Jul 15, 2022 • 1HR 43M

Peter Staley On AIDS And Monkeypox

The legendary activist reflects on the old days and argues with me about the issues of today.

 
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Unafraid conversations about anything

Peter is a political activist, most famously as a pioneering member of ACT UP — the grassroots AIDS group that challenged and changed the federal government. He founded both the Treatment Action Group (TAG) and the educational website AIDSmeds.com. An old friend and sparring partner, he also stars in the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” Check out his memoir, Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism.

You can listen to the episode — which gets fiery at times — in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two short clips of my convo with Peter — on how he and other AIDS survivors turned to meth, and Peter pushing back on my views of critical queer theory in schools — pop over to our YouTube page. There’s also a long segment on just the monkeypox stuff.

If that episode isn’t gay enough for you, we just posted a transcript of the episode last year with Katie Herzog and Jamie Kirchick. Both of these Alphabet apostates were on Real Time last month — here’s Jamie:

Katie appeared alongside this clapped-out old bear:

Come to think of it, two more Dishcast alums were on the same episode of Real Time last month — Michael Shellenberger and Douglas Murray:

Oh wait, two more in June — Cornel West and Josh Barro:

We now have 20 episodes of the Dishcast transcribed (check out the whole podcast archive here):

A Dishcast listener looks to last week’s episode and strongly dissents:

I enjoyed your interview with Matthew Continetti. Unfortunately, an exchange at the end reminded me of why I had to reluctantly tune you out for years: your hero worship of Obama.

I respect and admire the way you call out the failures and excesses of both sides, including those of mine (the right), which I acknowledge were glaring even before Trump. During the Obama years, however, it was hard not to cringe when I watched you tear up on Chris Matthews’s show and compare him to a father figure. I also recall you yelling at SE Cupp and aggressively pointing a finger at her on Bill Maher’s show for daring to compare the foreign policies of Obama and W Bush:

It’s hard to imagine anyone with that kind of emotional response being objective, and sadly, you never were during his presidency.

You argued with Continetti that Obama was a middle-of-the-road pragmatist, when nothing could be further from the truth. He came into office with the economy reeling in a banking and housing crisis, and he took the Rahm Emmanuel approach of never letting a crisis go to waste. Even before his inauguration, he begin planning to rush through major legislation on healthcare, climate, and education. These may be worthy goals, but they are not the actions of a pragmatist who wants to govern by addressing the problems of the moment.

He then outsourced the stimulus bill to Pelosi, which was a pork-filled bonanza with almost nothing even remotely stimulative. He refused to incorporate any Republican ideas into the healthcare legislation and arrogantly said to McCain that “the election’s over” when McCain voiced some opposition. Obama then lied in selling the bill to the American people by saying you would be able to keep your plan and your doctor in all cases.

When Obama lost his congressional majority, he resorted to gross lawlessness, taking executive actions that exceeded his constitutional authority on everything from carbon emissions to insurance company appropriations to immigration, including on measures that were recently voted down by Congress or (as Continetti noted) he previously acknowledged he lacked the constitutional authority to do. He even flouted his ability to do this — knowing the media would cover for him — by saying he had “a pen and a phone.”

Obama was one of the more divisive presidents in history. Every speech followed the same obnoxious shtick of chiding Republicans for playing politics and claiming that he alone was acting in the national interest. We saw this again, even post-presidency, during the funeral of John Lewis. For once, both sides came together, and even Republicans celebrated the achievements of a genuine American hero.  But during Obama’s speech, he turned the event into a partisan tirade about voting rights, calling the filibuster a Jim Crow relic (never mind that he used as a Senator).

Finally, you argued that Republicans never gave Obama a chance. Not true. When he was inaugurated, his approval ratings were among the highest on record and were even above 40 percent among Republicans. They plummeted among Republican voters because he refused to ever take their concerns seriously or acknowledge that they had any legitimate points. When he finally did something they had even slight agreement with, the Trans Pacific Partnership, most Republicans supported him, while much of his own party opposed him.

I respect your objectivity and believe that you are largely back to it. But I’m hoping the next time someone you love comes along, you will remain able to see the forest from the trees. (And sorry about the War and Peace-length email. There isn’t another intellectual I’m aware of who would actually welcome a dissent like that, which is why I wish I became a subscriber sooner.)

That’s a lot of political history to litigate, but if you think I was blindly supporting Obama, read “The Fierce Urgency of Whenever,” “Obama’s Marriage Cowardice,” “Obama’s New War: Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb,” “Obama’s Two New Illegal Wars,” “Is Obama A Phony On Torture?”, “Obama Is Now Covering Up Alleged Torture,” “Obama’s Gitmo Disgrace,” “Obama To The Next Generation: Screw You, Suckers,” my reaction to his townhall comments on cannabis, “Behind the Obama Implosion,” and my excoriation of his first debate against Romney, if you remember.

Obama’s healthcare proposal originally came from the Heritage Foundation; it was the most conservative measure to move us to universal healthcare access available; he passed it; and it remains the law because Republicans realized it was too popular to repeal. If that’s what you call extremism, you have a different definition of the word than I do.

His stimulus was — yes — insufficient to the moment. But that’s because it veered toward a fiscal prudence long abandoned by the GOP. And he put it before any other priority. The GOP still refused to give this new president in an economic crisis any support at all, and acted as if the Bush debacle had never happened.

Another listener defends the former president’s record — to a point:

Obama had one chance to pass health care reform — something presidents had been trying and failing to do for several decades. In reality he had a razor-thin margin, especially in the Senate. He spent months letting moderates like Max Baucus take the lead in Congress. He gave moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe endless time to pretend to be willing to vote for a centrist bill. Remember: this was largely RomneyCare, an already moderate Republican policy idea and one which had originally come out of a conservative think tank.

In the end, no matter how much Big Pharma and other healthcare lobbies had to be bribed and how much Obama compromised — no public option; no federal negotiation via Medicare to lower drug prices — the moderate Republicans had strung him along. He had to give Ben Nelson goodies to get his vote.

And, overall, as much as the bill was a corporate sellout, it still — and 12 years on it’s so easy to forget this — still made massively important reforms the public was desperate for: it expanded family access for kids up to 26; it ended the rampant abuse of preexisting conditions to deny coverage; it ended retroactive rescissions in which insurance employees were tasked to comb through patient records and fine print to find pretexts for dumping patients when they needed care the most; it ended lifetime caps on coverage for things like major early childhood diseases and illnesses and catastrophic illnesses in adults; and of course it expanded access to Medicaid (most people don’t realize how stunningly low one’s income has to be to qualify).

ObamaCare, flaws and all, was necessary — and a major step forward. There was no Republican compromise to be had in 2010 or ever. Remember what Mitch McConnell said his #1 priority was? Ensuring Obama was a one-term president with no major successes to campaign on. They simply wanted the legislation to crash and burn, similar to how it did in 1994.

DACA and DAPA and the rest? Very very different story. And I agree with Continetti: Obama did not have that authority and he knew he didn’t. And after the Gang of Eight fell apart, his second term was all about caving to radical, often openly ethnically chauvinistic, identitarian, open borders advocates. And that’s where the Democratic Party has been stuck ever since.

Executive decisions like DACA were a big part of why I soured on the Obama administration. ObamaCare, flawed as it was, was a big reason I volunteered so heavily for Obama in 2012. We’re still not close to the kind of publicly guaranteed, universal health care virtually all peer countries and allies enjoy. But we’re closer due to ObamaCare. And that’s a clear example of what Democrats can accomplish when they’re focused on passing the best bill they can pass (by the barest of margins) for the common good.

For the record (see the Daily Dish links above), I also opposed the Libya war, the Iraq surge, and the DACA executive overreach. This next reader is more sympathetic to Obama on DACA:

Deporting kids who have never known another country has a 19 percent approval rating. Obama begged Congress for years to do something to correct this. So is the Continetti position that Obama needed to do something that more than 80 percent of Americans don’t want because far-right extremists are holding Boehner hostage? If that is your position, then it’s fundamentally undemocratic.

Another clip from last week:

Yet another take on the Continetti convo:

I’m a moderately liberal person, and I listen to conservative voices to hear good arguments that make me consider more deeply my innate biases. But the conservatism described by Continetti is just uninteresting. Describing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as too large an overreach? Talking about constitutionalism in the same way that Alito does — as frozen, depending upon the section, in either 1789 or 1868? Dissing Obamacare?

Obamacare is a big improvement on pre-ACA insurance, and I’m glad Obama persevered after Ted Kennedy's death. Healthcare has a lot of moving parts, but finally we have an individual insurance market with plans as good as those in the employer group market. My kids have used it at various times switching between jobs and school, or even instead of a law school's highly mediocre plan. 

One of my biggest problems with Biden is that he hasn’t even managed to get the subsidy income limit, which was lifted by the pandemic relief bill, made permanent. My biggest problem with Biden is that I expected that he’d be able to negotiate with someone like Manchin, who’s dim but probably willing to support something. Cranking up the ACA subsidies and funding some solar panel research and LWTR reactor prototypes, with the work being done in part in West Virginia?  It can’t be that hard to cut some deal. Instead, we seem to have nothing.

So, until the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, I figured the Dems would get wiped out in '22 and '24. I figured the combination of trans-positive teaching in lower schools and race essentialism everywhere would lead to races like the Virginia governor election, where someone with a sane approach to schools would dominate. Dobbs may change all that. 

From a small sample of Republican suburban voters I know, a lot of people are furious at the Court’s decision. They rightly view it as an ignorant decision that makes even pregnancy for wealthy women in red states far more dangerous than it was, since a partial miscarriage with lots of bleeding — not a rare event by any means — will now require sign-off from a hospital’s legal staff before a lifesaving D&C can be performed, by which time a pregnant woman may well be dead. And while Republicans typically don’t mind making life miserable for poor people (fun fact: a family of four has to have an income below $4,700 per year to get Medicaid in Mississippi), fucking over the upper middle class will not go over nearly as well.

Keeping with the abortion theme, another reader:

This caught my eye in your most recent podcast email: “[T]he question of when human life becomes a human person is a highly debatable one.”

First, thank you for stating the issue correctly! The issue is NOT when HUMAN LIFE begins. Science has answered that question definitively: at conception. It’s not a “theory,” religious or philosophical doctrine or anyone’s “opinion,” and it’s not debatable. We may not know everything that happens during conception, but no embryologist denies that it’s the beginning of human life. 

The term “person” is not scientific, and that’s why I avoid using it when debating abortion with non-believers. As I’ve noted before, the term “person” arose out of debates about the relations among the Three Persons of the Trinity in the run-up to the council of Nicea. Before that, the Latin term “persona” just referred to public citizenship. Slaves were not legally persons. The Christian philosophers made it into a much richer and more resonant concept, in order to explain that God could be one God but three “persons” — a way of saying that if God is Love, love is not a monism but a mode of relationality. 

Anyway, for purposes of modern discussion of abortion, the term “person” now means something close to what the pagan Roman meaning of “person” was: a human being legally granted rights by the state, including the right to life. In other words, some human beings are not “persons.”

This distinction is morally troubling and creates issues for defenders of abortion. If it’s really up to the state to say who is or is not a “person,” why stop at the unborn? In the Roman Empire, and in later periods (including our own history, of course), slaves were not legally considered full “persons.”

Is “personhood” a sliding scale, or an absolute state of being? Can you have “more” or “less” personhood? Are comatose (but stable) human beings persons, or do they lose their legal rights to life, as many seem to think? What about the conscious but mentally challenged? Do high-IQ people have more “personhood” than low-IQ people?

You see where this is going, I’m sure. I’ve had many discussions about this, and there is NO criterion that denies full personhood to the unborn that cannot also be used to deny it to the already-born. 

I think once you hive off human rights from the status of being human, and attach them to some scientifically indefinable status like “personhood,” you go down a tricky path. Because you’re right, of course. “Personhood” is endlessly debatable, because it’s a philosophical and (ultimately) theological concept. It’s like arguing “Who has a soul, and who doesn’t?”

But in our tribally inclined species, the question quickly becomes, who is “human” (i.e, like “us”) and who is “other” (i.e., not really “human”) — with the “other” not possessing the same rights. Most names of tribes for themselves translate to “the Human Beings” or “the People” — with anyone outside the tribe being less than human. (Did you ever see Little Big Man?)

Of course, as a Christian I believe ALL human beings are also persons, no matter their mental state, helplessness, poverty or low social status. I also agree that all human beings are images of God. 

For purposes of argument with non-believers, rather than get side-tracked into personhood, I prefer to say that human rights are anchored in (inherent in) humanness, not “personhood.” This requires abortion advocates (if they have the slightest thoughtfulness or openness to engage in actual discussion) to explain how some human beings aren’t “persons” and who gets to make that determination. But any honest abortion defender who doesn’t want to deny non-contestable science must make that distinction.

Here’s the difference between personhood in abortion and every other area. One person is literally inside another person’s body. In a society based on property rights, the body itself — “habeas corpus” — is central to freedom and autonomy.

Another reader turns to sexuality:

I was struck by one of the dissents you ran last week: “No mention of the 63 million babies who were murdered in the last 49 years, but oh how well you stand up for women and their right to have as many one-night stands as they want without consequences, guilt, or their morality even being questioned.”

The second half of that sentence is so interesting. The dissenter is not only offended by potential babies not being born, but also by women having sexual fun without life-altering consequences. To the dissenter, one-night stands are an evil (at least, on the part of the woman), and going through a public pregnancy (look at her! shame!) and having babies (no career for her!) is the least punishment the female participants should deserve. The lost babies are bad, but even worse, look at what all those loose women are getting away with!

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that some part of the opposition to abortion in this country is actually driven by people who want to bring back 1950s prudery. They see abortion as an evil precisely because it allows more sexual pleasure — and even more galling, more sexual pleasure on the part of women (because this 1950s prudery so often seems to carry 1950s misogyny along with it). Of course we know many abortion opponents are deeply moved by love for potential babies that aren’t born, but this dissenter shows there’s at least one person out there celebrating Dobbs for the renewed opportunities abortion bans will provide to scare women out of sex or, failing that, shame them and derail their careers as punishment.

Another reader turns the focus to me:

For some context, I am a Christian who has spent most of my life in the evangelical subculture, but I am more moved in worship by liturgical forms. I am politically anti-Trump and I am abhorred by the current state of the Republican Party, though I am a lifelong Republican. Call me David French-like.

I am responding to your dissent from the conservative writer and your comment that consent between adults is the sole limiting factor in sexual behavior. You have likely been asked and answered this question many times, so just send me a link if that’s easier for you: Since you are a Christian, what role does the Bible and/or church teaching have in your understanding of human sexuality? One could argue that in addition to consent, the Bible speaks of fidelity, monogamy, love, nurture, self giving, mutual submission, and adoration in sexual relationships. How do you treat the foregoing characteristics (or others) in your sexual ethic? Does your Christian faith have any role to play in your sexual ethics?

I enjoy your writing and the Dishcast, keep it up. Guest suggestions: Kevin Williamson. (He had deep dissents on gay marriage, but culturally that train has left the station, and as you know, he has the added benefit of having been fired by The Atlantic three days after hiring — an early example of cancel culture by the insulated Left). Also Jonah Goldberg.

I responded to some of these points on this week’s main page. But I’ve written much more widely on this question — and I recommend Out On A Limb for the rest. The essay “Alone Again, Naturally,” comes closest to answering. But I do not share orthodox Christianity’s Augustinian terror of the body and its pleasures.

Your guest suggestions are always appreciated: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Here’s one more from a “20-year Dishhead writing for the first time”:

I think Iain McGilchrist would be a great guest for the pod — and for TWO episodes, since the ideas in his recent work are so vast, complex, and far-reaching. (I encountered his earlier book on the Daily Dish.) It seems like IMcG is really working to get out his incredibly important, expansive, but very difficult project out and a couple of good conversations with you would be a great way of doing that, not to mention fascinating for us Dishcast listeners.

Thanks for everything that you and Chris are doing with The Weekly Dish — trying to help us all think clearly and openly. My wife and I both appreciate having your voice in our lives each week. She especially likes the dissents!

Subscribe to read them all — along with everything else on the Dish, including the View From Your Window contest. There are also gift subscriptions if you’d like to spread the Dishness to a loved one or friend — or a frenemy to debate the dissents with.