Before the rise of modern science, it was common to think of diseases and plagues as scourges sent by God to punish humans for their sins. We now know better, or at least we should. Diseases are biological phenomenon, best treated by medicine and public policy. But some still see sickness as a curse, shameful evidence of cosmic retribution.
Consider the neoconservatives, who are usually described as among the more secular, rational, and modern of right-wingers. Yet when it comes to AIDS, most neo-conservatives are no different than medieval peasants who prayed and flayed themselves in order to be free of the black plague.
In the mid-1980s, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and one of the key shapers of neo-conservatism, wrote that the government should not spend any money on AIDS research, since a vaccine would only “allow [gay men] to resume buggering each other with complete medical impunity.”
The implication of Podhoretz remarkable sentence is that AIDS serves a useful social function since it makes the costs of gay male sex prohibitive.
Reading the anti-gay polemics of Podhoretz and his cohorts (especially his wife Midge Decter), you would think the AIDS is something completely alien to their world, a divine curse that strikes only deviants and misfits, not something that should worry the wholesome family folks who write for Commentary magazine.
What happens to neo-conservatives when AIDS strikes close to home? Then you see a curious pattern of denial and cover-ups, secrecy and whispering of the sort that was common in the 19th century when someone was diagnosed with cancer.
In 1992, the political philosopher Allan Bloom died after a long bout of mysterious sickness, supposedly of internal bleeding and liver failure. Bloom, an occasional Commentary contributer, had been one of the pillars of modern neo-conservative thought: he was the great popularizer of Leo Strauss, the mentor to Paul Wolfowitz and Francis Fukuyama, an omnipresent liaison between the overlapping worlds of the academy, conservative think tanks, and the Washington bureaucracy. Knowing something of Bloom’s personal life, I remember suspecting at the time that liver failure was some sort of code, designed to hide the true facts of Bloom’s death.
My suspicions were confirmed in 2000 when Saul Bellow published a novel, Ravelstein, based closely on Bloom’s life. This novel made clear the fact that Bloom died of AIDS. Many of Bloom’s friends and political allies excoriated Bellow for what they considered the novelist’s betrayal, forcing Bellow to partially censor his novel.
Bellow was puzzled by the reaction to his novel. As he told the New York Times, ”you know, I’ve discovered that this is a very itchy subject, and the people carry over attitudes more appropriate to the Middle Ages.”
The assumption that Bloom’s friends were acting on is that there is something shameful about gayness and AIDS, as if a sick man should be blamed for the virus that killed him.
In 1998 the neo-conservative journalist Eric M. Breindel, a frequent contributer to Commentary and the New Republic, died at the the quite young age of 42. Again, the public story was that he had died of liver failure. A rather pedestrian writer, Breindel was not the intellectual heavy-weight Bloom was, but the young man had a gift for making friends in high places with powerful figures like Rudy Guiliani and Rupert Murdoch. By all accounts, Breindel was charasmatic and dynamic, an up-and-coming power player himself when he died.
As Philip Weiss notes, Breindel’s funerial gave evidence of a life among the media and politcal elite:
His funeral at the Park Avenue Synagogue was mobbed by socialites and pols alike. Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Norman Podhoretz, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Martin Peretz eulogized him. Podhoretz called Breindel a “very good Jew,” Kennedy said he was the “smartest person” those who had met him ever knew and he should have been secretary of state, and Peretz said that Breindel was “obsessive and fierce.”
His friends have made a strong effort to keep Breindel’s name alive, creating two well-endowed scholarships in his honour. John Podhoretz edited a collection of Breindnel’s rather lackluster writing.
Since Breindel had a history of drug use, including a 1983 arrest for heroin possession, there have long been rumours that he died of AIDS (likely caused by dirty needles). In his recent biography of Rupert Murdoch, Michael Wolff has confirmed these rumours. (I found out about Wolff’s report via Philip Weiss, whose entire posting on Breindel is well worth reading).
Breindel’s story is particularly poignant since he aligned himself closely with the law-and-order wing of American politics, and was close friends with many people who adamantly oppose drug legalization and needle exchange programs.
What is sad about these stories, aside from the untimely deaths, is the retrograde moral attitudes on display. Diseases are caused by nature. Sickness and death are not punishments for immoral behavior. The best way to deal with a disease like AIDS is with science and rational public policy: to spend money on research, to educate the public on condom use, to have need exchange programs and free addiction treatment clinics.
The “friends” of Bloom and Breindel were not able to think in a rational matter. As against science, they prefer the primitive language of transgression and punishment. They acted as if Bloom and Breindel had done shameful things, things that are not to be spoken of except behind closed doors in whispers.
Using the cloak of shame to hide the facts of human sexuality and drug use is, as Saul Bellow noted, “appropriate to the Middle Ages” but it should have no place in the modern world. It leads to an enormous amount of human suffering.
The best weapon in the fight against AIDS is education. By acting as if AIDS were something private, a scarlet letter burned on the flesh that needs to be kept hidden, the neo-conservatives make the fight against this disease even more difficult than it already is.