Document:Cohen interviews Farber

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AIDS in Africa
an interview with Celia Farber
by Marcus A. Cohen

The Townsend Letter
December 2005

Seated next to us on the plane from Kenya back to London was a British gentleman who had been working with a water restoration program in Kenya for six months.
"That must have been interesting," I said. "Is the water really bad in Kenya?"
"Oh, my God," he said. "You should have seen it when we got there. People were so sick."
"Sick?" we said.
"Mmm. They had the most atrocious diarrhea and vomiting and abdominal pains."
I stared at him.
"How long has this been going on," I asked.
"Oh, about ten years."
"And did the symptoms subside when you cleaned the water?"
"Oh, absolutely."
Joan and I looked at each other, sighed and ordered a drink. Beneath us, Africa was disappearing, as we climbed higher and higher into the sky.
      — Farber, Celia, "Out of Africa, Part 2", Spin, April 1993

The excerpt above concluded a 2-part report on AIDS in central Africa, published in 1993. Celia Farber, the reporter, an independent journalist based in NYC, had flown to regions at the epicenter of African AIDS to observe conditions on the ground herself – rather than depend on stories by other Western journalists. Joan Shenton, a British TV documentary maker, and Dr. Harvey Bialy, an American molecular biologist, had traveled with her for the same essential reason. (See my column in this past November's Townsend for biographical information on Shenton and Bialy.)

Farber's 1993 reports left me with the impression that her investigation had been an emotionally draining experience, and that she was relieved to be jetting back with Joan Shenton to London. To offer an example: here's her picture of an older woman visited in a one-room stone house in the bush. The woman was sitting on a bench wringing her hands. Six of her ten children had died of diarrhea, all of them sons. In every case, Farber had been told, the cause was AIDS.

She was wearing a bright purple gown. She barely looked at me. Her eyes stayed on the floor. She had no spirit left. I sat next to her, stiff with discomfort, feeling like some kind of vulture, picking at the bones of human experience, and then flying off again. This is what's appalling about being a journalist in a situation like this, rather than interacting as a human would, with a touch, a few words of encouragement – anything – out comes your little investigative needle, poking and prodding for the facts. I didn't want to ask her anything, but I had to.

Prodded, the woman told Farber that one 13-year-old son had malaria, another 13-year-old son, typhoid.

"I had to ask her why, if at least two of her sons died of other diseases," wrote Farber, "she felt that all six died of AIDS, but she looked at me blankly."

Samuel Mulondo, a Radio Uganda journalist Farber had taken along as an interpreter, whispered to her, "She will tell you what she has been told, that it is HIV, and that it is sexually transmitted."

How Farber Came to Report on AIDS

I interviewed Celia Farber this past September. At the beginning of the session, she spoke about her formative years, and how nearly two decades ago, she took up writing on AIDS.

A native New Yorker, she moved with her mother and sister to Sweden at the age of 11, staying eight years, then returning to the US. At the time, the late 1970s, Sweden was what Farber termed a "pseudo-socialist society." Information was very tightly controlled. People were always supposed to affirm that they had the greatest government in the world. "It was like a doll house," she reflected. People weren't free to say what they wanted. The media, for instance, couldn't report that someone had committed suicide, despite Sweden having one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

"I grew up in a very politicized atmosphere," Farber said, "with people who were extremely vigilant about their identities and ideas. We all started out as hard leftists when we were no more than children, but we all transcended that haze when we realized what the European Left, in the shadow of the Soviet Union, actually stood for."

"For me, that break happened when I was 13 or 14. It all strikes me as rather incredible now. We were working class kids, not privileged kids, but for some reason we were obsessed with our ideas, and took ourselves very seriously."

"Punk had blown in from England. Stadium rock was a fallen empire." She laughed, went on, "Out with the Led Zeppelin albums, out with everything that represented power, elitism, the mighty governing the small or voiceless."

"We had a youth center in the middle of the city that we ran ourselves, and we fought the encroachment of the city government ferociously. That place was my home – it's a parking lot today. But my point, for the purposes here, is that the shift from socialism to anarchism happened like an earthquake – from love of state to dread of state. We weren't reading Marx anymore. We were reading the guys who tapped Marx on the shoulder and said, 'Dude, that part about how the state will dissolve itself at the end? That needs work.'"

"From that moment, to this day, I've had an instinctive danger response to anything that is state mandated or controlled. Far more simply, I should also say, my mother was my greatest teacher. A fighter, she always encouraged me to think for myself, ask, be alert."

In 1984, Farber returned to New York City with her mother and sister. She was just starting as a journalist, working as an intern at Spin, a music magazine, when she heard of AL 721, an egg-lipid compound developed in Israel. "I was very young, and I believed instantly in the mythological fantasy that there was a quote 'cure' for AIDS that was being suppressed by the government and by the pharmaceutical industry."

Approaching the publisher of Spin, Farber advised him, "There's this fantastic story about the cure for AIDS being suppressed. He listened, and at the end of the conversation he said 'Why don't you write it?' because he saw that I had such a passion for it." She then "embarked" on a year-long investigation of AL 721, which "led to nothing," she noted. "It probably wasn't bad for people, but it certainly did no good."

In the Walls, In the Air, In the Tree

Celia Farber stayed clear-eyed amid the misery and suffering she witnessed in Africa. That struck me forcibly. I might have become infuriated or teary viewing many of the horrendous scenes described in her 1993 reports. "How did you keep your composure?" I asked.

"I go into a different form when I'm reporting. It's a protection, a kind of disappearing...almost like I'm not really there, I'm not really myself. You can't make out my contours, or my personality. I'm sort of in the walls, in the air, in the tree. I absorb, ideally, through all my senses. A tape recorder, pen, these are the starting tools; but it's mostly in the senses. When I'm doing the writing, the feelings kick in. What we're talking about here is whether emotions distort or clarify."

"Where I really get angry is when I'm in one-on-one social situations, which I'm in all the time, when people are telling me that I didn't see what I saw, that I don't know what I know."

The Red-Ribbon Tyranny

I've written four columns in Townsend about censorship in medicine, [1] when theories about the cause or treatment of an illness petrify into dogma, and virtually everyone in healthcare and the associated media who disagree with the prevailing beliefs face denigration or ostracism by their peers, loss of research grants, or rejection of scientific papers or news stories submitted for publication. When Celia Farber reported during our interview, the derisive, incredulous response to her reports on AIDS, I encouraged her to explain how anybody who actually read her articles could imagine she'd fabricated them.

She replied in a flat, quiet voice, "I doubt that they do read the articles... There is a mass belief out there that protects people from having to read, having to travel, having to think, having to know. They just know. They will tell you they just know that whatever it is you're on about is bullshit, whatever it is you're on about is crazy, dangerous, murderous. And the burden of proof is not on them to read the stuff before they say that to me."

"If I was with somebody who's spent 20 years studying any subject, I would not have the gall to say 'whatever it is you're on about is crazy, and you're wrong.' I would defer to their depth of knowledge being much greater than mine... I might say it sounds strange, but I don't know; I haven't studied it. But people don't do that with AIDS. Everybody feels that they know it... It's a catechism. They know what AIDS is...what the right emotions are. It's the red ribbon tyranny...the pre-scripted dictatorship of AIDS emotionalism."

"But why do you think they do that," I wondered.

"Because it allows people a way en masse to be good, righteous, proper, superior, liberal – whatever you want – without having to lift a finger or move a brain cell."

I then suggested people do this mainly out of fear that their peers will ridicule them.

"Fear, yes," Farber said. "Arrogance, yes. Sometimes I conclude, especially lately, that it comes down to wanting to hold your life together, stable: if you want to get jobs, make money, be highly thought of, and advance, you don't question whether HIV causes AIDS. And there are all kinds of other things you don't question either. That's just understood, and known."

Farber paused, then considered additional possibilities. "There are certain ideas that for some reason are radioactive, and the people who are in power and in control have always sensed that... There's a hatred of dissidents...a visceral fear and loathing, a ferocious reaction... I've lived in the fire and fumes of that contempt for the last 20 years; it's had an enormous impact on me."

"And I've always asked, 'Why do you get so angry at me? Why are you so convinced that I'm irresponsible? How can it be irresponsible for me to ask a question if I'm a journalist and I genuinely don't know? How did you get to know that thing you say you know? I'd like to be there with you, but where's the bridge? How do you get there?' I'm not there, and I can't make that leap... What's that space between us? I still don't know."

She summed up, "I've witnessed the ugliest, meanest, most terrifying sides of human nature – betrayal, injustice, stupidity that would make your hair stand on end. But I've seen, too, incredible dignity, courage, and endurance in so many people, including some of the best scientific minds; these people sparkle all the more beautifully in the darkness."

Dry Sex?

Early in our interview, Farber said she hadn't come home from Africa in 1992 "with a harvest of answers" but "with damn good questions, questions that vibrated with the story." There really aren't "crystal clear answers from Africa about AIDS", she remarked. The one thing we do know, "categorically," is that the myths that have sprung up from Africa about AIDS are "positively absurd," she exploded, citing theories that HIV is rampantly spreading AIDS throughout Africa. "This really lifts off into science fiction."

Toward the end of the interview, Farber derided a notion common in the Western world that "African women stuff themselves with drying dry themselves out, because the men like their women dry. And then they get abrasions because they're so dry, and the virus finds a point of entry."

"What kind of mind would accept this nonsense? Dry sex, huh? Do you realize what that's a metaphor for? That means unwilling sex on the part of the woman. Now, we're on the scale of rape... We're with white Village Voice and Nation lefties sitting around convincing each other that most African sex happens in the context of rape...."

Her eyes darkened, "How dare they say that! How would you like it as a man if somebody said that you like your women dry?"

Comments on Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela

Thabo Mbeki, president of the Republic of South Africa, provoked howls of protest from the AIDS establishment in the fall of 1999 when his government announced it would suspend the use of AZT, pending reexamination of its toxicity. In 2000, Mbeki twice convened panels of experts representing both sides of the HIV controversy, and set the questions of AIDS causation and treatment at the top of the discussion agenda.

Celia Farber traveled again to Africa, to Pretoria (on her own dime), and published a report on Mbeki's initiatives ("AIDS & South Africa: A Contrary Conference in Pretoria," New York Press, May 25, 2000). It contained several paragraphs stating that Nelson Mandela – far more celebrated in the West than Mbeki for ridding black South Africans of the segregationist policies of Apartheid – had swung behind Mbeki's call for an open debate on AIDS.

At our interview, I requested updates from Farber on Mandela and Mbeki.

She sensed a policy rift between Mandela and Mbeki, which she's come to understand better through extensive reading and talks with South African journalists, black and white.

"I frequently speak and correspond with sources close to the AIDS fight in South Africa," she explained. "One of my trustworthy sources, a black, a dissenter on HIV, framed the rift this way: 'Nothing should be taken away from Mandela's great achievements, but of late some South Africans have come to look on him as a kind of mascot for the West. The West loves and adores him because he's agreed to be silent about Apartheid and what went on, which assuages guilt feelings about Apartheid. Mbeki is hated and feared in the West because he won't be silent about it. He sees this [HIV and toxic drug therapy] as a continuation of the Apartheid architecture and spirit.'"

"Is it true," I cut in, "that Mandela no longer supports Mbeki on HIV?"

"I put in my article that he was with Mbeki. It was true for a very brief moment. Then, he turned around, totally, very fast, adamantly. I suspect "they" got to him – Jimmy Carter and all those believing AIDS is pandemic in Africa, Black Africans know that to be loved by the West, you talk their line all the way – especially on AIDS."

"Imagine how much extra kudus Mandela got for putting down terrible Mbeki, who everybody was so distressed about. Now he goes straight to heaven – twice!"

"What does Mandela know about AIDS?" I interjected. "Does he read anything? At least Mbeki seems acquainted with medical studies on HIV and antiretroviral drugs."

"Mbeki reads!" Farber said. "He's an intellectual, open-minded," Farber stressed. "To read, think independently, take the path he's taken: that's the harder path – definitely not a path to earn love from the West."

"Perhaps it's not well appreciated here," she added, "but Thabo Mbeki and his father Govan are deeply loved by the majority of black South Africans; they're regarded as royalty in the lineage of those who battled Apartheid. Current Western coverage of Mbeki, with its hyper-focus on his AIDS 'denialism,' utterly misses this. And 'denial' is the last word I would use for what Mbeki is doing; he appears to understand AIDS at its roots, in all its implications, especially racial."

Correspondent Rachel Swarns and The New York Times

In her New York Press report on the Pretoria AIDS panels in 2000, Celia Farber included a quotation from Mbeki's welcoming speech: "He addresses us, his voice melodic and gentle, quoting Irish poetry, asking rhetorically if he might be a fool. 'Indeed, when eminent scientists said, 'You have spoken out of turn,' it was difficult to think I was not a fool,' he said. 'You cannot respond to a catastrophe merely by saying, I will respond in a way that is routine. We must never freeze scientific discourse at a particular point.' He detailed the trajectory of his own skepticism, and said that the data on HIV and AIDS in Africa had confounded him."

Farber's very next paragraph read: "Days later, Rachel Swarns of The New York Times would report that he 'knew that the human immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS.' He said no such thing. I called Swarns twice for comment. At print time, she has not responded."

"How could Swarns just make up a statement for Mbeki?" I asked, flabbergasted.

"I'm glad you caught that. That made me crazy," she laughed. "I think what you're asking is the same question I'm wondering about too: how is it possible for them to do such violence to reality, to language?"

"All I can say is that it would take your breath away to see them do it, but they do it. They do it because they can. They do it because they're The New York Times. They just do it."

"It shouldn't surprise you that The New York Times gets things not wrong but inside out, upside down. What she's saying [Swarns], she's actually having a living fantasy at the moment. She's saying this is what Mbeki should have said.... And, damn it, we're The New York Times and we're going to make him say it. Guess what? He said it. Magic! But he didn't say it."


Ideally, we expect reporters to function as our surrogate eyes and ears, bringing us news about events and people they cover. We're schooled here in the US to accept their accounts as credible. That some correspondents distort or misrepresent what's happening right in front of them, and a few lie outright or otherwise fabricate, is an uncomfortable reality that hits us as we get on in life. Still, when a reporter with a bellwether newspaper like The New York Times puts into the mouth of a person words that were never spoken, it can, as Celia Farber said, "take your breath away."

Farber's reports on AIDS in Africa impress me as truthful. By that I mean she appears to have done what dependable reporters are supposed to do: stick to what one really sees and hears on the ground (as best one can), admit uncertainty and lack of knowledge when one is unfamiliar with the events and scenes being covered, and include relevant viewpoints on all sides of a story.

I'm concluding this column with one of the many observations Farber made in her reports "Out Of Africa," the kind that raise "damn good questions" – questions that the powers that be are attempting to stifle, not consider, much less answer.

We drove deeper into the bush until we reached another clearing. This one seemed to be a little village, with a small cluster of huts. There was garbage everywhere, and plastic bowls in bright colors, and coils of black smoke rising here and there, but no food. It was very quiet; the only sound was the tap of the rain. We walked up to one of the huts. Inside, the floor of the hut was filled with women sitting on the floor. In the middle of the hut, against the wall, was a coffin. A candle and a picture of Christ hung over it. One older woman was draped over the coffin, sobbing. The others sat very still and quiet, looking on. Outside, another 20 or so women gathered.
I felt very uncomfortable, very invasive, and I whispered to one of the men, "Thank you, but can we go now?" But he started motioning me into the hut, pointing to the coffin. He virtually pushed me up to the doorway where I stood transfixed as one of the women slowly lifted the lid of the coffin and then started to peel away the layers of white cloth that covered the dead man's face. When the crying women caught sight of her son's face, she let out a loud cry and one of the other women gripped her. His face was gaunt and his nostrils were stuffed with cotton. He looked about 30.
I don't know anything about the man, his history, or the cause of his death. I don't know whether he died of AIDS. But it struck me as slightly odd that the two gentlemen from the AIDS organization kept saying, over and over, that he had died of AIDS. I don't know whether he had even been to a hospital, had ever been tested for HIV. But they did say that he hadn't been sick for long, which was rather typical. Scores of men getting sick and dying within a matter of months is not a description that fits what we in the West refer to as AIDS. [2]

My next and final column on AIDS will evaluate sources that present conflicting pictures of what's happening in African AIDS.


  1.   Townsend Letter. Aug./Sept. 2004 through Dec. 2004.
  2.   Farber, Celia, 1993. "Out of Africa, Part 2", Spin, April 1993.

© 2005 by Marcus A. Cohen
Originally published at The Townsend Letter