not only lawful, but will aid in our ability to move individuals off of this welfare program and back into the workforce as productive members of their communities.”

In February of this year, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) introduced legislation that could potentially make urine testing legal at a state level. “The legislation authored by Congressman Robert Aderholt confirms states’ rights to drug test SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients," said Walker this week. "And we look forward to working with him on this crucial issue and implementing this common-sense reform in Wisconsin."

Wisconsin, you will remember, is where Walker has led a vicious war against the state's labor unions -- a war he had based his entire persona on. Walker cast himself as the the brave 'anti union guy' taking on all those freeloading working people trying to provide a decent life for their families by eliminating their collective bargaining power. 

Walker's war on working families was so militant, he even likened unions to ISIS -- a truly remarkable comparison considering one group is fighting for the right to earn a livable wage and bargain collectively, while the other is trying to establish a worldwide caliphate by chopping children's heads off and murdering and raping innocent civilians. But then this is a Republican in the era of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz we are talking about.

For people like Scott Walker, it doesn't appear to matter that the proportion of people on welfare who are drug users is well below that of the national average. As Think Progress reported, after analyzing data of  the seven states with existing drug testing programs — Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah, they found that:

The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years.

To spend millions of dollars on drug testing the most vulnerable people in America -- who are statistically less likely than other Americans to be using drugs -- one has to wonder what the motivation is here. 

Of course you don't have to look too hard to see what is happening, as these ludicrous measures against the poor and working class conforms to a consistent pattern. From destroying unions, attempting to privatize social security, and now drug test welfare recipients, the reality is that the Republican party is leading a highly organized war against the poor using some of the most appalling methods imaginable.  These methods are not designed to help them, as Walker and his cohort of rich white men are arguing, but to instill neo liberal market discipline and eradicate all sense of hope for a better economy.

For Republicans, a consistent supply of docile or petrified cheap labor is necessary to keep the current economic structure going, and drug testing the very poorest is one way to reinforce this market discipline. The technique designed to not only humiliate those down on their luck, but scare them into understanding that if they do not follow society's rules, they will quite literally starve to death. 

Republican economics do not and have not ever worked for anyone who isn't already enormously wealthy. The statistics prove this unequivocally given America has followed a far right economic agenda since Ronald Reagan, and has the worst income inequality in the developed world. And it isn't just that America is the most unequal society out of all OECD nations, it is the fact that it is actually getting worse -- a true testament to just how badly neoliberal economics is failing. While Obama has tried to undo the worst of the catastrophic damage done by the Bush Administration, he has been largely unable to reverse the trend of wealth inequality and mass privatization of the economy thanks to Republican obstructionism and a lack of will from his own party. 

Despite Republican rhetoric, cutting taxes for the rich while slashing welfare for the poor does not make for good economic policy -- it simply makes rich people richer while making life far, far harder for everyone else.

Sadly, these Republican myths still appear to resonate with large sectors of America society, despite the fact that they actively make their lives worse. It is an age old tactic though, to make poor people fight one another while looting all the cash for oneself. The Republicans are particularly adept at this strategy and have been boldly wrecking the lives of millions of Americans by making them believe their enemies are other working class people struggling to make a living for themselves. Governor Scott Walker is the poster child for this war -- a politician who has not only busted unions, but is helping bankrupt public schools while doling out tax breaks to millionaires. His latest installment of unnecessary pain and suffering in the form of drug testing for those unable to feed themselves should dispel any myth that he cares about anyone other than those who fund his career. And of course, they happen to be very white, and very rich

In clinical terms, this self serving, socially harmful behavior that shows no regard for human suffering would be regarded as psychopathic. But in modern political terms, the behavior is actually regarded as some sort of moral force for good. Because after all, the poor deserve their lot in life, and the rich get to rub their faces in it.

Next: Sean Parker vs Cancer - by Chez Pazienza

Sean Parker vs Cancer 

by Chez Pazienza

Mike Chobot would've been 29-years-old on Tuesday. He was, in every real sense other than actual blood, my brother, although his official designation would've been "ex-brother-in-law." I met him when he was 15, a shy, odd kid who loved music that was popular decades before his own era and who seemed to be a kind of artistic savant -- someone with the ability to merely hear a piano chord or see a piece of art and be able to sit down and copy it from memory. Maybe it would've been easy to classify him as a stereotypical high school nerd, but that honestly barely scratched the surface of who he was -- and besides that, his exuberance and quirkiness, far from getting him ostracized at school, actually granted him both acceptance and even popularity. He was just the kind of person you wanted to know because spending any time at all with him you understood fully that he was a true original. In my mind and my heart he remains one to this day. 

Even when my relationship with his sister fell apart and plunged me into a personal abyss, Mike and I remained not simply close but, again, like brothers. He called me constantly, often at off hours early in the morning or late at night just to ask some out-of-the-blue question or another. I learned to appreciate my phone ringing at 10pm on a Thursday night because Mike apparently needed to know whether I watched The Newsroom and how close it was to real life. Looking back on it, I realize now that Mike was, in fact, just checking up on me, making sure that I hadn't descended too deeply into the black -- so far that I couldn't find my way back. He ended every conversation with the same two words, the same words he said to every member of his family every time he said goodbye to them, whether he was just going out for a little while or was going to be out of their general vicinity for months: Love you. And I had to respond in kind. Because you couldn't help but love Mike. God knows I did.

Last night here in Los Angeles, tech billionaire Sean Parker threw a star-studded party for a very good cause. The gala at his home followed the announcement yesterday morning that Parker -- he of Facebook and Napster fame and infamy -- would be donating $250 million to fund immunotherapy trials and research in an effort to fight cancer. If you're unaware of immunotherapy, if maybe you didn't see a story about it on the cover of Time recently or hadn't heard about the breakthroughs it's offering cancer patients, basically what it does is treat cancer by teaching the human body to fight it on its own. The technique boosts the body's immune system so that it can kill cancer cells -- and it's so effective in many cases that former president Jimmy Carter underwent the immune-based drug treatment upon announcing that he had cancer back in August of last year and by December he was cancer-free. 

Parker's donation is the largest ever for immunotherapy and one of the largest for cancer in general and it will create the Parker Center for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco, dedicated to high-risk ideas and trials. As USA Today reports, Parker's main complaint is that right now immunotherapy is considered a treatment of last resort, something undertaken once the body has already been ravaged by chemotherapy and radiation. "I want to make it a front-line treatment," Parker says. "It would change the whole cost of care downstream." Because competing hospitals and research centers sometimes don't share information, Parker's own institute will reportedly be dedicated to coordinating research and information across six cancer centers, with more to come as even more funding becomes available. Each of the facilities taking part in the consortium have agreed to help staff Parker's institute and will give up some of their proprietary research in the name of the greater good. 

 Sean Parker's announcement follows word from the University College London earlier this month that they've had a significant breakthrough in immunotherapy research. Scientists there say they've discovered a way to identify markers in tumors that can be traced across all corresponding cancer cells even if they've mutated. By identifying these cells, it would allow doctors to target them across the board, creating a kind of personalized form of treatment not seen previously in the fight against cancer. What this is is more proof that immunotherapy is the most important new stride forward in cancer research in decades. If, as Parker says, oncologists are able to consider the treatment as a primary weapon rather than a last-ditch effort, it could change how many lives are saved each year. 

Attending last night's Parker gala and featured within the USA Today story on the new initiative was a close friend of mine: Salon contributor Mary Beth Williams, who was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2010 and who found that the cancer was able to quickly spread throughout her body until just a year later she was at stage-four. She managed to get into a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City that combined two different kinds of immunotherapy. At the time, throughout my conversations with her, I had no idea how close to death she was and how terrified she was that she was going to die. But in 2011, I remember sitting in a bar with her drinking beer -- Fanelli's in SoHo -- and having her excitedly lift the back of her shirt up in public to show me where one of the tumors was. Was, as in where it used to be. 

Mary Beth is now cancer free. She came back from stage-four malignant melanoma -- and she's now written about the entire experience in a memoir called A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles. The notion of someone like Mary Beth not being on this planet anymore shakes me to my very soul, because the truth is the world needs more people like her, not less, and the families and friends of just about anyone who's had to duel to the death with cancer would likely say the same thing about their loved ones. Cancer is a bastard. It kills indiscriminately and it leaves nothing but anguish and sorrow in its wake. Any major step forward in the treatment of this disease should be embraced wholeheartedly and under no circumstances should funding ever be an issue. Researchers say that Sean Parker's endowment will help them move out of the phase in which they're forced to scrounge for grants and right into full-on progress. Hopefully others will follow Parker's lead and money won't be an object moving forward.

In 2011, Mike Chobot was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. For nearly two years he fought the disease, making his way in and out of the hospital, going from terrifyingly thin to even more terrifyingly bloated from the poisonous treatments he was forced to undertake. While my friend Mary Beth was getting better thanks to the sheer luck of falling into a rare immunotherapy clinical trial, Mike was faltering even after a series of bone marrow transplants. It was July of 2013, after so many amusing phone calls of his dealing with one oddball topic or another, that he called to tell me he was terminal. How do you respond to something like that? What do you say to someone you love when he tells you he's going to die? I had no idea and to this day I'm crippled by the knowledge that I couldn't do a damn thing -- just listen to him and tell him how important his life had been to so many, myself included.

Mike died August 6th of 2013. He won a posthumous Emmy award for his work in sound engineering, because even when he was sick he refused to stop working. I don't know if immunotherapy would've helped him, if it would've kept him alive for a little longer or perhaps even for good. But having lost him, I can tell you that if it provides genuine hope for anyone -- anyone who's at risk of saying goodbye forever to someone they love -- then it's a course of action that needs to be pursued vigorously. If it kicks cancer's ass in even a handful of people, it's worth it.  

Next: Settle Down With This Star Wars "Mary Sue" Nonsense, Morons- by Jamie Frevele


Settle Down With This Star Wars "Mary Sue" Nonsense, Morons

by Jamie Frevele

The trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the web last week and while I'm not a huge Star Wars fan, that doesn't mean I can avoid everyone I know writing about a Star Wars movie. Fortunately, I'm friends with people who were very excited about Rogue One, and I definitely like to see my friends happy. Unfortunately, a lot of them found themselves fending off charges by less evolved people on social media who claimed that the female lead played by Felicity Jones was nothing more than a "Mary Sue."

Let me explain what that is, for those of you lucky enough to have escaped the kinds of people who use such a term. A "Mary Sue" is a female character who is considered to be a fictional -- and heroic and perfect -- version of the author, in this case a female author. Do they exist? Sure they do! In the fan fiction world, where the term originated, many women would insert themselves, or versions of themselves, into stories they were writing for the sheer fun of it. These women were writing these stories for fun, not to be published. So, why did it have to become a derogatory term?

And hey, aren't there also male writers? Why, yes! There are tons of them, and they also write fan fiction! But are they ever accused of writing themselves into their stories? "Accused" is probably the wrong word because if they do it, no one questions it. Men just write. But women write Mary Sues. Because they're batty and frustrated and men are just telling a story.

Isn't sexism adorable? It must be great for men to not have to defend or explain themselves when they write their stories. Nope! They just write characters, who are also men, who have issues, backstories, trauma, courage, something driving them… But when a woman is front and center, she can't have issues, backstories, courage, or something driving them. She's just a Mary Sue. A fictionalized version of a boring, frustrated woman who wishes her life was way more interesting.

Because women aren't people! Nah, we're just kind of existing here for the sole purpose of pleasing other men. We don't have stories or anything going on with us. And we sure aren't cool enough to be the main focus of one of these beloved Star Wars movies. It was bad enough when women "took over" Ghostbusters, but Star Wars? How dare we. Let's delegitimize that shit right now, cut Jones' Jyn Erso down to size and maybe Daisy Ridley's Rey while we're at it. How dare these chicks have a seat at the head of this shiny space table! They should be chained to Jabba the Hut, waiting to be rescued, not wielding a lightsaber or actively rebelling against things! Stupid girls!

I've been lucky enough to know mostly evolved men who see a female lead in anything and think "This is gonna be a great movie!" rather than "This is a chick movie!" or "What are these chicks doing in my movie?" But every once in a while, some idiot gets up in arms when they see female characters doing something other than playing some sexy girlfriend. I'd like to ask those guys if they think women are people. Seriously. I don't think that some men think women are people, that we make up just over half -- yes, there are more of us than them! -- of the human population and that the first breath of their lives came directly after exiting the body of a woman. Why is it so easy to think of us as non-people when there are so many of us and so many of us that you want to have sex with? And why is it so hard to think that since there are so many women, a lot of those women have really interesting stories, stories that are just as interesting as men's stories? Do these guys think that nothing happens to us? That we just stay at home all day, waiting for men to come home and regale us with the amazing tales of their travels and journeys? Shit, even women who spend all their time at home have stories.

The "Mary Sue" accusations on the latest Star Wars movies are so lame, and the men making such a claim are clearly not worth anyone's time. I honestly don't know why we give douchebags like that the time of day, but here we are, writing thinkpieces and posting about them on Twitter. It makes me feel like a douchebag because I'd rather just think that when men look at me -- good, worthy men -- they see a person with stories to tell and not just an empty fuckbox. And I'm sure every woman feels that way. We all deserve to not feel like empty fuckboxes. We all deserve to tell our stories or have someone else tell them, and when we choose another woman to be our storyteller, it shouldn't come with condescending insults.

Here's a little secret about storytelling and writing fiction: every single character a writer creates has a piece of the writer in them. Whether the character is male or female or the writer is male or female, a fictional character is a creation by a real person who uses a fictional vessel to tell a little bit of their story. It can be as little as a quirky habit or as big as a life story. Every fictional character is a bit of a Mary Sue because that's how storytelling works. It's just the way it is. And maybe if these idiots had the guts or talent to write something themselves, they'd realize that.


How Equifax Screwed Up My Life 

by Bob Cesca

Like millions of other Americans, I was screwed in a variety of ways by the Great Recession. I won't bore you with the laundry list of horrible financial things I experienced in that time, but it includes, among other things, repossessions, a foreclosure, a short sale and, of course, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding. 

Boiled down, the economic collapse eroded my income to a point where I couldn't pay my mortgage -- or my second mortgage -- or my car payments, and so forth. It also meant I couldn't pay back my business loans, which led to a roundelay of predictably obnoxious creditor phone calls around the clock. Actually, "obnoxious" is a vast understatement. One bill collector from Citizen's Bank called me while I was Christmas shopping, circa 2008, and told me they could enter my home and take anything they want. My response? "No you can't. Goodbye." But, of course, I didn't know for sure, hence, I suffered a minor panic attack while standing outside a Spencer's Gifts at the mall. 

And this happened a lot. The panic, especially. Every night at around 3 a.m., like clockwork, I'd suddenly awaken -- racked with world-ending anxiety over my worsening financial situation. For a solid five or six months, I legitimately suffered from 3 a.m. panic attacks -- made even worse after I was hit by a car while bike riding; fracturing one of my vertebra, which resulted in chronic pain, often flaring up during that lonely, horrifying 3 a.m. block of time.

Left without any other options, I chose to file for bankruptcy. Fuck everything, I needed out, and this was the only way to absolve what amounted to roughly half-a-million dollars in debt, including my house, but mostly from my business.

Fast forward several years. 

Until around 2012, I was terrified to look at my credit score. Between the Chapter 7, the foreclosure of my house, an IRS tax lien, and all of those lapsed loan payments, there was a solid chance my credit report was a hellscape of financial ruin. At its highest, my FICO credit score was something like 840. I predicted my score, post-Recession, was closer to, I don't know, four? But the urge to rebuild my credit rating outweighed my trepidation, so I found my way to a free credit score website called Credit Karma.

At the time, Credit Karma only featured information from one of the three credit reporting agencies, TransUnion. Through Credit Karma, I could access my TransUnion score at any time, totally for free. And while my score wasn't good, it wasn't nearly as horrible as I thought it'd be. Let's just say it was in the very low six-hundreds. Since then, Credit Karma has added another credit agency to its service: Equifax. Meanwhile, I signed up for a monthly subscription to my Experian report, rounding out all three credit agencies, TransUnion, Experian and shitty, shitty Equifax. We'll circle back to the "shitty, shitty" reference momentarily.

What I discovered, almost from the outset, was that it's all a big corporate scam in which three unaccountable corporate entities have the undeserved power to dictate our financial futures. Most of us don't know how badly they're screwing us -- and they really, really are.

Not too long ago, back in 2013, 60 Minutes aired the results of an investigation of the credit reporting agencies. Here's the upshot:

  • Credit reporting is a $4,000,000,000 a year industry.
  • They keep records on 200,000,000 Americans.
  • There are 40,000,000 errors in those reports.
  • 20,000,000 of those errors are serious.
  • These errors are virtually impossible to remove from the record.
  • The credit reporting agencies have been in violation of federal credit reporting laws for years and refuse to do anything about their violations.  

(John Oliver followed up on his HBO show last week, and it's absolutely worth watching.)

40 million errors, and half are serious. And resolving the errors is almost impossible.

First, you have to know about the errors, which means first signing up for a website where your scores can be accessed. To receive all three scores and reports, this will cost you money -- ongoing money. Signing up once, checking your score, then unsubscribing won't help you. Credit Karma is free, but it's incomplete. You must financially genuflect before at least one of them in order to track your score for as long as you need to improve it. My pay service is Experian, which is probably the most referenced agency by potential creditors, banks, landlords, etc, since it includes the famous "FICO" score, which is the industry standard for getting a car loan, mortgage, rental or credit card. 

Oh, did I mention that every score will be different? They will be. My FICO score is, fortunately, my best, while Equifax is the worst. Why is Equifax my worst score? In my experience, it's because Equifax is the most disorganized clusterfuck of the trio, racked with mistakes. Equifax is a shitty, shitty, shitty mess.

To that point, and secondly, you have to find the errors and weed them out. In my case, several months ago, my Equifax score dropped 50 points in a single month. 50! As credit scores go, this is a colossally punitive decline. It took me literally years to bump my score up by 20 points. But in one day, my Equifax score crashed. In a panic, I rushed to check my TransUnion and FICO scores and was relieved to note they were unchanged. In fact, my FICO score had gone up on the same day my Equifax score plummeted. Fuck.

What was the problem? It turns out, the second mortgage I held on my old foreclosed house in Pennsylvania was owned by -- let's call them Predatory Bank. Back in February of this year, Predatory Bank merged with another bank -- let's call them Bag of Dicks Bank. When the merger occurred, Bag of Dicks Bank reported its discharged loans to the credit agencies. Equifax, in particular, took the information and decided that I had an all new home equity loan in the amount of $73,000, give or take, and that the last payment is four years past due. On a home I no longer owned.

Cue the sound of my credit score exploding. And not in a good way.

If I hadn't been aware of the mistake, it never would've been resolved. Fortunately, I spotted it on the day it happened and was able to successfully dispute the error. But my score didn't return to where it was before. In other words, my score dropped by 50 points due to the error, but after the record was corrected, it only went back up by 35 points or so. At this point, I had to take a break from dealing with the dispute process because it became so time consuming -- and that's yet another problem. People tend to give up rather than having to perpetually babysit these errors and dispute procedures.

Prior to the Bag of Dicks Bank snafu, I had disputed yet another error with Equifax. A long time ago, I paid off my recession-era back taxes and, as a result, the IRS removed the tax lien. Little do consumers know, however, that the IRS doesn't report the removal tax liens to the credit agencies. You have to do it yourself, even though dings to your score are automatically added. Funny how that works. So anyway, I took the time to assemble the documents and submit the proper removal disputes to the agencies. 

Once again, Equifax screwed up. I received an email verifying that the lien would be removed, but months and months went by and the lien wasn't removed. 

Thankfully, I was obsessively tracking my score, so I knew about the mistake. How many millions of Americans don't, and therefore wouldn't have known? We have lives to lead, and we wrongfully assume that these agencies tasked with evaluating our financial status would actually get the job done with precision. Obviously not. I had to go through the whole dispute process yet again to force Equifax to correct the same error -- for a second time.

There are disgusting injustices at every turn, especially as we grow older and the odds of being fucked grow larger. But the credit agencies are an almost unspoken breeding ground for royally dicking us all. Again, these are private for-profit companies that are only accountable to their investors. And yet they control our futures. They control where we live and what we buy. In many cases, they control where we work, knowing that potential employers often check your credit score as part of the application process. To repeat: 40 million errors and we have to literally pay for the privilege of policing those errors, when the onus is on the agencies to maintain flawless records given the critical importance of the numbers they churn out.

During the 2016 election so far, we've talked a lot about the damage being done by corporations and too-big-to-fail banks. But the three-headed hydra in the room is Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If there's any justice, the whole trifecta needs to be crushed and federalized into one government-run -- and therefore accountable to the people -- agency. There are literally tens of millions of reasons why. The incompetence simply doesn't match the power they wield, and the only way to correct the imbalance is to kill them all.

Meanwhile, if you're planning to begin to track your scores. Good luck, and be prepared for an ordeal. And don't worry -- it's only a matter of your entire future. No big deal, right?