If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. […]
–Thomas Hardy, “Hap”
There’s a heartbreaking article in this week’s New Yorker (not online, unfortunately, though the abstract is here) about the use of traditional remedies to fight AIDS. Such remedies are untested, and when tested they’re found to have no medicinal value, but their use has been endorsed by South Africa’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and Director-General of Health, Thami Mseleku, who have claimed that HIV does not cause AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs, the only effective treatment that has been found, are “poison.”
I’ll dispense with the outrage right away; I’m no fan of the pharmaceutical industry—marched on ’em once in New York, over AIDS drugs—and probably if they had built up a higher reservoir of trust (by allowing generic AIDS drugs sooner, by making their profiteering a little less shameless), this sort of quackery wouldn’t get this much momentum. However, this does not excuse high-ranking public health officials from increasing that distrust by making statements wrong enough to be considered, simply, murderous. Tshabalala-Mansang and Mseleku are in a position both to know better and to make a difference, and their refusal to do either (well, they are making a difference) deserves the highest degree of condemnation.
But that isn’t what I’m writing about. I was struck, reading the article, by the following statement from Herbert Vilakazi, a retired sociology professor who is one of the biggest proponents of the use of traditional African remedies to treat AIDS:
“Let us be honest. Who benefits from A.R.V.s (antiretrovirals)? Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars have been spent on research and you have to get a return on your investment. It is the first rule of pharmaceutical companies, and they simply terrorize your opponents. Very frankly, in America … there are a lot of people in the African-American community who feel maybe there is a conspiracy and that racism has a lot to do with it. Why, for instance, is AIDS the biggest problem that exists in Africa? … Is it not a coincidence that Africa is the poorest continent in the world? Did you ever think that it’s in the interest of some people for it to stay that way?”
Vilakazi really believes this; he is not making any money from the sale of traditional remedies. What I want to call attention to, though, is the familiarity of this statement. This happens again and again: a tragedy caused by a horrifying indifference on the part of the privileged and powerful, is made more comforting, perversely, by attributing it instead to a malicious act. Since AIDS became an epidemic, and continuing at least until I was in high school, people in this country liked to say that the disease had been engineered by the government and foisted on the population to kill homosexuals and drug users. After Hurricane Katrina, many believed that the government had intentionally blown up the levees, and thus caused the flooding and devastation that hit black New Orleans.
It even happens with events that were perpetrated maliciously, but by individuals or by groups smaller and more unpredictable than we might like. 9/11 was a “conspiracy,” in that a number of people all over the world worked and planned together to make it happen. However, the idea that a group of terrorists could catch the US government napping on its own soil, and in its own skies, is intolerable. Therefore, people come to believe that the government (or some other feared group, like international Judaism) either knew that the attacks were going to happen and let them happen, or actively carried them out. A murderous government we can live with—we at least know where we stand—but a negligent one, never.
I have a friend (perhaps he’s reading this—hi!) who is a strong believer in both individual conspiracy theories (including those around 9/11) and a generally paranoid world in which events are engineered by an unseen cabal, a New World Order. We’ve talked about this since high school, and we don’t agree on the particulars very often. However, one thing we have agreed on is that this is an insiduouly attractive world-view, for two inter-related reasons. First, as Hardy’s poem demonstrates, it is more comforting to believe that one is being actively targeted than to believe that one is being ignored and left to die; those actively murdered are important enough to die, whereas those killed by the passivity of the powerful are not important enough to live. Second, because the perpetrators of such a conspiracy are by definition all-powerful (“a Powerfuller than I”), one is relieved from the effort of resistance. The crusade for protest and progress, which sometimes seems futile, is shown to be futile.
Of course, for those dying of AIDS along with the rest of their generation (whether in gay America 1985 or South Africa today), or for those whose entire neighborhoods lost their homes and possessions, and some their lives, to a hurricane and flood that were utterly predictable and utterly ignored, the prospect of progress (at least, progress that would benefit and remunerate them) is indeed futile. In those cases, the tragedy and betrayal one experiences is so thorough that that bitter comfort, of having been singled out for suffering, is the only comfort that remains. Those of us who are personally spared by these tragedies, though, have no excuse for laying down our burdens and nestling in the arms of a malevolent god.