Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Elon Musk and the Cult of the Celebrity Savior

On Wednesday, Elon Musk — celebrity tech genius, aspiring space mogul, and Tesla chief — made a dramatic announcement: He was going to help the people of Flint, Michigan.

It was an unexpected development in an ongoing crisis; two and a half years have passed since the initial declaration of a state of emergency in Flint, in January of 2016. In April, Michigan ended a program distributing free bottled water to the city’s residents, though by the end of June, only 37 percent of the lead pipes in the city had been replaced.

Musk’s concrete plan remains unclear, though he added that he would organize a weekend in Flint to “add filters to those houses with issues.” The proposal rapidly rang up likes, and replies oozing with admiration, including one Twitter fan who expressed concern that Musk was letting his humanitarian impulses interfere with the work of creating very expensive electric cars. “You’re the most influential person on earth right now and you’re already working on some of the most challenging problems facing mankind. If you don’t stay focused, it will take you longer to achieve,” the fan remonstrated

Elon Musk’s adoring fans — who flock to his Tweets in the hundreds, laud his successes, and even write erotica about him — typify a deeply American idolization of the wealthy. His direct engagement of fans and foes alike gives him an outsize footprint online, even for a much-lauded Silicon Valley billionaire, and fans have responded in kind. Musk devotees savage his detractors, portraying him as a savior, someone on the verge of changing humanity’s future. An individual who has made good — even if the foundation for his fortune came from his father’s emerald mines in Zambia — can do little wrong. Musk’s fans (Muskrats? Elon Rangers?) seem to identify so strongly with him that they want to become him: In their ordinary lives, they are, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, merely temporarily embarrassed billionaires. 

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Musk’s instincts as a showman help cultivate this slavish following. His announcement about Flint marked the second time in a week Musk had stepped in to a well-publicized crisis with the goal of playing savior. Five days ago, as the world fixed its eyes on twelve boys trapped in a cave complex in Thailand, Musk began ideating to his 22 million Twitter followers about ways he could contribute. “Maybe worth trying: insert a 1m diameter nylon tube (or shorter set of tubes for most difficult sections) through cave network & inflate with air like a bouncy castle,” he wrote on Twitter.

As rescue efforts got under way, Musk was working on a small submarine, designed for underwater rescue. On Twitter, he posted brief videos of a child-size, torpedo-like tube, dragged by divers through the crystal waters of a Los Angeles pool. Meanwhile, skilled divers from the Thai navy rescued all twelve boys. Perhaps it was a newly ignited messiah complex — or just a simple taunt — that led to Musk’s new overture to Flint residents. His initial pledge was in response to a simple challenge: “Hey @elonmusk I heard a bunch of people saying there’s NO WAY you could help get clean water to Flint, Michigan,” wrote twitter user @DylanSheaMusic. With his boy-size submarine marooned in Southeast Asian waters, the billionaire had found a new puzzle to solve, closer at hand.

It seems more fitting that Musk would be able to enact his desire to rescue desperate people in America. We’re a nation that perhaps uniquely relies on infusions of cash from strangers to meet our basic needs. Americans without health insurance, or health insurance inadequate to meet their medical expenses, routinely turn to crowdfunding sites to appeal for cash. Between 2010 and 2016, $930 million was raised on for medical campaigns — nearly half the entire amount raised on the site during that period. In the wealthiest country in the world, hundreds of thousands of citizens hope for haphazard, unpredictable public philanthropy to provide them with blood, breath, and water.

Others have appealed directly to celebrities to deal with financial troubles — including those who number among the 44 million Americans who hold a collective $1.4 trillion in student debt. The rapper Nicki Minaj has paid off thousands of dollars in student loans owed by fans who have appealed to her directly on Twitter. Taylor Swift sent a check for $1,989 to help pay off a fan’s student debt shortly after the release of her album 1989.

In this context, the concept of a big-hearted celebrity publicly stepping in where the government has failed seems almost ordinary. There’s a rich seam of tradition when it comes to the wealthy laundering their mixed reputations via good deeds in this country — from Andrew Carnegie papering over his bloody union-busting past with a spate of sponsored libraries, to prodigiously corrupt political operative Boss Tweed distracting New Yorkers by handing out extra coal and Thanksgiving turkeys. Musk’s gesture to help Flint suits his flair for spectacle; it typifies his attitude toward public action, providing a direct gift to both an adoring public and media outlets, who rushed to cover the statement. Jeff Bezos, the famously parsimonious founder of Amazon, tried out a more muted version of direct-to-consumer philanthropy when he asked for Twitter’s input last year in how to direct his vast fortune toward the public good. His request received nearly 60,000 comments, which boosted everything from tech education for women to voter-registration drives to multiple requests for universal healthcare.

But a society run on the benevolence of celebrities — or even the earnest helpfulness of strangers on the Internet — is a society in a state of permanent precariousness. The distribution of public goodwill is an economy not of labor but of attention. Personal fundraisers are ubiquitous on social — for rent, for debt, for hospital stays. A scroll through GoFundMe’s page for leukemia fundraisers is a heart-wrenching endeavor: hundreds of children in hospital gowns, women with shadowed eyes and patchy hair, men holding dogs and smiling wanly, seeking thousands of dollars from strangers. Of course, these are only a fraction of America’s cancer patients, but in a fractured and inadequate healthcare system — in which American cancer patients spend far more and have a higher mortality rate than their European counterparts — the rise of online medical appeals is striking.

Of the quarter-million medical campaigns on GoFundMe each year, which will raise hundreds of thousands, and which will raise none? In 2017, a diabetic artist named Shane Patrick Boyle died alone in Arkansas after coming up $50 short on a crowdfunding campaign for a month’s worth of insulin. In an attention economy, who will live and who will die is at least partly determined by how attractive or tragic they look in a single picture

I do not mean to denigrate the power of public philanthropy. The rush of goodwill on social media toward worthy causes can be phenomenally inspiring; it can transform the lives of cancer patients, desperate parents, and victims of violence. But crowdfunding medical expenses has real and obvious limits. Life and death, debt and homelessness are questions too big to be left to the curious, alchemical happenstance of going viral — or the lucky chance of catching a wealthy savior’s eye.

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In a country which fails to meet its citizens’ basic needs, the public purse is afflicted with a perennial parsimony, opening swiftly to fund war, but hesitating over the alleviation of pain. The “American dream” is one of hard and unrelenting work to make good; its dark converse is the ubiquitous American idea that those who haven’t made good, who struggle, who suffer, who need, simply haven’t worked hard enough. Against all evidence, many Americans believe that hard work is all that’s required to attain stratospheric wealth, a fortune the size of Elon Musk’s.

It’s far too early to judge Musk’s efforts in Flint. They may achieve wild success in a single weekend where the government of Michigan has failed; they may be a flash in the pan, or an unrealized dream, like his plan for a Mars colony. At the outset, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to replace the remaining 63 percent of the city’s lead pipes, a complex, expensive, multi-year process, or to painstakingly rebuild residents’ trust in water that poisoned them for months before the government copped to its contamination. What seems certain is that it should not take the intervention of a billionaire for Americans to have clean water. It should not take deft Twitter skills or soft-focus photos to be able to pay for cancer surgery, or take until retirement to pay off the cost of a college education. It seems to me it is past time to create a political system that doesn’t leave our lives and deaths to luck. That is the potent, secret promise of sweeping social policies like Medicare for All, free public college, and a universal jobs guarantee: It doesn’t have to be this hard, this desperate. Perhaps it’s time for all of us “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and real millionaires, and billionaires, too — to see each other as worth investing permanently in.

Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Who Are We Telling Depressed People to ‘Reach Out’ to, Anyway?

“Reach out,” they say. “Get help,” they say. “Go to therapy,” they say. They, of course, are seemingly every friend, celebrity, and politician offering well-meaning platitudes after the suicides of culinary force of nature Anthony Bourdain and iconic designer Kate Spade last week.

It is comforting to believe that all that stands between a beloved friend or family member and suicide is an active cry for help. Unfortunately, that banal chestnut too often doesn’t match the available treatment options for a vast number of Americans, especially when the Narcissist in Chief’s budget slashes funding for the National Institute of Mental Health by more than 30 percent in 2019.

In New York City, where major depressive disorder is the single greatest source of disability, according to a 2015 report by the mayor’s office, who exactly are we telling our friends and neighbors to reach out to? The report found that poverty, race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, age, where a person lives, and whether or not they’ve been bullied all increase the likelihood that a New Yorker may experience mental health challenges or suicidal ideation — and yet those same factors make it harder to access treatment.

“At any given time over half a million adult New Yorkers are estimated to have depression, yet less than 40 percent report receiving care for it,” the 2015 report states. Eight percent of New York City public high school students report attempting suicide, a percentage that “doubles if a student has been bullied on school grounds, which 18 percent of students experience.” LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide, while elder citizens and Latina adolescents are both at elevated risk as well.

As a media critic, my journalism has almost never included personal memoir. But in light of the implicit shaming underneath all that stock advice to “reach out,” I want to share a story about how few resources are available for mental healthcare in our city, and why judging someone for “not getting help” is not just rude but dangerous.

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Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve considered myself lucky that I have never experienced suicidal ideation, beyond fleeting dark thoughts as a child and adolescent while living in an emotionally abusive home. But because of that upbringing, I’ve dealt with a kind of low-grade depression my whole life, an undercurrent that is always right under the surface, always, and which I work really hard to push through every day. (A coping strategy reflected in the Ani DiFranco lyric “Maybe you can keep me from ever being happy, but you’re not going to stop me from having fun,” which has resonated with me since 1997.) Most of the time I’ve been able to remain functional, but at times the depression has become much more acute.

In my mid twenties in the early 2000s, in the midst of a deep depression during which I stopped having the desire to see friends, take showers, or even write (the most alarming “tell”), I finally overcame my resistance and tried to find a therapist I could afford on a low-income activist writer’s budget. At the time, I was working completely unfunded as the founder and director of a small nonprofit feminist media justice group I was working to build, and I could not afford health insurance; I could barely afford rent and food. As I researched my options, nothing was affordable except for students in training, or group therapy, which — though often extremely useful — I determined wouldn’t be helpful for my specific challenges.

Activating my local network, I finally found one supposedly feminist therapist who I was told offered sliding-scale payment options. I called and asked the therapist if she was taking clients. She said she was. I told her I was living one bare step above poverty and did not have any savings or health insurance, but that I was suffering from a deep depression and I had finally accepted that I needed help. I asked what her rates were at the lowest end of the scale. I can’t remember if she said $75 or $100 per hour; I do remember the burning feeling of internalized shame rising up in my throat as I regretfully explained that I couldn’t afford that rate. Did she have any other options, or could she suggest other therapists with a lower scale? She replied, in a derisive tone I will never forget: “If you are unwilling to pay that little for therapy, you are not dedicated to improving your mental health.”

I hung up the phone and sobbed. I felt even more defeated, demoralized, and depressed than I had been before I reached out, and I quit the search for therapy right at that moment. It wasn’t just that I felt shamed; it was that my research had led me to a brick wall. It seemed as if there was no point in trying to seek additional resources.

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Now, many of us are familiar with the phrase “depression is a liar,” so perhaps if I had been in a better state of mental health I would have left her a scathing Yelp review and initiated another search, or returned to my network for additional recommendations. But the whole reason I was reaching out was that I wasn’t in that healthier state of mind, and so I fully believed there were no therapeutic options available for me.

It took a lot longer for me to get out of that period of depression than it should have, in part because of that therapist insisting that I was “choosing to not prioritize my mental health” just because I was unable to afford her fees. I’m in a much better place now (my low-grade depression is less of an urgent battle and more of an endurance race these days), and thankfully I now have the option for mental healthcare under my partner’s employment benefits if I find myself in need of help in the future. But I know that if I — a cis-gender white journalist adept at research who, while having no money, has significant social capital and a strong network of connected writers and advocates — was unable to secure adequate mental healthcare, it’s decidedly more of a struggle for New Yorkers with fewer racial and professional privileges.

The outpouring of grief, disbelief, and concern in the wake of beloved public figures’ suicides is certainly normal, as is the instinct to want to encourage those struggling with depression and suicidal ideation to seek lifesaving support. But blanketing social media with hollow statements about “reaching out” (exhibit A: senior White House adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump) obscures the fact that, too often, the infrastructure for that aid is wholly inadequate. That is especially true under the despair-provoking darkness and myopic cruelty of the Trump administration, whose budget is making an already rickety ladder of support even more unstable, while triggering increased anxiety and depression.

If we truly want to help keep people alive and thriving, we need more than platitudes about calling friends or suicide hotlines in a moment of extreme crisis — we need ongoing, substantive, broad-based investment in mental healthcare. So instead of demanding that depressed people reach out to some random concept of help, how about every single person who isn’t struggling reach out to politicians who can fight for more effective mental healthcare policies and resources, and to philanthropic foundations and individuals who can help fund nonprofits that provide direct support to people who need it most. That’s the kind of outreach we should advocate for if we truly want to save lives.

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

To learn more about the battles for funding of mental health services in the U.S., visit the Mental Health America website.

To contact your congressional representatives about mental health funding, visit Call My Congress.



It’s Time for New York State to Pass Universal Healthcare

With the repeal of the Affordable Care Act going full steam ahead with no replacement on the horizon, it’s now a distinct possibility that 2.7 million New Yorkers (over half of whom reside in New York City) could find themselves without health care in the near future. In response to this looming threat, governor Andrew Cuomo has warned about the dire consequences of a full repeal, but has not stated what his plan would be when it actually proceeds. Desperate times usually call for desperate measures, but what if the answer to New York’s possible healthcare apocalypse wasn’t something that had to be conjured out of thin air, but rather something that had already passed the state assembly three times? Wouldn’t that be something worth considering?

The New York Health Act would turn New York into the nation’s first single-payer state by expanding the state’s Medicare system to everyone. And, according to its supporters, it would save money at the same time. It would also mean squaring off against the New York insurance industry — but with Republicans hellbent on making health care as unaffordable as possible anyway, now might just be the perfect time for New York to go single-payer. So argues state Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who first proposed and passed the bill through the assembly in 1992, and then again in 2015 and 2016, with plans to reintroduce it again this year.

“This is really doable. I think not only has a single payer system been a major need for a long time, but all the things the Republicans are planning on doing to Medicare and Medicaid, will make it a whole lot worse for everyone but the wealthiest New Yorkers,” Gottfried told the Voice. “The need for New York to act now is even more compelling than ever before.”

Gottfried’s plan would finance a universal medicare expansion through progressive taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers. General savings on the program would come from the state’s ability to buy pharmaceuticals in bulk, while the legislation would be written in a way that everything that Medicaid and Medicare currently cover, like eye care and dental, will also be covered under the expansion.

“There’s nothing more rigged against working people than our health care system,” Gottfried said. “It’s funded by customers whose costs are set with little to no regard with ability to pay, and it’s not something you can afford to be without.”

Skeptics of Gottfried’s plan insist that the red-tape of a state run system would leave people waiting for days to get health care, but that simply hasn’t been the case for the state’s medicaid expansion (not to mention its 3.3 million Medicare enrollees).

Both Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli supported the plan when it first came through Albany, with Schneiderman sponsoring the senate version of the bill in 2008. Last year’s version had over 30 co-sponsors in the state assembly.

The Voice has reached out to both the Attorney General and State Comptroller’s office to see if they remain in support of the bill, and will update if they get back to us. We’ve asked the governor as well, but with Cuomo’s brutal sabotaging of a Democratic-controlled senate, the bill seems likely to stall out until the senate (or governor’s mansion) can be flipped.

“The problems with our current system are pretty serious and about to get a whole lot worse,” Gottfried said, calling on New York politicians to begin thinking rationally. “I believe the only way a state can protect its people from what Washington is doing, the only way you can do that affordably is to adopt a single-payer system.”


City Council Votes to Tighten Regulations After Rivington House Scandal

The City Council passed a bill yesterday that will tighten rules surrounding the removal of deed restrictions after a shady deal led to a Lower East Side nursing home being flipped for luxury condos.

A city-issued deed restriction on Rivington House, which specifically treated AIDS patients, mandated that the building be used for non-profit healthcare services. Its operator, Village Care, sold the building to for-profit healthcare company Allure in early 2015. Allure later paid the city $16 million to remove the restriction, under the guise of operating the facility as a for-profit health outlet, and then flipped the property in a lucrative $116 million deal to the luxury condo developers Slate Group, much to the outrage of longtime neighborhood residents and their elected officials.

The new bill creates a three-pronged approval process before a deed can be removed. First, officials from various city agencies will independently review and approve any removal request, including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which currently evaluates the requests. Then a series of public hearings, impact studies and input from community boards will be considered before the request is sent to Mayor de Blasio, who will have final say.

Additionally, the bill requires the creation of a public, searchable database of all city properties under deed restrictions going back as far as 1996.

The Rivington House scandal sparked multiple investigations and an hours-long grilling of top officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Despite repeated insistence that his administration was not to blame, a Department of Investigation report found a “complete lack of accountability” behind the deed removal and included emails sent to deputy mayor Anthony Shorris demonstrating that the administration should have seen the flip coming.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose report further highlighted City Hall’s incompetence, said that Joel Landau, a principal of the Allure Group who brokered the sale, was “plotting a payday from the beginning.”

In June, the New York Times reported that a federal investigation into the matter was pending. A spokeswoman from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office declined to confirm or deny the existence of the investigation.

The bill will not subject deed removals to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process, a move both Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a sponsor of yesterday’s bill, have pushed for. Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito told The Observer that change may be coming down the line.

“The people of the Lower East Side, who were cheated out of a prized community asset… demanded that their elected officials act to ensure that this never happens again to another community,” said Chin. “We have answered their call, as well as that of millions of other New Yorkers worried about the future of their neighborhoods.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law.


Healthcare Ruling: Will It Help The Prez Or Rally The Rabid Republican Base

Remember in 2010 when Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives in the biggest loss for a party (in this case, the Democratic Party) in the House since 1938? And how the huge loss can be partially attributed to right-wing outrage over President Obama’s healthcare plan? Well, the prez’s healthcare plan was only working its way through the courts back in 2010 — and if you thought GOPers were pissed off then, wait until you see them now that this thing’s the law.

Without arguing the merits of the ruling (that’s a whole other conversation), it’s pretty clear that it will impact the upcoming presidential election. But how?

The ruling, obviously, is a victory for the president — it at least gives the impression that he did something in the four years he was in the White House other than tell Leon Panetta to kill Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, though, nothing has pissed off the rabid, radical right-wingers — who already are out en masse rockin’ their (ahem) charming (?) colonial “Tea Party” outfits — more than Barack Obama’s plan to reform healthcare.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney already has said he will do whatever he can to repeal Obamacare, should he win the White House in November, which is a talking point you can expect to hear every five seconds from now until election day — and the same far-right-wingers who showed up to boot House Democrats out of office two years ago are gonna eat it right up.

Will it be enough to prevent four more years of Obama? Seems like a pretty good possibility, in our humble opinion.

We want to know what you think, though — the healthcare ruling: will it help the prez, or rally the rabid Republican base enough to give Obama the boot.