Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

The Plague Years

by David Black

The Fight Against the Plague
by Erick Castillejo

The breakout of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in the United States during the 1980's was to grow from a large distasteful public view of a disease that apparently only affected homosexuals, to the recognition of the 71 million people diagnosed with the HIV virus, and the eventual death of 36.9 million of those patients across the World. This initial reaction was upheld by most Americans only in an attempt to follow the conservative trend at the time with former Republican President Ronald Reagan to guide it. This response is exposed in the expository journal of David Black's experience through this epidemic titled, The Plague Years. Being born in the 1940's, Black gives a unique yet progressive perspective on AIDS from its small beginning in metropolitans: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to its expansion into the federal government.

“Magna Mortalitas,”1 was the period from 1348 to 1352 where the Black Plague affected England. A somber tone to start the book on which is a complete contrast with the rest of his writing. In the very beginning book, Black starts off by explaining how at the time he was a journalist writing on the development of gay culture and the sudden exposition of a lethal virus into it. He had an altercation with a man who accuses him of writing about the gay man negatively and proceeds to embarrassingly yell "faggot" towards the man in the middle of a gay conference. This sparks a flashback of "the worst thing you could call another boy was fairy-or sissy, betty"2 Growing up in the 50's, homosexuality was deemed confusing and it wasn't till Black had an experience with Brian, a gay man, that he began taking a "laissez-faire attitude toward gender."3 Some Americans accepted the disease as natural repercussion, "But disease was the sexual tax paid by men who frequent baths and bar."4 The conservative view penetrated deep into the Protestant culture especially with the exclusion of others, "it's God punishing homos."5 Dr. Joel Weisman and Dr. Michael Gottlieb were some of the first physicians to work with AIDS patients when most others would turn them away, both doctors eventually end up working together after finding the first patterns of immunosuppressors, "fatigue, fever, cytomegalovirus, pneumocystis, gay."6 which are viruses that lower the protection that the immune system offers.

Halfway through the book, Black describes the reorganization of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as the "epidemiologic equivalent of Wall Street"7 where viral infections had been solved before. As time progressed in early 1981, a common pattern of death by immunosuppressors was found in New York and Los Angeles. The CDC published through "Times Magazine."8 euphemisms of the disease and its feebleness. This position was taken by scientist allowed the Federal Government to propose budget cuts on the CDC, from their already small grant of 5 million (swine flu was give 125 million). Risk groups were now being identified by the CDC, Haitians were at the top of the list due to a the country’s low GDP and hygiene reported in "New York Times"9 Junkies and hemophiliacs were also placed into this risk category because of their risky behavior. Different theories began to surface on where AIDS came from: unhealthy environment in the bath houses and it being predisposed into your genetic code were the most popular. Scientists inadvertently condemned homosexuality by supporting the theory that it was "biologically wrong"10 Again, giving an argument for conservatives in society and politics to keep swaying right.

The beginning of the latter part of the book breaks downs the two most common theories given for how AIDS became an epidemic: "the single- agent vs. multifactorial ones."11 Single- agent was supposedly a new single virus that appeared causing the development of AIDS, while the multifactorial theory was a combination of lifestyle and disease.  The single-agent theory was supported by most researchers including the CDC, NIH (National Institute of Health), and Harvard while the multifactorial was not heavily regarded as accurate though believed by Cornell. Single-agent theory began to take more popularity when American scientist Dr. Robert C. Gallo announced the possible cause of AIDS "HTLV-1"12 (Human T-lymphotropic Virus 1) and French researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris found a similar agent, "LAV"13 (lymphadenopathy-associated virus) to be the cause. The dominance of the single-agent theory was "very attractive to those conservative forces who would like to destroy precisely those groups affected."14 With the rejection of help by local government, volunteer groups became popular to help those dying like the Shanti Project and New York Gay Men Health Club, who helped those who were being terminally afflicted.

The ending chapters of the book deal with the reaction of the government and community as a whole to old and new information. Propositions on quarantining all the people infected, prohibiting certain sexual act, and banning bathhouses. The reaction by the youth was similar to their parents, there was no sympathy for the child infected. "The two districts twenty-seven, and the largest in the city, and district twenty-nine"15 barred the request of the school board to let those with AIDS into classrooms and twelve thousand children boycotted school. The gay and straight communities were dividing even more with most heterosexual people saw AIDS as a burden only to those who were gay, while the gay community had split among moral codes and legislation. ‘They just want to kill us - all of us,' said a gay man who had just learned he had what may be a pre-AIDS condition."16 AIDS was becoming “a paranoid’s delight.”

Black’s thesis is based on the recurring word is “development,” usually in context with new information that was being released by scientists and then media outlets. These changes were stressed throughout the book in aiding the stigma that society had towards gays. “Trying to figure out what caused AIDS was like playing Chutes and Ladders. As new information came in, you would make remarkably quick advances and suffer equally quick reverses.” These advances were only portrayed through the media, who shied from the people affected, “Everybody… is tired of reading about guys who were dying. But this - a cure - this is news.” David Black seems to come off as a liberal which corresponds with his birth year, 1945. Having a strong democratic President like Franklin D. Roosevelt, and gone through the liberal student organizations, like the New Left, and music, drug and sex revolution that came with the 60's. Black also references himself as part of the Beat movement.. Growing up in a Jewish household, this instilled some more pious values than the average person giving him (if not Hasidic) a lenient and caring perspective on humanity. Being noted as an award-winning journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and producer it is no wonder Black took up writing about AIDS for himself and the Rolling Stones. Having been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Harper's, he was an accredited writer coming out with ten more than more novels after the publication of The Plague Years. As a journalist, he interviewed different people and got two poles of results: the person who "spit the beer he'd drunk from my bottle onto my kitchen floor."17 or the one who argued against his investigation into AIDS "because you aren't dying."18 People either didn't care or were against it. This book was written to expose the fact there was always developing ideas, new information was coming to light every day and one idea could be completely disregarded with a single piece of evidence.

The Plague Years is a book whose greatness is relative to the time it was written. For his time, Black was on the dot with his information, but there was no way he could have written more than what he did because the advancements in medicine happened after the publishing of the book. Looking back now the division of theories proposed by a scientist would be absurd, there is now a common agreement that it is a single virus, HIV that can lead to AIDS, the disease. Black tends to give a biased perspective towards the homosexual, at the time being a self-proclaimed Beat, he was sympathetic towards the cause but never shied away from being blunt with his diction, and still having a slight outburst of the conservative rhetoric at the time.  During his first encounter with a gay man, Brian, Black says, "Men I knew didn't cry… But with my baby-Beat opinions, I was willing to accept the guy for what he was - with naturally, a certain amount of condescension on my part."19 This encounter with Brian shows the confusion most straight men, who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, had about gay men. Fear comes naturally with the unknown, which draws you into the most natural of roots causing Black to shout, “Faggot” towards the gay man at the convention. The term “faggot” seems to come out a lot more frequent in this book than what would normally be seen in a book now written about the 80’s. The word has evolved from its original meaning taken from Black as a kid “sissy, betty, momma’s boy, pantywaist, queer, and homo”20 a derogatory word for beta male to what is now an extremely offensive word referring to LGBT's.

 Kate Leishman, a freelance writer for the New York Times, reports in her in-depth review The Plague Years similar references to how quickly this book became out of dates, which is ironic because his "Chutes and Ladders" theory on development backfired on him leading to this book to be categorized as old and misinformation. "The book is filled with such careless errors," says Leishman, "Mr. Black's' primary concern is ‘psychosocial' not medical."21 This is seen through Black's focus on more of the societal aspect of AIDS rather that the true medical breakthrough that was happening every day. Though she notes Black as being one of the first journalists to investigate about AIDS phenomenon, she rebuttals with, “but he should have update his material."22 Again, she categorized his book as invalid and academically inept. 

The 1980's holds a reputation of being a time where they the United States turned away from 1960s liberalism toward conservatism, The Plague Years does a nice job in highlighting that through the little positive feedback the epidemic got from the rest of the country. One way Black showed this was through his way of showing how the government was doing as little as possible to help with almost to push to the side like when he quoted the mayor's response their grievances, "the gay community in New York is invisible: I can't see you"23 Or commenting on the fact that Dr. Gallo was being used by the Reagan Administration as a way of, "thumbing its nose at its critics who have been complaining that the federal government has doing enough."24 Though congressman at the time recognized that grant approvals had to go through strict conservative "political considerations rather than by the professionals… " which led most to believe, "The Department of Health and Human Services has failed to adequately fund federal efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic."25 Another highlight of the conservative rise was the legislation for children with AIDS in the public school system. The private school system was already lost in Evangelical ideology and could not be touched by the state. But when city workers, "definitely want to keep AIDS quiet. It was no wonder parents were uninformed and confused about the risks…"26 this confusion led to a rejection of the AIDS movement in school by officials and students. Both Districts twenty-seven and twenty-nine rejected affected children’s  right to education, though told by scientists it was safe. Then 12,000 of those kids boycotted school on the first day to exaggerate the statement. The rejection of progress was even present in some liberals at the time quoting Black, "If progressives who are ready to rally to nearly every other liberal cause - have avoided coming to terms with AIDS,”27 it's not surprising that the rest of the society has not been sympathetic.

Overall The Plague Years by David Black is a book that pertains to its own period of time. Stigma and medicine has evolved past the conservative ideas persistent through the 1980's. His liberal view on the subject gives a more modern view, "it placed AIDS back into human context,"28 which was not a belief widely held at the time. AIDS itself though, has not come a long way. Millions of people are still being diagnosed and killed by disease but science has not stopped its effort in eradicating the virus.

1: Black, David. The Plague Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. 14

2: Black, David. 22

3: Black, David. 25, 26

4: Black, David. 29

5: Black, David. 35

6: Black, David. 29

7: Black, David. 49

8: Black, David. 62

9: Black, David. 76

10: Black, David. 94

11: Black, David. 103

12: Black, David. 127

13; Black, David. 116

14: Black, David. 130

15: Black, David. 153

16: Black, David. 175

17: Black, David. 99

18: Black, David. 37

19: Black, David. 213

20: Black, David. 169

21: Leishman, Katie. “TWO MILLION AMERICANS AND COUNTING.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 1986. Web. 25 May 2016.

22: Leishman, Katie. “TWO MILLION AMERICANS AND COUNTING.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 1986. Web. 25 May 2016. 23: Leishman, Katie. “TWO MILLION AMERICANS AND COUNTING.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 1986. Web. 25 May 2016.

23: Black, David. The Plague Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. 84

24: Black, David. 22

25: Black, David. 194

26: Black, David. 123

27: Black, David. 143

28: Black, David. 216