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From Presidential Politics to AIDS 'Patient Zero,' America Loves a Scapegoat

October 27, 2016

Christian Kiley

Christian Kiley (Credit: Marc Pitler)

After being asked by a number of editors to write something about the presidential election, today it struck me that I had finally found my angle on the whole thing. Like many Americans, I feel the current political conversation has strayed too far from the issues that have actual, practical effects on voters' circumstances.

It took a news item that has picked up steam in the past couple days for me to realize that, throughout all of the 3.5 decades I personally have spent in this country, the national discussion has been riddled with falsehoods and generalizations.

In other words, I don't think the level of divisiveness has risen over the past few years: I think it's simply become harder to casually obfuscate facts because journalists and citizens discuss matters that affect all Americans -- not to mention people of different nationalities, whose humanity we tend to forget about during election season.

A few days ago NPR covered a fascinating story about a group of researchers in the United States and UK who have been using genetics to investigate how HIV spread at the outset of the epidemic. According to their study, published in Nature, they sequenced eight blood serum samples archived between 1978 and 1979 in San Francisco. Part of their findings were described by the Washington Post:

Researchers separately sequenced the virus found in Patient Zero and found that his HIV-1 genome appeared "typical" of U.S. strains of the time and that there was extensive genetic diversity around the time he appears to have been infected, indicating that the virus had probably been in the country and evolving several years earlier.

If you haven't heard of Patient Zero, go ahead and Google it. (Notice I didn't say him, for reasons that should become apparent.)

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His name was Gaëtan Dugas.

He's been villainized as the Dionysian flight attendant who "brought AIDS to America," most notably in the 1987 bestseller And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, a long-form, well-researched journalistic account of the early spread of AIDS in North America and the worldwide efforts by Western medical and scientific communities to identify, quantify and contain the HIV virus when things went critical in the early eighties.

The media had a field day with this story at the time. Shilts' account was further popularized when his book was made into an HBO movie in 1993.

But now, science is telling us something that many of us already knew: Gaëtan Dugas was not, in fact, "Patient Zero." Further, the term itself arose from the misreading of a handwritten note.

In a supplemental piece published in Nature researchers noted that Dugas was "one of many people who were already infected before the disease was noticed[.]" Which is to say that, while Dugas may indeed have infected a number of sexual partners with HIV, he was one of likely hundreds of people in America -- gay, straight, whatever -- who were unknowingly doing the same thing at that time.

He was as innocent as anyone stricken with the then-untreatable HIV virus, and he died of AIDS in 1984.

So, why did we villainize this man in our popular culture? America needed a scapegoat. America still does, apparently. America loves a scapegoat, and whether it's immigrant families, the Black Lives Matters movement, LGBTQ rights or socioeconomic inequality, we've got a media industrial complex that is always ready to cover a story -- so long as the ad dollars are rolling in. In our capitalist culture, divisiveness sells.

Even though the "Patient Zero" theory was debunked by the University of Arizona nearly ten years ago, only now are headlines proclaiming it news.

So, thirty-odd years of shaming, stigma-reinforcing "journalism" about Gaëtan Dugas has basically amounted to stomping on the grave of a man who, according to NPR, had "volunteered at a nonprofit to help other people with HIV" and, according to William Darrow, the HIV/AIDS researcher who was the protagonist of Shilts' bestseller, had actively assisted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's investigation by flying to Atlanta to donate blood samples.

I wonder if Darrow ever read Shilts' work and objected to him referring to Dugas as "the Quebecois version of Typhoid Mary."

I wonder if Shilts, who passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1994, ever stopped to consider what he was doing by turning Dugan into a scapegoat on the national stage. I'm reminded of Tony Kushner's Angels in America*, in which AIDS undoes a similarly hypocritical Roy Cohn. Life does, as it turns out, imitate art, and vice versa.

If, like me, you are exhausted from the irrelevant mud-slinging that our current presidential election has been reduced to, perhaps you can take some comfort from the knowledge that, however overt, this kind of bulls**t has been dominating the national conversation for decades.

* Note -- My next video essay is about Kushner's opus. Watch for it here in the coming weeks.

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