B***S*** about HIV from ACADEME via THE PRESS
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/03/04
A few years ago, Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton, earned his 15 minutes of popular fame by publishing a little chapbook with the captivating title, “On Bullshit”. I avoided it on the general principle that anything which attracts that sort of media attention cannot be worth spending time over. But a year later, a trustworthy friend gave me a copy of the book. Its first sentence told me nothing new:
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
But I read on, and am glad that I did, because I found Frankfurt’s definition of B***S*** genuinely enlightening: B***S*** is not a matter of lies or deception, it is a lack of concern with the truth; B***S***ers just don’t care whether what they say is true or untrue or neither.
“Spin”, incessantly emitted by politicians and corporations and advertisers is B***S*** in this sense; what Presidential Press Secretaries say is B***S*** in this sense.
One corollary is that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”. And that, of course, is a sufficient explanation for why there’s so much B***S*** in our culture.
Assertions about HIV/AIDS by activists and in the popular media are rife with B***S***, because so many of the speakers don’t know what they are talking about and don’t care that they don’t know. They have accepted without question, taken on trust, what the white-coated gurus have told them, and believe they are serving the greater good by “empowering”, “mobilizing”, spreading “awareness”, urging “prevention”, and so on, doings that have an undeniably feel-good ring to them even as they defy attempts to understand what is meant in terms of tangible actions or tangible results.
The foregoing diatribe was stimulated by an Editorial in a newspaper that isn’t always nor typically in the business †:
“Married to HIV: President Bush’s Africa plan doesn’t acknowledge that often it’s husbands who infect wives”[Los Angeles Times, 22 February 2008]
“Religious groups are fixated on the need to stop HIV transmission through premarital and extramarital sex, but what’s killing African women by the millions is unprotected sex with their husbands. . . . Roughly 10 million African girls under the age of 18 are married each year, many to older men who seek HIV-free brides. To those wedded to HIV-positive men, marriage often means a death sentence. . . . they are more likely than young men to contract HIV.”
The UNAIDS “AIDS Epidemic Update” of December 2006 asserts that in 2004 and 2006, there were attributable to HIV/AIDS 2 million deaths of adults and children in sub-Saharan Africa. The L. A. Times, by stating “millions” of unfortunate wives in the present tense (“what’s killing”), is implicitly attributing most of these annual 2 million to unprotected sex among married couples. This is patently absurd. The editorial ghost-writer need not have read our blog (TO AVOID HIV INFECTION, DON’T GET MARRIED, 18 November 2007) to realize just how absurd this is, it would have been enough to have a concern for what the truth is, which might have led to looking at the official and readily available statistics. A concern for what the truth is might also be a stimulus to engage in thought.
I wonder on what data is based the assertion of “often means a death sentence”? How many such marriages and how many such deaths?
This typifies the B***S*** that “HIV/AIDS activists” indulge in habitually: the aim is to arouse emotion, no matter that the assertions are based on nothing but belief and guesswork.
I wonder, too, whether that ghost-writer saw any problem in asserting the dangers of sex with older men who are anxious to avoid HIV while also asserting that young men are less at risk of infection than are young women. If those older men are anxious to avoid contracting HIV, and have managed to do so during evidently long years of sexual activity, and were in any case less likely than their young female peers to contract HIV, what possible reason could there be to indict them as a class for posing any danger to their young brides? As we said on 18 November 2007, “we are being asked to believe . . . [that] the very same generation which as unmarried singles enabled the infection rate to decrease because of their scrupulously careful sexual behavior became, a few years later and when married, riotously and carelessly promiscuous”.
The on-line version of this Editorial has a link to DJSmith.pdf, a document devoid of authorial by-line that bears the title “Modern Marriage, Men’s Extramarital Sex, and HIV Risk in Southeastern Nigeria”. The clue given by the file-name, however, permitted me to discover that this was published in the American Journal of Public Health (97  997-1005) by Daniel Jordan Smith of the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. The abstract is a run-of-the-mill example of postmodern academic B***S***:
“For women in Nigeria, as in many settings, simply being married can contribute to the risk of contracting HIV. I studied men’s extramarital sexual behavior in the context of modern marriage in southeastern Nigeria. The results indicate that the social organization of infidelity is shaped by economic inequality, aspirations for modern lifestyles, gender disparities, and contradictory moralities. It is men’s anxieties and ambivalence about masculinity, sexual morality, and social reputation in the context of seeking modern lifestyles—rather than immoral sexual behavior and traditional culture—that exacerbate the risks of HIV/AIDS.”
Try to think of specific actions or connections that might warrant the generalizations expressed in the last two sentences (provided you can even detect what their meaning is intended to be). Of course, if you are a postmodern academic, you don’t need to concern yourself with evidence to support such generalizations, you just need to frame your writings in the contexts of “race, class, and gender” to ensure publication. If you think that’s an exaggeration, please read up on the Sokal affair, where an absurd parody passed muster for publication in the journal Social Text ‡.
At any rate, the scholarly publication that the L. A. Times ghost-writer apparently relied on suggests that married women in Nigeria are at particular risk of catching “HIV” because of the prevailing cultural milieu. A skeptic about how much reliance can be placed on “participant observer” reports and face-to-face interviews about sexual behavior (“Marital case studies were conducted with 20 couples”) might question the data and venture doubts about the conclusions, but that is really beside the point since the descriptions of those matters seem entirely applicable to Western cultures where married women are not at particular risk of catching HIV:
“In southeastern Nigeria marriage is sacred, and yet men’s infidelity is common”
—think certain prominent American televangelists
“a pronounced double standard with regard to extramarital sexuality”
“marriage remains the single most important marker of moral adulthood in Nigeria, [and therefore] both policymakers and ordinary citizens remain resistant to the idea that marriage must be understood as a risk factor for HIV infection”
“Most couples seek to portray their marriages to themselves and to others as being modern but also moral, and this is crucial to explaining the dynamics of men’s extramarital sexual relationships, married women’s responses to men’s infidelity, and the risk of HIV infection in marriage”
“Many men were ambivalent about their extramarital sexual behavior, but in most cases men viewed it as acceptable given an appropriate degree of prudence so as not to disgrace one’s spouse, one’s self, and one’s family”
“[that] a significant proportion of extramarital sex in southeastern Nigeria involves relationships that have emotional and moral dimensions—they are not just about sex—means that men imagine these relationships, their partners, and themselves in ways that are quite distanced from the prevailing local model that the greatest risk for HIV/AIDS comes from ‘immoral’ sex”
—in other words, “a significant proportion” of marital infidelity is not the supposedly really risky behavior with prostitutes or “on the down-low”. What’s described is more reminiscent of the French tradition of essentially life-long lovers or mistresses than it is of the rampant promiscuity with multiple concurrent but changing partners that is ascribed to 20-40% of the sub-Saharan population in order to explain the purported spread of “HIV” (see “The AIDS Pandemic” by James Chin, formerly epidemiologist for the State of California and the World Health Organization).
Indeed, the article admits that “On its face, marriage in southeastern Nigeria seems to be changing in ways that make it increasingly similar to marriage in Western societies”, hardly a promising direction in which to pursue an explanation for a high risk of catching HIV by marrying.
Smith’s article begins, “Data from around the world, including Nigeria, suggest that married women’s greatest risk of contracting HIV is through having sex with their husbands”; but the cited reference is a Nigerian document, which in fact shows a higher rate of HIV-positive among single women than among married ones in every region of Nigeria (Figure 11, p. 45, 2003 National HIV Sero-prevalence Sentinel Survey, April 2004).
Apart from those objective flaws, the text has similar postmodern usages as the Abstract, for example:
“Male extramarital sexual practices are situated in economic, social and moral contexts, showing how the social organization of extramarital sexuality is itself located at the intersection of economic inequality, aspirations for modern lifestyles, gender disparities, and commanding and contradictory moralities….The data demonstrate that married men’s risky sexual behavior and their wives’ inability to protect themselves can be understood and explained without resorting to blaming the victims.”
The conclusions in Smith’s article are not only ironic but also repeat the usual self-contradictions that are inseparable from mainstream discourse about HIV/AIDS:
“Ironically, the HIV epidemic has further complicated possibilities for condom use because, in a context where the risk of HIV is popularly associated with sexual immorality, suggesting a condom is tantamount to asserting that one’s partner is risky and, hence, guilty of sexual impropriety. . . . Perhaps the most important step is to design interventions that help reduce the popular association of HIV risk with immoral sexual behavior”.
Once again that extraordinary breach of logic:
“X” is spread by unsafe promiscuous sex, which society regards as immoral. The way to stop “X” from spreading is to persuade people that there’s nothing immoral about the behavior that leads to its spread.
In many other contexts, this same idiocy is expressed by talking about the need to remove the stigma associated with testing HIV-positive (see, for instance, HIV NONSENSE: TODAY AND EVERY DAY, 22 November 2007).
When will we hear propaganda to that effect about gonorrhea or syphilis?
† The L. A. Times does not typically engage in B***S***ing . . . except regarding HIV/AIDS, that is to say; recall, for example, its scurrilous and unsubstantiated stories about Christine Maggiore
‡ Instructive articles about the Sokal hoax include Paul Boghossian, Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 1996, 14-15 and Steven Weinberg, New York Review, 8 August 1996, 11-14. The hoax article itself is “Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity”, Social Text 46-47, Spring/Summer 1996, p. 217 ff. Sokal revealed the hoax as soon as it was published, in “A physicist experiments with cultural studies”, Lingua Franca, May/June 1995, 62-64.
As happens to me so often, checking a source brings unforeseeable benefits. One of the most curious regularities in rates of testing HIV-positive is the apparently universal trend to higher rates at higher population densities, which I first noted in the US data (The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory)http://failingsofhivaidstheory.homestead.com/ and then found reported also in Rwanda (see HIV DEMOGRAPHICS FURTHER CONFIRMED: HIV IS NOT SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED, 26 February 2008). It popped up again in Nigeria, where this trend was found in six of the country’s seven regions, with ratios for urban/rural rates averaging 1.7 (0.87 to 3.8, Figure 2 in “2003 National HIV Sero-prevalence Sentinel Survey”).