The news that a new and dangerously improved AIDS "superbug" is on the loose has dealt a sharp blow to three different kinds of political correctness. The only winner is reality; painful as it might sometimes be, reality is still our best true friend.
The first kind of political correctness to take a hit is, interestingly, a p.c. of the religious right: creationism. If some Christians wish to believe that dinosaurs and cavemen co-existed -- because after all, the Bible says that the world is just a few thousand years old -- that's not necessarily devastating. If Christian literalism chooses to deny evolution, that's arguably harmless.
But the AIDS superbug, nevertheless, is evolving, and it's evolving according to the immutable principles of natural selection. That is, the killer virus is playing by the exact same rules that have refereed life over the last three-and-a-half billion years. And if left unchecked, it could eventually bring about another Black Plague; the last one killed a third of Europe, back when Europeans were almost all believing Christians. And now we learn that scientists have identified two new retroviruses -- that is, out of the AIDS "family" in Africa. If this isn't evolution, in its blind amorality, nothing is.
The second political correctness is more familiar and more immediately deadly. Two decades ago, the late Randy Shilts, himself gay, decried the gay community's sometimes reckless disregard for the lethal consequences of AIDS. Shilts knew what he was talking about; he died of the disease himself. For a while, in the 90s, it seemed as if AIDS was reasonably under control, in the US at least. Infection and death rates among educated white gay men -- the folks whose illnesses would be most likely to attract attention -- plummeted.
But human nature, and human desire, are hard to fathom, and harder to corral. As the perception of sexual danger decreased, the courting of sexual danger increased. And so "safe sex" as a master-concept yielded to revived forms of expression and experimentation. I noticed this death-trip in Bangkok last summer, at the World AIDS Summit; I questioned then whether "whorigami" and other celebrations of sex workers were the best approaches to stifling AIDS. And now, here in the US, we see that obviously unsafe forms of gay sex are being made even more unsafe because of new drugs, notably "crystal meth".
Fortunately for public health, even liberals such as The Washington Post's Richard Cohen are willing to speak out honestly on these deadly developments. In a column entitled "A Warning, From Gays to Gays," Cohen wrote:
"But while gays clearly have their enemies, that should not mean they are
immune from criticism. The fact remains that a portion of the gay population
-- maybe 20 percent, [gay author Charles] Kaiser estimates -- conducts
itself in ways that are not only reckless but just plain disgusting. Unprotected,
promiscuous sex in bathhouses and at parties and using drugs such as
crystal meth to prolong both desire and performance are practices that should
be no more acceptable for gays than for heterosexuals. Gays don't get
some sort of pass just because they're gay."
Using words about as tough as one could expect to see in a major metropolitan newspaper, Cohen added that sometimes the victim deserves the blame. "This is the case now with gays when their behavior is both stupid and reckless," he continued. "When they're victims of their own behavior, they need to be condemned."
Meanwhile, infections from the "old" AIDS virus seem to be increasing in the US, too, at least among African-Americans. To the extent that AIDS has a behavioral component, the idea that American AIDS has a specific racial dimension will mean the slaying of yet another p,c. sacred cow.
The third form of political correctness that's been undercut by the AIDS superbug is the breezy entitlement-y presumption that Uncle Sam will cover all bets, no matter how foolish they may be. One veteran of the AIDS war told The New York Times, "I have spoken to young kids, sometimes here, who say, 'If I get it, it's no big deal. I can just take a pill.'" And of course, oftentimes, it's the government paying for that pill; AIDS costs the taxpayers around $10 billion a year.
Yet for that much money, Americans might expect a public-health system that works effectively to quash disease. But actually, that's not the way public health works anymore. These days, fear of violating anybody's "rights" pre-empts the fear of runaway disease. Yet such brazenly anti-social individualism passes without much comment in, for example, The New York Times. Here's how the p.c. gray lady describes the handling of the superbug by Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Manhattan, in conjunction with city officials:
"An additional man who was a sex partner of the New York City man has
declined to participate in the epidemiologic investigation, Dr. Ho said. It
is not known if he is H.I.V.-infected.
"The two male contacts in New York City, only one of whom is cooperating
with the investigation, are among hundreds of men with whom the New York
City man told health officials he has had sex in recent weeks while using
crystal methamphetamine. The New York man who sparked the investigation
is cooperating with city health officials but apparently does not know the
names of all his partners."
Just so there's no mistake, let's review the bidding here. There's been a new outbreak of a virus that has already killed half-a-million Americans. Authorities know at least some of the men involved, but in at least one case, a possible virus-carrier "has declined to participate in the epidemiologic investigation." How polite. How deadly. How foolish.
Which brings us to the "Q" word -- no, not "queer." The issue here isn't anybody's sexuality, but rather everybody's wellbeing. So the Q-word in question is "quarantine." Once upon a time, the US government routinely quarantined people with infectious diseases. Which is to say, back then, those who "declined to participate" in tracing disease-outbreaks were forced to participate. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still operates eight quarantine stations. So if you plan on bringing a horse into the US, for example, you must plan on leaving it quarantined for 60 days, because authorities fear letting in the dreaded screwworm.
So it made sense for Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to publish an article last fall in American Medical News in which she declared, "Good old-fashioned isolation and quarantine have a special role to play in any pandemic." It made sense, of course, but it was politically incorrect as all get-out. Indeed, Gerberding was quick to add: "But the imposition of such strident disease-containment methods raises a number of ethical questions for an era in which civil rights and individual liberties are taken even more seriously than they were in Typhoid Mary's time." And in fact, there's been no serious effort to revive quarantining as a public-health measure. Nor should there be. Let's hope that a combination of public-spiritedness and public health can keep this epidemic from infecting our civil liberties, too.
However, in the Third World, the situation may prove to be different. When confronted by SARS Chinese were ruthlessly efficient -- which is to say, ruthlessly effective at saving lives -- by quarantining SARS cases. And the Asian bird flu might be a second such instance.
Needless to say, most Americans are offended by such Benthamite utilitarianism, heavy on collective coercion and light on individual volition.
However, quarantining might yet make a comeback, liked or not. In the Third World, especially Africa, AIDS has never been under control -- "whorigami" hasn't done the trick. In fact, a scary new report asserts that Uganda, touted by conservatives as an AIDS-prevention, is, in fact, still in the grip of a serious AIDS epidemic.
Jeremiah Norris, an AIDS expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, projects that if present disease- and cost-trends continue, by 2010, AIDS worldwide will consume, by itself, 150 percent of the planet's total foreign-aid budget.
Will that happen? Will AIDS continue to eat up lives and resources? Maybe. But it's hard to imagine that political correctness, as applied to basic issues of disease mitigation, will be allowed to run roughshod over societies and governments. At some point, enough will be enough; leaders will conclude that the commonweal can't be held hostage to a few crazies. Or, as, the late economist Herb Stein always said, "If a trend can't go on forever, it won't."
Political correctness may be powerful for a time, but in the end, it doesn't last, because p.c. is fragile. Sooner or later, it cracks up on the rocks of reality.
The conservative political correctness of creation may always exist in the realm of ancient abstractions, but in their life-saving laboratories, scientists will always operate on the basis of Darwinian empiricism, not Bible-based scholasticism.
The radical gay political correctness of total sexual liberation will also not last long. In closed societies, those with little regard for human rights and legal niceties, who knows what will happen to sex-mavericks? In open societies, it's possible, even probable, that envelope-pushers will all end up dead -- even if they have lawyers -- as a consequence of their own "sexicidal" actions.
But what won't happen is a widespread continuation of the third kind of political correctness: the idea that "the government," aka, all of us, will subsidize self-destructive behavior forever. The rich might always have the resources to treat and detox and rehab themselves out of the consequences of most forms of crazy behavior, but not every malady can be treated with money. And as for the rest of us, we will just have to live within the rules of prudence and common sense, behaviorally and fiscally.
The dashing and crashing of illusions is always sad. The British poet A.E. Housman, himself a deeply closeted gay man, wrote at the end of his life, "They say my verse is sad; no wonder/Its narrow measure spans/Tears of eternity, and sorrow/Not mine, but man's." Which is to say, don't blame the messenger. If life seems sad sometimes, that's because it is sad sometimes.
Still, it's better to face the truth than to hide from it. It's said that hell is reality seen too late. Or, to put it another way, hell is political correctness, held onto for too long.