Since WGBH-NET’s Frontline gained its reputation as the most serious American documentary producer on airwave television, precisely by go- ing beyond conventional understandings, I was disappointed by the recent program, four hours in length, about the rise and dissemination of the deadly disease called AIDS, which has prematurely taken friends of mine – people I miss. As Frontline’s claim of “political indifference” about the epidemic is demonstrably untrue, I suspiciously wondered why the producers had not directly addressed several major issues.
First, how vulnerable in the U.S. were (and are) straight males who don’t use intravenous drugs? In these pages* I suggested more than a decade ago that they scarcely were, for an obvious reason: as they eschew receiving anal sex, they are not as vulnerable to semen- to-blood invasion. During the late 1980s, the NYC Department of Health employed a woman surnamed Lekatsas whose job was investigating those claiming No Identifiable Risk (NIR). In nearly all cases she found that claimants had indeed done something risky with needles or anal sex. (Reports of her research can be found on the internet.)
However, publicists desiring government funding for AIDS problems figured that few would care about the afflictions of gays and druggies. Deciding that all of America had to be scared of AIDS, they suppressed facts about who was really vulnerable. Once the NYC Department of Health changed its own accounting procedures, around 1993, this statistic about NIRs simply vanished. Even toda}’, to say that NIRs don’t get AIDS is to risk dismissal as politically incorrect.
This deception, designed to drain government aid, remains among the most dishonest intellectual episodes in recent memory and makes me· forever doubt AIDS”activists.” Whether, in retrospect, the result of government intervention was worth the lie is a reasonable question. Libertarians know that asking the government to “solve” a problem is usually an egregious mistake.
Second, the Frontline producers didn’t seriously question the familiar scenario that a recently identified retrovirus called HIV principally causes AIDS, which does not itself kill but makes the sufferer more vulnerable to deadly opportunistic infections. Another element in the familiar scenario holds that pharmaceuticals”save lives.” Even though the existence of HIV has never been fully proved (according to Robert Koch’s traditionally accepted elaborate postulates), Frontline routinely dismiss- es critics of this scenario as “denialist,” an epithet that vulgarly exploits the low reputation of those who deny the Nazi extermination of Jews and Gypsies during WWII.
Among those thus discredited in the Frontline feature are not just the Berke- ley biologist Peter Duesberg, who appears only in a sight-bite, but also the current president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who appears saying “Does a virus cause a syndrome? It can’t.” Indeed, precisely because AIDS itself does not kill, becoming instead the purported precondition for deadly diseases, that concept as well could be considered a convenient fiction.
Around the same time when the Frontline broadcast was first aired, Melville House, a small New Jersey publisher, issued Celia Farber’s “Serious Adverse Events,” which I recommend to one and all as a courageous corrective. Basing her ideas upon articles published over the last two decades, Farber suggests that the conviction that this recently discovered retrovirus called HIV causes AIDS has scarcely been proved, citing medical results and respected authorities suggesting otherwise. Many AIDS patients lack evidence of HIV. Even the discoverers of HI~ Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, have separately realized that it alone might not be sufficiently lethal, proposing other contributing causal agents. As more than one of the virologists trumpeting HIV had previously been involved with the failed effort to discover a virus causing cancer, they feasted upon AIDS as a new terrain for their expertise.
(Farber, let me not forget, is the daughter of Barry F., a pioneer in New York talk radio – a highly verbal southern Jew who actually read the books of the writers he interviewed, and spoke many languages, especially when he campaigned now and then for political office as a Republican. His unique voice remains in my head.)
Immunity deficiency, Farber adds, could be caused by extrinsic chemistr}’, such as excessive use of amyl nitrites to increase sexual pleasure. Post-Stone- wall promiscuity per se, epitomized by the bathhouse culture, exposed many gays to minor infections that, routinely treated with progressively stronger antibiotics, could diminish an individual’s immunity. Drugs merchandized to alleviate HIV such as AZT, also worked to destroy immunity, never saving lives, scarcely extending them.
While the Frontline narrator intones, “So far, the virus had developed resistance to every known drug, like AZT,” why not consider the question of why AZT and other drugs have been ineffective? Farber quotes a scientist declaring that the causes of immunodeficiency
Frontline’s claim of “political indifference” about the epidemic is demonstrably untrue.
are not fully understood; her own conclusion, however, is that American “AIDS is a multifactorial syndrome, but straight people can’t bring themselves to talk about what these factors are and gay people don’t want to.”
About the question of Africain AIDS, which is customarily raised to refute the contention that non-IV-drug-using straights are scarcely vulnerable to AIDS, consider first my earlier contention and then Farber’s. If a disease with a specific name afflicts different groups in different populations – in one place and adults in another; homosexuals in one place and straights in another – isn’t the confusion that one epithet is really a convenient catch-all for two or more conditions, or, more specifically, that American AIDS and AIDS in Africa may be different diseases? While calling whatever kills people in Africa “AIDS” might be useful for publicity in the· West and thus fundraising (and drug-peddling), it is intellectually dishonest to brandish the same name. While the producers of Frontline’s AIDS report introduce this problem by citing on camera an assistant secretary for health early in the Reagan administration, .the issue.gets dropped. Nonetheless, having identified one intellectual deceit about AIDS, some skeptics would be prepared to spot another.
Farber goes further in exposing the myth of African AIDS. She documents how AIDS has become the most popular identification for any and all deaths that previously lacked an explanation, as many do, particularly in poor countries with less sophisticated pathologists (and insufficient funds to test blood for any viral chemicals), and more particularly at a time when AIDS fundraising groups have needed higher figures for their own mercenary purposes. The further truth is that Afri- cans (and South Asians), both male and female, die younger, because of malnutrition, poor sanitation, tuberculosis, mysterious diseases, and inadequate medicine, all reflecting poverty and exploitative governments. (Any American ever traveling to those countries might recall the medicines he was advised to take along.)
Providing a specific example, Farber exposes how an individual African’s death from malaria was chalked up to AIDS. Another anecdote tells how a Kenyan killed in an auto accident was publicized as “an AIDS suicide.”
A further contributing factor in Afri- can AIDS deaths could be the dissemination of deadly drugs. This accounts for wh)’, as the Frontline narrator reports, “On the advice of the denialists, President Mbeki banned AZT and the entire triple cocktail from government hospitals, claiming the drugs were too toxic.”
The gross figures about African AIDS were extrapolated to heavy degrees of exaggeration from small samples, thanks to interested publicists consciously running up the score. At a time (1980-2000) when AIDS was portrayed as decimating Africa, the population was actually increasing from 378 million to 652 million. Remember as well that people don’t die of AIDS per se but of other diseases attacking individuals made vulnerable by immune deficiencies whose principal cause, universally, is not HIV but nothing more mysterious than poor living conditions. The more selective precondition of AIDS can thus be posthumously assigned, presumptively. One implicit truth evading the Frontline reporters, not to mention others, is that publicists for any disease can, with enough media effort, accompanied by statistics that cannot be easily verified, cook up the illusion of a rampaging epidemic. Caveat spectator.
The deepest scandals exposed by Farber involve the way in which pharmaceutical companies have exploited not only nation-states but also the United Nations to do corrupted tests (often giving false positives because of, say, pregnancy), to revive drugs previously discarded, to destroy previously healthy people, to force drugs on unwitting children, and to disseminate false information in the course of peddling highly deleterious drugs. Once AZT was discredited because it was so toxic that it speedily killed nearly everyone taking it, another protease-inhibiting “cocktail” took its place, called HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy), and sometimes including other notoriously toxic chemicals. “In the end,” Farber writes, “everybody who is [currently] taking protease inhibitors is contributing to one big medical experiment and no one knows what the outcome will be.” Often among the more visible effects are physical deformations, such as a thickened neck that by itself would usually be a symptom of something gone wrong.
Farber documents how voracious drug companies have compromised the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), traditionally independent government agencies, in addition to funding AIDS organizations both large and small so that none of them dares bite the dirty hands that feed them. Front- line quotes Donna Shalala recalling on camera how she, along with Vice President Al Gore, failed to persuade Mbeki to reconsider his ban on AZT. (“Political indifference” this isn’t, neither in the U.S. nor in Africa!) Nonetheless, in spite of all the American government money poured into AIDS research, there’s been no vaccine and too many dead people, perhaps because of insufficient understandings, mistakenly focused efforts, and opportunistic operators.
Government didn’t cure this problem. Instead, it authorized the HIV hypothesis and approved deadly drugs
Even the discoverers of HIV; Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, have separately realized that it alone might not be sufficiently lethal.
through its “health” agencies. When will people learn that a government imprimatur is no guarantee of truth?
Indeed, let me raise a question for future historians of AIDS: had governments not been involved, would fewer people have died prematurely? (I pose this question recalling Hannah Arendt’s provocative suggestion in her classic “Eichmann in Jerusalem”  that
Magic Johnson claims he no longer has the HIV virus that forced his early retirement from basketball 15 years ago.
fewer Jews would have died in concentration camps during WWII had Jewish communities not been so well organized. To that I’ve always added that fewer Jews would have died had they possessed stronger personal weapons.) Government aggravation of AIDS is a critique that only a gay libertarian (not I) could write. Given the evidence already known, may I wager that someone will?
My major criticism of Farber is that she portrays herself as the lone writer correcting the general public about these deceptions, thus ignoring “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS” (New Re- public-Basic, 1990) by the great medical journalist Michael Fumento, and “AIDS: A Second Opinion” (Seven Stories, 2002), a mammoth critical examination of the literature by the nutrition broadcaster Gary Null, in collaboration with my friend James Feast. As Null and Feast often quote Farber, but never Fumento, I’m reminded of some sad ancient history. Gay activists successfully blocked many booksellers from stocking Fumento’s book, soon after its publication, as threatening their agenda to enlist a wholly scared public and thus governments. (Feast tells me that his and Null’s book went unreviewed.)
The last questions ignored by Frontline should have dealt with how certain people have survived an HIV-positive diagnosis for so long without drugs – whether, indeed, the condition can be overcome. In the second respect, consider that Magic Johnson claims he no longer has the HIV virus that forced his early retirement from basketball 15 years ago. Is this true? The face of AIDS medicine, Dr. David Ho, suggests not and never. Nonetheless, Johnson’s wife and their three children are HIV- free, thus undermining the myth of the condition’s rampant contagiousness through unprotected heterosexual intercourse.
In the former respect, consider that Frontline repeatedly introduced on-camera people “living with AIDS” without asking the questions of how long they’ve had the diagnosis and, if for long, why. The most visible survivor in my reading is the writer Edmund White, a lower Manhattan neighbor whom I’ve not met, HIV-positive for decades now, who said recently that his affliction is slow and so he eschews medicines. Is he just lucky? Or is he living in such a way that AIDS no longer threatens him? Could it be that he’ll live long enough to die from another condition that is more deadly for gays and everyone else, such as heart disease? To him the Frontline vision is blind.
By ignoring these major questions, “Age of AIDS” in its four hours scarcely got beyond the conventional wisdom, alas, and made me realize that too often other Frontline programs likewise suffer from this fault of not just preaching to the converted but piously informing the pre-informed.
As for AIDS, may I offer the radical hypothesis (which I bet you’ve not heard before) that like racism it will continue to be the subject of reams of good-hearted talk that, because of misconceptions, will perpetuate the problem it purports to cure, thus setting the precondition for yet more well-intentioned chatter, to the smug delight of all except those who suffer needlessly?