Monday, February 15, 2010

'Shattered Mirrors,' by Monroe Price

This book review first appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, September 25, 1989.

Can our civil rights survive AIDS?

By Monroe Price
Harvard University Press
$19.95, l60 pages

In “Shattered Mirrors: Our Search for Identity and Community in the AIDS Era,” Monroe Price, dean of the law school at Yeshiva University, takes an interdisciplinary approach to explore values and behavior during the AIDS years.

Though the topic is specifically AIDS, this slim volume actually contains a wide-ranging reflection upon the sources of contemporary American culture. It also focuses on the contradictory forces that influence our society and the paradoxes that ensue.

Mr. Price argues that AIDS has had an irreversible, if sometimes unapparent, impact upon our culture. To some this might seem to be an irrefutable assertion. Indeed, since millions of people may be carrying the AIDS virus (HIV) and many thousands of those are likely to become ill and die from the disease, the reverberations from AIDS are being felt widely and deeply However, Mr. Price’s argument rests upon an assumption that AIDS, either as an illness or as a social phenomenon, has been much more pervasive than is actually the case.

Because of this faulty assumption, one of the two main themes explored in” Shattered Mirrors” — whether the First Amendment can survive the health crisis — seems misguided. The other major theme, which, appropriately for a lawyer, focuses on the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection (primarily under the 14th Amendment), travels on much firmer ground.

Mr. Price asserts that “the AIDS crisis has jolted our confidence” in the concept of the marketplace of ideas, which ‘gives the nod to the winner in ideology in cultural styles, and in advocacy of various modes of consumption” (that is, in political speech, artistic and literary speech, and commercial speech). Insofar as this marketplace of ideas is “unfettered, it has produced cultural ideas and habits that are a risk to the public’s health.”

Because the government has seen fit to offer advice and counsel on personal behavior during the AIDS crisis, and may in the future, if it has not already done so, join forces with organized religious groups in an effort to influence cultural norms, Mr. Price believes that First Amendment freedoms of speech and of the press are threatened.

This assertion deserves much scrutiny, Certainly, we already have seen some self-censorship in the media: James Bond has fewer ladies to love, condoms are used to comic effect in movies and on television, rock musicians sing about delaying sexual gratification. There has been, fortunately, no attempt by the state to coerce such censorship. It has been a marketing decision. If Hollywood believes that sex doesn’t sell as well as it used to, let it act on that belief. Hollywood could, after all, be entirely mistaken and too cautious.

The government’s entry into the AIDS debate, and into an educational role (aimed both at children and adults), is not significantly different from the government’s role in public discussions or education on other issues.

To support his assertions that AIDS poses a threat to traditional First Amendment values and protections, Mr. Price invokes an “AIDS-as-war” simile that simply does not wash. AIDS is not comparable to the Black Death, to the influenza epidemic of 1918, or to belligerent attacks by a foreign power. The disease is quite difficult to transmit, far less contagious than influenza or the bubonic plague.

Indeed, the numbers of people affected —at least in the United States, which is the sole focus of this study — are far narrower than such comparisons suppose. There has not been, and if Michael Fumento is correct, there will not be, the long-anticipated breakout of the disease into the larger population beyond the two groups that have been primarily affected, homosexual men and intravenous drug users.

Because of this, however, Mr. Price has a much stronger argument when he says that the AIDS crisis poses a threat to the Constitution’s equal-protection guarantees. Two groups of people, long marginalized by society turn out to be those most affected by a deadly disease. There are attempts by other citizens — including national leaders — to play upon archaic prejudices in order to isolate these groups even more.

Featuring Congressional Record screeds by Rep. William Dannemeyer of California and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, this movement takes special aim at homosexual men, mostly because — unlike intravenous drug users, who tend to come from the underclass and the politically irrelevant — the homosexual community is large, organized and affluent. To the New Right, the homosexual community and its allies pose a threat to hallowed values. Add to this the hysteria whipped up by political cult leader Lyndon LaRouche, and we have a recipe for a civil-liberties disaster.

These trends explain why, as Mr. Price argues, “one of the greatest dangers of AIDS to the national consciousness is the threat to the principle, so arduously achieved, that baseless discrimination should be officially condemned and that pnvate biases must not have public expression.”

In a passage that has relevance far beyond the realm of public-health concerns, Mr Price notes that “the constitutional notion of equal protection is complex, though the term is often invoked. We do not live in a system in which some constitutional talisman tells us the ‘right’ method of distributing wealth or health.

“Ours is, for better or for worse, s society that presumes, indeed thrives on, inequities that arise not out of the denial of opportunity itself but out of the differences in the way opportunity is seized. We know that the Constitution does not mean that every person will fare equally well, Yet, when we evaluate a course of government action — at least according to Constitutional traditions — we must ask whether a higher level of scrutiny ought to be exercised because of the very nature of the risk groups affected by the AIDS crisis.”

Citing Justice Harlan Stone, Mr. Price asserts that just as racial minorities can be identified if they are targets of discrimination. “those at risk of obtaining AIDS are subject to the kind of ‘prejudice against discrete and insular minorities’ that tends to affect the operation of political processes in a manner contrary to our basic values.” Mr. Price’s warning from all this: “We should be particularly suspicious when government approach disadvantages a group which, for longstanding reasons, those in control of the legislative process may seek to injure.”

As might be expected, Mr. Price praises the recommendation from the Watkins Commission — the President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Syndrome — that Congress should forbid discrimination against those who have AIDS or who are perceived to carry the AIDS virus. President Bush has endorsed this approach. It has become clear in recent years that AIDS-phobia has been used as a thin veil to justify anti-homosexual discrimination in areas where such discrimination is patently unjustified. (Indeed, one must wonder if it ever is justified.)

While these legal and constitutional issues make up the core of Monroe Price’s book, the author has collected many readable anecdotes, microportraits of our culture on the cusp of the l990s. Although some of his arguments fall short of expectations, Mr. Price raises a number of questions that deserve further exploration. In fact, one could read this book not as a definitive description of “identity and community in the AIDS era,” but as a memorandum of suggestions for future research.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based issues analyst and writer.

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