Monday, March 5, I read somewhere online that David Remnick's New Yorker had finally ridden to the aid of liberal magazine media. It had given Roger Hodge's Harper's the thrashing it so long and richly deserved for running that dangerous AIDS article by that horrid Celia Farber last spring. The New Yorker article, boldly entitled "The Denialists," was said to be a thorough rebuttal to Farber's wild-hair rantings. Hodge's Folly, the gaffe of all gaffes, had been redressed. It had taken a year, but order and balance were now restored to print media. Glossy liberal thumbsuckers were safe to read again. No received knowledge or consensus opinions will ever again be challenged. Sorry for the disruption. You can all go back to sleep now. Nothing to see here.
I'm not an "AIDS dissident." I'm not educated enough on the ins and outs of the issue to give myself such airs. But I have been on the planet through the entire AIDS era. A man I admired died of "it" early on, before they had even given "it" a name. I watched as, because of how and when and whom the epidemic struck, it became the most politicized health issue of my lifetime. Not the only, surely, but the most. Over the years, I developed a gnawing skepticism for much of what the health industry and attendant media promulgated as Absolute Truth about the disease, its causes and cures. As I have with SARS, and bird flu, and anthrax, and so on and so on. I do reserve the right to maintain an open mind, and to listen to all sides. I am suspicious of groupthink and consensus opinion, pretty much regardless of topic. I most heartily support the right of dissidents of all sorts, in all sectors of our public life, to speak, and back when I had a public forum I happily gave them opportunities to do so.
Celia Farber was one of them. So when I read that The New Yorker had picked up the Harper's gauntlet, I bought a copy and read Michael Specter's "The Denialists."
It is hardly the stinging rebuke I was led to expect. In fact, it's almost self-parodyingly mild-mannered and unspectacular, even for The New Yorker. It's just a journeyman's standard-issue report on AIDS in South Africa, recycling off-the-rack opinions and attitudes we've all read in countless previous articles. About how AIDS is ravaging South Africa, but President Thabo Mbeki, while "rooting around on the Internet" (which of course "has made it possible for every conspiracy theory to flourish"), came under the thrall of the "denialists," a term Specter flogs many times in the seven-page article. Mbeki and a few of his similarly benighted ministers thus refuse their people the proper drugs and treatment, so they turn to various homegrown quack cures. Ta dum dee dum.
One thing that is new is Specter's gingerly handling of Peter Duesberg. In the old days, if the standard AIDS reporter mentioned Duesberg at all, it was to dismiss him in the fewest possible words as the king of the quacks, the crank who inspired the denialist movement. Post-Harper's that's not so easily done, and Specter devotes roughly a full page out of seven to Duesberg's career, his arguments and his influence, even allowing him some of the most cogent and sensible quotes in the article. For that matter, Specter also quotes Mbeki, and one of his supporters, making eminent sense as they explain why black South Africans might be resistant to the invasive, condescending, colonialist pressures of Western pharmaceutical companies.
Seems to me that if it took a year for a rival publication to come up with a response this limp and wan, there has been some sort of shift in the power relationship between the "denialists" and the AIDS industry, and one that can hardly be shrugged off as the pernicious influence of the conspiracy theory-spreading Internet on ignorant savages like Thabo Mbeki who go "rooting around" there.
Which brings up something I did find remarkable: the way Specter depicts South Africans. Over the last few years, researching a book on blackface, I immersed myself in 19th- and 20th-century caricatures and stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans. I became convinced that over the last several decades we have purged our public entertainments and discourse of the most egregious of this imagery, but we have yet to purge ourselves of the attitudes – the condescension, the assumption of intellectual and cultural superiority – that went into them.
Specter's depictions of South Africans illustrate my point too painfully well. His condescension is palpable, absolutely Victorian. There's the horrible, maybe unintended insinuation in that image of the leader of a sovereign African nation "rooting around." There's the scene, straight out of minstrel show buffoonery, in which Specter interviews Thami Mseleku, South African Director-General of Health: "Msekelu is a huge, pear-shaped man with short curly hair. He was wearing a yellow-checked shirt and a blue suit, and several times during our conversation he leaped nimbly from his desk to stroll about the office…" Did he dance an ooga-booga dance? There are the several scenes in which Africans exploring herbal remedies rather than take Western pharmaceuticals are almost, though not quite – this being the 21st century, and The New Yorker – described as jungle witch-doctors practicing ju-ju. A hundred years ago the writing would have been more blunt and candid.
Everything I've read from dissidents, white and black, about why many Africans are mistrustful of and resistant to Western AIDS treatment is encapsulated here. To point this out is not bootless contrarianism, and it most certainly is not "denialism." Seems to me, as an observer, that much denial is coming from Specter's side, the side that denies questioning, denies doubt, denies the right or even the mental capacity of Africans to make their own decisions about their health. I am not a scientist – nor, to my knowledge, are Farber, Hodge, Remnick or Specter. But I know when people are being insulted and condescended to, and when they are being told to shut up and take their medicine.
John Strausbaugh is a former editor of New York Press, a regular contributor to The New York Times, and author/editor of several books of social and cultural commentary, including The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960 (coedited with Donald Blaise), Alone With the President, and Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia. His most recent, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, was published by Tarcher/Penguin last year and will be reissued in paperback next fall.