If George Will Won't, I Will genre: Gaylingual & Little Red Ribbon-Hood & Six Degrees of Speculation

The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by George Will on Tuesday in which he reflected on the "lessons" of the AIDS epidemic some twenty-five years after it first began. You can read the entire piece here. Quite frankly, Will's piece is wholesale trash packaged in the longstanding rhetoric that has sought to make AIDS a moral judgment...not a virus. He wastes no time in establishing his assertion.

At first it was called GRID -- gay-related immune deficiency. In September 1982 the CDC renamed it acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- AIDS.

An epidemic requires both a microbe and an enabling social context. In Africa, aspects of modernity in a primitive setting became a deadly combination: HIV was spread by roadside prostitutes serving truckers and soldiers traveling on modern roads. Africa's wars caused population dislocations; economic development caused migrations of workers across porous borders. Both weakened families and dissolved traditional sexual norms. Jet aircraft integrated Africa into the world flow of commerce and tourism. In 1980s America, the enabling context included a gay community feeling more assertive and emancipated, and IV drug users sharing needles.

If one were to connect the crafting of a paragraph intended to deliver the necessary guilty verdict with the loading of a gun in preparation for an execution, then Will has successfully appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner. He begins his invective assault with the immediate linking of the illness and enabling behavior. Never mind that every contagious or transmittable illness requires a social context; Will is simply setting the table for the coming judgments. I doubt he has written about the morality associated with failing to wash ones hands after sneezing while ill with a cold and before shaking the hand of an associate and I wonder if he will write about moral imperatives should the bird flu become an illness spread by human to human contact. Seemingly only choices involving sexual contact have moral implications.

He wastes no time asserting that "modernity" set the spread of the virus in motion in Africa and with the use of the phraseology, "HIV was spread by roadside prostitutes serving truckers and soldiers traveling on modern roads", one is left to wonder if he is insinuating that modernity brought prostitution (the oldest profession) or that only truckers and soldiers torn from their families of necessity were apt to partake in extramarital sex. He then links the spread of HIV to weakened families with dissolving "traditional" sexual norms. However, he conveniently fails to discuss the moral considerations associated with wealthy nations ignoring perpetual poverty and how it is also an enabling factor.

It is difficult to fully distill his intended nuance, but my impression is that he seeks to infer that the impact of "modernity" offers Africa some lesser moral responsibility. That assumption seems to be supported when one reads his next remark that points out the "elective" behavior of "a gay community feeling more assertive and emancipated" and they therefore must have traveled to Africa to engage in sex and return with the virus to the United States. My conclusion is that Will's moral hierarchy places gays at the bottom...where they are guilty of the sin of a chosen immorality. He proceeds to expand his moral argument.

The 14th-century Black Death killed one-third of Europe's population, but it was in the air, food and water, so breathing, eating and drinking were risky behaviors. AIDS is much more difficult to acquire. Like other large components of America's health-care costs (e.g., violence, vehicular accidents, coronary artery disease, lung cancer), AIDS is mostly the result of behavior that is by now widely known to be risky.

In providing his explanation for the deaths associated with the Black Death...whereby it resulted from inherently "innocent" actions...breathing along with eating and drinking for sustenance, he is establishing the structure with which to determine moral equivalence. He then points out that violence (crime), vehicular accidents (drunken driving), coronary artery disease (obesity), lung cancer (smoking), and AIDS (gay sex, prostitution, and extramarital sex) are the result of "risky" behavior. Not only is there an implied moral judgment, he seems to be attaching an economic moral judgment...these chosen behaviors have cost the health care system a lot of money. I wonder if he believes they should be excluded from insurance coverage. Note that he makes a moral judgment when behaviors draw money from the society but he previously omitted any discussion of moral responsibility when the lack of forthcoming money from wealthy nations could be connected to the poverty and high death rates found in Africa.

Will then asserts that "political values impeded public health requirements. Unhelpful messages were sent by slogans designed to democratize the disease -- "AIDS does not discriminate" and "AIDS is an equal opportunity disease." He goes on to conclude that by targeting "25 to 30 neighborhoods from New York and Miami to San Francisco"; HIV "could have been greatly contained". I assume that by concluding that there were efforts "to democratize the disease", Will is saying we just didn't want to place blame where it belonged. He seems to be suggesting that what was needed was a focus on gay neighborhoods. Those remarks ignore the fact that the Reagan administration simply ignored the disease. His statement also discounts the proactive efforts of gay communities to take the lead in educating and informing themselves...even without adequate government support or funding. The reality is that gays have driven the efforts to combat HIV from the outset...because we have often had a government that has ignored the disease or failed to lead.

He then has the audacity to offer an absurd defense of Ronald Reagan's failure to address AIDS by stating, "No president considers it part of his job description to tell the country that the human rectum, with its delicate and absorptive lining, makes anal-receptive sexual intercourse dangerous when HIV is prevalent." Really" Is Will arguing that Reagan or any President can only be expected to talk about and address the issues of those who have heterosexual sex? I'm not certain what Will is trying to say, but I find it illogical and offensive. First, no one asked Reagan to explain the human rectum (Will does a good job of depicting one)...the issue was that he failed to even speak the acronym or discuss the topic at all until 1987. Again, the inference is that a President has no responsibility to those who "elect" to engage in "risky" behavior...and of course what he really means to say, those who do are actually engaging in immoral behavior. He doesn't stop there.

There has, however, been an increase in unsafe sex, because pharmacological progress has complicated the campaign against this behavior-driven epidemic. Life-extending cocktails of antiviral drugs now lead some at-risk people to regard HIV infection as a manageable chronic disease, and hence to engage in risky behavior. Furthermore, the decline of AIDS mortality rates means that more persons are surviving with HIV infection -- persons who can spread the virus. And drugs such as Viagra mean that more older men are sexually active.

I'm not sure if Will is lamenting that the disease has become more manageable, or that at least when people died we were rid of the carriers, or that positive individuals should be celibate, or that only older heterosexual men should have access to Viagra. Instead of celebrating the fact that AIDS is no longer a certain death sentence; he seems to simply focus on the fact that living longer merely increases the potential to spread the disease.

Sex is a natural human activity and while one won't die from its absence, as with the deprival of food and water, each individual is entitled to make reasonable decisions to participate in the human experience. Does HIV come with responsibilities to protect sexual partners...absolutely. Are there risks...certainly. Do we have the right to prevent people from engaging in consensual sexual activities...I don't think we do. The reality of sexual contact is the same reality that comes with all human contact...there are risks. We live each day with the possibility that other transmittable and potentially fatal diseases could be on the horizon. If they emerge, they will be unfortunate diseases, not new opportunities to affix moral judgments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are nineteen million new STD infections each year. If they were to become life threatening diseases similar to HIV, the 25 years of AIDS that have resulted in some 530,000 deaths will seem insignificant by comparison. We all live with the hope that a sneeze won't expose us to a deadly flu or that a handshake won't pass a fatal infection. Unfortunately the forces of nature bring changes that may one day make it risky to leave one's home.

Will seems to think he is imparting some insightful observations that demonstrate that he has a grasp on the AIDS epidemic as well as human nature. Instead, his article provides a better view of the bias and judgment that has hindered the progress to combat HIV and that is also an all too frequently chosen human behavior. In concluding that humans are slow to learn from the AIDS epidemic, he has at the same time pointed out that he and many others are even slower to shed their propensity to make moral judgments that result from longstanding bias and bigotry. In failing to point out the costs associated with that behavior, Will seems unable or unwilling to heed his own final words, "Human beings do learn. But they often do at a lethally slow pace." If George Will won't point that out, I will.

Daniel DiRito | June 6, 2006 | 9:03 PM
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Comments

1 On June 7, 2006 at 2:19 PM, Jimi wrote —

Venom, but my oh my, how carefully packaged. Couch the description innocently enough and whammy!

A+++++ Takedown!!!!!

2 On June 7, 2006 at 9:22 PM, David Harmon wrote —

A commenter at "Alas, a blog" (whence I came) pointed out that it was Reagan whose colon polyps we were watching on TV....

Damn, but when I first read that article, I thought it was just vacuous and wimpy. I just went back to look at it, and yeah, it really is that bad. Yet another slash:

"intense campaigns to modify sexual and drug-use behavior in 25 to 30 neighborhoods from New York and Miami to San Francisco. "

Ah, like ACT-UP et al were doing on their own dime, and for which they were sometimes charged with "obscenity" and such? (sarcasm:) And then, we have the government's previous dramatic successes, at "modifying sexual and drug-use behavior." (/sarcasm)

3 On June 8, 2006 at 12:56 PM, Kaethe wrote —

In 1980s America, the enabling context included a gay community feeling more assertive and emancipated, and IV drug users sharing needles.

Funny, he never mentions the worldwide success with clean needle programs and the reluctance of the US government to embrace it, despite ample evidence that it would save lives.

Or how modernity in Africa isn't what is encouraging men to rape child virgins as a cure, while denying that condoms prevent the spread of the disease.

4 On June 8, 2006 at 1:50 PM, Daniel wrote —

Jimi,

Good to hear from you. You're so right about packaging...the Republicans have really perfected the practice. Sadly, they get away with it quite often.

I've noticed an interesting phenomenom on your run of the mill news programs...these characters are allowed to make their point and knock down the oppositions points but they are rarely ever challenged.

The video posting of Jon Stewart interviewing Bill Bennett is a perfect example of how easy it is to expose the bigotry of these people as well as the faulty logic they are allowed to employ on the major networks.

Thanks again for the encouragement. I always enjoy the dialogue.

Daniel

5 On June 8, 2006 at 1:57 PM, Daniel wrote —

David,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

It really is amazing how the truth gets twisted to fit the situation.

Will really sets out to not only blame those who have the virus but to paint the gay community's subsequent efforts as insignificant. His own discomfort with the topic is exactly what fostered the resistance to meaningful programs to inform and protect.

I hope to hear more of your thoughts.

Daniel

6 On June 8, 2006 at 2:07 PM, Daniel wrote —

Kaethe,

Thank you for you insights and observations.

Will and his ilk see providing clean needles as promoting "bad" behavior...they can't get past their judgments to enact programs to help people. That's why they call it the "War on Drugs". They just don't seem to be able to focus on the underlying issues...they feel if you do the behavior you deserve the consequences...unless you're Rush Limbaugh and then you're simply addicted to pills because you have chronic pain.

The whole modernity argument is simply absurd.

I hope you will continue to share your thoughts.

Daniel

Thought Theater at Blogged

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