After the Perfect Present

A Short Consideration of Blame

Blame is life’s convenient foil. It deflects criticism, delays logic and eliminates hindsight. With blame we can live splendidly in the perfect present, gazing out at the faultless future. Or when that future seems uncertain, at least we have the comfort of ‘knowing’ that someone else is at fault, that we took no part in the rout. Consider the role of blame in the current financial crisis. Instead of observing and learning about the economics of our own lives we blame the bankers. Rather than ever having asked ‘what can this financial instrument do for me?’ so many of us bought or borrowed and now rail against the way things are. And it’s ever this thoughtless way – consider personal culpability in the environmental crisis. Or, to take a different tack, consider the speed with which homosexuals were reviled at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.

AIDS in no longer the bugbear it once was, even though around a thousand people were dying from it every day in South Africa alone last year. The disease is still newsworthy, but far less so now that gay men are no longer blamed solely for its spread. We certainly don’t see the sort of hysteria that was rampant in the 1980s. The Australian government infamously commissioned an AIDS ‘prevention’ commercial for television in 1987 that put the grim reaper in a bowling lane, with the black ball of AIDS hurtling towards human pins – young families, old people, all by implication threatened by those murderous poofs.

In all fairness to those involved the grim reaper wasn’t supposed to symbolise gay men, but for many people he did. Heterosexual anxiety is never a difficult pot to stir – it rapidly delivers scapegoats, blame monkeys if you like, all accompanied by ignorance. But, as it turns out, gay men didn’t cause AIDS and the disease wasn’t readily contagious.

Earlier in the decade the results of serious research had established the basis for dispelling the blame-mongering, if only people would take notice. In 1984, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier identified HIV as the virus causing AIDS – for which they received one quarter of the Nobel Prize each this year. And in 1999 a group of American scientists established what others had long suspected – HIV came from chimpanzees. These were the original blame monkeys, you might say.

Of course, not even the most adept homophobe is capable of extracting social or political capital from the condemnation of chimps in Africa, or the people who might have eaten them and thus contracted the virus. So by the turn of the twenty-first century information had oftentimes replaced speculation and accusation, at least for those amongst us who were in some way rational.

Something of an epilogue to this story appeared in the New Scientist last week. Another team from America recently pin-pointed the jump from chimps to humans as occurring in 1908, but with a margin of error that allows a long span from 1884 to 1924. Any student of imperialism could tell you that this was the period in which major inland settlements were established in Africa, and the time at which they boomed, with the attendant sexual abandon of frontier towns.

Where once isolated individuals might have been infected by HIV, now the disease could move through rapidly expanding populations in places such as Brazzaville and Kinshasa. We could blame the colonialists, but I would prefer to think in a more fruitful direction. It suffices to note that most of the uncertainty about the origins and spread of AIDS has now been dispelled. In place of blame and ignorance we have understanding and knowledge – a far more potent mix.

So, to revisit our current travails, what we need now is information, not blame monkeys. And it could turn out, when the investigation is underway, that banks and bankers were only a part of this financial crisis. Uncertainty is a great fuel for hatred, as my gallop through the history of AIDS should have revealed, but it solves no problems.

Beyond the realm of blame, after presumptions of a perfect present have fallen away, what we all have to do is allow ourselves to learn.

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