March 18, 2008

The Truth Is Far Worse than Any Conspiracy

Yesterday, I posted a brief entry in the nature of introductory comments about the many issues raised by the Obama-Wright controversy. In many ways, what is much more significant -- and much more revealing -- than any of Wright's comments themselves, is the manner in which those comments have been processed through the distorted and distorting prisms of American media and of most of those who have written about this episode. Later today or tomorrow, I'll have much more on this complicated subject, including some thoughts about Obama's speech. For the moment, I will remind you of what should be the most obvious point of all: Obama is a politician. And he is not just any politician: he wants to hold the most powerful office in the history of the world. Anyone who wishes to hold the office of president of the United States -- anyone who actively wants to hold that kind of life and death power over many millions of people, not just in the United States but around the world -- is never going to tell you the full truth, or anything close to it. If you're looking for truth, I suggest you read more. You will need to choose what you read with considerable care. You will not find any approximation of the truth in the political sphere, especially in the corrupt and corrupting politics practiced today and for many decades past in this country.

Here, I want to offer some observations about one particular comment of Wright's, a comment that everyone has denounced and that everyone has been at pains to condemn as particularly outrageous. I am referring to Wright's remark that the U.S. government "lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." I have read many commentaries about the Wright affair, and I have yet to come across anyone who dares to challenge the prevailing reaction to this particular remark. Everyone agrees that this view is absolutely insane, that it is not an opinion that could be offered by any "decent" person, and that it should be unequivocally condemned.

You're all wrong. This is not to say that I share Wright's view on this subject, which I do not as explained more fully below. But you are wrong if you condemn it in the manner everyone does.

In many essays here, I have lamented the ignorance of almost all Americans, including our entire political class and almost all of our media voices, about every relevant aspect of history, political theory, the development and evolution of political systems over time, and all other subjects that make possible an understanding of how we arrived at the present moment, and of how we might attempt to extricate ourselves from the mounting catastrophes that surround us. Almost a year ago, in "Songs of Death," I offered some relevant observations on this point. I noted a passage from a major foreign policy address given by Obama:
I reject the notion that the American moment has passed. I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.

I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world why this is so. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more.
About this, I wrote:
The ahistorical arrogance of this is breathtaking (or nauseating, take your pick). Obama's hegemonic ambitions are noteworthy in their scale: "the American moment" is to extend for "this new century." This is the undiluted embrace of "American exceptionalism," which I have discussed in detail: see my first Iran/foreign policy series, in particular "Messianic Zealotry as Foreign Policy" and the discussion there of the "Idea of Progress"; and the new "Dominion" series too, especially this installment and this one. Those essays discuss some of the internal inconsistencies and contradictions of the "exceptionalist" doctrine, one for which no one has ever been able to provide a convincing proof. Such a failure is unavoidable, since no such proof exists or is possible.

Let me very briefly mention another insurmountable problem in this view, and that is its assumption of omniscience. Note the famous formulation, which almost every politician robotically repeats: "the last, best hope of Earth." Well, "last" and "best" until another candidate appears better able to fill the generally accepted requirements for world leadership. Consider one instance of what I mean: if we continue on our present path, it is more than likely that "this new century" will see a significant economic weakening in the U.S., perhaps even a financial collapse. It is further likely that at some point in the next 50 or 100 years, our currently unparalleled military strength will be surpassed by China, for example. If China has undergone some not unimportant transformations of its own by that time (which is also far from unimaginable), China might then be able to make claims like Obama's with much more truth and conviction than the United States.

This point is in addition to the fact that every great civilization of the past has, in some form, made claims like those made by "American exceptionalism." Their time came and went, as will ours. But as I recently observed [in "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder"], our ignorance is close to perfect: we have rendered ourselves incapable of grasping the past, the present or the future. Understanding developments over broad historic periods is a task for which we are singularly unsuited, and our sole concern remains today and tomorrow, and at most the next election. In addition, to talk accurately and sensibly about such matters flatters the vanity of neither the political class nor Americans more generally. Even though it is the truth, no one wants to hear: "The United States represented a revolutionary and glorious political development at its founding. But the original principles upon which this nation rested began to be seriously eroded only one hundred years later, and today they are all but vanished. Unless we again radically alter our path, we are headed to the trash heap of history, like every nation of once great achievement before us." Such views need not apply: they will not garner large campaign contributions, they will not lead to speaking engagements, and they will certainly not get you to the White House.
To return to Wright's now infamous and impermissible comment about the HIV virus, the following is why you should set aside your knee-jerk outrage and your real (or feigned) astonishment. This is the history you should remember, or learn for the first time. And please note: this is not distant history. In historic terms, this happened only yesterday.

Remember, and try to understand:
For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. Informed that they were being treated for "bad blood,"1 their doctors had no intention of curing them of syphilis at all. The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis -- which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. "As I see it," one of the doctors involved explained, "we have no further interest in these patients until they die."

The true nature of the experiment had to be kept from the subjects to ensure their cooperation. The sharecroppers' grossly disadvantaged lot in life made them easy to manipulate. Pleased at the prospect of free medical care—almost none of them had ever seen a doctor before—these unsophisticated and trusting men became the pawns in what James Jones, author of the excellent history on the subject, Bad Blood, identified as "the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history."

The study was meant to discover how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites—the theory being that whites experienced more neurological complications from syphilis whereas blacks were more susceptible to cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge would have changed clinical treatment of syphilis is uncertain. Although the PHS touted the study as one of great scientific merit, from the outset its actual benefits were hazy. It took almost forty years before someone involved in the study took a hard and honest look at the end results, reporting that "nothing learned will prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us closer to our basic mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States." When the experiment was brought to the attention of the media in 1972, news anchor Harry Reasoner described it as an experiment that "used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone."

By the end of the experiment, 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis. How had these men been induced to endure a fatal disease in the name of science? To persuade the community to support the experiment, one of the original doctors admitted it "was necessary to carry on this study under the guise of a demonstration and provide treatment." At first, the men were prescribed the syphilis remedies of the day—bismuth, neoarsphenamine, and mercury—but in such small amounts that only 3 percent showed any improvement. These token doses of medicine were good public relations and did not interfere with the true aims of the study. Eventually, all syphilis treatment was replaced with “pink medicine”—aspirin. To ensure that the men would show up for a painful and potentially dangerous spinal tap, the PHS doctors misled them with a letter full of promotional hype: "Last Chance for Special Free Treatment." The fact that autopsies would eventually be required was also concealed. As a doctor explained, "If the colored population becomes aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County..." Even the Surgeon General of the United States participated in enticing the men to remain in the experiment, sending them certificates of appreciation after 25 years in the study.


One of the most chilling aspects of the experiment was how zealously the PHS kept these men from receiving treatment. When several nationwide campaigns to eradicate venereal disease came to Macon County, the men were prevented from participating. Even when penicillin was discovered in the 1940s—the first real cure for syphilis—the Tuskegee men were deliberately denied the medication. During World War II, 250 of the men registered for the draft and were consequently ordered to get treatment for syphilis, only to have the PHS exempt them. Pleased at their success, the PHS representative announced: "So far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment." The experiment continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring testing and treatment for venereal disease, and in spite of the World Health Organization's Declaration of Helsinki (1964), which specified that "informed consent" was needed for experiment involving human beings.


The PHS did not accept the media's comparison of Tuskegee with the appalling experiments performed by Nazi doctors on their Jewish victims during World War II. Yet in addition to the medical and racist parallels, the PHS offered the same morally bankrupt defense offered at the Nuremberg trials: they claimed they were just carrying out orders, mere cogs in the wheel of the PHS bureaucracy, exempt from personal responsibility.

The study's other justification -- for the greater good of science -- is equally spurious. Scientific protocol had been shoddy from the start. Since the men had in fact received some medication for syphilis in the beginning of the study, however inadequate, it thereby corrupted the outcome of a study of "untreated syphilis."

In 1990, a survey found that 10 percent of African Americans believed that the U.S. government created AIDS as a plot to exterminate blacks, and another 20 percent could not rule out the possibility that this might be true. As preposterous and paranoid as this may sound, at one time the Tuskegee experiment must have seemed equally farfetched. Who could imagine the government, all the way up to the Surgeon General of the United States, deliberately allowing a group of its citizens to die from a terrible disease for the sake of an ill-conceived experiment? In light of this and many other shameful episodes in our history, African Americans' widespread mistrust of the government and white society in general should not be a surprise to anyone.
That last paragraph states the point very well. If you know and understand this awful, horrifying history -- and this is only one of innumerable and terrible injustices visited on black Americans by the U.S. government -- you will not be so quick to condemn Wright, if you condemn him at all.

As I indicated above, I do not agree with Wright. But I do not for the general reason that I reject all conspiracies of this kind: I apply Occam's Razor. Where factors already exist of which we are aware and which fully explain the phenomenon in question, it is unnecessary and unjustified to reach for explanations for which scant or no evidence exists. We need not invent conspiracies, when facts readily available make horrors like the Tuskegee "experiment" completely understandable.

A viciously ignorant and murderous racism lies at the core of American history. This racism is built into our major institutions in complex ways; it was obviously a foundation of the U.S. Public Health Service before, during and after this vile episode. This racism is deeply embedded in and carried throughout such bureaucracies: ignorance and prejudice determine which actions are taken, which are not, how decisions are made and implemented, and many other aspects of the functioning of these government agencies. In the same way, the U.S. government was criminally slow in responding to the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It was not that anyone deliberately set out to kill large numbers of black Americans, or gay Americans. Such a calculated decision to murder was entirely unnecessary: the populations that suffered the most from this particular constellation of health problems were those that were already disfavored. Black Americans weren't "real" Americans in the ways that whites are; gay Americans were (and are) Freaks. Who cared if large numbers of them died, even when many of those deaths might have been avoided? After all, it's not as if people personally known to those in powerful positions were suffering and dying. No one who "mattered" was living -- and dying -- in agony. Besides, it was a sexually transmitted disease in significant part. Anyone who got sick that way was an animal. Why should the government go out of its way to help animals like that? Many Americans still believe that today. To all such people, I respond as I did at the conclusion of "We Are Not Freaks," in a manner not unfamiliar to Jeremiah Wright: God damn you to hell.

Study history, remember Tuskegee and the many other instances of unforgivable barbarity inflicted on black Americans. Think very, very carefully before you offer your easy condemnations. Then think again. The fact that most others will join you in those condemnations does not make any of you right. It is entirely possible that all of you are grievously, terribly wrong.

For the reasons noted above, you are.