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[176] And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic – Randy Shilts

bandplayedon“…many at the FDA did not believe that this so-called epidemic of immune suppression even existed. Privately, in conversations with CDC officials, FDA officials confided that they thought the CDC had taken a bunch of unrelated illness and lumped them into some made-up phenomenon as a brazen case to get publicity of funding for their threatened agency.” [170]

And the Band Played On is an intense piece of journalism that explores the AIDS epidemic in social, political and personal level. It is a lucid and stunning indictment of public policy toward the vicious disease that has coalesced into an extremely serious serious health threat in a matter of months. The book, a product of Shilts’ exhaustive research, chronicles the first cases of immuno suppression in humans until it became a pandemic in the nation, spreading to all the continents in breakneck speed over three years. Since AIDS only seems seems a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard it before, public health authorities and political leaders refuse to take the drastic measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.

Apathy of the society toward the disease roots in embarrassment. A whole cluster of the nation’s earliest cases appeared to have spawned among homosexual men. Dan Rather, then CBS journalist and anchor, on the Evening News in 1982, bluntly stated that nobody seemed to have heard about the disease, because the majority of people who had AIDS were gay men. The media, instead of being the public’s watchdog, has gasped a collective yawn over the story of dead and dying homosexuals. It was a gay disease, bearing a ridiculous name GRID (gay related immuno-deficiency). Media refused to run stories of these social outcasts and littered the papers with the distaste of their sexual behavior. In the early guidelines to practice safe sex, the phrase bodily fluid was used instead of semen. Embarrassment again has a detrimental effect on creating an efficient education on the disease, for the bare basics of AIDS is tongue-tied by censorship.

Fearing that the disease will become anti-gay backlash, AIDS activists and gay leaders quickly scrambled for the community’s defense. They maintained that talking about the gay community’s “prodigious promiscuity” was part of a blame-the-victim mentality. The result was a vicious cycle that delayed awareness. What society judged was not the severity of the disease but the social acceptability of the individuals affected with it. In safeguarding the social acceptability, people were dying while leaders hesitated, and could not get the blunt message across the community.

Incompetence and bureaucratic bumbling (which still exist even today in handling new health crises like SARS in 2003), along with lack of leadership in government agencies robbed victims of time, the time when they could have begun taking the disease seriously. Some officials went as far as to write white lies about the cause of death in order to protect a name, and to stay in the closet. And the Band Played On is a heartrending, sometimes infuriating exposé of how bureaucrats and community leaders continued to minimize the severity of the AIDS problem, owing to the fact that they had their own political agenda, lending credence to their contention that they were doing enough to fight it. It should be a wake-up call for our country that politicians should never be allowed to handle health and medical issues. 655 pages. [Read/Skim/Toss]

10 Responses

  1. Did you see the film they made about this book? It’s also excellent and after seeing it I bought the book. I really need to get it out and read it, I’m not surprised you thought it was so good!

  2. Excellent review, Matt! I started this book ages ago but never finished it. I watched the movie and it was very gripping. Now that I have recently watched Milk, in which some of the people like Cleve Jones and Scott Smith are also mentioned in the book. I’m going to pick up back up again.

  3. My housemate, a neo-natal-intensive-unit nurse at the time, read this book when it first came out, and thought it was saying things no one else had the guts, or the perspective, to say.

  4. Excellent review. Thanks. Hope this draws attention to a still-relevant book.

  5. If the book is half as good as the movie…it is such an intense, thought-provoking, maddening expose on this terrible disease, everyone should watch it or read it. At times I just wanted to scream or slap someone! Wonderful review!

  6. […] [176] And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic – Randy Shilts […]

  7. That book is what opened my eyes and made me no longer a registered Republican. I read it when it was hot off the press. I remember that with each page, I was torn between tears and anger.

  8. I loved this book, and I enjoyed the movie they made out of it, too–though it was very different than the book 🙂

  9. […] Country by James Baldwin, who is also a renowned African American writer in the 1950s. The landmark And the Band Played On by Randy Shilt, which marked the first book completed this year, also belongs to this […]

  10. […] James Baldwin, who is also a renowned African American writer in the 1950s. The landmark And the Band Played On by Randy Shilt, which marked the first book completed this year, also belongs to this […]

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