Compassion vs. Conservatism

Compassion? Good. Conservatism? Complex. Conservatism used to have some thing to do with preserving or restoring what was once good. Unfortunately, the concept of conservatism has been hijacked and mutilated by lots of truculent politicians and religious fanatics who like to invoke the name of Jesus when they're doing all sorts of things that aren't very Christlike.

Remember "compassionate conservatism"? It was the vague ideology advocated by George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign. And not a new idea at all -- Bush and his handlers lifted the concept from a 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, written by Marvin Olasky. A University of Texas journalism professor and senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Olasky hopes "that our nation will adopt biblical principles in fighting poverty and many other social ills, and that many people will be transformed personally in the process." Translation: I think your life would be a whole lot better if you became a born-again Christian like me!

As catch phrases go,"compassionate conservatism" is awfully clumsy. And not nearly as fun to say as,"You ARE the weakest link ... goodbye!" It also feels like a feeble reprise of a theme from Bush's own father's 1988 presidential campaign -- the one where the elder Bush declared that the Republicans' goal was a "kinder and gentler nation." Anyway, the Bush currently inhabiting our White House would like you all to know that, "Government cannot solve every problem, but it can encourage people and communities to help themselves and to help one another. Often, the truest kind of compassion is to help citizens build lives of their own. I call my philosophy and approach 'compassionate conservatism.' It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and on results. And with this hopeful approach, we can make a real difference in people's lives."

What is compassionate conservatism? Tax cuts that disproportionately favor millionaires. Deregulation that results in consumer abuse and fraud. Legislation that promotes environmental degradation. Restrictions on civil liberties. Declaring war. Unbridled defense spending. Failure to support national health reform. Providing government grants to faith-based organizations, even when those organizations actively promote a specific religion and beliefs, further blurring the distinction between church and state. Compassionate conservatism is clearly NOT a well-reasoned, principled political philosophy that can be usefully and consistently applied when addressing social ills and societal inequalities. It's just two words slapped together by an administration lacking imagination, but stinking drunk on power.

How has the Bush administration's compassionate conservatism affected HIV and AIDS programs, prevention, research and people living with the virus in America? Here are some examples:

  • Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (PACHA): Members and the chair are supposed to be selected by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Secretary from authorities with particular expertise in or knowledge of matters concerning HIV and AIDS. Bushies have attempted to stack this 35-member council with pro-abstinence, condom-hating, homophobic religious activists with no background in epidemiology or science. PACHA is a freak show of fringe ideology, not science or sound judgment. There is no value in an advisory council deliberately populated by abstinence-obsessed fanatics who publicly reject science-based safer sex education. PACHA is officially irrelevant.

  • That Giant Sucking Sound at the CDC: In late 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stealthily altered all government fact sheets and Web site pages originally promoting condoms as "highly effective" in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The new fact sheets offer toned-down language on the efficacy of condoms for disease prevention and no longer describe specific steps maximizing a condom's effectiveness. Gone, too, are details about different types of condoms and any reference to studies showing that condom education does not promote earlier sexual activity among young people. Lots of folks saw the changes as part of a campaign to censor HIV/AIDS prevention information that conflicts with the abstinence-only approach favored by the Bush administration. Dr. David Fleming, a CDC deputy director, defended the agency's changes, saying, "This fact sheet is designed to be as scientifically accurate as possible. We specifically tried not to nuance it in the direction of either encouraging or discouraging use of condoms." And then his pants caught fire.

  • Big Brother Is Watching Your Grant Applications: Scientists and researchers who study HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases have been warned by federal health officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that their grant applications are now subject to heightened scrutiny. The New York Times reports that congressional and Department of Health and Human Services staffers have begun meddling in the application process, looking for politically sensitive terminology -- sex workers, men who have sex with men, anal sex, needle exchange, abortion, condom effectiveness, transgender. The federal financing of medical research has traditionally been free from political influence and has ultimately led to significant breakthroughs in understanding transmission, treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Government oversight can be a very good thing, but this is politically motivated harassment and intimidation that encroaches upon the objectivity and scientific integrity of present and future research.

That's the short list. Since Bush was appointed president, he and his administration have recommended funding cuts for the Ryan White CARE Act, drafted HIV initiatives without any input from the CDC, launched investigative audits of AIDS service organizations that utilize explicit language in their prevention efforts, deemphasized condom education in favor of abstinence-only rhetoric, ignored calls for comprehensive sexual education from every U.S. Surgeon General of the past twenty years (including Bush's own appointee) and underfunded the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (causing 14 states to close enrollment and limit access to antiretroviral treatments).

So this is compassionate conservatism. Funny ... it looks like unilateral abandonment of science and community-based HIV prevention and treatment efforts in favor of politically and ideologically driven policies serving only the fanatical personal whims of a bunch of squeamish, scheming, power-sucking zealots unfamiliar with compassion or what it means to be a public servant.

David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist and AIDS educator living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at