The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color,” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said in an April 2003 sermon.
By giving credence to this conspiracy theory, Wright undermines the good work he has done to fight the AIDS pandemic, by encouraging his flock to get tested and educating them about the disproportionate toll on African Americans.
The AIDS-as‑U.S. plot – like the 9⁄11 Truthers’ mental contortions – gives order to a world that can be cruelly random and meaningless. These theories are not wrong because they are profoundly skeptical of Washington; they are wrong because they take reasonable premises and march them over the cliff of irrational conclusions.
But the AIDS conspiracy theory is not just irrational, it is murderous. When you see a disease as a genocidal plot, it is a short step to believing that the drugs that alleviate it and the safe sex that prevents it are also part of the plot. This dangerous nonsense has caused unfathomable death and misery.
America’s failures in the realm of AIDS are horrible enough: Fueled by racism, homophobia and religious lunacy, Washington allocated far too little funding, far too late, to research, prevention and treatment, both at home and abroad. In the developing world, the Bush administration based its policy on religion rather than medicine when it dispensed abstinence advice instead of condoms.
Another U.S. export – a group of U.S.-based denialists – has become a global menace. Based on its theories, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki openly questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki also condoned the whacko theories of his minister of health, Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, who advocated treating the disease with garlic and beets. AIDS spread and flourished under their criminally myopic watch.
Conspiracy theories thrive on the difficulty of proving a negative and the inane assumption that the possible is equivalent to the actual.
“It’s certainly possible,” writes author William Blum in May’s CounterPunch newsletter, “that the disease [AIDS] arose as a result of Defense Department experiments, and then spread as an unintended consequence.”
What the hell does that mean? That it cannot be proven impossible, or that it actually happened?
It is also possible that the U.S. government deployed leprechauns to infiltrate the minds of sleeping Americans to urge them to buy SUVs. Possible? Prove it isn’t.
The premise – that the Bush administration is in league with devious and greedy oil companies – is sound. The conclusion that leprechauns are responsible cannot be disproved, only countered by a rational worldview based on fact and evidence.
People believe all sorts of irrational crap: that God planted fossils to test faith; that the moon landing never happened; that the Bush administration attacked the Pentagon and twin towers; that some old white guy in the sky knows when teenage boys spank the monkey, and cares enough to condemn them to eternal hellfire.
Wright is not alone in his irrationality about AIDS. The Rev. Jerry Falwell named God, rather than the government, as the perp, ranting that the disease is a divine plague sent to punish homosexuals and American society.
Falwell relied on the Bible. Wright cited both the ravings of celebrity quack Leonard Horowitz and the fatally real abuses of the Tuskegee experiment – a Public Health Service study that withheld treatment from a group of African Americans infected with syphilis so researchers could trace the disease’s natural progression to death. The 40-year experiment ended in 1972.
That case, and others, provide hard evidence of endemic personal and institutional racism. But they do not prove Horowitz’s conclusion that “AIDS is a genocidal weapon profitably effecting population control [that was created by] …U.S. government agents, collaborating with the drug industry.” Horowitz also promotes “intelligent design” and calls on Biblical “blood purity” laws to condemn vaccinations and skin tests for tuberculosis.
Horowitz’s mutterings aside, Wright is right that U.S. government policies have so disproportionately disadvantaged blacks that a metaphorical use of the term “genocide” is warranted. But horrific as they are, the deadly effects of racism – evidenced in poverty, overimprisonment, poor healthcare, and corporate and government bias toward funding treatments for diseases of the rich – are not the same as planned genocide.
Wright cogently condemned America’s history of racist injustice. But on AIDS, he was terribly wrong.