Price's line of questioning seemed to belong to the 1980s, when HIV and AIDS were less understood and far less preventable, as well as surrounded by much more fear and hysteria. But I heard very similar consideration of quarantining people with HIV as a viable option a few months ago -- on a white supremacist podcast. And these podcasts are the new "test kitchens" of the right -- floating ideas once considered politically impossible to see what'll stick with the core supporters of the current regime.
So, it's worth noting that an August episode of the regular podcast, The Myth of the 20th Century from the white nationalist website Social Matter dedicated two hours to the discussion of HIV/AIDS.
I'm not postulating that Betty Price listened to this podcast in her car on her way to the Georgia House of Representatives. But, at a time when Steve Bannon and Steven Miller advise the president and white nationalists feel emboldened to protest publicly, it's crucial to recognize that the line between extremist and mainstream viewpoints is growing more porous. I found this podcast reposted on Daily Stormer, which is sort of like Mad Magazine for college-age Nazis, and which is found funny or edgy by people who don't have a strict identity, far right, alt-right or otherwise.
I don't recommend that you actually listen to Social Matter's podcast, which is by turns infuriating, tiring and, well, surprisingly dull. The main host quickly reviewed And The Band Played On and some AVERT factsheets, and the entire group mixed those decently researched facts together with some almost laughable mistakes -- ART, or antiretroviral therapy, is repeatedly referred to as HRT, which is hormone replacement therapy -- and lots of grotesque comments. I will spare you most of them, but these two are crucial to get across the real viewpoint of the assembled cast: "The homosexual cries out in pain as he sodomizes your children," followed by mass laughter, and, "Any disease that reduces numbers of Africans must be a good thing. Carry on and I look forward to meds-resistant AIDS, as well."
I Don't Want to Say the Quarantine Word, But ...
As confirmed by video, Representative Price made the following comments at a Tuesday, Oct. 17 meeting of the House Study Committee on Georgians' Barriers to Access to Adequate Health Care:
... I don't want to say the quarantine word, but I guess I just said it. ... I would guess that public dollars are expended heavily in prophylaxis and treatment of this condition. So, we have a public interest in curtailing the spread. What would you advise or are there any methods legally that we could do that would curtail the spread?
Let's rewind that and play it again just in case you are as shocked as I was upon hearing that. Yes, Price wanted to know whether quarantining people living with HIV was a legal option.
She then said that there is a public interest in curtailing the spread because tax dollars are spent on prevention (most obviously condoms, needle exchange and pre-exposure prophylaxis [PrEP]) and treatment (medication, medical care and services). Most notable: Price does not seem to think "curtailing the spread" of HIV is adequately (or economically) achieved by prevention methods, but might be by more invasive approaches, such as, you know, putting everyone with HIV in quarantine.
Price followed this assertion with this gem, in which she wistfully looked back on the good old days of HIV when people were more likely to die and thus, in her opinion, posed less of a threat:
It seems to me it's almost frightening the number of people who are living that are potentially carriers, well they are carriers, with the potential to spread, whereas in the past they died more readily and then at that point they are not posing a risk. So, we've got a huge population posing a risk if they are not in treatment.
But Wait, There's More: White Supremacy Outrage on HIV Funding
Around the 53-minute mark of the Social Matter podcast, the group brings up the idea of putting people with HIV in mandatory quarantine and then engages in some doublespeak. On the one hand, they say that "the gays" use the fear/threat that "they'll throw us all in camps" in order to get funding and sympathy, both of which the Social Matter crew find repulsive and undeserved. But, then, they repeatedly point to Cuba's infamous mandatory HIV quarantine program in the late '80s and early '90s as a case study in HIV reduction success, without mentioning either the numerous negatives of that program or that country's progressive -- and more successful -- strides in treatment and reduction transmission in recent years.
One of Social Matter's main talking points, threaded throughout the podcast, is that funding for HIV and AIDS is both a fiscal and moral outrage, and those at lesser risk (in their minds, no risk) should not be required to pay for treatment and prevention when other options, such as camps or simply letting people die, are potentially on the table.
Sound familiar yet? Remember that it wasn't enough for Representative Price to ask about a quarantine as a health matter -- she felt the need to bring up the dollars spent on HIV.
Test Kitchen of the Alt-Right
Social Matter's podcast was off base and offensive. So, why should we care about this seemingly fringe view?
According to Brian Hughes, a researcher on media and extremism and a Ph.D. candidate at American University, what seem to be obscure podcasts and blogs such as these act as a kind of ideological "test kitchen" for the alt-right.
"If a talking point resonates in one of these marginal outlets, it then gets adopted by semi-mainstream and "alt-lite" sympathizers. From there, a really good meme is refined and sanitized, to the point where it can appear in a mainstream source like Breitbart.com or Tucker Carlson."
"There's no formal system for doing this," says Hughes. "It just happens, because people on the right listen to what other people on the right are saying. And most right-wing broadcasters and bloggers are more alt-right sympathetic than they can publicly admit."
In the case of Betty Price's comments, HIV/AIDS-related media quickly picked up on the story, followed by major news organizations and social media. By Saturday morning, Price was the recipient of some well-earned outrage. Many people in the HIV community understandably said that Price must be ignorant of current science, such as the basic concept that undetectable equals untransmittable, a fact highlighted by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information sheet in the same week that Price made her remarks.
But in the coming weeks and months, it could become necessary for us all to protect ourselves and each other not only against online idiocy but also against growing anti-HIV sentiment used to target and denigrate African Americans, LGBTQ folks and others as it slips from the extremist fringe into less-extremist media and into our houses of government. In discussions on city and federal budgets or international HIV spending, queries on quarantines may be widely and quickly ridiculed -- but right on their heels could be a whole raft of proposals to cut HIV funding that would make the alt-right very happy.
Prepare to resist.
Dear Pet Shop Boys: Your fabulous song, "It's a Sin," is played at the end of the above-mentioned Social Matters podcast. I assume you didn't give them the rights.