TORONTO -- Remember the 60s song, "I fought the law and the law won"? Forty years after the tune came out, people are still humming it, at least I am -- although I've changed the lyrics a bit to sum up the political consequences of this AIDS conference. I'm not sure that the 24,000 delegates would like the new lyric I've thought up for them, but here goes, anyway: I fought AIDS and the Right won.
What does that mean? Well, let's consider three true statements about the last 25 years:
First, AIDS has skyrocketed, from zero to 28 million deaths, with another 43 million people diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Second, spending on AIDS has skyrocketed, into the tens, even hundreds, of billions of dollars. An appreciable chunk of that money, of course, has been spent by -- and on -- the activists and operatives who are gathered here at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. These are the folks who run the ministries, philanthropies, and NGOs that constitute the "AIDS-Industrial Complex."
Third, the world has moved to the right, politically, during the same period. We can start with the US, dominated during the last quarter-century by starboard-leaning leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush. Here in Canada, the Prime Minister is Stephen Harper, a conservative who refused even to come to this conference. And to the south, Mexico just elected another conservative. Meanwhile, in Europe, such dominant figures as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, and Silvio Berlusconi were on the right. And even their more liberal successors, many of them, were not exactly leftists, e.g. Tony Blair. Continuing our political survey, let's look elsewhere -- to, say, Russia. Say what you want about Vladimir Putin, he's no liberal.
And how about elsewhere around the world? In Asia, India is run these days by Hindu nationalists. China is run by Chinese nationalists, and Japan -- we know about Japanese leaders visiting their glory-days World War Two shrines. And Australia? John Howard, George W. Bush's good friend, has been in power for a decade and seems likely to stay for at least another term. And how about the Muslim world? There, the anti-liberal backlash has been, shall we say, pronounced, as ayatollahs and imams with beards reshape politics from Indonesia to Egypt to London. To be sure, there are counter-indicators, such as much of Latin America, which is voting left these days; yet even there, many leftists, including Brazil's Lula, aren't so left. Parenthetically, we might observe that the popular culture in many countries is libertarian, even libertine -- although it's probably only a matter of time before the political culture exerts its conservatizing influence.
So let's pause to consider these three up-arrow indicators: first, rising AIDS cases; second, rising AIDS activism; third, the rising political fortunes of the right. Coincidence? Or is there a linkage?
If there is a linkage -- if AIDS has pushed planetary politics to the right -- that's surely not what the people gathered here had in mind. But of course, as we have seen so often in the past century, lefty politics have a way of boomeranging, generating unintended consequences of the bitterest kind.
But let's take a quick look back at the history of AIDS activism. In the early 80s, when AIDS was seen as a mostly gay disease, activists and their allies got together and said, in effect, "We are going to turn this tragedy into a positive. In addition to digging deep into our own pockets, we are going to lobby for government money to help find a cure and to pay for treatment. But then we are going to go further. We are going to follow the example of the civil rights movement and mobilize for political equality. We are going to draw upon the moral capital generated by all those names on The Quilt in order to persuade politicians that we have suffered enough. And so we will get our equal rights, the elimination of vice squads, sodomy laws, and so on." Powered by an enormous culture-shaping campaign alongside the political campaign -- that is, red ribbons, pink triangles, any number of TV specials -- AIDS-tivism burgeoned into a locomotive that drove to spectacular success in the 80s and 90s. For awhile, it seemed even as if legalized gay unions, and gay marriage, might be achievable.
But then the progress started to slow. Conservative Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and regained the White House in 2000. These GOPers were not out to push gays back in the closet -- and some of them were generous on AIDS funding, albeit never enthusiastic about condoms -- but the political landscape had changed. Moreover, right-tilting "pro-family" groups realized that they could win anti-gay marriage referenda in just about every state, even in liberal states such as Oregon. Indeed, it's arguable that ballot measures declaring that marriage is between one man and one woman cost John Kerry the White House in 2004, as conservative voters turned out in such electoral battlegrounds as Ohio; the Buckeye State, of course, went "red" for Bush, giving him the White House.
I am not arguing that there is a strict causal relationship between the advance of gay rights and the subsequent counter-advance of conservative Republicanism. Other issues, too, have played a role, including economic and foreign policy concerns. However, it's hard to have lived through recent decades and not come to the conclusion that "social issues" pushed many onetime New Deal Democrats into the arms of the Grand Old Party. The National Organization for Women, for example, was founded in 1966 -- and subsequently Democrats, having won seven of the previous nine presidential elections, proceeded to lose seven of the next ten White House contests. And while lefty feminists might console themselves with the thought that it was just "angry white patriarchs" who backlashed against them, a look at the numbers shows that many anti-NOW women bulked up those Nixon, Reagan, and Bush majorities.
I tried out my first-second-third observation -- AIDS + AIDS activism = Republican victories -- on various participants and observers here in Toronto, in informal settings that don't give me the right to quote those I was talking to. Suffice it to say that there was some grudging acknowledgement that world-politics had turned to the right, and that perhaps social-issue backlash was part of the rightward shift.
But then came the preferred answer: "We must try harder." That is, push harder -- onward the march of progress! Forward with the social revolution! As one participant told a friend of mine, being here in Toronto is "like marching in the 60s." And that march, of course, is now worldwide. When I suggested to another participant that perhaps AIDS activism was generating pushback in, for example, India, that participant told me, point blank, "Hinduism is a dirty religion that needs to be confronted." Get the picture, Hindus? It is, of course, impossible to reconcile traditional Hindu gender-practices with Western values -- but that's the point. If the Hindus get to decide these matters (and the issue of who rules India was decided in favor of the Indians when the British left in 1947), then Western well-wishers need to show restraint in their approach to reform in other countries.
But restraint, or any sort of empathy for other people's views, particularly on sexual issues, is in short supply here. For example, I am pretty sure that most of the people in the world -- First World as well as Third -- think that abstinence is a good idea, including a good idea for avoiding AIDS. And yet the activists here in Toronto scorned any reference to abstinence; even the great Bill Gates was booed when he used the "A" word.
A similarly impermeable liberal cant prevailed in politics, too. I heard Richard Gere rip into Stephen Harper, the recently elected leader of Canada who chose not to attend this conference: "I think you have a prime minister who is going to be deeply apologetic," the movie actor declared about Harper's no-show, an assertion based on zero evidence. And of course, George Bush gets it in the neck all the time in these parts, despite committing $15 billion in US tax money to AIDS work; here's a typical headline from The Gay City News, published out of New York: "Toronto AIDS Conference Targets Bush". Does one suppose that Harper and Bush will be intimidated by such name-calling? Will their supporters be won over? The record, as noted, suggests just the opposite. So if I were a political liberal, I might say that such conservative-bashing makes for a good definition of political insanity -- that is, doing the same thing over and over again, and happily so, even if means making the political problem worse.
But it's a free conference, in a free country. If the activists here want to trash Bush, as well as most Republicans and conservatives, that's their prerogative -- just as it's the prerogative of voters to weigh, according to their own standards, the merits of the trashers and the trashees. But of course, in the West, the stakes are relatively low. Thanks to better treatments and changed behavior patterns, the impact of AIDS in America and other industrialized countries is much diminished. Having the HIV virus is a serious matter, of course, but it's not an automatic death sentence.
But the Third World tells a different -- much different -- story. Dr. Kent A. Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, provides vital perspective in a recent piece entitled, "One Disease, Two Epidemics -- AIDS at 25," appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine. Reviewing the politico-medical changes over the past quarter-century, Sepkowitz declares, "The most salient change was a widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, so that today a single virus is responsible for two distinct public health calamities" -- that is, one calamity for rich countries, and another calamity, infinitely worse, for poor countries.
In fact, the face of AIDS has changed, from a white gay man to a black or brown female. Sixty percent of all HIV cases worldwide now are female; gay men are just five percent of the global total. And in Africa and Asia, AIDS is still a merciless mass killer, with victims potentially numbering in the hundreds of millions. So if, as we have seen, the political impact of AIDS on the West was significant, it only stands to reason that the political impact of AIDS will be vastly more significant on "The South." And so we might explore the further question: If AIDS drove the politics of the First World to the right, what will be the political impact of AIDS on the Third World?
One thing is for sure: The sexual-political message beaming out of Toronto, aimed at the Third World, is an unrelenting assault on social conservatism. I heard a torrent of sex-drenched verbiage from white people, all aimed at browbeating mostly non-white people into changing their traditional ways. Melinda Gates, for example, attacked politicians who insist on attaching "stigma" to "sex workers" -- that being the politically correct term for prostitutes. Such stigma is "irrational," said the wife of the computer-software mogul, because "people who are involved in sex work are crucial allies in the fight to end AIDS." My guess is that it would be hard to get elected governor of the state of Washington on such a platform, let alone governor of Waziristan or Wake Island.
Then, still bathing in audience approbation, she continued, "Stigma makes it easier for political leaders to stand in the way of saving lives." Now let's stop right there for a second. Ms. Gates just said that political leaders in various countries are willing to see their own people die rather than wave away the stigma of the sex trade. So let's ask ourselves: Even if that accusation is true -- and it might be -- how will such words be received in Third World countries? Will a rich white woman be an effective voice for social transformation in, say, India? Or in Nigeria? Or Indonesia? Will leaders in these countries slap their foreheads, and say, "I'm wrong! Mrs. Gates is right! I'll change my hoary attitudes on whoredom!" Is that the way human nature works? Is that the way politicians think?
Peter Piot, the head of UNAIDS, waded even further into rhetorical neocolonialism. He told the same crowd that one "leg" of the anti-AIDS effort is "investments in prevention." But another "leg," he added, to rising applause, is "social change," addressing "gender inequality" and, of course, "homophobia." One can only wonder how those words played outside of Toronto, outside of Canada. Actually, we don't need to wonder, because we know the answer: The UN's record on actually alleviating AIDS is abysmal; the World Health Organization's "3 by 5" program, which aimed to treat three million AIDS patients by 2005, was a bust, missing its targets by half. So maybe, just maybe, Piot & Co. should be less judgmental about others and their reactionary values -- and more judgmental about themselves, and their own incompetence.
The true victims, of course, are people in the Third World, who are dying of a very real disease that won't be cured by piously p.c. lectures from the West. As Frika Chia Iskandar, a young Indonesian woman with HIV, told the conference, in English words that might have been garbled but nonetheless came through loud and clear, "We have to say it's changing, but it's not happening."
Here's my prediction. With tens of millions already dead, the reality of this tragedy is going to overwhelm the brittle mechanisms of secularism. Whether the AIDS Establishment in the West likes it or not, most people in the world are going to process this tragedy in the way that people have always processed tragedy -- by moving toward tradition, toward the moral shock-absorption of religious belief. In other words, a Great Awakening, in many different faiths in addition to Christianity, is coming. Or, to put the likely phenomenon in a political framework, the world is likely to move to the right.
We can be reasonably optimistic, based on recent history, that scientific medicine will survive this anti-modern onslaught. But it's not likely that liberalism, and liberationism, will survive without severe modifications.
So what we have seen in the West these past 25 years is likely to be seen in the rest of the world, too, including Africa. That's good news for fundamentalist and conservative Christians, but it's also good news for devout Muslims and Hindus and other faiths.
I don't think they understand that here in Toronto, however. Here, it's full speed ahead, steaming toward the promised land of Erewhon, where sexual freedom flows from every fountain and gender justice bubbles from every spring.
So there's no point in my telling these AIDS-tivists anything different, because people hate to believe what they hate to hear. But they'll find out soon enough, when their good ship lollipop crashes on the bitter rocks of unyielding cultural conservatism.
I won't say that the laws of Mother Nature require a conservative response to AIDS. But I will say that the laws of human nature require a conservative response. And as we all know from the song, we can fight the law, but the law always wins.
James Pinkerton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and TCS Daily's media critic.