Will $15 billion stamp out AIDS?

Posted: Feb 12, 2003 12:00 AM
The AIDS crisis: Last time Americans thought about it, in a concentrated, intentional way, hardly anyone had talked on a cell phone or driven an SUV. President Bush and Sen. Dr. William Frist have disrupted all this complacency and inattention with their respective calls to address the AIDS disaster abroad. The senator-doctor has personally treated African AIDS sufferers, and the president has proposed a five-year commitment to spend $15 billion fighting global AIDS, chiefly in Africa but also in the Caribbean. Will $15 billion stamp out AIDS? Certainly not -- even if one were to consider it (as most do not) the optimal spending level for getting the job done. Cultural crises are untreatable with federal appropriations and ATM withdrawals. That is what AIDS is -- a cultural crisis, peculiar to the moment in history we inhabit. Er, um ... I hate to keep bringing up the 1960s. Or maybe I don't, after all. It is the elephant we should be trying to chase from the living room before it inflicts further damage. That damage to date has been spectacular. The '60s, conceived as an epoch of broad cultural liberation, is the seedbed of many modern afflictions. For instance, in 1960, there was no AIDS crisis anywhere, not even in San Francisco and Greenwich Village. Now, why do you think that was? A major reason is that the era of sexual liberation had not quite commenced. The old "repressions," such as premarital abstinence from sex, still mainly held. (You will note I said "mainly" -- not, with sentimental tear gleaming in the eye, "universally.") One reason the "repressions" held, to the extent they did, is that they enjoyed cultural sanction. Of course, you get into trouble quickly when you raise skeptical questions about the value of "human liberation" in any of its varied guises. Don't we all want to be as free as birds? Perhaps -- if we're birds. Being human, on the other hand, can bring to mind doubts grounded in realistic expectations as to what may be due other people, not just ourselves. One thing due others, logically, is respect for their life expectancy. Frankly, I don't give two healthy snorts how pre-liberation any of this sounds. Just about all the marital/sexual "liberation" we've received, post-1960, has caused more problems than it has cured. Nineteen sixty, culturally speaking, was immensely better than 2003 -- so there! From San Francisco and Harvard, not to mention Paris and London, the culture of liberation spread far abroad. And thus to unwitting and impoverished Africa, the now-stricken continent. It could be (as with Christianity, which African Christians are famously helping to reinvigorate) that the so-called Dark Continent will teach know-it-all Westerners a trick or two. Uganda over the past decade has sharply cut its HIV infection rate from an estimated 21 percent to 6 percent. This, through the country's "ABC" policy of teaching abstinence as the first line of defense. The second line is rejection of promiscuity. The fallback position, where the previous lines fail to hold, is use of a condom. Worth noting is that Uganda practices one of the most robust forms of Christianity found anywhere in the world -- easily more robust than is to be found, say, in Massachusetts or San Francisco. The connection between religion and common sense is one that the culture may wish to explore as the decade wears on, particularly if and when the AIDS crisis proves unsusceptible to the economic weapon. The connection, so old that moss covers it, filters concepts of human duty through general understandings of what created beings owe the creator, not to mention other created beings. Sex as pure recreational endeavor, shorn of larger purpose and meaning? Fidelity as purely optional? Family relationships as dispensable and disposable? The holy estate of matrimony as one more modern "lifestyle," no better and no worse than the others? Not in the understanding the West chucked overboard for the looser, giddier one now in use. Time, you might suppose, for a change.