Document:Helke interviews Farber

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Scenes from the Wasteland: Celia Farber on HIV/AIDS
an interview with Celia Farber
by Michael Helke

Stop Smiling
31 January 2007 and 7 February 2007

The most important trait a scientist working in any field must preserve is the ability to learn from his mistakes. One might add that he ought not be afraid to make mistakes – scientific inquiry insists upon them – just as long as they aren’t the same ones, repeated endlessly. What one sees in Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS (Melville House), Celia Farber’s account of the state of AIDS research across three decades, is pratfall after pratfall, with little of substance to show for it.

Since the infamous April 1984 conference, where Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had taken a sample of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), isolated by Dr. Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and, having claimed it as his own discovery, informed a roomful of his peers – and the world – that this was the culprit responsible for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), we’ve been told that the virus’s presence within a human body leads ineluctably to the body’s development of the disease. Is that really the case? There have been many reported instances of patients with full-blown AIDS who did not test HIV positive, and there are many people who, having been “diagnosed” as HIV-positive, have lived for decades without developing AIDS.

Is AIDS, then, exclusively viral, as Gallo and his supporters have insisted? Or, as skeptics such as Dr. Peter Duesberg, professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, have countered, might there be other factors that work toward the disease’s gestation? As long as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases continues to refuse to investigate possible co-factors, we might never know, and the disease, forever misunderstood, will continue to bedevil the world’s population for decades to come.

I spoke with Celia Farber in 2006 about her turbulent career in journalism reporting on both the public’s changing perceptions of the disease and the implacable obtuseness of the medical establishment, aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industries, in figuring out how to treat and, possibly, cure “AIDS.” At this point in history, public perceptions have changed – from The Black Plague Revisited to medical inconvenience requiring regular saturation bombardments from highly toxic protease inhibitor drugs – but the findings of blind-alley tests, obtained by the likes of Drs. Gallo and David Ho have all arrived at the same conclusion: “0.000.000 Cured” (according to the American Foundation for AIDS Research [AmFAR] ads). Both sides concede, however, that “a generation” of mostly gay men were directly killed by the drug AZT in its heyday. They differ on how many, but more importantly, they differ on whether this was a necessary or even heroic stumbling block on the road to pharmacological salvation. Dissenters, known as “denialists,” fought hammer and tong to raise “awareness” about AZT during those early tragic years, yet the word “denial” clings to them like a concentration camp tattoo.

So far there hasn’t been a massive mainstream uproar against this state of affairs. As we shall see, the medical and Big Pharma lobbies have campaigned to vilify anyone and everyone who dares point out the Emperor’s utter lack of clothing. I worry about folk like Farber, who have only their own resilience (and relatively limited funds) to continue doing what they think is the right and proper job of a journalist: to investigate, raise necessary questions and apportion culpability where needed. Hopefully public nonchalance in the face of this abomination gives out before she does.

Stop Smiling: You started reporting on AIDS research for Spin magazine, right? Back in the Guccione days, when you could still read it without puking in your soup?

Celia Farber: Yeah. The strange thing is that Spin, back then, actually had an AIDS column, every month. I began my AIDS work in 1986, as an intern at Spin, and later research assistant to the then-executive editor, Rudy Langlais. I had by then already become quite obsessed about the subject.

SS: What accounted for the beginning of this obsession?

CF: My own fear. My own receptivity to the propaganda, which was going full-gong at the time – the mid-Eighties – and the transmission “model” of that time, which was the tertiary transmission model, which probably very few people remember. What they were saying was, if you ever had sexual contact with anybody who ever had sexual contact with anybody who was in a “risk group,” which in those days ranged from Haitians to IV drug users to plumbers in Italy, you were at high risk for HIV/AIDS and swift death. It was a very draconian model. We were all certain that we would die of AIDS. Because everybody more or less fit into some part of that scare web that they had cast at the time.

I also had a kind of urge to do the hardest thing in the world, to lift the heaviest rock in the world. I had to make myself valuable in this fairly masochistic, suffering way, to feel that I was worth my salt as a journalist. I also felt, simply, that that was what you do as a journalist: you put your spade in the earth and start digging in some impossibly hard terrain to try to find some rare fragment of truth or epiphany. I can’t say exactly where that came from.

But there were all these elements that came together. You had Bob Guccione, Jr., a very unusual publisher, full of unusual elements that I hadn’t come across, before or since. Magazines are lorded over by some of the most bloodless men you’ll ever meet. But Bob had kick, and savor, and humor, and parts of Italy and Britain in him: the life-affirming freedom of Italy and the sort of ironic, darkly funny streak of Britain. He put his imprint on the thing like it was a home, a place of strange, possibly dangerous uniqueness. And was, of course, famously punished for running a shop that was not standardized. But in any case, Bob is a very critical figure in all of this, for his openness, that searching quality. He was not elitist, and he was not concerned with the possibility of making a fool of oneself, so much as he was concerned with the possibility of getting a big story. He believed, in that old-fashioned way, in the big story, and the role of the editor and the journalist and the magazine to break the Big Story. Not just to sell magazines, either, but, dare I say it, to fight evil. Absolutely that was his vision. So his trip and mine converged. Not the “story” but the world of the story. It started to open up like a vault around us. Bob said, “I think AIDS is the Viet Nam of our generation.”

SS: Looking back, did you feel like a certain journalistic detachment toward your subject was slow in coming, or did you think you were bringing to the subject a passion that it deserved?

CF: I certainly never felt journalistic detachment. I would find it impossible to work in the presence of detachment. And to have been detached about AIDS at that time would have been really heretical. Nobody who was involved in it at all was detached. I wish we had been more detached, actually, because the fact of the matter is that it is a subject like any other, and must be treated like a subject like any other, and has suffered greatly from its special treatment; and the special treatment, that inflammation, comes from the passion. I was quite – I don’t know if “guilty” is the word, but yes, I exhibited that as well: that kind of gasping urge to prove that one is intent on saving the planet every minute, that one is a good person. There’s so much twisted holiness in the subject that I got on the wrong side of very early, as early as my second column, which was a Q&A with Dr. Peter Duesberg. My virtue as an innocent AIDS reporter was short-lived. From that point on everything I thought was right was officially wrong, and vice versa.

I think we’ll return to this question of passion and detachment throughout this conversation, because it is the double helix of the whole thing, really. I do have a few things that I have kind of arrived at about it all: I get disoriented when I hear the word “objectivity” the way it’s commonly used. It’s used as a measure of keenness of perception, right? You’re objective, so you perceive accurately and keenly and fully. I have come to believe that subjectivity is what gives us that keenness of perception; and subjectivity is code for emotional perception. I believe that emotional perception is the keener perception, actually. It’s more full-bodied. You take in more, if you can engage your full emotional system in any situation in any story. There’s a terrible fear that the emotional system distorts a story. But I think we should be more afraid of a reportage culture that demands that we repress our emotions. Feelings are signals.

SS: In your case, it would have been weird if you had submitted to Spin, and the editors had printed, a piece that would have met the strict standards of your typical scientific journal.

CF: There were surprises. The second column, which was the Q&A with Dr. Duesberg, could actually not have been more objective, straight, balanced, and dry than it was. But that, of course, pitched us into Dante’s Inferno immediately. Then what happened was – you see, the passion comes from holding on when they attack you for doing straight reportage. The passion wasn’t really in the text; it was in the act. It was keeping your bearings when the entire world, the whole of the culture with the AIDS Indignation and the red-ribbon condemnation at full tilt, saying, “How dare you?” And I said, “How dare I what? It was an interview with a scientist.” But the “how dare you” is about – we don’t do reporting on this story; we do a kind of mass expression, of mass simultaneous emotion, and it’s all the same, on every point, all the time. That’s why I came to relate to it as a fascist doctrine. Minor variations may be tolerated, but basically it was always a mass-emotion tyranny, as opposed to the grainy individuality of story-telling, which is what attracts most writers. I think it begs the question of whether journalism is creative or wants to be. I would actually make the case that what we were doing in those early years was very unexceptional, straight, dry, J-school reporting. It was the intellectual atmosphere that transmuted it into a decades-long morality play. And apparently, I am still trying to explain myself. [Laughs] But I sometimes feel there is nothing at all to explain.


If this story has any clear-cut heroes and villains, they would be Drs. Duesberg and Gallo, respectively. For daring to point out the feeblemindedness of Dr. Gallo’s hypotheses (for instance, HIV is not pathogenic, meaning it isn’t capable of killing cells, and hence not the cause of AIDS), Dr. Duesberg, a onetime recipient of the government’s “Outstanding Investigator Grant,” has been tagged an HIV denialist. Due to the obloquy Dr. Gallo and his shower of thugs have rained down upon anyone who might follow Dr. Duesberg’s lead, many have lost jobs and endured all manner of professional humiliation. Dr. Duesberg himself continues to conduct what research he can from his California lab, but his access to technology and funds has been largely abrogated. Meanwhile, Dr. Gallo continues to enjoy the support of the medical community. Where is Gregory House when you need him?

CF: The [Spin] interview with Duesberg was published at the very beginning of his downfall. He wrote a paper, published in 1987, in which he said HIV does not, in his opinion, cause AIDS, and that retroviruses also do not cause cancer. If you can picture the landscape, it was just one scientist – and he wasn’t just any scientist: he was, you might say, the Nureyev of retrovirology. Now, I’d like to know what you think: If you were an AIDS reporter in 1987, and the titan of the retrovirology field publishes a paper that parts company with the dominating theory of AIDS, saying that, to me, HIV is an ordinary retrovirus, and, like every retrovirus, it’s harmless. Don’t you think that’s news? Do you think that if you were an editor at the time, and a journalist came to you with that story, what do you think you would have said?

SS: “Wow.” Or, “Oh shit.”

CF: Exactly the right word. You would have said, “Wow!” That’s one of my things: the Wow! Reflex. I’m always saying, “Damn! Where is the people’s Wow! Reflex?” Because that’s what we said! “Wow!” It’s a great story, right?

SS: The Wow! Reflex, or The “Oh, Shit”-Detector. Some people have it; others, like Sheelah Kolhatkar of the New York Observer, don’t.

CF: I have been interviewed a few times since my book came out. One reporter asked me, “Is there a part of you that gets off on this?”

SS: Eww. [I suspect Ms. Farber instead heard, “Do you?”]

CF: No. But what’s beneath a question like that? She is searching for a way to resolve this massive conflict, not by looking at and asking some hard, direct questions of Daddy (in this case the National Institute of Health, or NIH), but pointing out a flaw in the lens (in this case, me). If I am seeing something that others can’t or won’t or don’t see, it’s much easier to take issue with me, obviously. This was a reporter who told me from the outset that she did not want to take on “the science,” but instead, thought I was “interesting, as a character.” But who I am as a “character,” changes mightily depending on one’s reading of history. A media reporter for the New York Times called Harper’s for interviews when the [March 2006] piece hit the stands, and they realized as soon as they got on the phone with her that she had not read the story. She actually said: “I don’t need to read her story in order to write my story. My story is about the controversy and outcry.” And indeed it was. She quoted all shades of rue and heartbreak and “loss of faith” in Harper’s magazine on the part of various AIDS professionals. The opening paragraphs [of the Harper’s essay] detail an iatrogenic murder of a pregnant 34-year-old black woman in Memphis in an NIH research trial, and the paper of record is quoting the loss of faith in Harper’s on the part of a white gay editor in Brooklyn.

But back to the condescension of the “Is there a part of you that gets off on this” question. I’m trying to imagine – let’s say I turned up in Dr. Duesberg’s lab, whose career has been destroyed because the NIH shot him out of the sky twenty years ago – try to imagine what would possess me to ask him if he enjoys it, if there’s a part of him that relishes this punishment.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard of the Charles Mackaye book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Most of the examples through history that he cites are rather quaint, but the phenomenon that we observe again and again is that people, en masse, entire villages at a time, will get the same terrible idea, be seized with it, and it has to kind of burn itself out. The moment [of the AIDS Conference, April 23, 1984] is the moment where we can see a fantastically powerful spell cast; that people didn’t believe their own eyes or ears. I’ve interviewed people who were present at that press conference, and it was abundantly clear to the scientists and science journalists in the room that the viral sample Gallo showed was identical to Dr. Montagnier’s sample. And yet his power was such – which is completely inexplicable to me, but everybody tells me: his power was such that nobody said boo.

There’s a great quote I got from Harvey Bialy, founding editor of Biotechnology magazine and Duesberg’s scientific biographer. I asked him, recently, “Where were you when you heard...? You weren’t at the press conference?” He said, “No, I was on a plane, on my way to New York, and somebody said, ‘Oh, they’re having a press conference, Gallo is claiming he’s found the cause of AIDS.’” Dr. Bialy said, “A pathogenic retrovirus? That’s just more Bob Gallo bullshit. That’ll never fly.”

SS: Famous last words.

CF: Fascinating. That’s the hardcore, historical, sand-grain-minutia reportage that has to be done: interviewing people who were there, and just asking, “What did you say, and what did you think?” Or, “What didn’t you say?” Really, if we could just wind back – I’ve always said, “If only we could wind the tape back to that day, and if only there could have exploded a big fight in that room, a healthy fight” – everything could have been different. But for some reason, there was this blanket of silencing fear. For some reason.

SS: Because of the paralyzing effect of the sheer audacity of their actions. And rarely is there a big enough prick in the room who just happens to be operating on the right motive and call them on their shit.

CF: That’s a really good phrase: “the paralyzing effect of audacity.”

SS: Where do we find these people? How do they even get to practice medicine?

CF: The people who are responsible for this? They’re still running the empire.

SS: Right. But with Gallo, we do know “where.” He was one of those Nixon-era cancer warriors who were “trained and ready for glory, with no disease to focus on,” wasn’t he?

CF: Well, you know how history always coughs up – there’s one breakdown and failure, which then coughs up an even greater breakdown and failure? Like World War One leading to World War Two? Well, the failed War on Cancer led to this AIDS debacle. My understanding of the landscape was, Nixon poured X amount – by today’s standards, probably a paltry amount – into the War on Cancer.

SS: Compared to the billions that have been poured into AIDS research.

CF: Well, now we’re into this post-modern, surrealist phase of medicine, where there’s no such thing as failure. At least the War on Cancer was declared a failure – which seems now to belong to the classical, pre-modern era – pre-post-modern era. I’m not an academic but I do toss around the word “post-modern” because it fits AIDS so perfectly. [Laughs] It’s past the point where things have to make sense. So the failed War on Cancer created all this static and frustration and wounded ego and collapsing budgets in the air. In 1970, the discovery is made of reverse transcriptase, which is a process by which viral RNA converts to DNA. They thought they had discovered a new planet of meaning, which was supposed to be these new critters, these things, these bugs, called retroviruses; and they all went wild with the possibility of a new class of viruses that could do a whole new class of things; and they immediately applied it to cancer. Duesberg was already dealing with all kinds of post-modern vaporousness about retroviruses being the cause of cancer – and this is what blows my mind, and I’m still studying this, when I can stand to read it anymore – but the way retroviruses were pinned to cancer before they were pinned to AIDS. Cancer, of course, is a totally different syndrome than AIDS. Cancer is cell proliferation; AIDS is mass cell death. This really says to me – and what’s scary is, I’m a civilian, not a scientist – so for me to sit here in my sofa and hold court about the preposterousness about scientific theories, propounded by people who went to medical school for 150 years or whatever. That seems a little off-kilter. I realize that. But it’s gleaned from all these conversations over all these years, with all these guys who were there and who do know. That’s all I know. There are a lot of scientists who greatly lament this, who see this as an absolute collapse of the Twin Towers, just a collapse of civilization, that they just brought down that was good and great and full of portent about science and virology, biology – I think they are exactly the moral equivalent of mobsters, but without the charm.

SS: [Laughs]

CF: It’s very mobsterish. There are some threads that people don’t bring up a lot that came up in my recent interviews with Harper’s, some of which made it into the book. One that was interesting was a discussion I had with this marvelous cancer geneticist from Australia named George Miklos, who worked on the human genome project, among other distinctions. Miklos came from an aristocratic Hungarian family. He said something that may well be taboo in a lot of circles, but he said that basically, prior to the 1950s, science was in the realm of the – well, certainly in the prior century, science was entirely conducted by the aristocratic classes. One of the reasons it had standards and good form is that the participants didn’t need the money that might derive from the ideas. It was not an industry; it was more, as people said, a gentleman’s pursuit; and so form was everything, and conduct was everything. Today it’s like a casino, or slum. Shame is not even reachable anymore.

SS: Something I found very fascinating from looking at the story at Ground Zero was the role of Lawrence Altman, chief medical reporter for the New York Times, who was also, in 1984, a member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a subdivision of the CDC. A walking conflict of interest if there ever was one.

CF: Yeah. How about that? It begs the question, “What is journalism? What is media? Who are these guys?” One journalist I met once who had come through the networks, a fairly paranoid type like me, said something that I wish somebody would investigate and write about, which is the military’s presence in the media. He was talking about journalists not being “organic.” He said to look at who rises through the ranks and how and why. I mean, Lawrence Altman is an excellent case in point: he came out of the Epidemic Intelligence Service [EIS], the secret subdivision of the Center for Disease Control [CDC]. And all of these governmental “health” or rather, disease organs, are part of the military. The top officers of the NIH have military rank. The only one that is above the surface that we’re aware of consciously is the Surgeon General, who wears a uniform.

This isn’t secret paranoid stuff; it’s just sort of fallen from our consciousness. The NIH started out during the Civil War as part of the US Army’s defense against [battlefield-prevalent diseases]. It started as a reasonable enough government organ, and the chief concern of this organ was the health of the military. What’s fascinating about all this is that when we talk about science, we imagine ourselves to be talking about the Einstein/Bohr quantum physics debate, or again the Darwin era – very quaint by comparison, with beautiful candle-lit debates about evolution. But what we actually mean today when we talk about science is something that is every bit as unknowable and vast and powerful as when we talk about the Pentagon. Science is not this lovely bubble floating around. It’s one arm of the same octopus that we all talk about when we talk about the octopus. It’s just an arm of the octopus that, for some reason, liberal leftist types haven’t wanted to admit is an arm of the octopus. And why haven’t they wanted to admit that? Because they still like to call it “science.” They still believe in that utopian vision of science.

I find it really strange why, for instance, haven’t I tackled this subject [in any great depth]? Why hasn’t anyone tackled this? I think because it has to do with the vastness and the potential paranoia of it all. I do think government is evil, by and large; but the only thing I want to shake into this dialectic is the awakening and the awareness that there is nothing soft or fuzzy or benign about the people who brought the American public [the AIDS] paradigm, who told you that HIV causes AIDS. That day in April 1984 was a government-sponsored event; and we don’t know to this day – I don’t know – who was wagging whom: the government or Gallo? Who’s the tail? Who’s the dog? I doubt even Gallo has the power to tell the U.S. government that he was going to tell the American public and the world that he had found the cause of AIDS. I’m more inclined to think it was some kind of symbiosis between the two. Some people have suggested looking into the possibility that [the paradigm] actually emanated from the government, and they picked Gallo [to transmit it].

But Gallo was so out in the open with his wild, unchecked viral ambitions. One can’t really make that case, either: that the whole thing was hatched in a government lab. We’ll know this stuff in a hundred years. So let’s try to stick to what’s knowable now. What’s knowable is the difference between what they said, what was known and knowable at the time, and what panned out. I’m hoping the Left will finally wake up and, [using the “weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” fiction as their pointer], realize, “The government launches complete and utter fictions and lies and distortions and manipulations and fabrications in order to corral the American public some kind of half-blind, large animal with a ring through its nose. That’s how they basically treat us.” And the same is true of this.

Do you think it matters anymore? Some people I talk to say, “Eh, nobody cares about AIDS anymore.” Well, why not? Well, they’re not getting it, they didn’t see anybody who got it, so, well, you know. Well, are they still afraid? Do they still use condoms every time they have sex? “Well, no...” There’s no outrage. If there’s going to be outrage and huge reaction, it’s going to be because it brings the Holocaust back to life in peoples’ imaginations. Because we put a “human” face to this. If that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. If those of us have been alarmists about the nukes are not exaggerating – that’s AZT, DDI, and D4T, but chiefly AZT – if that’s accurate, or even remotely accurate, then we have a major humanitarian catastrophe on our hands. The government – yes, fueled by AIDS activists and the media – launched a nuclear grade psych-sexual scare campaign, a health campaign and then carpet bombed and killed the positives with AZT. And still they congratulate themselves. Dr Anthony Fauci, Sam Broder at the National Cancer Institute [NCI], these guys are still running the thing. And they mandated a lethal regimen for all HIV positives, period: 1800 milligrams, later 1200 milligrams, and finally cranked it down to 500, but only years into it, mandated that everybody who tested positive should take AZT. Now we learn that the lethal dose is the same to this day, for African children.

OK. The statute of limitations for class-action lawsuits has passed. So what remains? For us to be more bummed out about our government than we already are? No, I think what remains is for a revolution in media – which we’re having, perhaps – a revolution in medicine and the ideology of medicine away from the fear-soaked paradigm of the government tells you what you’re going to die of, the government tells you the technology to tell you whether you’ve got [the disease] or not, the government sells you the drug because the government is funded by this enormous organ called Pharma – that’s the huge trap for us, as a people, to break out of.

There’s so many stories that are part of this epic clash: the vaccination controversy, for instance. Now we’re talking potentially millions of American families who are asking, “Was my child vaccine-damaged? Is that why he has autism?” Or is that only the total kooks, the tin foil hats, who think that? This stuff is cutting up the left and the right and throwing everything into total disarray. Because it’s really not even on that spectrum of left/right. The politicization of medicine is not new, right? The left has been all over the politicization of the abortion and birth control debate for decades; but they went en masse, completely.


While AIDS research maintains its obdurate stance on the disease’s very origins, the drugs developed for the treatment of patients with HIV have frequently proven highly toxic – in many instances fatal. AZT, the first such, killed off its entire first group of test subjects, yet continues to be prescribed to this day in spite of its faulty 1987 approval; the “protease inhibitor” drug cocktails have been deemed more dangerous than the infection it was designed to treat; and nevirapine, prescribed across the Third World, remains unapproved for single-dose use in the States. Conversely, those with HIV who were advised to begin drug treatment at the outset but opted not to have lived longer lives, and in many cases are as healthy as their skepticism.

These and other facets appear in Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS (Melville House), a collection of investigative journalism by Celia Farber of over twenty years of AIDS research. It is required reading for those wanting to understand the whole sorry mess. The following transcript is taken from a conversation I had with Ms. Farber back in early 2006.

CF: By 1996, David Ho, as a hiree/consultant for Pharma, launches an oracular epiphany, with a PR company behind him, becomes “Man of the Year” cover of Time magazine, for saying, “HIV and the immune system are in a life-and-death battle to the end.” And that was all in response to [Dr. Peter Duesberg]. Because Duesberg said, “The virus is barely there. It has to be there to cause disease.” The postmodernists said, “No, it doesn’t. It’s there but it’s not there. It’s lurking. It’s going to turn up. It triggers convinced cells to commit suicide from a distance” – I mean, just wild stuff! And Duesberg, being the classical virologist, said, “No, I’m sorry. It has to be in the cell in order to cause damage to the cell.” So Ho comes up with this even more far-out science fiction, which one wonders, was it rubbish or was it an ingenious financial model: everyone who tests positive goes on a cocktail of drugs – up to six – and, because of the new sink/drain model, a new industry and mania is set in motion, and that is viral load testing, PCR, which was invented by Kary Mullis, who, in such despair over how his invention has been exploited and debased and used in this madness, will not talk about it anymore. When I interviewed him, he broke down crying.

So now there are three industries: the HIV testing industry; the T-cell measuring industry; and now the viral load industry. Cocktail regimens cause all kinds of body-morphing side effects, so there are these really strange side industries that have sprung up, such as the fantastically creepy protease-inhibitor plastic surgery industry, in cities like San Francisco and New York: plastic surgeons devoting themselves to removing buffalo humps and other eruptions of fat. Protease inhibitors disrupt the body’s capacity to metabolize fat, so these guys got these humps at the back of their necks, where the fat collects, called buffalo humps. There’s also something called CrixiBelly, from a drug called Crixavan, where the fat drains from the whole body and the person gets this huge Santa belly. You think I’m kidding, right?

I don’t know how to count the number of AIDS organizations anymore. I did try, once upon a time, about ten years ago, and at the time it was 98,000 in the United States alone. In the UK at one point, it was almost one organization for every AIDS patient. The U.S. government has plunged about $35 billion of American taxpayers’ dollars into HIV federal research alone. Dr. David Rasnick, who likes to play with numbers, at one point calculated that what the U.S. government spent on HIV research was something like eight times the amount that NASA spent putting every single person they’ve ever sent into space. To use Marcia Angell’s word, “Pharma money is not big or very big – it’s colossal.” Colossal.

I didn’t even mention the developing world. And I didn’t even mention clinical trials by the thousands in the developing world – all of which are industries. Clinical trials are themselves money-generating troughs. In a way I haven’t quite comprehended how the money moves around. I always thought of a clinical trial as a loss, an expense. But it’s not.

SS: Let’s discuss a little more about the use of fear in all sides of the HIV/AIDS argument. Who uses it, and how is it used?

CF: I did address this in my book, though not as much as I would have liked: the way a diagnostic test became equated with a death sentence. Not a variable, not a marker, but an actual death sentence, like a guillotine coming down on all hope, all futures, like a black curtain dropping. It was so medieval, the branding of HIV-antibody-positive status as a mark of death. That came out of AIDS itself. It seemed that the plague was upon us. We didn’t stay calm long enough to really look at all the elements. We assumed very early that it was infectious and that sex was the main modality of its spread. Indeed, people were dying, gay men were dying of a syndrome that seemed as though hell had broken out in the human body, a total collapse of all bodily systems – which gets called “immune system collapse,” and I guess that’s fairly accurate. But what was it?

I’m struggling with this because it’s like addressing – you’ve hit on the core of the psychosis. On the orthodox side – I’m struggling with answering it because I feel like it’s everything they’ve ever stood for, everything they’ve ever communicated, everything they have ever been composed of – everything they are is fear. And fear and hate are inextricably linked. Therefore, I have argued that AIDS is a catastrophe of fear, hate, negativity, and hopelessness – that when I see that red ribbon, I see a noose: one of the most strangulating, anti-life, misanthropic, terror-ridden, guilt-ridden, shame-inducing, life-snuffing medical ideologies that has ever existed.

Fear itself, to use the cliché, detonated the psychic atomic bomb of a generation – what we somewhat fuzzily called the “heterosexual AIDS epidemic.” What they were actually saying was so fantastically psychotic and almost funny now, they were saying that all sexually active people on the planet could die from this. They actually equated sex itself with death. That’s what so fascinating about it, because as we are all well aware, sex is the medium of life, and if everybody really took their Use-a-Condom-Every-Time doctrine to heart, then nobody would get born and we would indeed become extinct. There’s a quote by Theresa Crenshaw, from the President’s AIDS Commission [under Ronald Reagan], that I have cited in my book. “If the spread of AIDS continues at this rate, in 1996,” she said, “there could be one billion people infected; five years later, hypothetically ten billion people.” The population of the world is only five billion. And that was the presidency, mind you, that stood accused of “not caring enough about AIDS.”

Fear became the New Morality. If you tried to mitigate Fear, you were inviting death. And yet there was a movement that tried, and it was born from the epicenter of AIDS, in New York City – what was then called the PWA [People With AIDS] community. Most famously, Michael Callen, a great friend and my most important influence – he led the “Long term survival” movement. And he was preaching Hope as the most important element for survival.” That, and the utter avoidance of AZT. Callen was trying to cast a slightly softer, gentler, more loving interpretation on this dreadful situation, and saying, we must give people a ray of hope, because otherwise they will not survive. Michael Callen recognized that we are spiritual beings, and he recognized that if you denied people hope, they will virtually drop dead. He went all around the country and spoke of that. His message has been totally erased now, his name absorbed into generic AIDS propaganda, put out by all of them, including the organization that bears his name, the Callen-Lorde AIDS Foundation. He left his archives to me in his will, but I haven’t had the strength to go in and get the documents and works, and try to resurrect his message. I feel I have failed him. People loved Michael, as did I. He was an icon of the gay community, and he was the staunchest ally I ever had. I never quite regained my footing since he died. He personally blocked many of the worst, most insidious attacks on me, and left me a very moving and strong message in his will that I should expect them to continue, but never doubt the importance of trying to get at the truth. He insisted it was the right thing to do for gay men, never mind the rest of the world. So my original inspiration was a gay man who self-described himself as a proud slut, a bottom, and, interestingly, a staunch feminist. He used to scold me for not reading and absorbing feminist literature. He said everything that would happen to me would be rooted in misogyny. I tried to shrug it off. Gay men and women are utterly kin, very connected, in fate, in the way that they are forced to navigate the world.

When ACT UP! sprang onto the scene in 1987, the fear got more complex, because now people feared this fist in the face as well, this screaming activist who was culled from your darkest imagination, Now you’re guilty of everything. You’re guilty no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter what you feel. You’re guilty. So ACT UP! was like this infantile scream, accusing the planet of being out to kill gay men, by virtue of indifference and callousness and disregard, and all these kinds of things that got branded into the kind of the emotional lingua franca of AIDS, which is all found in the red ribbon catechism, about the emotions that are permitted. But all of the emotions that have ever been permitted in AIDS are emotions sprung from fear. Fear of what? Fear of death: what could be more primordial? And I would also say, fear of life. Because I think AIDS is fear of life. I think sex is life, intimacy is life, contact, risk, love, mess. Many unknowns can be called life, including I think the most important unknown, when and under what conditions each and every one of us is going to die. And that’s a very sacred spiritual barrier – another one that has been bulldozed in the age of AIDS. That’s what I said in my book. I remembered Prometheus from [my college studies], who explains that he blinded man to the day of his death so that he could aspire. My railing against the death sentence of AIDS derived primarily from that: a sense that there’s something very sadistic and sick and dangerous about an elite within a society – an elite with all the moral power, the cash power, the media power, the political power, they had all the power, and they still do – there’s something very dangerous about that elite suddenly having the technology to brand certain people, to mark them for death. I’m not sure anything like this has ever happened before quite in the history of medicine, where it goes well beyond the boundaries of physical illness, tangible illness – feel-able, knowable, diagnosable illness – and it becomes illness and death projected into a future that grows ever more blurry on the horizon: [a patient is initially expected to die in] six months, then one year, then two years; now the latency period is anywhere up to thirty years, and they’re still insisting on their right to tell people that HIV will kill you: it might be thirty years from now, but it is deadly. That doesn’t sound like any pathogenic virus any of us have ever heard of. But you know the rules by now. Everything within AIDS faith is ex nihilo.

SS: In HTLV, the so-called “first known human retrovirus,” we see an early example of the particular genius of Dr. Robert Gallo. After a several-year-long latency period, his discovery would kick in and kill you; this period would eventually expand to 55 years of age. So if you were carrying HTLV, and you happened to die of old age...

CF: It’s just crazy. The hardest thing about it has been to look at such craziness and call it crazy. Because it’s much easier for our brains to call something crazy if it’s something less crazy. The tautological madness is, “It is inconceivable to us, the AIDS orthodoxy, to this church, that there is no god. God is HIV as killer virus.” It’s a negative god. I’m not blaspheming God when I equate God with HIV. They created a negative god. Martin Amis referred to [the crimes of Stalin] as “negative perfection.” There are enormous human endeavors that have revolved around a catastrophic ideology, and I believe this to be one of them. What enables us to not react so much to it is the same thing that makes it so horrifying, which is to say that it is infinite and invisible and we don’t actually know either what it is, where it is, when it is, what it does – and yet it is omnipresent as demonology. It throws a constant shadow of fear and self-hate. Fear of others. Fear of all that is life. This is why I say a negative God. It’s not even a state, or a dictatorship, that can crumble. It’s not barbed wire and gulags and people disappearing in the night. It’s a far more insidious tyranny, precisely because it requires the complicity of the subjects. I quote Winston Churchill in my book saying, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” It struck me when I found the quote and I of course felt it to be a portent of HIV/AIDS. This [idea of] man turning against man – immolating himself in by his own fear of his own nature. The idea that people, to state the obvious, do the most instinctive thing possible, which is to perpetuate our DNA [by having] sex, and are then told we’re being punished and are going to die, is spinning inside every mind on the planet, with the possible exception of extreme dictatorships with no diplomatic ties to the United States, like, say, North Korea. It’s been replicated everywhere. Everywhere the U.S. has an interest and a possible financial relationship with that country. And what we’re now seeing is that the real interest is in those countries’ resources, and one of the resources are their populations. For the purposes of pharmaceutical experimentation.

That’s a strong thing to say, but, let’s read John Le Carré and ask ourselves if what he is writing is “fiction.” Or just read the newspapers about what’s going on, what’s being revealed every day, about what the pharmaceutical mega-octopus is doing now, what they’re doing tomorrow, and what they have their sights set on. They keep upping the ante. We keep thinking there are certain barriers to their madness, and they keep knocking them down.

For example, we used to take heart, or comfort, in the fact that Africa was too poor to be able to afford toxic AIDS drugs. No more; they fixed that. We used to take comfort, until very recently, in the notion that, at least they had to limit their grisly conduct to HIV-antibody-positive people. They’ve knocked that down. Now they’re going after HIV-negative people as the next frontier for treatment and experimentation. They’re doing this under the guise of giving people in poor countries anti-retrovirals, despite the fact they are HIV-negative, who then monitor whether they, despite sexual activity, fail to sero-convert; in which case – you guessed it – they can credit their antiretroviral regimens with having protected people from infection.

Another fear, and I think this one has affected me personally more than any other, is the fear of being different, the fear of being associated with heresy. People are terrified. I see it in my friends. I see it everywhere, and it breaks my heart. It fills me with rage and contempt. People can see the data, but they can’t shake that fear of being labeled something dreadful: an “AIDS denialist.” If I question the data put forth by Robert Gallo and the National Cancer Institute in 1984, which has failed on every count, then maybe I am no better than a Holocaust denier and am murdering six million Jews all over again. It’s been like dealing with an entire profession in the throes of an irrational fear, and abandoning all standards of journalism, and flogging those who stayed above ground and did the tough work of asking questions amidst great fear. To all of those people, and they are legion, all I can say is: You made your choice. It benefited you in the immediate present. But in the future, you will hang like little tinkling ornaments, period pieces if you will – a journalistic museum of mediocrity and complicity. You will be indistinguishable from one another, so you had better enjoy your perks now. You Good Germans. I have tried to understand you and work with you and around you, but now the time has come for me to simply despise you. We are looking at possibly 300,000 Americans dead from AZT – just that alone – thanks to your “responsible” journalism. Maybe that is an exaggerated figure, I don’t know. The true death toll, since 1984, globally, from this eruption of Responsible Journalism known as AIDS reportage, is as Rudy would say a higher figure than any of us could bear. Go ahead and think ill of me – I think much worse of you.

It’s not exactly true to say that it didn’t break out in media coverage at all, or in the scientific literature at all – i.e. the dissent, Duesberg and so forth. It did there in the middle of the road, but nobody would touch it. It was so powerfully maligned and branded and voodooed, from the very outset. This is a middle-class kind of fear: a fear of ostracization. It’s not exactly career punishment only. It’s fear of independent thinking and the loneliness and problems and isolation that result from taking a lonely mental path. Herds form because we feel protected by the herd. The bible on this subject is Canetti’s Crowds and Power. It’s all in there. This they were very good at – demarcating the forbidden zone. “This is taboo. This is verboten. Anybody who crosses this line” – it was a line of total shaming. Total shame. “You cannot cross this line and still be a good person, or believe that you are a good person, and still go to our functions and cocktail parties and be part of the social fabric. You will be expelled. You will be ‘other-ed.’ You will be ostracized.” That’s what they always brandished everybody with. Discreditization. You’re discredited, you’re disassembled, you’re disreputable. You’re just bad!

I found it completely terrifying. Not all people who entered this labyrinth had quite such a hard time with it as I did. But I didn’t grow up with exactly rock-solid foundation: my sense of self. And I think you have to have grown up with a rock-solid sense, to go in and take the blast, and know that it’s not true, you’re not a bad person for asking these questions, keep going.

So there’s that fear. They’re still billowing that fear, from the central bubble machine. They’re getting increasingly desperate. The AIDS orthodoxy staged a plenary session at their latest “conference” in Toronto, called “Media Responsibility in AIDS.” It’s fascinating. It’s so 1950s. It’s so McCarthy-esque. “They’re everywhere! They could be at the desk next to you!” They should fan out and go up to the editorial offices of their local newspapers – this is a mandate to other AIDS journalists – go up there and make sure that any kind of dissidentia, like letters-to-the editor, is stopped, just never gets anywhere: block it, stop it, burn it. Fight it. Fight, fight AIDS. They really talk like exterminators! “How do we get rid of the pestilence?” “You’ve got to go to the root of it! You’ve got to go to the root of it! You’ve got to root them out, where they are, where they live, where they breathe!” And really also what’s so creepy is that they talk about dissidents in the same way they’ve always talked about the virus, i.e. the anti-god. [To them] we’re an infection, an evil, and we’re spreading, and they’ve got to stamp us out.

SS: That is pretty scary. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say we have a dissident who changes his mind or, more likely, can’t bear up under the pressure of being shunned by his community, and chooses to recant. Well, he doesn’t have a reputation anymore, does he? He can either live out the rest of his life living like Emily Dickenson, writing poetry to a wall, or recant and return to the flock, but be forced to wear a scarlet letter, connoting suspicion, of one who has broken the faith once before and must forever be viewed askance, and be forced to deal with that for the rest of his life. It doesn’t sound like much of a choice at all, does it?

CF: Right. I have in recent times felt that it is an act of suicide, prolonged suicide, to do this, that it can’t be done. If two plus two no longer equals four, all is lost. On April 23, 1984, two plus two ceased to equal four. It was over that day. Darkness at noon. So yes, the fear of shame is one of the all time great human fears, and that is powerfully at work here. It’s the fear of otherness. Why else does fascism always catch fire? It requires massive strength and conviction to redefine morality for yourself at a time when morality is being dictated via mass propaganda. The strength to spit it out, your strength to say no, your strength to be Other, different, a mustard seed, to borrow Primo Levi’s phrase – a bone in the throat. That’s what the dissident is. And I do like the word “dissident,” because it makes me think of unfashionable greats like Lech Walesa, Havel, the Eastern Europeans, the Cubans, the dissidents of all complex dictatorships. That’s what appears in my dream mind when I hear the word. I do see this movement as being one composed of people who, at great cost to themselves, have opposed tyranny. And I’m talking about them now; I’m not talking about myself. I feel I got swept into the definition, simply because I sketched them; described them, reported on them. The accusation was, “Oh, but you sketched them approvingly.” And I continuously said, “I just sketched them, as they appeared to me.” Just like you’re doing with me, right now. But yes, in a courtroom, under oath, if asked if they appeared good to me, if I described them with a touch of admiration and maybe love, I would confess. Yes.

And that speaks to a huge crossroads crisis in journalism, which thinks itself objective, and as you and I both know is...

SS: Skewed?

CF: It’s barren – a wasteland. Precisely because they don’t let anything be what it is. What is it? Walk into the room, turn the tape recorder on; or pick up the phone, call the person, let them talk and put it down. It is something that existed in this universe so put it down. What they do is this maniacally controlling thing, these air bags all over the place, and mufflers – I mean, it’s like the terrible way they made drums sound all through the Eighties, with all that padding and reverb and fear-based little fiddly stuff they put on. You could no longer hear the drum, feel or hear the skin.

SS: [Laughs] Good metaphor.

CF: Well, I’m a drummer. That didn’t come totally out of nowhere. That was my original plan was to...

SS: Be a drummer?

CF: Be a drummer. Drum sounds were alive and great in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and then they just turned ghastly [in the Eighties]. And the same thing sort of happened to journalism: it got so bloated and overproduced. And we’re still sort of coming out of that.

But to get back to your question about fear... The AIDS establishment used fear by conjuring the message to the potential question asker, journalist: “You’re evil, it’s the evil within, your career will be destroyed, you’re murdering people.” That was not kids’ stuff. This is not a dictatorship in the old-fashioned sense: nobody’s having their fingernails pulled out...

SS: Rather it’s the “empire of the mind” mentality? Where you get everybody fall into lockstep by making them complicit in the standard hypocrisy?

CF: Where you make everyone fall in line by the tyranny of “Everybody knows.” Philip Roth wrote about this. Have you read The Human Stain? The first chapter is called “Everybody Knows.” And “everybody knows” is a really interesting modern phenomenon. It’s about political correctness. There’s a phrase that he uses, called “the ecstasy of sanctimony.” That’s an American tradition, isn’t it? I mean, it just doesn’t stop. When it takes root – it’s just this orgy of sanctimony; and the dissidents threatened to rob them of all that delirious sanctimony. Not only rob them of it, not only puncture it, but reverse it.

It’s the same fear, actually, on both sides. There’s this terrible ball of responsibility volleying back and forth between these two camps, who are fighting right now to the death as we speak. It’s not really breaking out in huge mainstream medias, because they’re kind of standing back and watching it; but massive, real, hardcore fighting going on, elsewhere, on the internet, in the world, in cafes and living rooms and on campuses... What’s being fought over is nothing less than the cold reality, which is that this ball of guilt has got to land somewhere. Somebody’s going to have to catch it. And the accusation is grim on both sides, no matter how you slice it. My fig leaf is to say, I’m a journalist. How is this any different from being a war correspondent? You didn’t start the war and you can’t end the war, and it’s grandiose to think you can, and it’s dangerous to think that you can. You’re a war correspondent. And that upsets a lot of people. Because they want me to stand up and say, “HIV does not cause AIDS, and I’d be willing to inject myself with it!” The reason I haven’t said that is because it doesn’t weigh anything. It just doesn’t matter what I say. What matters is the tapestry of what thousands, tens of thousands, countless people have to say, who have lived through it, whose loved ones die, on or off AZT. It’s this infinite tapestry that’s being woven, and I’m trying to keep track of. So if you tapped me on the shoulder and asked, well, yeah, but, come on, what do you think? I would fall back on, well, here’s what’s known: they were wrong about the heterosexual epidemic – that’s a pretty big thing to be wrong about: 70 million American persons were supposed to be dead by 1990. Tony Fauci said that. So they were wrong about that. They were wrong about AZT being a live-saving drug. AZT was a lethal drug. They’ve even admitted that; they just don’t love talking about it much, but they’ve admitted that. The going estimate now, which I have to figure out how that was arrived at, and I can’t say whether it is overblown or what – but the going estimate on the dissident side is that 300,000 people were killed by AZT, which is five times more that died in the Viet Nam War.

Okay, what remains? “Yeah, but the drugs work, don’t they?” By their own science and their own estimates, more people died from the side effects of the drug than what used to classically be called AIDS, i.e. immune deficiency of 31 symptoms listed by the CDC. What could they possibly be so high and mighty about? You look at these AmFar ads, and they say, “0.000.000 Cured.” You look at the AIDS vaccine, and it’s like a mind-boggling failure. The figures are mind-boggling. We’re going on 23 years of research. Almost certainly a total waste. If I’m not mistaken, because people who are antibody-positive are expressing antibodies and want the vaccine to produce antibodies against – so when I ask people, yeah, but what are they thinking? Surely they are thinking of a way to distinguish good antibodies from bad antibodies? And nobody has been able to draw from the whole vaccine mania what their goal even was, what their bio-goal was.

© 2007 by Michael Helke
Originally published at Stop Smiling