September 25, 2012 [How to Survive a Plague]

How to Survive a Plague chronicles a mighty effort: to deal with AIDS during the Reagan/Bush years. Just tapping out those words is daunting--I remember what the bigger better kinder gentler America was like during that decade-plus--and it was a struggle, mostly between those who saw the end at last to New Deal liberalism and those who knew that America was about to change. We were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oil--but also mid-Ayatollah, with the Soviet Union teetering on the brink of the Information Age and unable to keep its balance--plus Poland having enough of it and new waves of terrorism adding to an already-global sense that everyone's neighbor was building something dangerous in the basement.

Into this murk sprung Reagan with a kindly smile for some, a you-just-don't-get-it shake of the head for others, and a tear-down-that-wall growl for the cameras.  I'm long done joking about the actor in the White House, the Bedtime for Bonzo sneer. No matter what they were or what you thought of them, Reagan's promises were kept--and to do so he had to put up a wall against the facts of life.

--And into that murk sprung AIDS, and it was as though all the seething resentments of the past half-century had an outlet. There it was, a disease that seemed made especially for someone it was always safe to scorn, fags--and boy did we dive in.  I can't think of those years without recalling Eddie Murphy in, I think, Delirious--I'm not sure; one of his concert films--talking about girlfriends going out with their gay pal and getting a little kiss from him and coming home with that AIDS on their lips.  Man, was he funny.

--And into that murk sprung ACT UP, with its successes and missteps, even failures, but which rose up and fought back--and they were right all long: they ended up being us, as much Ryan White as Rock Hudson. And knowing that helped us finally to shut up--or at least show up--Jesse Helms and even, just a little, just for a while, the John Joseph O'Connors and Reaganites--and now here we are, trying hard to leave each other alone--the great American Dream of independence from other people's stupidity--while finding ways to lend a hand.  But Silence still = Death, and the good AIDS drugs we got at last should be just the start; after all, that urge to be left alone can be a knife, and it cuts both ways: We don't want to hear it any more, whether it's homophobia or racism or whatever wall we build because we're tired, we've got bigger problems than who marries whom and what we're supposed to do about it.  But if all those people who worked so hard in the '80s are dead now, somebody has to keep doing something--even if it's a misstep or failure.  How to Survive a Plague reminds me that silence can be a sin--with its own wages, its only wages, one decade after another.

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