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The triumph of unreason

Aids dissidence remains a powerful current in South Africa despite this week’s shift in government policy on the disease. Drew Forrest analyses the dissident mentality both in its Internet and its South African forms

It is a wonder President Thabo Mbeki has the mental endurance to trawl the Aids dissident network on the Internet. It is a deeply depressing and claustrophobic experience.

It confirms one’s sense of the World Wide Web as a gigantic lonely hearts service for the planet’s intellectual isolates. Those who believe aliens built the pyramids, that photographs of the Earth from space are a hoax, that evolutionary theory is communist-inspired, that the CIA bombed the World Trade Centre, that Freemasons and Jewish capital control the world, and that HIV is a genocidal fraud can huddle together in an elite club and look down on the mentally enslaved mainstream.

Across the sites Virus myth, Aidsmyth, ActupSF, Alive and Well, Heal, Reclaimthebrain, Shirley’s Wellness Caf, Alberta reappraising Aids society, the Memoryhole the same names keep turning up like bad pennies.

Among the faithful who constantly recycle one another are the inevitable dissident scientists, Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick; the febrile New York journalist Celia Farber; former marketing executive John Lauritsen; Irishman and arch conspiracy theorist Fintan Dunne; and “Mbeki’s muse”, South Africa’s Anita Allen.

One can see why the president’s Aids stance has been so immovable. The dissidents create a closed, self-validating system with shared, unquestioned axioms: the Aids virus has never been isolated; HIV tests prove nothing; “flesh eating” anti-retroviral drugs are a lethal poison of no clinical virtue.

The most curious aspect is the selective use of science, in most cases by non-specialists, to refute science. The dissidents never tire of pointing to the Nobel Prize-winning scientists in their ranks. What do they not explain is why they accept the views of a tiny scientific fringe over those of the eminent orthodox scientists who vastly outnumber them.

By her own admission, Allen has no scientific training beyond a stint as The Star’s science writer. What qualifies her to decide between the dissident views of “the Perth group” and orthodox conceptions? Mainstream scientists insist HIV has been isolated, photographed and cultured, and that its chemistry is relatively well understood. Who is she to dismiss them out of hand?

The explanation can only lie in the personal psychology of dissidents. What is striking about their website entries is the self-aggrandising, self-dramatising tone and a paranoid cast of mind.

They are “the Aids rethinkers” pitted against “the Aids stooges” of the conventional media and the “Aids police” of the “biomedical establishment”.

We are told that dissident Aids science is supported by “a growing minority”, rather than a rearview-mirror canard that survives as an issue only in South Africa. “Our ranks are growing steadily,” avers Lauritsen, with no supporting evidence.

Mbeki’s appointment of an Aids panel of orthodox and heterodox scientists is hailed as a scientific event of the first magnitude, rather than a damp squib that has achieved nothing in two years and drawn no international interest.

“In 14 years of Aids journalism I’ve never seen the Aids leadership writhing in the kind of agony they now find themselves in daily. The prospect of having to debate, defend or quantify their paradigm is melting them down,” Farber wrote of the panel in May 2000, from another planet.

Duesberg and Rasnick seem to specialise in off-beat science, having recently floated an alternative “aneuploidic” theory of the causes of cancer. Predictably, they blame the “multibillion-dollar biotech industry” for sidelining this research.

The ideological starting points may differ, but the paranoid victimology is universal. Common to all varieties of dissidence is the conception of the world as manipulated by powerful, unseen and malevolent forces the “Omnipotent Apparatus” of a recent African National Congress briefing document.

Why Aids should attract this kind of politics when widespread killer diseases such as tuberculosis do not is an interesting question. By simultaneously evoking potent taboos around death and sex, the disease arouses primitive emotions. Like syphilis in the 19th century, it quickly became associated with society’s bohemian fringes the hard drug and gay subcultures.

Probably most influential was its depredations among the opinion-forming middle classes in the West. The premature deaths of young, well-heeled professionals who could buy themselves protection from most other fatal afflictions evoked particularly strong fear and horror. Tuberculosis, by contrast, is a killer of working people and the underclass.

Sexual politics features prominently in Internet Aids dissidence. For an American gay website that demands the reopening of San Francisco’s bathhouses, the “most devastating fallout from the media-fed virus of fear called HIV is not the death of queer culture, the corruption of the Aids industry or the horrific body deformations from toxic drugs, but the repression of sex through the demonisation of the anus”.

“The war on Aids is the medicalisation of the continuing war against gays,” fumes the Memoryhole. “Get with the pogrom; take your AZT.”

The Anti-Red Ribbon Campaign sees the idea of “universal risk” as a puritanical scare campaign, designed to raise funds not available for research “on a disease only homos and drug users get”, and to discourage sexual activity.

Urging homeopathic and natural remedies for Aids, the Women’s Health Interaction in l Toronto rejects the viral model as “the medi-lll calisation ofllllll women’s health”ll and an attempt to stifle breastfeeding.

The villain of the piece is the good old pharmaceutical industry, bolsteredl by “censorship inll the mainstream media which would nor-l mally be found in a totalitarian country in the midst of war”, according to Lauritsen, and “the surreptitious activities of PR firms” in its employ.

Working hand-in-glove with the drug companies is the United States government. “The White House announced in April 2000 that Aids threatened US security. As a result Aids agencies now attend ‘task force’ meetings in the National Security Agency Situation Room,” ominously discloses Dunne. “A strange venue for scientists, but one which enables the White House, CIA and US military to keep a close eye on the scientists and health professionals. Why?”

It is solemnly averred that the tentacles of the drug firms reach into the World Bank, the United Nations, UNAids and the World Health Organisation, which are “used to advance their political and economic ends”.

With their image as profiteers and their tendency to exaggerate the incidence of disease to maximise sales, Western multinationals make a vote-catching target. They provide the justification for the most bizarre conspiracy theory of them all: Aids genocide in Africa, by culling populations through drugs and safe sex, and then “selling the American way”.

Writes Dunne, who claims to have worked with Minister of Education Kader Asmal in the Irish anti-apartheid movement: “The West has overlaid the bountiful actuality of Africa with a mental and political matrix of disease, despair and decline an ideal matrix with which to foster dependency in millions of Africans.

“Aids is dependency; African Aids is the Trojan Horse of the West. Inside the horse are millions of condoms for you so-fertile Africans, you who would otherwise so-selfishly use up African natural resources we covet for Western benefit.”

Dunne is not an isolated crank. Other sites refer to the African Aids epidemic as “an orchestrated pandemic of lies via a Western-controlled media campaign”, and the “delivery of toxic drugs into Africa and other so-called Third World countries with the express intent of using these drugs as a form of population control”.

One might think that such offensive claptrap, based on the “Sambo” model of Africans as helpless dupes, would be anathema to Mbeki. Is he not trying to prise open Western markets so that an economically resurgent Africa can sell more of its “coveted” resources?

In fact, it lies at the heart of his conception of Aids as a key dimension of racial and North-South politics, and increasingly vocal attempts by ANC dissidents to sell the idea that Aids virology is a neo-colonial thought-system, while dissidence is an expression of African intellectual independence.

It was as an “independent African thinker” that Mbeki’s spin doctors defended the president against the recent scathing cover story on his Aids dissidence in the American weekly Newsweek.

The claim, lifted straight from the Internet dissidents, was of a Western media conspiracy to force a mental straitjacket onll hapless Africans. The government communications chief, Joel Netshithenzhe, could not acknowledge that foreign journalists might independently arrive at a dim view of Mbeki’s Aids stance. The president was the victim of a foreign media “campaign”.

The fact that dissidence is overwhelmingly a Western aberration; that almost all the dissident scientists are white; and that South Africa’s most prominent immunologist is a black man of conventional views, is glossed over.

Every theme of ANC dissident literature from the conspiracy theories to the claim that African Aids is a merely a collection of pre-existing conditions caused by poverty and under-development can be found on the Internet.

Centrally at issue is a very large lprinciple: that of the supremacy of reason and observation over authority and superstition, which has driven human progress since the Enlightenment.

Superstition implies a belief in agencies that cannot be subjected to observation, testing or measurement. The dissident approach is entirely a priori: because the virological account stigmatises unprotected sex, or leads to the closure of gay bathhouses, or inhibits HIV-positive women from breastfeeding, or “demeans” Africans as sexually promiscuous and irresponsible, it cannot be true.

To bolster dogmatic prejudice, fringe scientists are favoured over the vast bulk of the world’s scientific fraternity. Scientific authority is used selectively to counter findings based on scientific method, where it is convenient. Lobbyists like Allen, and Mbeki himself, engage in molecular biobabble over such questions as “triphosphorylation” without the barest equipment to assess its validity.

No barrack-room lawyers’ debating technique is passed over in the endeavour to prove what is already felt to be true. Partial truths are stretched, like Procrustes of Greek myth, to fit hypothesis.

Aids drugs are indeed poisonous and can lead to dangerous bone marrow depression and muscle weakening but they are no more toxic in their side-effects than the chemicals conventionally used in cancer treatment. All drugs are toxins: death by internal haemorrhage has been recorded after the use of aspirin.

Much the same applies to the existence of the Aids virus, which a crude dissident like ANC MP Peter Mokaba seems to imagine should be caught, bottled and passed around ANC national executive committee meetings for inspection, like an insect sample. Even if it had not been isolated as is the case with many diarrhoeal and acute respiratory disorders the presence of an infective agent can still be assumed because it is communicable and produces the same symptoms in different subjects.

The crisp issue is whether, on balance, infected people enjoy a better standard of life on anti-retrovirals and this is an empirical lllquestion, not a theoreti- lllcal one. The incredible suggestion is that doctors continue dispensing the drugs that they know are killing patients purely out of slavish submission to “the Omnipotent Apparatus”.

The insistence on anti-retroviral drugs as a genocidal poison is contradicted by the direct clinical experience of health professionals and sick people who use them. It is gross presumption for a bouncingly healthy amateur like Allen to accuse HIV-positive Judge Edwin Cameron, a man of the highest intellect who has been on anti-retrovirals for several years, of being “scientifically challenged” and a publicity agent for the drug companies.

The dissidents’ claims to be defending the principles of free inquiry and knowledge based on evidence are in any event undermined by their own conduct. Their intolerance underlined by their hysterical abuse of the Aids mainstream as “medical fascists”, “Aids whores” and the like is accompanied by a veritable phantasmagoria of the paranoid imagination.

There has been much speculation about what inner mechanisms predispose Mbeki and other ANC leaders to the dissident view. As shown by the plot accusations against ANC businessmen last year, and the attempt to brand trade union leaders “counter-revolutionary”, they have a distinct weakness for paranoid fairy tales.

In Mbeki’s case, Newsweek intriguingly suggested that a contorted love-hate relationship with the culture of the white West, to which he was extensively exposed as a student in the United Kingdom and exile activist, may be a factor.

His pipe-smoking Western persona and strong need to parade his knowledge of English writers are striking. The literary sources of this Africanist are Yeats, Shelley and Shakespeare, rather than Soyinka, Neto and Senghor.

A desire to impress seems to be tied up with rebellion, attraction with repulsion, militant anti-racism with some deep fear that perhaps the racists are right.

He has openly stated that conventional Aids virology implies that Africans are “germ carriers” who cannot control their sexual behaviour. The paradox is that the Aids mainstream, including outspoken liberals such as Judge Cameron, holds no such view.

The extraordinary fact that dissidence is a powerful intellectual current in South Africa, alone among the world’s nations, is a testament to Mbeki’s intellectual and political authority in the ANC.

While the many doubters seem paralysed by a reluctance to cross their leaders, dissidents like Mokaba openly propagate their views and have a free hand to peddle them to the ANC’s rank and file. How members conceptualise Aids is being reduced to an issue of loyalty to the party and its hierarchs.

It is a worrying mark of the excessive centralisation of intellectual capital in the ruling party, and its declining culture of diversity and free debate.

The single greatest threat to the tradition of the Enlightenment was the rise of totalitarian ideologies in the 20th century. One of their distinguishing features was the idea that there was no single reality and no single body of scientific knowledge, only versions conditioned by economic class or race. Flowing from this was the belief that authority in the form of the party or its leader could determine scientific truth.

Hence Hitler’s distinction between “Jewish” and “Nazi” science, and Stalin’s ruling that cybernetics and genetics were “bourgeois” scientific pursuits.

The trouble is that physical reality does not adapt itself to the whims of human beings, no matter how much power they wield. In their nuclear programme, the Nazis were forced to compromise with “Jewish” science. The ban on genetic research in Stalin’s Russia and rise of “the ignorant agronomist”, Trofim Lysenko, set back Soviet agriculture by years.

The notions that ideology precedes science, that certain things cannot be true because ideology says so, that there are racial variants of science (“Jewish”, “Nazi”, “Western”, “Afri-can”) and that political authority can determine scientific truth, have been reborn in South Africa in the controversy over HIV/Aids.

A prominent South African virologist, who asked not be named, this week told the Mail & Guardian that the refutation of the viral theory of Aids was as unlikely as “the fall of the whole edifice of science”.

If the ANC dissidents turn out to be right, they will have had the luck of the devil. They are confronting virtual unanimity among the world’s scientists, forged over two decades, with nothing in their intellectual armoury but a set of ideological precepts and some scraps gleaned from the Internet.

To base policy on this and South African health policy has been heavily coloured by dissidence, whatever the president may say is grossly irresponsible and suggests breathtaking conceit.

But it also suggests that Mbeki would not make a good gambler. Most ordinary people choose to base their life-choices on mainstream science because the methods of inquiry entrenched by the Enlightenment have been extraordinarily successful.

The odds that he and other ANC dissidents will be hailed by future generations as latter-day Galileos, who fought the “Omnipotent Apparatus” and won, are remote indeed. It is much more likely that they will be remembered as sad mavericks who did themselves, and their country, no favour.

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