St Francis, AIDS & Bad Pharma

When I worked for the Iona Community, sitting in the cold Abbey in summer or in the freezing chapel of St Michael in winter, we would recite this prayer every Friday morning:

‘Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness, to where soldiers curse and nations clash, at the crossroads of the world.’ (Iona Abbey Worship Book, p.20)

Theologically it doesn’t make a lot of sense and the alliteration covers an assumption widespread in the Community that while male aggression is the curse of the world, female empowerment is its salvation. Yet it is an arresting image. To step outside the cosy piety of churchiness. To risk misunderstanding of our motives, indeed vilification.

However, performing a grand gesture isn’t always laudable, no matter our motives. When I was a Franciscan novice, I was very attracted by the story of St Francis stripping off his fine clothes and throwing them at the feet of his father, in the Residence of the Bishop of Assisi. In this place (the ‘Room of Renunciation’) Pope Francis stated:

“The Christian cannot coexist with the spirit of the world, with the worldliness that leads us to vanity, to arrogance, to pride.” (OSV Newsweekly)

Nowadays I am ready to admit that Franco Zeffirelli’s filmic presentation of the beauty of Graham Faulkner may have had something to do with the attraction of this scene. I, now, also feel much more sympathy with the father – who surely only wanted to lavish his love on his only son and to set him up securely in turbulent times.

The other, earlier, scene which moved me was Francis getting off his high horse, giving his cloak to a leper and kissing him. Brother Sun, Sister Moon was filmed in 1972 and by 1984 (fateful year) the paperback edition of St Francis: A Model for Human Liberation was out in English. I’m not sure if it was the author, Fr Leonardo Boff, who first said that, ‘if St Francis was around today, he would kiss an AIDS victim’.

Following his example, many saintly people have done exactly that, St (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta and Pope Francis among them. Liberation theologians from South America have taken St Francis out of the birdbath and shown his piety to be far more radical than the smug spirituality of ‘being kind to animals’ (while eating them and being complicit in their torture for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries). St Francis is a model of solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed.

In 1984 it became clear that there was a new category of marginalisation. Dr Robert Gallo patented ‘the AIDS virus’, ELISA and Western Blot test kits (which give different results for the presence of the sections of the proteins taken to be HIV antibodies) were hastily manufactured and people all over the world began to receive AZT, a chemotherapy drug that interferes with the most basic cellular functions. Within months many were dead.

Since then, antiretroviral drugs are not so lethal and people on them are living longer. Just stop and think about that sentence for a moment.

Dom Hélder Câmara, archbishop of Olinda & Recife in North East Brazil, famously said:

‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’

Similarly, when you comfort those supposedly dying of AIDS, they call you a saint. When you ask why they are dying, they call you a ‘denialist’.

For over 30 years, the biomedical scientists who constitute the Perth Group (based in the research facility of the Royal Perth Hospital, Western Australia) have been asking two simple questions:

  • Where is the scientific proof of the existence of HIV?
  • Where is the scientific proof of the hypothetical link between HIV and AIDS?

These questions remain unanswered. Other biomedical scientists have raised dissident voices, most controversially Professor Peter Duesberg, member of the American national Academy of Sciences, and Dr Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize winner. More controversially still, in 2000, President Mbeki of South Africa sought advice and organised a conference of biomedical scientists, two-thirds of whom were of the establishment view on HIV/AIDS. These refused to debate the dissident view and vilified the President for daring to question the findings and remedies of the international pharmaceutical industry.

As Dr Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos of the Perth Group has said, the burden of proof is not on the dissidents but on the scientists who have made the claim that HIV exists and that it causes AIDS. This claim has never been substantiated (both scientists credited with the discovery of ‘the AIDS virus’, Gallo and Montagnier, have repudiated their original positions) and every other related biomedical establishment publication is based on it. Other eminent biomedical scientists, such as Professor Gordon Stewart of the University of Glasgow, have challenged this claim on epidemiological grounds.

The reaction of most good, fair-minded and compassionate people to the news that there are still eminent biomedical scientists who dispute this claim is one of disbelief – usually followed by ridicule and unflattering comparisons to Flat Earthers and other conspiracy theorists. Yet, as Professor Peter Duesberg painstakingly points out (in his book Inventing the AIDS Virus which has detailed references) this is not the first time that the well-funded ‘virus hunters’ of the pharmaceutical industry have brought about huge iatrogenic harm. Dr Ben Goldacre (who is not an ‘AIDS dissident’) shows comprehensively, in Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients, that:

‘Doctors around the world – except in Norway – are taught which drugs are best by the drug companies themselves. The content is biased, and that’s why companies pay for it. For decades people have stood up, shown that the content is biased, written reports against it, demonstrated that weak guidelines fail to police it; and still it continues.’ (Bad Pharma, 2012, p.320)

Inspired by the saint of the marginalised, is it possible for us to step outside of our drug-funded respectability, to risk being ridiculed and vilified, being considered lacking in compassion for the sick – to ask why it is that our unexamined piety is killing them?

Brother Sun 6-1

Photo source: Brother Son, Sister Moon via DarkUFOBlogspot

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Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

funny-hospital-sign

Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.

It Starts in School

It starts in school, where little boys and girls (already accustomed at home to being told to sit up straight and eat their meat and stop behaving like cry-babies over the fate of the moo-cow or the baa-lamb that’s ended up on their plate) are told to dissect a frog, or the young of a rabbit untimely ripped from its mother’s womb, also killed. It’s already dead. So picking up the scalpel (behaving properly, not behaving like children, not behaving like girls, not behaving like gays, not behaving like blacks, not behaving like peasants or the poor) and making the first cut, it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s already dead.

It continues in college or university, sitting nervously, having heard stories, but determined to get through, to get on, to get it, when the professor (or the lecturer, or the university teacher, or the tutor, or just the techie cos why spare anyone else?) walks in and demonstrates the best way to kill a little white mouse. The best way. Thwack! and its head is smacked onto the bench and its neck is broken. It it it. It’s best not to use gender here. It is an animal, no, ‘a specimen’ (you have to get the language right) whereas she or he sounds too human. Sentimental.  It’s science that counts. That half-hour lecture on ethics, that essay on the pros and cons, the one for which everyone on the course, sensibly, came down on the pro side. You’ve done this. It’s all about progress.

Accustomed now to breaking necks and ending life in a variety of ways (the best way isn’t the only way and it’s best not to get involved so it’s all still it and no-one has name just a number) and a bit blasé about the whole thing. You’ve worked as a techie yourself and you’ve actually done that lecture. It’s a rite of passage, you see that now. Anyway the thing now is to get on with your Master’s. And it’s good to get in-vivo on your CV. The pain of the lower mammals never crosses your mind now. Unless you’re doing pain studies, then it’s just numbers. The guinea pigs? Well that’s what they’re for! And the rabbits are the same, so docile. The dogs, admittedly, are harder, and so are the monkeys. It’s more difficult to keep the required distance but you tell yourself it’s all about progress. They’ll be dead soon, anyway. And it is quite a noble feeling you get, especially when you see all those women running in pink. It’s all progress.

At doctoral level it’s a way of life. By now you know that it’s all about funding, and that doesn’t bother you. Everything is all about funding. And everything needs to be tested. No, not because it makes any difference, it’s just the law. The law that is written by politicians who read what you write because you’re funded to write it. You could be cynical, but why? That would involve your heart, and it’s already dead.

One ordinary sunny afternoon or rainy morning, nothing special, and you didn’t even notice, just at some point when you were slicing open yet another sentient living creature, unanaesthetised, in the name of science, you stopped feeling. It’s much easier to be heartless, and no-one notices. It’s a trade secret. More efficient. And you can still go home and play the part of the hearty husband or wife. You don’t have dogs anymore. Too confusing. And when you hear those tiresome people, again and again with the same hippy nonsense, love and peace, ban the bomb, save the animals…

…you don’t imagine what might have happened, what your life, your heart, might be like, if you  hadn’t sat up straight and had refused to eat what was on your plate, because it was a moo-cow or a baa-lamb and you cared more about that than about being childish, or girlish, or gay, or black, or a peasant or poor. Because you cared more, in caring for animals, more than breaking your neck in the rat race, more than slicing up your heart, more than becoming desensitised to conscience so that you could carry on doing and teaching entirely useless sadistic practices because they attract funding and prestige; because you cared more about being human.   

funny clip

Thanks to Anna Langova who has released her photo ‘funny clip’ into the Public Domain