AIDS and the Neo-conservatives


Allan Bloom


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.

15 thoughts on “AIDS and the Neo-conservatives

  1. Wouldn’t this be something common in any branch of conservatism, perhaps even more typical of paleo-conservatism than neo-conservatism?

  2. Matt: true, but this sort of attitude wouldn’t be surprising in a paleo-con. But with the neo-conservatives, who are often described, as I noted above, as modern and rational, this harken back to superstitition is noteworthy.

  3. Jeet
    An interesting article, but your evidence is kind of strange. As you mention in your comment, the anti-gay, weird-on-AIDs stuff is more associated with traditional conservativism. You use 3 data points to show that it seems to inflict neo-cons.
    1) Norman Podhoretz
    2) Bloom
    3) Whatsisname

    Now, for #2, what we have is a guy who chose to never come out of the closet, who was outed after death by a friend. So Bloom’s friends were upset at the breach of Bloom’s privacy, which I can kind of understand. But the fact that all these neo-cons KNEW bloom was gay and still admired, respected, loved him, is actually counter to your idea that they are anti-gay and weird on AIDs.

    The Breindel story is just weird, because you list his apparently secretive buddies as actually including liberals, paleoconservatives, and Podhoretz. So where’s the neo-con secrecy there?

    And then there’s #1: Podhoretz’ again, in a solo act with his comments.

    So maybe the theme of the article shouldn’t have been neo-cons are anti-gay and weird on AIDS, but “Podhoretz is an asshole.”

    Just a thought.

  4. David,
    It’s fair enough that you can look at these stories and say that they aren’t conclusive. But in my defense I’ll note:
    1) Podhoretz may well be a … jerk (to use a slightly softer term). But he’s also longtime editor of Commentary and, along with Irving Kristol, one of the 2 or 3 most important neo-cons. So the fact that he says something carries weight.
    2) The fact that Bloom stayed in the closet all his life says something about his politics and the milieu he operated in. His friends were willing to forgive or overlook his gayness as long as it was largely a private matter. But if he had been openly gay, like say Michel Foucault, I don’t think he would have had the same clout in neo-con circles. In fact, it was generally true that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, if you came out of the closet (like Bruce Bawer or David Brock) you became persona non grata in neo-con circles.
    3) Breindel had friends of all strips but his closest inner circle was made up of neo-cons. And they’re the ones who fund scholarships in his name and republish his writing, while remaining ambiguous about the circumstances of his death.

  5. Your take on Bloom and Ravelstein seems to kind of miss the point. You write:

    “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…. 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.”

    But the point was that Ravelstein showed the life of man (supposedly based on Bloom) whose sexual habits could be questioned in anyone, straight or gay. In fact, Bellow actually agreed to cut out certain passages of the book that would have showed Ravelstein in an even more promiscuous light. Some people thought that Bloom’s philosophy might have actually helped him to justify sexual behavior that many people would condemn regardless of sexual orientation. Which leads to the second point:

    “His friends were willing to forgive or overlook his gayness as long as it was largely a private matter. But if he had been openly gay, like say Michel Foucault, I don’t think he would have had the same clout in neo-con circles.”

    This is a slightly more complicated question. Again, another point that Ravelstein makes is that Bloom was very openly gay to anyone who knew him. But Bloom’s writings actually come pretty close to talking about being gay also. Some people have suggested that Bloom romanticized certain elements of life in the closet, which is another issue. But I think the main issue is the radical promiscuity: something that has always been more of an issue with male homosexuals than other parts of the population. The really interesting thing in Bloom’s case is that his philosophy might actually justify it. (In “The Closing of the American Mind”, he says something about how a liberal education needs two things: Plato and prostitutes.)

  6. Actually though, there is an interesting criticism to be made about the neo-cons position on science – about why they don’t like it. But Podhoretz can always be relied on to provide the least thought-out neo-con statement on whatever the going subject is.

  7. The point could be made another way: how closeted could Bloom have been if you knew “something of his personal life”? (Or maybe I shouldn’t ask…)

  8. Chris,
    You raise a number of excellent points, which I’m largely in sympathy with. Bloom was a liminal figure, not really an old-style closeted homosexual and not an out gay either. Arguably the appeal of “esoteric reading” for him was that it provided a theoretical justification for how he presented himself to the world, ambiguously to say the least. It’s true that if you read Closing closely and carefully (and also Love and Friendship), his sexuality was quite open. But it’s also the case that both books are rhetorical cunning enough that quick or careless readers could miss the point. And in fact, Bloom was a hero not just among neo-cons but also among religious conservatives. I remember Jerry Falwell praising Closing as a great attack on relativism and rock music. Falwell apparantly thought that Bloom was ready to make the alter call.

    So I think the point still stands that Bloom’s ambigous sexuality, one foot in the closet one foot out, was tied to his politics. But this is a point that deserves a whole essay, not just a blog post.

    I tried to give a big picture view of all this in an earlier posting linking the end of the closet with the end of the classics:

  9. The AIDS epidemic in America erupted out of exactly the most liberal places in the country: San Francisco, NYC, and LA. The AIDS epidemic wasn’t caused by “shame” or by “silence,” but by gay liberation, which allowed industrial scale gay promiscuity.

  10. And of course it was shameful for Breindel to catch AIDS from shooting smack while he was a top aide to Sen. Moynihan. That’s grotesquely shameful. Apparently, he cleaned up his act and got off heroin, so it was only natural for his friends to not want to remind anyone of it when he eventually died from his youthful shame.

  11. Re: Brock – didn’t he come out of the closet shortly after his defection from Tyrell and Co.? It sounds like – whatever side of the fence he was on – that Brock was a difficult person to deal with. This is a guy who decided to stir things up at his high school by calling for cuts to funding for high school football in Texas, where the sport is slightly more important than Church.

  12. Sen. Moynihan was one of the founders of neo-conservative movment. After drugs destroyed his political career Breindel bent editorial page editor for Murdoch’s Post.

    Steve honey, bend over, I’ll drive you back to Free Republic.

  13. I really enjoy these little studies of neocons that you do occassionally. Be nice to string them together into an article or something more substantive.

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