In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible, I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.
In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations. In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.
Josh: How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?
Pharmaceutical executive: I have no idea.
Josh: Why not? We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day. What’s the x factor?
Executive: We don’t know how long they’ll live.
Toby: We know where.
In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time: specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.
(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it. All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth. So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment. Likewise the discovery of sacrifice. And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness. One could argue that philosophy began with the question: why pain?
Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented. Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against. This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.
I write in the night, although it is daytime. A day in early October 2002…. I write in a night of shame.
By shame I do not mean individual guilt. Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead. We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.
People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves: Where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….
The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken. There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.
Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day? That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July . She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years. I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])