In what can be most charitably characterized as a confounding lapse in judgement, Hillary Clinton used the occasion of Nancy Reagan’s funeral to inexplicably praise her for AIDS activism she never undertook. I say inexplicably because not only were the remarks entirely inaccurate, they were entirely unprompted as well. I also say inexplicably because – even had Hillary not lived through the very period she mentioned – in the days after the former First Lady’s passing, many in the media reminded us of the Reagans’ lethal silence on the epidemic throughout their White House tenure.
Criticism of Clinton’s remarks was fast and firm – and commendably so. I reject the notion that any candidate should be tactically shielded from critique lest it hurt them in the general election. All politicians need to be held accountable by their base. Public pressure generates fear of loss in politicians and that fear generates change - change often driven by a desire for self-preservation, but change nonetheless. As long as that change is positive, I have little interest in motivations; I automatically question those of anyone who would seek to rule over others anyway, and material outcomes are far more important to me than the intentions behind them. Call me a consequentialist, call me pragmatic, or call me Machiavellian – at the end of the day neither character nor some arbitrary purity test matters to me when it comes to how policy is formulated; I really only care about the results.
This is also why I have little interest in spending a few thousand words excoriating Clinton for her initial comments or the requisite, half-hearted apology that ensued. Don’t get me wrong – I was infuriated by both. I, too, lived through the worst of the crisis, though I was far younger and less aware than Hillary; it would be a number of years after the Reagan administration ended before I would become sexually active myself. I was, however, rather precocious, and it was during the period in question that I was beginning to wrestle with the idea that I could be one of those gay men that were almost exclusively referenced in the dialogue about AIDS that eventually did begin despite the Reagans.
Once I calmed down from involuntarily shaking in anger at Clinton’s bullshit, and once I finished reading some of the various pieces that righteously ripped her for her statements, I went about trying to settle my mind by catching up on my Twitter feed. That was a mistake, of course, because so many of the tweets were about the situation. But one other recurring theme I’ve watched play out on Twitter and in certain media outlets throughout the election cycle also claimed my attention: to vote or not to vote.
This is a fairly straightforward debate at its core; I’m oversimplifying a bit, but the general gist is the no-vote contingent typically believes that the system is fucked, and thus participation in the process is unethical at worst or pointless at best, with some viewing non-participation as an act of protest. On the other hand, the pro-vote contingent either believes very strongly in the merits of a particular candidate, or more often believes there is value in choosing the lesser of [typically] two evils.
I fall into the latter camp and I’ve voted in every election since I was legally allowed. To me, a belief that the system is fucked and a belief that participation in the system is important nonetheless are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps in philosophical terms they are, but as I mentioned previously, I’m not here for philosophical purity, I’m here for outcomes. I approach politics like I approach much of the activism I’ve participated in throughout my adult life, that is with harm reduction in mind. If the system is fucked – if it’s essentially an oligarchy – I figure the least I can do is help put the person in office who will cause the smallest amount of harm with the inordinate power s/he will wield.
I sympathize with those firmly in camp no-vote; I did even as I was first registering to vote, selecting independent to distance myself from the parties of power (I later changed this for practical reasons, specifically a desire to vote in the primaries given my state holds closed elections.) And while I’m chiefly concerned with real world outcomes, I don’t enjoy inconsistency of thought, which I have to admit I experience every time I do participate in a system I’d like to see radically altered.
But those in camp no-vote and I generally have more in common than just a desire for change; we also share the belief that revolution is not going to happen through electoral politics. Where we differ is that I happen to believe that’s precisely the reason not voting is a poor alternative to participation.
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment: for the last one hundred years, anywhere between approximately 35-55% of the eligible population has not participated in any given presidential election. The reasons for that are myriad, at least one of which is structural mechanisms intended to prevent certain demographics from voting entirely; that said, neither constraints nor ideological opposition to the system can fully account for our nation’s lackluster showing at the polls. Given how many people are already not voting, I fail to see how non-participation can be valorized as some uniquely revolutionary act of defiance. And given that no matter how small a percentage of the population does vote, someone’s getting elected anyway, resistance through non-participation seems a particularly futile gesture. If one hundred years of poor participation hasn’t slowed down the political machine, continuing the same approach hardly seems a viable means of effecting change.
What brought this to the forefront of my mind yesterday was the stark reminder of just how poorly the earliest era of the AIDS crisis was handled by our government. If we fault the Reagans for their failures on this issue – Ronnie for using his state sanctioned power to slash proposed research funding and to bar the public from receiving adequate education on prevention, and Nancy for choosing not to use her outsized influence to intervene – then we have to consider that there was an alternative. We have to consider that a president with more compassion for the fags, hookers, and junkies who were (and often still are) viewed as the face of the infection might have been inclined to act more decisively. With that, we also have to consider how that could have dramatically changed the outcomes of those infected in the earliest years of the plague. If we want to assert that the situation could have been handled better, then we have to consider that perhaps not all politicians are equally toxic even if their appointment to power perpetuates a system we abhor.
In short, we have to concede that who holds power – even in a deeply flawed system – actually does matter, and by extension, so does choosing who that person is. Imperfect, indirect, messy, and as limited as our choices may be in any election season, and as minuscule as the differences between the candidates might seem at times, those differences can manifest themselves in significant ways in a particular milieu. We only have to look back at the height of the AIDS crisis to remind ourselves that whom we select for office might have to deal with a situation we can’t even imagine at the time we cast our vote. You can argue that our choices are artificially restricted by the system – and I would agree – but I find it hard to accept that the choice is absolutely meaningless. I imagine many of those victimized by Reagan’s inaction in the face of the crisis would likely concur were they still with us today.
I became sexually active the same year Pedro Zamora died of complications from AIDS. If you weren’t around my age at the time, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who he was. He appeared on one of the earliest seasons of MTV’s The Real World, which was a highly influential reality TV show at the time; I watched religiously as it was one of the few programs that depicted an openly gay man as anything other than a caricature, and the only one I recall that featured a person living with AIDS. He died shortly after the season finale at 22 years old and after having worked tirelessly to educate youth on HIV prevention - education he himself had not received prior to testing positive in the late 80’s. When he died, he was only a few years older than I was at the time; even then it wasn’t lost on me that just a few years difference may have saved my life.
The framework for my first sexual experiences – and those for years to come – was fear. A nagging feeling of impending doom always circled, death inextricably linked to intimacy in my mind. Homophobia, too, spiked as queers – particularly gay men – were blamed for the deaths of everyone who had contracted the virus, specifically the “innocent” victims society deemed worthy of grief. As I formed a queer family, I watched friends pass away and had those first distraught conversations with other friends who’d learned they were positive. Test results back then took longer to obtain, were less accurate, and testing itself wasn’t as widely available, adding to the constant stress. Treatment options ranged from limited to non-existent, and those that did exist were prohibitively expensive. An HIV positive test result still felt like a death sentence; in far too many cases it was.
The fury I still feel thinking about Clinton’s obtuse remarks is rooted in the legacy of the Reagans’ inaction on AIDS as I personally experienced it. Even just reading that back it almost seems selfish to write it, as if I’m complaining; trust me, I’m not – I’m alive. I only write it because I just as easily could be dead, and also because it’s important to remember that policy has implications beyond any politician’s immediate term in office.
I can only speculate on what might have been different had Reagan acted. Some of us still would have died, but there’s no way of knowing how many could have been saved through better education and more funding. All I know is that the handling of the AIDS crisis demonstrated the power centralized in the office of the president, and that that power could have been better used; with an occupant holding a different worldview or beholden to different interests, I have little doubt it would have been.
I anticipate the argument from those who would seek radical change will be that under their preferred system, things would have also been quite different. That’s entirely possible, but whatever your preferred model of governance (or total lack thereof) that’s not the system we have today and low voter turnout isn’t changing that. I’m not suggesting that agitating for change isn’t worthwhile; I encourage people to pursue whatever flavor of revolution they’d like to see, just as I try to do the same. All I’m suggesting is that sitting home once every four years isn’t going to bring about that change. The lesson of the Reagan administration - and so many others - is that until the revolution comes, even small differences in a flawed system can matter in huge ways.
UPDATE: Clinton has released a much more comprehensive (though still not entirely inclusive - IV drug users, sex workers...?) mea culpa.