Thinking out loud in response to John’s last e-mail:
The analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Nazi holocaust was once very common in AIDS discourse in North America. I have, for a long time now, doubted the usefulness of analogies between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust (and by the term Holocaust I understand that to refer to the Nazi Holocaust) because through analogy we lose our ability to grasp the crisis at hand in its specificity. The use of analogy is somewhat useful to gain immediate attention and it’s perhaps useful as a shorthand for ethical criteria established through the experience of the Holocaust. However, we gain little through the analogy because we foreclose on the possibility of new outcomes when we resort to historical analogies. In other words, what we attempt to change and avoid through the use of analogy, we can doom to repetition in our analysis. Through analogy we risk closing our minds to current options and possibilities.
I do not accept the old adage that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Rather, I believe that those who fail to grasp the present, in all its complexity and specificity, are doomed to repetition. A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history.
Regarding the problem of doing something “here,” from the vantage of the privileged north, that will help “there,” in the disadvantaged south: I have been preoccupied with this problem ever since I returned to Chicago from Durban in July 2000. Initially, after returning from the Durban conference, I found receptive audiences for consciousness raising and fundraising, specifically about AIDS in Africa and the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign. These efforts were supported and amplified by the established press. Papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave a great amount of coverage to AIDS in the “third world” and the battles over pharmaceutical drug company patents.
The success of the efforts I have been involved with – fundraising, lecturing and the production of advocate video work – has reached a limit for a number of interesting reasons. Discussions here and in the U.S. about AIDS in the resource-poor world inevitably, and perhaps rightly, lead back to discussions about AIDS in our country [the U.S.]. When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S., all illusions of progress disintegrate. Sure, there are a large number of people on life-saving drugs, far larger proportionately than in the resource-poor world, BUT there are many other things to consider. Over half of the million people in the U.S. who have HIV don’t know it. Among those who do know it, the number of those who have access to drugs and adequate medical treatment is small AND may get smaller. The government is now attacking and seriously threatening to dismantle the benefit system AIDS activists fought hard to establish. ADAP (the AIDS drug assistance program) is currently under attack. Plus, the Bush administration is also quietly going about the business of undermining and discrediting already compromised and underfunded prevention programs.
The needs of people in the resource-poor world are far greater in scale than the needs of people in wealthy countries. There remain a great many unsolved inequities in wealthy nations. How do the needs of people with AIDS in poor countries and the needs of the poor in rich countries become separate and competing problems in the minds of those who think about AIDS? Given the shortage of resources to fight AIDS here or abroad, how do AIDS activists choose effective courses of action?
There is a crisis of community among those hardest hit in the U.S. A kind of complacency has set in about AIDS. The reasons for this are very complex and will have to be thoroughly considered in a following e-mail. For the moment, let us recognize that the negative effects of privatization, the suffocation of the public sphere through capitalist incorporation and instrumentalization of all organic community structures has stymied and arrested those hardest hit by AIDS. Though things are getting bad, in ways that feel very much the same as the late eighties, the communities hardest hit do not seem to have the wherewithal to fight back. And it is hard to rally people simply by referring them back to the late eighties. Again the problem with analogy.
In the past two weeks, I have learned of two friends, gay men, who after a decade or more of remaining HIV negative, have now seroconverted. This is by now a common experience for many of us, witnessing the seroconversion of our friends. And we have developed an ethical response to the experience. No judgment. We must immediately make ourselves available to our friends, support them, love them, help them to make appropriate treatment decisions, and help them get access to treatment. That may sound odd to others. Of course you should respond that way! It took some of us a while to get past our anger and frustration, to develop a complex understanding of the role of the unconscious and the limits of safer sex, to be able to respond ethically, with love and not anger or resentment, to recent seroconversions. The complexity of all this preoccupies me now.
More later. XOXO Gregg