HARVARD DIARY
Not Only a Disease

March 1992By Robert Coles



We are in the midst, these days, of a rational (and natural) preoccupation with AIDS, and its prevention. A terrible disease, all of a sudden out of nowhere, came upon us a decade ago, killing thousands here, even more thousands elsewhere. The way this disease gets spread has given it a special place in our moral and psychological and cultural life — sex and drug use are now wedded in our thoughts and ruminations to the ravages a particular virus inflicts on its victims, most of whom, in this country, are gay or addicts. Many of us feel compassion as we contemplate a growing medical and human tragedy, while, of course, not a few people have shown themselves able to be cruel, condemnatory, or indifferent — as if a plague of sorts had found deserving targets.

I am ashamed to put before the reader some of the remarks I have heard, in recent years, from grown men and women, all too eager to denounce others (alas, not rarely, in biblical terms) for their sickness and, needless to say, for much more: the way they have lived their lives. I suspect that some politicians know that such animus is not uncommon — know that one's personal worries and doubts and fears, one's social and economic vulnerability, crave expression — hence the various cursed outcasts we summon for ourselves: one or another “them.” When life itself (or rather death itself) seems to be making such a selection, then moral energy can fuel to a pitch the various private apprehensions we may otherwise suffer in relative silence. Talking in 1989 with a devoutly church-going computer programmer who had just lost his job (the collapse of the “Massachusetts miracle” which a governor had hoped would propel him to the presidency), I heard a torrent of abuse directed at “deviates and druggies,” culminating in an appalling (but also candid and instructive) call to a so-called “religious truth,” a phrase explored this way: “You have to be honest, and say what you believe. This [AIDS] is a disease that hits people who are doing the wrong thing. They're homosexuals; they're shooting up drugs. If God watches over us, judges us, He's watching over and judging them [AIDS victims]. That's the truth — that's a religious truth. Yes, I agree, you can't say that every time someone gets sick, it's because they've done something wrong. But here, it's different: The people who are getting sick are getting sick after they've done something wrong!”

He wasn't a “fundamentalist” — as some of my well-educated, outraged (and agnostic) Cambridge friends were quick to say when I told them what I had heard, showed them a full transcript of the remarks. That word “fundamentalist,” in the hands of the liberal intelligentsia, can itself get turned into a means of ostracism and condemnation: a swear word, for some, as sweeping and divisive in its intent as any denunciation of those with AIDS, those susceptible to AIDS, in the name of a morality, a received body of scriptural truth. Rather, the man I was hearing speak his contempt for others was a proud burgher suddenly in trouble, in jeopardy, and searching, searching ever so hard, to locate others in even worse straits, whom he could rebuke and scorn. When he was reasonably successful, working at good pay and with good health and retirement benefits, he could be easy-going and tolerant — able to express “pity” (he once called it) for the poor, and too, those who had contracted AIDS. After he left his job, and realized he wasn't going to be able to find another one like it for a long time, he contemplated moving to another part of the country. But his parents, who live nearby, are old, sick, quite dependent on him emotionally, and so it goes, too, for his wife's parents, who also live nearby. “I've come down in the world,” he once told me — after announcing that he had, at last, found himself a job: “Now I drive a truck — and I'm lucky to have the job. [He got it through the efforts and influence of his brother-in-law, himself a truck driver.] But I get less pay, and I've got the lousiest health benefits they [the company] can offer, short of giving us nothing at all! I look at people passing me in their fancy cars, and I say: Good luck, Charlie — and I feel real 'down,' real low. But then I try to give myself a pep talk. I say: Listen, buddy, things could be worse, a hell of a lot worse! You could be some drunk, or some druggie; you could live in some ghetto; you could be sick, and not able to work. Your kids could be sick — or in some kind of trouble!”


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