AIDS is Missing

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been helping a kid at school get ready for his AP U.S. History exam, which he’s pretty nervous about. He showed me a small packet he’d been given a while back with some events to know and how to place them within their appropriate eras of American history. I took the same course once upon a time, and I recognized some of the events that you only get in these courses where the “factually rich” answers (in other words, saying in a rush everything you know in your seventeen-year-old brain) are prized. It’s the kind of document where knowing what happened at the Albany Conference is roughly as important as knowing what happened at the Second Continental Congress. I was pleasantly surprised to see that some other events appeared on that document which were mentioned in the class I took but never prioritized: the Stono Rebellion, Wounded Knee, the Chinese Exclusion Act, NOW. Thus I was a little surprised to see that Reagan’s Greatest Hits showed up in some number in this packet. Star Wars was in there, and so was the “Tear down this wall” speech. But the HIV/AIDS outbreak in this country, which was not precisely concurrent with Reagan’s administration but was pretty darn close, is nowhere to be found in my student’s packet.

In journalist Randy Shilts’ book detailing the AIDs outbreak, And the Band Played On, he begins by wondering at how the AIDS outbreak was possible in the first place:

The bitter truth is that AIDS did not just happen to America — it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.

It is unthinkable, Shilts goes on to say, that AIDS could have broken out the way it did in the United States. America had the best scientists, the best-equipped labs, the toughest reporters, the wealthiest government. By rights AIDS should have been managed. But it wasn’t. It was more important to the ’80s — this is where I take over — than Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and the RJR Nabisco buyout together. The way we reacted to AIDS taught us that we were a nation every bit as wicked and stupid as people like Pat Robertson said we were. (Perhaps we should have known as much then. Pat Robertson was a thing.) The scientists and politicians and journalists stayed away, for the most part. There was nothing sexy, Shilts says, about researching a disease which was called “Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency” into 1984, and which was colloquially known as “gay cancer.” The journalists weren’t averse to covering health crises; Legionnaire’s disease and the Chicago Tylenol murders got plenty of press. Health crises for gay men didn’t rate in the papers of record. And it became clear with relative speed that Reagan’s federal government was not going to go out of its way to fund more than it had to, and, all together now, not for gay people. Ronald Reagan took until the fall of ’85 to say the word “AIDS” in public. By then nearly 14,000 people were confirmed dead of the disease, with God only knows how many infected.

Shilts ends his prologue with a sentence which, in hindsight, is almost funny:

It is a tale that bears telling, so that it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere.

Today, the House of Representatives sent a bill to the Senate which treats just about everything as a pre-existing condition which will jack up — “jack up” is sort of the vague term here — costs for the people who desperately need the coverage, and more importantly should never be asked to bear the price of their conditions. Rape. Pregnancy. Migraines. Crohn’s. OCD. Autism. The Ronald Reagan Memorial Disease itself, Alzheimer’s. HIV/AIDS. There are an endless string of troubles which now cost people more money, money that may genuinely force them to choose between life and inescapable, crippling debt which might just kill them anyway.

There’s a saying — I dunno if you’ve heard it before, it’s a little obscure — but it has something to do with learning history or otherwise repeating it. The older I get, the less I believe in the truth of that statement. I think the issue isn’t that we don’t know anything, but that we are wicked. Wicked people passed that bill, people who must have known that living without insurance is dangerous — they kept plenty for themselves, after all! — but don’t care as long as it’s someebody else’s problem. We know people by their fruits, and nations from their representatives. You can’t pick a grape from a thorn bush any more than you can choose to eradicate people’s hope for healthcare and say the people who voted for the eradicator are decent. Assuming that this bill gets through the Senate in any form resembling what it looks like now, people will die just as needlessly and wantonly as they did during the AIDS outbreak.

What happened today, which happened yesterday and will happen again tomorrow, signifies clearly that life is cheap, and that we are governed as if our lives are cheap.

After all this, I’m not upset at my student’s packet or anything. Getting American history into 151 bullet points for a test is a task which feels like it might have been assigned by space aliens with their own unknowable logic. But I think it’s noteworthy, symbolic, that AIDS doesn’t show up, isn’t even hinted at by contemporary events. When history is erased there’s nothing to learn from in the first place.