Tuesday, June 06, 2006

george will and the politics of rectums

willthe inimitable george f. will published a rather bizarre column in the washington post yesterday marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the CDC's first (june 5, 1981) announcement of fatalities due to what would come to be known as AIDS. with little compassion, will breezes through the evolution of the disease to an assessment of how he thinks we got to where we are and how we could have done more. it has of course given him a new opportunity to talk about the human rectum, as some bloggers have pointed out. but it's will's politics of rectums that merits closer consideration, so let's walk through it.

1) how, according to will, we got here: "In 1980s America, the enabling context included a gay community feeling more assertive and emancipated, and IV drug users sharing needles....AIDS arrived in America in the wake of the Salk vaccine, which, by swiftly defeating polio, gave Americans a misleading paradigm of how progress is made in public health." in other words, we were all lulled into a sense of complacency in thinking AIDS could be fought with a vaccine. this is of course sheer anachronism: AZT as a mere treatment drug was only approved in 1987, drug cocktails did not gain prominence until the mid-1990s, and we still do not have an HIV/AIDS vaccine today.

2) how, according to will, how we could have done more: "The U.S. epidemic, which through 2004 had killed 530,000, could have been greatly contained by intense campaigns to modify sexual and drug-use behavior in 25 to 30 neighborhoods from New York and Miami to San Francisco." of course will gives no specifics as to timeframe here, and i'm no expert but this smells fishy to me. so let's go back to 1983 and look at the record.
The number of identified cases is now over 1,400 (with four to five new cases reported every day). Of these victims, 541--or nearly 40 percent--have died. But this mortality figure is misleadingly low. Because the disease is so new, it has not run its full course in the afflicted; the statistics show that within two years after diagnosis, 80 percent have died.

This, too, is misleading, however. The cases being reported and documented by the Centers for Disease Control are only the clearcut, life-threatening ones - which may be but 5 to 10 percent of the total. This means there may be not 1,400 but actually 15,000 to 30,000 cases in the nation. But it also means that these other cases are much milder and therefore much less likely to be fatal. (Sydney H. Schanberg, "A Baffling Epidemic," The New York Times, May 24, 1983, Section A, Page 25)
This is 1983, OK? So I don't see how one could feasibly argue for the success of a containment policy a mere two years after the CDC first confirms fatalities, at which point the CDC is estimating a possible 15-30,000 actual cases.

regardless, will is really less interested in public health or compassion than he is in politics -- a politics of 1) vilifying certain sexual behaviors on moral grounds and 2) defending his beloved ronald reagan's record of silence on the matter. here's how will continues:
But early in the American epidemic, 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."

By 1987, when President Ronald Reagan gave his first speech on the subject, 20,798 Americans had died, and his speech, not surprisingly, did not mention any connection to the gay community. 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.
get it? first, it's that demon political correctness at work again: "political values impeded public health requirements" and "unhelpful messages were sent by slogans to democratize the disease." second, the gipper is above the soiling of presidential decorum that discussing rectums would entail. (this from the party that 10 years later brought us clinton blowjobs and cum-stained blue dresses!)

i know, this is a little opaque, so let's go back again into the record a bit. almost exactly 19 years that is. to a washington post column dated june 7, 1987 by one george f. will, called "AIDS: The Real Danger..."
Earnestly, and with applause from journalists, politicians are saying about AIDS: candor, regardless of the cost. But truths are being blurred because they inconvenience a political agenda and shock sensibilities. The agenda is to avoid giving offense to any groups and to avoid the accusation of "discrimination," even when the accusation is unwarranted.

In spite of much talk about the "breakout" into the general heterosexual population, AIDS still is and probably will remain predominantly a disease of homosexuals and intravenous drug users. It will decreasingly afflict educated, information-receptive homosexuals. It already is disproportionately, and will increasingly be, a disease of inner-city blacks and Hispanics.

Blacks and Hispanics, who constitute 11 and 8 percent of the population respectively, are 25 percent and 14 percent of AIDS patients. Those percentages probably will rise because AIDS is a behaviorally based disease and will disproportionately afflict those disadvantaged inner-city classes least able to acquire and act on information. After all, many people are caught in the culture of urban poverty precisely because they have never been given the basic skills of social competence: they do not regulate their behavior well, least of all in conformity with public-health bulletins.

Americans have a technology fixation generally. Regarding health, their thinking is shaped by the polio paradigm, the conquest of disease by Dr. Salk's silver bullet. But America's principal public-health problems flow from foolish behavior regarding eating, drinking, smoking, driving -- and, with AIDS, abuse of the body, especially the rectum.
i won't hold will's inability to predict the future correctly in his second paragraph -- in fact, as it was reported by the CDC in 1994, "Since AIDS was recognized in 1981, the proportion of people contracting the deadly virus from heterosexual sex has increased more than tenfold - from less than 1 percent to almost 10 percent of the total AIDS cases, the CDC said in its annual update. Conversely, the proportion of men getting AIDS from having sex with other men has decreased from 75 percent to 47 percent of all cases" (Anne Rochell, "Heterosexual AIDs rate up sharply," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 11, 1994, page A1).

nor will i take him to task for his inherently elitist, classicist and possibly racist assertion that "many people are caught in the culture of urban poverty precisely because they have never been given the basic skills of social competence," which assumes they do not innately possess such skills and cannot obtain them of their own will and volition but instead must be "given" them, presumably by the likes of will himself. nor will i challenge his polio analogy, which he's obviously still trying to get mileage out of today but is just as specious (and really boils down to the classic conservative tenet that people are bad).

no, more immediately relevant is will's claim, here in 1987 and essentially reiterated unchanged 19 years later, is that political correctness and the need "to avoid giving offense to any groups" prevents us from having a frank public discussion of AIDS, from calling it what will obviously thinks it is in 1987 and presumably today: a "gay disease" afflicting ethnic minorities and sexual and moral degenerates. political correctness won't let commentators like will tell us straight up what it all boils down to: abuse of the rectum.
Most journalism about AIDS reflects social and political squeamishness. In addition to an understandable reluctance to discuss certain sexual matters, journalism is infused with liberal values, [sign of the times: you'd never see will putting these two words together today] including abhorrence of "discrimination," which is defined (indiscriminately) to include all invidious distinctions among social groups, particularly those, such as homosexuals, that have a history of being badly treated.

Journalism seems reluctant to clarify that the primary reason for the AIDS epidemic is that the rectum, with its delicate and absorptive lining, is not suited to homosexual uses. [oh but does george discuss the delicate and absorptive lining of the rectum with RELISH or what?] The nation needs unsparing journalism of the sort found in the Chicago Tribune Magazine of April 26:
"...81.5 percent of the second cluster of AIDS patients had engaged in the practice called 'fisting,' which causes rectal trauma, in the years before they fell ill. The researchers defined fisting as the insertion of a portion of the hand -- or even the entire fist -- into the anus of another person. The 27 men studied had a median of 120 sexual partners during the year before the onset of symptoms, with one man reporting up to 250 sexual partners in each of the three years before symptoms."
Without here adding details about dildos and enemas, [oh george, please do!] suffice it to say that the data suggest that receptive anal intercourse is the major, if not the only, important exposure by which homosexuals acquire the infection. In many cities, homosexual organizations have effectively taken the lead in distributing information about safe sexual practices. And, of course, not all homosexuals are promiscuous or given to high-risk behavior. However, even some who are not are dismayed by dissemination of information about those who are. And insufficient information about homosexual practices has impeded understanding of the epidemic.
in other words, journalists should just talk more often and more frankly about FISTING! i mean this is the so-called "liberal media" we're talking about, right george? if the "liberal media" would just provide us with sufficient information about sexual acts such as fisting, we could have a more open and honest dialogue about AIDS and AIDS public policy?

of course, this makes no sense. what will is really saying is that if the SCLM would openly and frankly "clarify that the primary reason for the AIDS epidemic is that the rectum, with its delicate and absorptive lining, is not suited to homosexual uses," then we could all publicly and shamelessly practice the discrimination against the ethnic minorities and sexual deviants who are the ultimate cause of all this!

"And, of course," will writes, the "of course" always acting as pseudo-qualifier, the obligatory nod to moderation, compassion and decency that in reality lies in stark contrast with the conservative's true feelings, "not all homosexuals are promiscuous or given to high-risk behavior," even though will goes right ahead and reinforces such stereotypes anyway.

Of course anyone with AIDS deserves care and compassion. Of course testing is acceptable, if only marginally important, for applicants for marriage licenses and citizenship, and for prisoners. (Many rapes are homosexual rapes in prison.) But while it is politically safe and socially soothing to pretend that AIDS is now a democratic, meaning universal, disease threatening us all equally, that is false.

So is the notion that the most urgent task is to fund research for a vaccine. Of course research should be funded generously, but dollars spent getting addicts off needles and onto methadone will do more good, as will journalism that does not trim the truth to spare our feelings.
right: there is no equal, universal risk (in fact third worlders are now at greater risk than they were then), and funding research for a vaccine is not our most urgent task (fund it generously he says, but if not for a cure then for what?), it's telling people the truth about FISTING that's so vital and urgent!

so the moralism, hypocrisy, sensationalism and fear in such a position are evident enough, but what about the politics? what happened to reagan in all this? recall will's little history lesson from yesterday's column:

By 1987, when President Ronald Reagan gave his first speech on the subject, 20,798 Americans had died, and his speech, not surprisingly, did not mention any connection to the gay community. 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.
fortunately for us and for god-fearing sex-hating conservatives everywhere, will is all too willing to include this in his own job description. what's more here interesting is how will is defending reagan's silence as a matter of decorum. he says "not surprisingly" reagan's speech "did not mention any connection to the gay community," which i find highly curious. on one level, it's indeed no surprise that reagan would not highlight homosexuals in such a speech, because conservative moralists of all stripes were doing it for him and with a vengeance. while i don't have time to track down what other conservative moralists like bauer, bennett, buchanan, falwell, and robertson have said, william f. buckley for one proposed, in a march 18, 1986 new york times column, that "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed [sic] in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." and why would reagan go against this crowd when they're the ones bankrolling him and his party?

essentially, will is trying to make a virtue out of reagan's notorious silence with respect to AIDS. but in maintaining a virtuous silence, isn't reagan falling prey to the very political correctness that will decries?


WPB said...

Good stuff.

More here: George Will Distorts the History of AIDS


Taylor Brady said...

Not just that Will distorts the history, but that what he's accusing the "politically-correct" forces of doing -- the kind of squeamishness around inconvenient fact, etc. -- is in fact what characterized the sad face of Reagan-era public health around HIV/AIDS in the 80s.

So, in that "stopped clock getting it occasionally right" sense, he's absolutely correct when he writes: "[E]arly in the American epidemic, political values impeded public health requirements." The problem for Will is that these were _his_ (and Reagan's) values.

Read, for example, Samuel Delany's afterword to one of his Neveryon novels. (I'm at work sans books, so you'll have to figure out which one on your own: it's the one that revolves around the AIDS allegory). This document, roughly contemporary with Will's 1987 column, makes it clear that a major barrier to an effective public health response to HIV/AIDS at the time was the fact that there was a serious paucity of wide-scale, federally-funded studies that assessed risk differential across a broad domain of sexual behaviors.

In other words, the basic tools to carry out a harm-and-risk-reduction campaign were, from a scientific perspective, lacking. And lacking not because no one had gotten around to thinking them up, but because the people yelling for them out in the streets simply weren't being listened to. And yeah, those are the same people who, in Will's own unintentional mea culpa, were involved with those "homosexual organizations [that had] effectively taken the lead in distributing information about safe sexual practices." They were having to do it without public health support, and based largely on anecdotal evidence, but they were doing it.

Meanwhile, the federal government and its bowtied apologists was busy contributing to an undifferentiated terror of homosex, adding its imprimatur to the "gay plague" narrative, and helping to further poison an atmosphere in which supposedly "reasonable" people were wondering (aloud, in public forums) whether it was safe to, say, shake hands with someone who "seemed gay."

There's a special circle of hell for people like George Will.

And not that it matters, but one has to wonder what sort of prerogative he's reserving himself in the curious formulation "the rectum, with its delicate and absorptive lining, is not suited to homosexual uses." Breeders, use right away...