BOOK REVIEW: “And The Band Played On” (A Comprehensive Analysis of the AIDS Epidemic in the 1980’s), by Randy Shilts

BOOK - And The Band Played On, by Randy Shilts (#2)

Review by Diane Rufino, April 28, 2019

I just finished reading a truly wonderful book – AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, by Randy Shilts. The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, focusing on the cases, the symptoms, the mystery, the epidemiology, the panic, the politics, and ultimately the scientific breakthrough in identifying the causative agent, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and its mode of infection and spread.

I remember living through that frightening era in North Jersey and watching it unfold on TV and in the news, and seeing the many billboards on the highways into New York City announcing how many lives the yet unknown disease had claimed. As a student thinking of going into the field of science, it presented a most compelling reason why research scientists are so badly needed in this country and around the world. Each week that scientists are unable to unravel the causes of new diseases, or to figure out how individuals are infected or how it is spread, or to understand how to treat those who suffer, the more lives are claimed.

In the case of AIDS, if only officials had listened to scientists rather than pander to politics and especially, identity politics, the lives of many thousands of young men and women, and children too, would have been spared. I hope the story of the AIDS epidemic will enlighten those when the next deadly or potentially-deadly disease hits. In fact, the author opens the book by explaining: “I would not have been able to write this book if I had not been a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, the only daily newspaper in the United States that did not need a movie star to come down with AIDS before it considered the epidemic a legitimate news story deserving thorough coverage.”

The first documented case of a man dying from an opportunistic infection (pneumocystis carinii) due to a diminished immune system was in 1981. Cases followed of gay men presenting with a very rare skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma, which previously only affected elder Italian and Jewish men). They too were found to have a severely diminished immune system. It wasn’t until two years later that the virus that killed off the critical Helper T cells (that mounts a person’s immune response) was isolated and characterized. French scientist Luc Montagne published his findings in May 1983. Due to a rivalry with the American research team, Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), treatment in the United States ignored the French discovery, allowing thousands to become infected and die. AIDS was a death sentence back then. Dr. Gallo would isolate and characterize the virus a year later (although he characterized it incorrectly; the French got it right), and with utmost arrogance and an ego unmatched in the field of research, would insist and assert that it was he who identified the AIDS virus. President Ronald Reagan chose to remain silent about the disease for most of his time in the White House, but in 1987, he finally addressed the epidemic. On April 2, he appeared before the College of Physicians in Philadelphia to deliver what would be his first “major speech” on AIDS, calling it “public enemy number one.” And then the following month, on May 31, he agreed to speak at a dinner honoring the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), which was founded by Rock Hudson shortly before he passed away (on Oct. 2, 1985). The president had been invited by actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was named by Hudson to be the chairman, to offer a few remarks.

By the time Reagan finally agreed to address the epidemic at amfAR, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed that year with the disease and 20,849 had already died.

By 1984, it was estimated that approximately 33-40% of all gay men in San Francisco and New York City were HIV-positive. The virus had a long latency period – approximately 5 years (that is, once infected, full-blown AIDS would set in about 5 years later). Consequently, the chances of contracting the disease, for those who hadn’t already, were increasing rapidly and dangerously. As of 1986, after 5 years of seeing the epidemic unfold and trying to understand it, the cumulative number of AIDS cases in the United States reached 270,000 of which 179,000 died. By the spring of 1987, the disease had been reported in 113 countries (more than doubled the number of countries from just a year prior), with 51,000 persons infected outside the US. Most of those infected had visited the United States – New York City or San Francisco in particular. Others had visited Africa – the equatorial regions, such as Zaire. It was projected (correctly) that there would be over 3 million cases by 1991.

The book makes abundantly clear why the AIDS epidemic claimed so many lives, and needlessly so:

(1) Because it only affected gay men (at least in the first years). The 1980’s was still an era of extreme homophobia. Gay men were considered perverts, freaks, and disease-carriers. The unspoken sentiment was that as long as the disease was contained and limited to the gay community, that was good. It was a good thing, the homophobic community believed, to get rid of the freaks. This sentiment, by the way, clearly drove public policy at the time, resulting in a lack of funding for the epidemic.

(2) Because it predominantly affected gay men. The gay community was fiercely protective of its civil rights and the advances they had made in being able to live their promiscuous, detached, sex-charged lifestyle. Bath houses (centers for mass anonymous sex, orgies, drugs, etc) and other gay sex clubs and bars catered to this promiscuous sex-obsessed lifestyle. When health officials advised first that public notices be posted to reduce the number of partners, refrain from risky gay sex, and to engage in safe-sex, and then that bath houses be shut down, the gay community flew into absolute outrage, threatening to sue officials and to obtain injunctions on any and all such actions. The fierce resistance to plans designed to educate the gay community and to help stem the spread of the deadly disease in order to save lives was the one thing that condemned thousands and thousands (maybe more) to a needless death. The gay community viewed such actions as public notices and closing bath houses as stigmatizing their kind, bringing more unwelcome discrimination upon them, un-doing the progress they had already made, and ultimately paving the way for society to round them up under the guise of being carriers for disease and segregating them from heterosexuals. They refused to allow any of such consequences. If they had to die for their rights, they would. And they did. The ironic thing is that the gay community to an overwhelmingly extent spread the disease as an identity group, through its lifestyle and its sexual practices, yet it didn’t want to be stigmatized as an identity group by the disease when it came time to address its deadly contagion. It was always about saving lives and not about discrimination.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

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BOOK REVIEW – “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” by Eric Metaxas

ERIC METAXAS       by Diane Rufino, July 11, 2016

I just finished reading the latest book by New York Times #1 Best-selling author, Eric Metaxas, entitled “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.”  Metaxas is the author of other best-sellers, including Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace,Miracles, 7 Women, and 7 Men, and has a weekly talk show, “The Eric Metaxas Show.”

The book is essentially a pep talk for our troubled time, peppered with wonderful bits of history to remind readers why the they need to be fired up. Hopefully the title will ring a bell with the reader. At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving what has come to be known as Independence Hall.  She asked him: “What kind of government have you given us?”  And Franklin historically replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

And that’s the challenge we all face.  As our traditional institutions and values are eroding, and as our connection to the document that secures our rights and restrains government in our lives – the US Constitution – becomes increasingly tenuous, we see that our republic is in danger.  John Adams once said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  The truth is that all our Founding Fathers shared the same view, and probably none as strongly as Benjamin Franklin. And so his reply to that woman implicated a duty imputed to all Americans to remain virtuous and to trust only virtuous leaders with this grand experiment that was to be America.  Once we lose that sense of duty and that keen sense of responsibility, then the days of our republic are indeed numbered.

Why is morality and religion so indispensable to our republic and its longevity?  Alexander Hamilton addressed that question clearly: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  Men are not angels; they are forever tempted by power, greed, and other evils which corrupt men’s souls. History proves this, and history also teaches us another sad reality – that republics typically have a relatively short lifespan.  Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”  Machiavelli wrote: “Republics that wish to maintain themselves free from corruption must above all things preserve the purity of all religions observances, and treat them with proper reverence; for there is no greater indication of the ruin of a country than to see religion condemned.”  Religion is the basis of morality.  Religion teaches a person how to to conduct oneself and how to treat others.  Moral people don’t need a lot of laws because they inherently know how to govern themselves.  Morality ensures that government can remain limited.

Metaxas argues that America’s greatness cannot continue unless we embrace our own crucial role in living out what our Founding Fathers entrusted to us. And that, he says, requires us to reconnect with our history and with the brilliant and forward-thinking ideals proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence, emphasized by our Founders, and embedded in the fabric of our history.  And to remind us of some of those threads, the author weaves in selected and profound moments from our country’s earlier years. Metaxas wants us to remember why our country is great and why she is good.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States, among other reasons, to study our democracy. He wanted to help secure to the people of France the same blessings that democracy in America had ordained and established for its people. After touring the states, he noted: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her bustling harbors and her ample rivers — and it was not there……  In her fertile fields and bound less forests — and it was not there….. In her rich mines and her vast world commerce — and it was not there….. In her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution — and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Metaxas acknowledges the growing trend of young people who dwell on the faults with America, which we all know punctuates our history, beginning with the oppression of the American Natives and the perpetuation of slavery and in more recent times, our willing embrace of abortions to kill our unborn. Indeed, our history is coming under attack and efforts are being made to re-write it and to even to redact parts of it from our school books. But he urges everyone to balance the bad with the good.  He urges us to go back and study our history – to re-establish those “mystic chords of memory” that hold us together as unified nation. With each chapter, Metaxas reminds us of individuals who, through their actions or words, embrace the values of the American experiment and exemplify the goodness of America.

If You Can Keep It prompts us to the urgency of our time. Our country continues to take misstep after misstep, consistently eroding morals and alienating religion. Corruption has undermined our confidence in the Rule of Law.  Our republic lies precariously on a precipice. If it tips too far to the left, we doom our republic and our last best chance to secure our freedom, especially the rights of minority groups.  And in doing so, we let down other nations and peoples of the world, who look to us to stand up for them and to export our values to their governments. After all, for over a hundred and fifty years, it was the “idea” of America that attracted the “tired, the poor, the homeless, and the wretched refuse” of other countries to our shores. It was America that provided a home for the “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And so, with Benjamin Franklin in mind and with Alexis de Tocqueville in mind, Eric Metaxas convincingly reminds us of our duty to “keep our republic.”  Our freedom, as Ronald Reagan once pointed out, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”  The answer, Metaxas suggests, is for us to be good again, to find heroes in our history and emulate them, and to rekindle the American spirit.

BOOK -  If You Can Keep It (Metaxas)