The AIDS plague should be approached temperately because, like the Kennedy assassination, it is one of those universally frightening phenomena that is likely to ignite the pool of vulgarity, hysteria, and kookery that lie just below the surface, among the high as well as among the low. Having casually followed the pronouncements of the government and media on this issue, I had been bothered by a mild nagging sense of distortion, disproportion, and disingenuousness. I had noticed this and passed on, for we all automatically edit the information we receive from the official press. And, alas, we have come also to take for granted the Reagan administration’s uncertain trumpet, a persistent background static created by the opportunists, rootless ideologues, and saboteurs the President has chosen as his instruments.
Viewing recently a televised press conference by one of these instruments. Surgeon General Koop, I was able to put in focus what I had found unsettling in the official sources reporting on the AIDS epidemic. The Surgeon General’s performance on this occasion was virtuoso. He was calm, detached, factual, succinct, and informative, exactly as he should have been. The false notes were in what was implicit rather than what was overt. I had the sense that in the course of an apparently frank presentation, the points that were most important, to me at least, were being preempted rather than discussed.
Least among these false notes was the blithe assumption that society (presumably the government) is obligated to assume the projected costs of “care” for the afflicted. Perhaps we must, but it does not seem to me self-evident why this should be. And what exactly is meant? That we are without discussion and decision obliged to place an open-ended burden on our labor and our children’s patrimony to provide heroic treatment and optimum comfort for persons who are doomed, in most cases by their own acts, is an assumption that needs more in the way of supporting argument. This is, in fact, merely a subspecies of the normal liberal delusion that resources can simply be created by the government infinitely. What about diversion of resources from the more deserving or the less hopeless? Indeed, what about the rights of the medical personnel who, after all, are entitled to be free of involuntary servitude? The Surgeon General is right to warn of impending economic problems, but his framing of the issue tends to convert a tough managerial question into an unexamined claim against the decent part of society.
I am disturbed also by the recurrent emphasis on the prediction that AIDS may be about to descend in epidemic proportions on the “heterosexual” population. (Note the terminology which makes the deviant and the normal equivalent.) Since our official information is all carefully pruned of qualitative judgment, it is difficult to know exactly what the apparent statistical increase of the infection beyond the high-risk groups signifies. But as far as we can grasp at this point, it would seem it is confined, like all venereal diseases, primarily to the most depraved part of the population which is in contact with the high-risk groups.
It is right that we should want to help our fellow creatures, however depraved, but there is no use denying that there are limits to what we can accomplish, individually or socially, in saving persons of legal age who are bent upon self-destruction. However, from the emphasis that is placed by the media and bureaucrats on the danger which the “heterosexual” population faces, one gets the impression that we can momentarily expect an epidemic outbreak to descend mysteriously upon the populations of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart or the East Carolina Christian Academy. I have a suspicious mind, which our forefathers considered a virtue in a republican citizen, but could this be a ploy to frighten the public into immense expenditures to save the affected population or to devise means to prevent the high-risk groups from suffering in the future from the consequences of their “life-style”? Or to remove the stigmas from abominable behavior by suggesting that “it could happen to anyone”? If these suspicions are justified, then the Surgeon General’s zeal to thrust condoms upon grade-schoolers is a piece of gratuitous tyranny.
In ancient times and among primitive peoples, groups were held responsible not only for their explicit acts (as when the Romans put to death or enslaved rebellious tribes) but also for those less tangible transgressions which were thought to have offended the gods. Our more immediate forefathers progressed to a more reasonable and humane way of life in which groups were not blamed for the sins of individuals but individuals were held to be rationally responsible for their acts and the consequences thereof (Such an assumption was an implicit sine qua non of democratic government. )
We have now progressed to a situation in which neither individuals or groups are held responsible for anything. Whether it is crime, AIDS, corruption, or economic backwardness, no one is to blame; instead, we have all been victimized by some disembodied social “problem.” (Though groups as such cannot be held responsible, for instance, for an excessive crime rate, they can be considered as groups when benefits are to be passed around.) Responsibility is so diffused it is unlocatable, which among other things renders democratic decisionmaking impossible. Thus, disease brought on by an irresponsible group is to be handled not by taking appropriate action against the group responsible and protecting the innocent, but by spending money and an unseemly intrusion into the lives of the innocent. In other words, a superstitious shifting of guilt. The problem will not be solved that way. It will probably get worse. But we will all feel we have done our progressive enlightened best. One would like to lay this confusion at the door of ritualistic liberals, but it is so pervasive that we must begin to suspect that it is an irreparable defect in the national character.
The SG and his confreres seem to suffer, too, from the American confidence in technical solutions. It is not at all clear to me why anyone should necessarily expect a cure for AIDS (except possibly those people who are any day now expecting a cure for death to be announced). There are plenty of incurable diseases and even if a preventive vaccine were found, a mutant version might emerge all the more rapidly.
At any rate, it would appear that behaving oneself will provide far better protection than a vaccine. But encouraging people to behave themselves as opposed to invoking every possible means to save them from the consequences of misbehavior has a low priority in public discussion. The authorities are anxious to convince us that AIDS is the consequence of a virus and not a punishment for Sin. In fact, nothing in the last millennium so obviously and surely is a punishment for Sin—that is, unless the danger of infection by nonsexual means has been deliberately understated by our authorities.
By all means let us pursue scientific measures where they are promising. But what disturbs me and apparently many others is the ignorantly secularist and technological thrust of the official presentation. The SG, or our own physician, should offer us technical expertise, but we also normally and reasonably expect moral advice where it is relevant. (The SG sees no problem with this when it comes to cigarettes.) In fact, a physician is falling short of his full duty if he offers an easy technical solution for the pains brought on by a moral failure, or refuses to recognize a behavior problem. To his credit, the SG has endorsed chastity, but neither he nor anyone else in public life can bring himself to condemn aberrant life-styles, even when they endanger the entire society.
The real clincher in the SG’s performance was the recurrent motif that, in thrust if not in tone, rose from clinical description to moral imperative. We must remove the stigma from AIDS infection, he said, again and again. Now, there may be sound practical reasons for this suggestion: To drive the infected underground might make the work of the epidemiologist more difficult. This was mentioned, but clearly the imperative went much further than that. The SG believes it is wrong to stigmatize people for deviant behavior. This conclusion is not science, for science does not dictate values one way or the other. This comes straight out of the bountiful cupboard of liberal sentimentality. Even if we admit a degree of practical usefulness in encouraging people not to hide their affliction, does not the right of the innocent to be warned and thus protected far outweigh it? We have no moral obligation, per se, not to condemn AIDS sufferers. On the contrary, there is a moral obligation not only on the part of the authorities but on the part of the diseased person individually to warn others. Here we come up against a new version of the mentality that finds punishment of the murderer more real and shocking than the incalculable sufferings of his innocent victims. In my state there is now in custody an AIDS-infected drifter charged with multiple rapes. It is only a matter of time until we see federal judges contorting the laws and candlelight vigils of liberals, both mobilized to interdict just punishment from falling upon this person.
The priorities of the public health establishment, who are after all bureaucrats as well as “scientists,” would appear to be (1) to protect the “community” of deviants from public outrage and discrimination; (2) to pursue heroic curative and preventive measures to save the deviant “community”; and (3) to protect the decent public, insofar as it does not conflict with Priority 1. Deprived of unqualified support at both the executive and legislative levels, the decent public had better hope that the priorities get rearranged somehow, before the disaster.
We are all sinners and fall short of perfection, and we are enjoined to stand ready to extend our hand to our repentant fellow creatures. But I do not detect very much repentance, as opposed to regret and resentment, among the representatives of the “lifestyle” that has put us all in danger. In fact, in heeding the admonition not to stigmatize, we are actually throwing up obstacles to repentance.
We do not know and cannot control all the mysterious springs of human behavior, and misfortune stalks us all. For persons who succumb to an occasional act of perversion under an apparently uncontrollable compulsion, or for persons who carry on an unnatural but responsible relationship, most of us can indeed muster a degree of sympathy if not approval. But it seems that the plague has been brought on not by these, who have always been with us, but by people who have engaged exuberantly and persistently in abominable acts, contrary not only to every law of God and man, but even in disregard of that compassion for other individuals which our liberals and libertines invariably profess to honor.
Some of these persons lived respected and well-rewarded lives in the public eye while engaging in the most promiscuous, destructive, and exploitive debauchery. Where were our great heroic investigative journalists? I stand behind no one in my respect for the right of privacy. I even sympathize with the earthy realism that urges us to overlook a modest amount of sexual delinquency as inevitable. But this sanctity of privacy does not apply when the delinquency is rampant and aberrant, or in the case of persons like liberal politicians, whose public position is based upon aggressive pretensions to moral superiority over those who disagree with them.
Not too long ago, Rock Hudson was widely accepted among us as a proper person to represent pilots, police chiefs, and other exemplary masculine figures. And all the while he lived an exploitive, irresponsible, self-indulgent, deceitful life. Even setting aside the perversions, a society that was operating with normal, healthy mechanisms of self-preservation would have extruded such a person from its midst long before. In a decent society Hudson would not have been tolerated, much less lionized. (Among other things, his case should be a lesson to anyone naive enough to regard the 50’s as a time of greatness.)
If our scale of values is so warped that a less than adequate movie actor—shameless in his private life—is entitled to the ritual sympathy of public figures and the awed respect of the masses, then civilization no longer exists in North America, and our country is nothing but a collection of bipeds whose only distinguishable characteristics are a fascination with gadgets and a respect for money.
It was not too many years ago that when a man misbehaved badly his neighbors and co-workers were able to discern it and to exert pressure for reform. It did not always work, but it kept many of us better than we might have been. This sort of social pressure is far removed from the police state. It is, rather, the only alternative to a police state. Our establishment has managed in the last few years to remove the legal sanctions against many forms of behavior that have been offensive to the law and order of every Western commonwealth for centuries, and to render punishment mild or unlikely for many other behaviors that they have not yet been able to redefine as harmless life-styles. On this point the Surgeon is exactly wrong: Stigma is the only means society has left to protect itself.
It is not, usually, the fear of punishment that keeps our hand out of the till when no one is looking—it is our sense of right and wrong and fear of shame, which, if we are fortunate, is constantly reinforced by our fellows. It is not, in the last analysis, a soldier’s pay or his training or his advanced equipment that makes him fight—it is the awareness that cowardice and betrayal are shameful. Without our sense of shame and outrage we are lost. It is not an outmoded superstition that we moderns have got beyond—it is the voice of the Almighty and the adhesive of human society.
Unlike the Surgeon General, whose righteous indignation is reserved for his conservative critics and the criminals who seek the consolation of an occasional smoke, I hope that my righteous indignation will always be proportionate, discerning, and amenable to forgiveness. However, when confronted with people who flout Scripture, law, tradition, knowledge, common sense, and common decency, I intend to reserve the right to cry “Shame!”