Document:Panic Attack

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Panic Attack
by Celia Farber

Impression magazine
March 1999


We are in the midst of the second major wave of AIDS terror propaganda. But people are rational. The mass hysteria isn't coming back.

I think I finally understand what "post-modern" means. It means that which makes no sense at all. AIDS, by this definition, is the quintessential post-modern phenomenon.

What we mean when we say "AIDS" is not a fixed reality or unified entity, but rather a boundlessly complex matrix of perception, projection and assumption. The "truth" about AIDS (like the retrovirus itself) cannot be isolated from its surrounding tissue. It is inextricably bound within this tissue, which is made up of an inchoate roar of mass media and mass emotion, stretched across almost 20 years, distorted by innumerable passions and most chillingly, trapped inside a language that only permits the repetition of its own foregone conclusions. ("The AIDS Virus," for instance.)

The British author Martin J. Walker, in a recent issue of the contrarian AIDS magazine Continuum, described the consensus around AIDS and HIV as "...essentially a post-modern struggle." Walker articulates brilliantly the core frustration of the AIDS discourse, with the so-called AIDS dissidents pitted hopelessly against the ruling orthodoxy that includes the world's governments, health organizations, the pharmaceutical industry, the global media and even Hollywood.

The problem with AIDS is that it lacks a cogent center. It lacks a language, a means to describe itself. In the end, it can be whatever anybody wants it to be. Drug wasting in the West, malaria in Africa – there are very good reasons to call just about anything AIDS, the main one being funding.

AIDS is not a disease, it's any one of up to fifty disparate symptoms found in the presence (maybe but not necessarily) of antibodies to a retrovirus that need not even be present in order to cause the sickness. So profound is the collective faith in HIV's pathogenicity that it is said to cause AIDS even when it is not there. Even though it cannot be isolated, cannot be seen, cannot be known, cannot be understood. The psychic template that AIDS science is based on is one in which gaps and anomalies are resolved by faith. Like God, HIV science requires no proof and can never be seen, but holds infinite power. (Unlike God, HIV requires billions of research dollars – which never seem to do anything to resolve its infinite mysteries.)

Health is gauged by numbers via a technology so refined as to be inscrutable and probably ultimately irrelevant. If you want contemporaneity in AIDS, it goes something like this: How is your mega-Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (Mega-HAART) working on your CD4s? Your CD8s? Your viral load? Your nef gene? (That nef gene, by the way, is the most "tantalizing" of all the HIV genes, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS journalist Laurie Garrett.)

Try asking a person trapped in this hell, How do you feel? So post-modern is the whole mess that such a question would seem woefully beside the point.


You can imagine how my dissident heart froze when I saw the new issue of Esquire, with eight celebrities, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Tom Hanks etc., holding placards that spelled out: THE FOUR LETTER WORD WE ALL FORGOT ABOUT.

This word is of course AIDS, and judging from the pious looks on their faces, one gathered that one was about to be reprimanded for having allowed one's sense of alarm to diminish after 13 years of terror propaganda. But the truth is, mass hysteria about AIDS has abated, and it isn't coming back. I like to think this is a testament to rational thinking. After all, AIDS never did any of the things trusted sources from Oprah to the New York Times swore it would.

I bought Esquire and walked on broken knees to the nearest restaurant, where I sat and stared out the window and tried not to cry. I am very fond of Esquire and the people who run it. I believe their intentions were good, but this was not one of my favorite Esquire moments.

Every time I opened the magazine and peered at the text of the article written by Garrett, words jumped out and caused me to slam it shut again and focus on my breathing. Words that to me are not real words, such as "HAART," "eradication," "mutation," and "nonnucleoside HIV-blocker."

Sentences like: "Most of the drugs now in development at the approximately 25 companies targeting the $5 billion U.S. HIV market, though, are simply variations on the HAART theme."

Or, "David Ho, who was a pioneer of the combination therapies, now thinks patients would have to take the difficult drugs for twenty five to thirty years to eliminate those hidden viruses. Some other scientists put the figure even further out, at forty to fifty years."

Garrett writes staunchly and unblinkingly from within the mindset of an AIDS establishment that, even when it is sinking Titanic-style, manages to obscure the nature of the iceberg. Indeed, if you read Garrett's story, you'll see that people are now dying from the life-saving drugs themselves. (But somehow, they are still life-saving drugs, even when they kill people.)

And HIV, as usual, is "mutating" out of control, hence the claim that "the worst is yet to come."

But why are there so few real people in Garrett's article, only a string of "experts," which is what every single AIDS researcher gets called? The people I know, the people I talk to, who write to me, who send me e-mail every day, whose stories I've collected for 13 years – these people are not dying. They don't know a thing about their nef genes, their "viruses" are not "mutating wildly" as far as they know, they don't measure their viral load, they don't take deadly drugs, and they are not dying. That is the rope that I hold on to that leads me to my conclusions about the world. (That and the occasional phone call to George Orwell in my dreams. He always tells me I'm on the right track.)

I only wish Garrett would take an interest in the people who are not dying. But they are of no interest – they never have been.

It's different perspectives. The word "expert" doesn't get me very excited. Growing up, as I did, in a socialist country, I lost my faith in government benevolence even before I lost my virginity.


I study the sleek faces on the cover of Esquire, feel the horse-kick in my gut and wonder if we'll ever have the answer. I look at their smooth brows, their faultless complexions, their shining do-goodism. The idea being sold (and naturally not substantiated in any way) is that AIDS is "back," or somehow "on the rise" and even "deadlier than ever." And if you were to ask what of the overwhelming epidemiological data that demonstrates that AIDS cases have been on the decline and levels of HIV frozen still for more than a decade, well, shame on you. You – not the retrovirus, not the hideous murderous drugs, not the pharmaceutical cabal – no you are the problem. Remember the cardinal rule – discourse on AIDS must be rooted in sentimentality not rationality. Any legitimate question you might think to raise will be countered with the battle cry that is supposed to act as a silencer, People are dying. But what are they dying of? (As the "Inscrutable AIDS Researcher" in Charles Ortleb's satirical AIDS novel, Iron Peter, suggests, the AIDS establishment "should stop referring to people who die after taking the Cocktail of Cocktails as 'dead people.' We should honor their struggle by calling them 'treatment compliance failures.'")

Dr. Michael Saag, who administers AIDS cocktail therapy, astonishingly admits in Garrett's article: "They aren't dying of a traditionally defined AIDS illness. I don't know what they are dying of, but they are dying. They're just wasting and dying."

But what does this have to do with Hollywood? The eight shades of celebrity sanctimony seem to be intoning that you – whoever you are – just don't get it, do you?

I'm the first to admit that I don't. After 13 years of reporting on AIDS, there is barely one single concept about the phenomenon that I am able to grasp. I don't know where it came from, what causes it, whether HIV has anything to do with it, whether it is infectious, whether it is toxicological, whether there really even is an "it" or whether it is in fact a construct.

That's what happens to you if you really start to look at AIDS. It's like holding a magnifying glass over a patch of grass until it begins to burn a hole. The closer you look, the more the certainties dissolve. So there I sit, feeling some kind of imploded hysteria, looking out the window, and what should roll by but a city bus bearing more propaganda on its side curiously in tone with the Esquire piece. It is a poster, the newest poster of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFar), and it has some kind of guilt-trippy timeline graph warning that of all the emotions AIDS has inspired – panic, hysteria, denial – the most "dangerous" is the one we all seem to have right now, which is complacency.

Yeah man, let's get back to some of that good old rip-roaring panic like we had in the '80s.

Within days I learn that Elton John is urging his fans to go out and buy Esquire, and on the cover of the London Observer I see a huge red ribbon and an article titled "The Killer That Will Strike Again" along with an article by Natasha Richardson (one of the celebs on the Esquire cover) about why she will continue to "fight AIDS." It's all so weirdly choreographed on a global scale. AIDS is less a story about science than one about politics and consensus and celebrity culture.

This has always been the tactic of the AIDS industry and its minions. When the AIDS money starts to dry up, bring back fear, guilt, terror, mutating viruses – anything you can think of. When their faulty hypothesis begins to crumble, they come after the "general public" like a mute old cow that needs to be stunned again with a cattle prod.

This time, I don't think it will work. All people need to do is look around themselves to see that AIDS is not suddenly ravaging humanity with a vengeance. In fact, Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger couldn't even think of one single person he knew who'd died of AIDS, so instead he wrote about a colleague who'd died of cancer in his editorial page.

What AmFar ominously refers to as "complacency" could also go by another, more positive word: "sobriety," which in Webster's is defined as meaning "marked by temperance."

© 1999 by Celia Farber
Originally published in Impression magazine