Tag Archives: John Donnelly

“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 4)

In both instances [the New York Times editorial and the Boston Globe report], a journalistic appeal to progress in the form of late-breaking bio-medical developments (“The newest AIDS medications,” “recent advances”) operates in effect to overlook, if not to excuse, the unmistakable racism inscribed in language that may or may not simple imitate TV.  (In the scene from “In this White House,” the audible irony in Toby’s response to the question “What’s the problem?” – “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time” – has the thinly-veiled racism of the fictional pharmaceutical executives as its target.)  The promising advances signaled by the new treatment regimens (which effectively date this episode of The West Wing, relegating it with dispatch to the cultural archive) may indeed reduce the burden on those who have access to these therapies, whatever their circumstances.  And what such “progress” may mean (and portend) for the millions presently living with HIV/AIDS is difficult to overestimate.  What it emphatically does not mean (as this series of posts attempts to make plain) is that “there is no need to tell time.”

On the contrary, the need – the unavoidable imperative – to tell time has perhaps never been more urgent.  Part and parcel of the work of correlating the order of events and the order of language in the face of the interminability of AIDS, telling time is itself at least a twofold task, as the archive of the pandemic instructs us.

1.  It is first of all a matter of accounting for the multiple specific temporalities inscribed in the virus, in the epidemic-turned-pandemic and in its artifactual remains to date, among which would number not only the episode of The West Wing but also the journalistic reports that speculated on its impact on the subsequent policy debate.  In the latter cases, for example, we are obligated to recognize the time that divides the scripting of “In this White House” from its eventual broadcast, as well as the interval between the episode’s airing and the adoption of its language by American policymakers, which is partly co-extensive with the time of the “recent advances” in treatment regimens cited with the effect of side-stepping the racist overtones of the bureaucrats’ arguments.  Far more importantly, these documents from the archive of the pandemic raise the matter of the (much longer) time between drug development in the west and access to “the newest AIDS medications” in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it that of the (still longer) time between the date assigned to the official inception of HIV/AIDS in North America and any consequential attention to its global impact.  Ultimately, they summon us to reflect on the variable temporalities of what we call human lifetime and on the diversity of the times death takes.  Under the pressure of reading, they remind us that what has become a widely-accepted state of affairs, and indeed a norm – that vastly divergent lifespans can and shall co-exist, that life expectancy of, say, thirty-seven years in some parts of the world can and shall obtain alongside life expectancy of more than double that figure in others, and this for an unspecified period of time to come – is also legible as a damning indictment of a shameful history.  In these and innumerable other instances, the need to tell time translates as the imperative to discern – which is to say, to read – the time in question, the always crucial variable that is never quite the same from one reading to the next.  Only a work of reading attentive to time as the x factor can ground a responsible theoretical consideration of the temporal and historical questions with which the pandemic never ceases to confront us.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 3)

The more-than-questionable claim [that the “distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time”] was first made by a suitably “unnamed Treasury Department official” who told the New York Times in April, 2001 that Africans lack the “concept of time” required to adhere to the demanding protocols associated with combination therapies.  Shortly thereafter, in testimony before the international relations committee of the House of Representatives and again in an interview, both in June 2001, Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made a case against substantially increased funding for anti-retroviral drug treatment in Africa, where “People do not know what watches and clocks are.  They do not use Western means for telling time.  They use the sun” (Donnelly, A 14).

The comments, paraphrases rather than citations of The West Wing, were themselves cited as well as paraphrased in media coverage of the debate and again by activists protesting the failure of U.S. policy to meet the demands of a global crisis.  All of this unfolded as the world marked the twentieth anniversary of the pandemic’s official inception.  In an editorial entitled “Stinginess on AIDS,” the New York Times found fault with the Bush administration’s pledge in 2001 of a mere $200 million to the newly-instituted global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (which had set a worldwide goal of ten billion dollars), suggesting that

the real problem is that AIDS overseas is a low priority for politicians.  Many believe, or find it convenient to echo, arguments that the money would be wasted.  People are still saying that Africans cannot take AIDS medicine because they do not own watches.

The newest AIDS medications, however, are simple to take, with two pills at sunup and two at sundown, and pilot programs show that African patients are perfectly able to take medicine on time when a steady supply is available.  [New York Times, August 19, 2001]

Donnelly’s report concluded on a comparable note:  “The comments by Mr. Natsios and the unnamed Treasury official assume that using the AIDS cocktails effectively requires taking a dozen pills or more at various times of the day.  But health experts say recent advances now allow people to take one or two pills daily, each containing several anti-AIDS drugs.  This regimen, now being used in several small African trials, means there is no need to tell time”  (Donnelly, A14).

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 2)

To return to the matter of the “very direct relation…between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony” (Berger) adumbrated in the episode of The West Wing:  That “time” is the answer to the question Josh poses to the pharmaceutical executives – “What’s the x factor?” – and to its more generalized version – “What’s the problem?” – was underscored in the subsequent scene:

Executive:  I think there’s a more fundamental problem than marginal cost…a hard truth that should be faced.

Toby:  What’s that?

Executive:  If tomorrow we made AIDS medication free to every available patient in your country, as much as they needed for as long as they needed it, it would likely make very little difference in the spread of the epidemic.

Josh:  Why?

Executive:  Anti-HIV drugs are a triple cocktail.  It’s a complicated regimen that requires ten pills to be taken every day at precise times:  two protease inhibitors every eight hours, two combination RT1 pills every twelve hours.

Josh:  What’s the problem?

Following an uncomfortable pause that required no translation, Toby supplied the response that the corporate representatives evidently preferred to leave unspoken:  “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time.”

That these lines, uttered with unmistakable irony by an actor portraying a fictional character in a dramatic television series, may however improbably have found an afterlife in other media and left a mark on the contemporary historiography of the pandemic is readable in the headline of a newspaper report published several months after the episode first aired:  “Activists wonder if life imitates television in U.S. policy on AIDS.”  In a sequence of events that may recall, for readers of this blog, the passage from Anne Carson’s “TV Men:  Lazarus” cited in a recent post – “As you and I are an imitation of / TV” – two American officials alluded to the language of “In this White House” in the context of a policy debate about increased global funding for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and the putative, artificially constructed trade-offs between the two priorities:  a debate with profound consequences for sub-Saharan Africa, home of the vast majority of the estimated 36.1 million people who were living with HIV/AIDS as the bureaucrats argued their positions.  In a report for the Boston Globe that was subsequently picked up by a host of other news organizations, journalist John Donnelly inquired:  “Has The West Wing influenced Washington’s policy on AIDS in Africa?  That’s the question AIDS activists are asking after two senior officials said distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time”  (John Donnelly, Boston Globe, June 18, 2001).

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