Document:Evans interviews Farber
NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER NOTICE ON THIS PAGE, the material on this page is NOT available under the GNU Free Documentation License; in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, it is posted in the manner of bulletin boards in schools and workplaces, to encourage public education and citizen awareness, without profit or payment, for persons and entities engaging in non-profit research and educational activities and purposes only.
14 December 2006
One of the most tragic stories of the AIDS crisis is the excoriation of those – journalists, researchers, patients – whose voices are silenced by a 20-year orthodoxy of media hype, drug money and scientific stardom. Journalist Celia Farber, deemed controversial and an HIV denialist by many, has spent two decades reporting the dark, greedy history of AIDS, played out by drug companies, the government and people on the street.
Her new book, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS (Melville House, 348 pp.), is a collection of her AIDS reportage, many of the pieces updated or revised for the book. Uncensored is a most appropriate word for this outsider’s account of the shady world of the AIDS industry in which, as Farber has learned, to even ask questions that don’t conform to orthodox views conjures hatred. These include pieces on protease inhibitor drugs and their toxicity, AIDS patients who test HIV-negative and, simply, whether HIV causes AIDS.
Recently, Farber published an article in Harper’s Magazine ("Out of Control," March 2006) detailing the twisted history of HIVNET, a clinical trial for the drug nevirapine, which ended up an unmitigated disaster of corrupt and inconclusive data (National Institute of Health director of clinical research operations, Jonathan Fishbein, exposed the story and was fired). The article is prefaced with the tragic story of Joyce Ann Hafford, a pregnant woman who, at the time, tested positive for HIV. She was part of a clinical trial involving the same drug, to which she had a deadly reaction that ultimately killed her.
Much of Farber’s reportage has followed the HIV/AIDS causation theory (and the refusal of many organizations, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, to investigate possible multifactorial causes), including University of California scientist Peter Duesberg’s critique (challenging HIV’s ability to destroy cells), for which she’s been hated by media and AIDS organizations alike. Some shamelessly equate her with a murderer or Holocaust denier. Despite the fact that these issues were barely mentioned in the Harper’s piece, a swarm of people (including Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology, who claims to have discovered HIV in 1984, despite publishing his findings with no peer review, and who has also been found guilty of misconduct with his own research) came out to attack her and the story.
Fast Forward recently talked to Farber about the history of AIDS, the Harper’s aftermath and the future of AIDS reportage.
Q: How did you get involved with AIDS reportage?
A: I’ve heard myself saying the topic chose me. It started with fear – I’d just moved to New York and like everybody at the time, believed the fire and brimstone message that we would all die of AIDS. Everybody fit into some category of risk. In my case, I had been living with a guy who was a heroin addict. But the model was, everyone would go down from sexual doom. I was terrified and I started to research my way out of the terror and hypochondria.
In my first year of college, I was in a program that encouraged life credits, so I called Spin magazine. After a year I was working there as a research assistant. I was very open to all kinds of ideas, be they contrarian, unproven or considered crazy. As fate would have it, Bob Guccione Jr. decided to start an AIDS column. The second one was a question and answer with Peter Duesberg. For me, the earth split. I understood it was a huge story, but didn’t know at the time that I would be carrying the weight and fate of the question as it would be posed. It excited me as a journalist – the idea of such a schism between the two sides. We did stories on all parts of the pie, but the HIV causation theory I kept returning to. Over time, we realized there would be dire consequences to this beautiful questioning stuff – a lawsuit and attacks on the column.
Q:How do you state your views on the HIV/AIDS controversy?
A: If I could address or correct one thing about the drama of this mess, it would be (to say) listen to me, please. Chronicling different perspectives cannot be considered journalistic heresy. I know I’m innocent as charged. What I’m held accountable for, what they’re trying to accuse me of, is carrying the burden of the questions that were in the air. I could call eminent scientists who are far from resolved on these questions. I’m shocked that journalism’s raison d’être is that I have to defend this charge, basically answering the question of why. Because I’m a journalist! It’s really weird and American – a fetishization not to believe anything crazy or unusual.
In the wake of Iraq it has become easier for me. The scope of the machinery of government deception to completely blindside and commit fraud is now mainstream. That is now what is at the core and what is spooking the AIDS hypothesis. We’re just at the beginning of the phase where people are starting to say, ‘OK, maybe something’s wrong.’
Q: How has the aftermath of the Harper’s article affected you?
A: I’m OK now. In the beginning, there was a silence followed by an explosion of rage and internal condemnation. I was frightened. I’m human. I opened a document, "Fifty-six Errors in Farber’s Article," and all I had to do is read one line and I thought, ‘How lost these poor bastards are.’ I saw the smoke and noise on the page, the low quality and I knew we were safe. I knew they hadn’t unearthed some deeper reality that saw my article was wrong. We spent three months fact-checking that article. Harper’s was divine, not acknowledging terrorist threats. AIDS had been all about hysteria, and it was beautiful not to follow the hysteria where everyone cries and apologizes – this quasi-religious experience, stuff that doesn’t belong in a scientific debate.
I was apoplectic, shocked, not amazed and sometimes completely bored with it all. They started pelting everyone in sight about how awful I was. For a long time I’ve felt like I’ve been in a mini-dictatorship that refuses the reality I’ve witnessed for 20 years. [When the Harper’s piece was published] was the moment I realized how hysterical and vicious the orthodoxy would be.
I don’t feel guilty. There are no bad questions. The big monster attacked its target, but the target wouldn’t respond. What Harper’s did, is respond by publishing letters. That was that. Nobody could believe it, because AIDS activism always had an esprit, vibe of threat, of violence. Harper’s didn’t allow itself to be bullied.
There were some brilliant moments of Monty Python absurdity. In the New York Times, rather than quote someone close to the Hafford family, or someone who could speak to the documented tragedies, they quoted a gay man expressing rue and sorrow of loss and trust in Harper’s. The media forms these hornet swarms of here’s ‘what the story is.’ It was communicated that the story was not one of the tragic murder of a pregnant woman in Tennessee, or a scandalous trial of African murder, but that ‘Harper’s commits suicide, Harper’s publishes denialist.’ The writer couldn’t condemn the article or read it – it became clear that [they] hadn’t read my story.
Q: It’s disturbing that an organization like the National Institute of Health (NIH) is perceived as immune from scrutiny.
A: It’s a strange, hovering daddy figure that nobody seems to criticize. It’s connected to the fundamental fear that this is an organization fighting death, so you don’t want to distrust it and shake its cage. HIV/AIDS is a paradigm of seized and arbitrary authority. I and many others have said, ‘Who elected these people?’
Q: Is the future of AIDS drugs more tales of AZT, protease inhibitors and HIVNET? Are there developments you think might prove to be beneficial?
A: It seems the orthodoxy is phasing out the AIDS drugs in number and toxicity. It used to be pills every three hours, a punishing masochistic ethos. Now they’re proudly talking about only taking a few pills a day. I think it will shrink and shrink until they can credit one pill a day or claim some genetic mutation will put an end to the AIDS threat.
Like South Africa, there comes a point when heaving totalitarian structures know the gig is up. I have even been in a few situations where people on the other side have invited me to converse, like peace talks. They need an out and the dissidents would be quite helpful with that. One researcher said we have to help them take down the monster because they don’t know how.
Q: Addressing Africa, much of what has gone on there has been mired in racism and a catchall doomsday attitude. I would think it obvious that sustainable resources would lead directly to the questioning of how diagnoses are made. Where do you see the continent in the future role in the history of AIDS?
A: This is a crisis that is entirely necessary between the west and Africa, who is leading the dance. What must happen is that western corporations, with their religious beliefs, superstitions and forms of racism must cease and desist. Leaders like [South African president] Thabo Mbeki have to stand up. Mbeki is despised because he has no interest in the victim model. Unlike his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, he finds it important to talk about Apartheid. [South Africans have] been down this road before and know what’s going on. I know they’re going to lead the way out of this. They have a few armies of pharma-juiced attack hounds who make the world think that Mbeki is a murderer, but what’s going on on the ground has no relationship to what you read in the liberal white western media.
Ninety per cent of the population is black, but we never hear from them. It’s extraordinary that people think it appeared first in Africa – how ex nihlio and unprecedented that is.
Q: How is AIDS defined now? How can it be redefined?
A: The language is so tied up with the lingua franca of AIDS. Gay men started coming down with a syndrome in the early ’80s. The best book I know of that time is Michelle Cochrane’s When AIDS Began. She examines in blistering detail the first 15 cases of AIDS. All were heavy drug users, many were homeless, living in conditions of squalor. All were not gay. What they had in common health-wise were the conditions of poverty.
We’re not protected from microbial and chemical assaults – all through the ages people get sick, so from one direction, one could have made a case for AIDS having nothing to do with gay men and everything to do with the chemical assaults that came into play through the gay culture. It could have been the "anything" culture – being gay or having anal sex isn’t by itself disease causing, but what could be is exposure to many, many foreign semens, which causes a foreign immune reaction.
Drugs were on the scene – poppers and constant antibiotic use – causing a cocktail of devastating reactions. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s multifactorial. They pinned a retroviral construct on it, devised a test and once it was launched, the whole situation became inverted – now anyone who tested positive would develop the syndrome, which was so broad that anyone could qualify. Everything was piled into the syndrome, so it created this mass fear and hypochondria, a death wish. Now we can no longer see what is going on objectively.
The definition of AIDS expanded once the [U.S.] federal government feared it would lose money. And Africans – insanely, absurdly – didn’t require an HIV test. The definition [of HIV diagnosis] didn’t translate, as the symptoms were of tropical diseases. AIDS was transported to Africa by western interests. I think Africans know this. One astonishing fact is that a population of 300 million has grown on the continent [since AIDS first appeared], the whole size of the United States. What happened to the devastating effect? I think the whole idea they’re spreading the disease because they have sex like wildfire to be shockingly racist.
Q: You also discuss in the book distortions of heterosexual AIDS fears.
A: That’s the most readily admitted distortion of AIDS. There is a study by Nancy Padian from Berkeley who is very orthodox and upset. She has recoiled from her own data, which looked at 175 couples over 10 years, one HIV positive and one negative. They used condoms and didn’t, all versions of sex. Not one transmission was documented.
It’s not to say that the dissident camp is in hold of the truth, but I see a difference in style. I agree with [Peter Duesberg biographer] Harvey Bialy that the schism isn’t good versus evil but classical versus postmodern. It’s what Bialy said about Duesberg in his biography – not that Duesberg was a great, important or irresponsible scientist, but he insists that the data must add up before you proceed. You must attempt to disprove your own hypothesis.
The [AIDS industry] of today is driven by so many streams of greed, ego and the biotech boom. [Drug companies’] wealth isn’t vast or huge, but colossal. They seem to see themselves as if they’ve created a god out of their technologies and products. I call it a dictatorship.
Q: Where can people find other resources and information?
A: It’s a necessary but painful awakening, severing from this mothership. I think we know we’re in a terra incognita. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.
One side had all the power and resources. The other side was the long suffering, underground repressed community that had to find each other. Now we’re in a place where we know we’ve become dislodged from the old way. People are coming out – doctors, scientists and individuals from across the world, people who came straight out of the Toronto AIDS conference and said, "I can’t be in that machine anymore." There are a few blogs that are intelligent (http://www.rethinkingaids.com; http://www.newaidsreview.com; http://barnesworld.blogs.com/barnes_world).
It’s a false polemic that there’s two sides – it’s a matrix or web that people are making their way through. There are only a few tragic, hardcore apologists left who are stamping their feet and trying to destroy the dialectic that needs to happen.
© 2006 by Bryn Evans
Originally published at FFWD Weekly