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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer has a lot in common with the late Andrea Dworkin: a Manichaean worldview, a penchant for hyperbolic speech and dowdy dress, a murky relationship with empirical truth, a quixotic tribalism that manifests all at once as genuine love and venomous contempt for their respective kin — women and gay men. Like Dworkin, whose screeds against pornography were so laden with pornographic content and style that they were banned by the very anti-porn ordinances she helped author, Kramer possesses an uncanny ability to mime the putative object of criticism — in his case, homophobia.
To some, Kramer is a narcissistic gadfly whose passion for controversy and flagellation undermines the causes — AIDS and the gay movement — to which he so passionately devotes himself. To others, he’s a brilliant and misunderstood prophet who dares to speak the hard truth nobody wants to hear. Indeed, this is how Kramer styles himself, as a Cassandra in the desert whose warnings in 1981 about a mysterious, unnamed plague went unheeded, whose call to arms in 1987 to fight the criminal lack of funding for AIDS prevention and treatment rallied precious few, and whose current campaign — laid out in his new book, “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” — to reinvigorate a gay movement he sees as “completely inept,” “powerless” and “disposable” will, he predicts, fall on the deaf ears of today’s “tragic,” “fucked up,” “blind” and “ignorant” gays who “richly deserve” their fate.
Anyone familiar with Kramer’s overheated polemics knows to take such fatalistic rebukes lightly, or at best as a kind of provocation. But why — this time around — do they come wrapped in such false modesty? After all, his early alarms about AIDS laid the groundwork for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), an organization started in his living room that has since become one of the country’s largest AIDS service providers. His 1987 speech at the Gay and Lesbian Center in New York sparked ACT UP, the radical collective whose spiky tactics are now imitated by activists of all stripes. Along with Tony Kushner — who generously blurbs Kramer’s book — he is one of the most celebrated chroniclers of gay issues in America. He publishes in the editorial pages of the New York Times. His autobiographical play-cum-jeremiad “The Normal Heart” continues to be canonized in classrooms across the country and was recently revived at the Public Theater in New York. A speech he gave shortly after the 2004 election in the Great Hall at Cooper Union — and which provides the basis for this new book — drew 700 rapt listeners and several hundred more were turned away.
Indeed, this public embrace of Kramer seems so at odds with his persona that it’s hard to explain. How can someone who’s such a self-professed pain in the ass to both the gay movement and the mainstream establishment receive such accommodation? Perhaps it’s because, as Naomi Wolf unwittingly hits upon in her introduction to “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” Kramer is a “humanist writer in the humanist tradition,” someone who “reclaims the language and consciousness of morality” and transcends “identity politics” to speak of “universal love.” Wolf intends these as compliments, but they might be considered indictments as well.
Although Kramer claims several times in “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” to “love gay people,” to think them “better,” “smarter,” “more aware” and “more talented” than other people, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t know a whole lot about them. He recycles the kind of harangues about gay men (and young gay men in particular) that institutions like the Times so love to print — that they are buffoonish, disengaged Peter Pans dancing, drugging and fucking their lives away while the world and the disco burn down around them. Sure, Kramer occasionally mentions a young gay man he finds laudable, like the playwright Jeff Whitty, who wrote a musical about plushy puppets finding themselves on the subway (“Avenue Q”). But really, must we all be marionettes singing the same tune night after night? In Kramer’s view, today’s gays are a lot like yesterday’s gays. “Does it ever occur to you that we brought this plague of AIDS upon ourselves?” Kramer asks in “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” but this rhetorical question is virtually identical to the invectives spewed by Ned Weeks, hero of “The Normal Heart,” in 1985. And now, 20 years later, according to Kramer, “You are still doing it. You are still murdering each other.”
It’s a shame that Kramer’s attempt to address young gay men ultimately devolves into the same pathological, self-destructive plot that has guided all of his writing on AIDS, for there is a glimmer of sympathy in this book that deserves consideration. Kramer writes that there’s “a big empty space” in young gay men’s lives; “America let these men who should have been your role models die.” So, according to Kramer, this “big empty space” leads today’s gays to “disdain anyone older who was there” and “condemn [our] predecessors to nonexistence.”
This generational rupture, overstated as it is in this book, hasn’t been fully addressed by the gay movement and AIDS activism, and it’s important that it is. Gay people don’t learn about gay sex and relationships in their families, and with the Bush administration’s assault on sex education, they certainly don’t learn about them in school. So the sort of cultural memory that Kramer wishes were there is vital, not only to acknowledge the devastating impact AIDS had on gay culture, but to fully understand how gay culture itself pioneered the safe-sex programs that significantly reduced HIV infection. This kind of historical reflection might also take into account the fact that today’s gays are the first generation to grow up entirely under the shadow of AIDS. It is fundamental to how we think of sex and gayness. But maybe we need a different kind of safe-sex message than the sort of fear-mongering that Kramer thinks so effective, since to fear AIDS is to fear our very capacity for sex and intimacy.
Sadly, Kramer doesn’t go there. For him, history and destiny are one and the same; time is circular. Would that this tendency were particular to Kramer, but anyone who followed the Times’ badly mangled coverage of the new drug-resistant “superbug” can find parallels not only in Kramer’s work but also in the sensationalistic media coverage of AIDS in the ’80s (see David France’s excellent anatomy of a panic in New York magazine). Both substitute actual compassion and understanding (never mind reporting) with a deeply familiar drama (“Tragedy” is no accidental title) of a doomed people whose pathological predilection for sin invokes the wrath of an angry God. This is a kind of “morality,” I suppose, but whether it reclaims or merely recapitulates the moral language that emanates from biblical fundamentalism is subject to debate.
The difference of course is that Kramer means well. I believe it when he says that he loves gay people, even as I believe that he reserves for them a special kind of scorn born of impossible expectations. Kramer is agitated about a lot of things: the election in which “60 million people voted against us,” the “cabal” of religious and financial elites who have seized this country’s public and political institutions and turned America into a “classist, racist, homophobic, imperial army of pirates,” the Bush administration’s $100 billion war on Iraq that has diverted much needed funding for AIDS and other humanitarian causes. But these political transformations — geopolitical and world-historical in scale, complex in nature — have a curious way of settling upon what Kramer deems the “murderous” behavior of gay men who “get hooked on crystal,” and engage in “endless rounds of sex-seeking” and “fucking without condoms.” He moves jarringly — sometimes within the same paragraph — from a recount of right-wing machinations to dire statements about how gays “shrank from our duty of opposition,” slunk off to “a disco, or to the Fire Island Pines or South Beach, or into therapy, or onto drugs” and are thus responsible for our own erasure “into nothingness.” “What do you do with yourselves all week long, seven days and nights a week, that amounts to anything really important?” “We stand here and let them do it!” “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” is peppered with bolded sentences such as these, and each one is directed like a bullet at the souls of Kramer’s beloved clan.
At the point in Kramer’s essay where he really gets a full head of steam going, he cites a series of unsourced AIDS statistics, among them: “HIV infections are up as much as 40 percent,” “some 70 million people so far are expected to die,” and “there are now more than 70 million who have been infected with HIV.” The first is, if not an outright lie, a hyperbolic and misleading untruth. Kramer never does specify to whom, when and where this statistic refers, but according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that relies on limited data, HIV infection rates for men who have sex with men (the population Kramer is almost exclusively concerned about) rose 11 percent over four years (2000-03) after steadily declining throughout the ’90s. This rise, coupled with increases in syphilis and other STDs among gay men, has rightly concerned HIV prevention experts who are still debating what factors contributed to this spike. But in any event, Kramer’s “40 percent” increase is a gross exaggeration.
As for Kramer’s second and third statistics — the “70 million” who are “expected to die” and/or “who have been infected with HIV” — the context in which these two figures are presented would lead one to believe that Kramer is referring to the number of current HIV-positive people worldwide. But in fact the “70 million” who are “expected to die” refers to a UNAIDS projection for 2022 if treatment and prevention programs aren’t significantly ramped up — an alarming, but still avertable, possibility. The “70 million who have been infected with HIV” refers to the total number of HIV infections since the beginning of the epidemic, of which some 30 million have died. The current number of HIV cases worldwide is somewhere near 40 million, 95 percent of which are in the developing world, an indication of tremendous global inequalities in wealth and healthcare that Kramer never bothers to discuss. These loony and inflationary statistics are familiar territory for Kramer. In 2003, he published an Op-Ed in the New York Times that began with the claim that “50 million people around the world are going to die in a matter of days or months or at the most a few years.” Days? Months? Even a few years? These dire predictions have, thankfully, not been fulfilled — although too many people have died in the interim. But despite being taken to task by Andrew Sullivan for these factual errors, Kramer has only amplified them in “Tragedy,” and it speaks ill of the Times and Tarcher/Penguin’s standards that they ever made it to press.
But why quibble with Kramer over these numbers? Thirty, 40, 70 million — these are all holocausts. Any rise in incidence rate, or even stagnation at current levels, is troubling. That Kramer has printed these misleading statistics can mean only one of two things: either 1) after 25 years of AIDS activism he cannot understand simple epidemiological data; or 2) he has carefully and willfully manipulated these figures. Since the first possibility is too loathsome to bear let us assume the latter. Kramer’s intention then is to instill a panic in his audience, and indeed grandiose scare tactics are his preferred mode of address. Responding to reports of the new “superbug,” Kramer said, “You can never be scared too much. Fear is the only thing that seems to work in controlling people’s suicidal, murderous behavior.” I’ll leave it to HIV prevention experts to debate Kramer’s vision of “safe-sex education,” and simply point out another victim of Kramer’s casualness with truth: hope. “We have lost the war against AIDS.” “As of November 2, 2004, gay rights in our country are officially dead.” These kinds of proclamations, along with manipulation of AIDS data, are symptomatic of Kramer’s Cassandra complex; he conflates the very worst possible future with the uncertain present. So intent is he on being accurate prophet that one has to wonder whether Kramer really intends to provoke action at all. If the apocalypse has already happened, what’s a would-be activist to do?
In this sense, Kramer leaves largely unexplored what the relationship might be between the rightward political lurch and the state of AIDS politics and the gay movement. Analysis is not his forte, and besides, it would mean actually engaging the gay men and lesbians (women are conspicuously absent in Kramer’s book except as silenced “helpmates”) who do the kind of “backbreaking, grinding, unglamorous work” that he finds so commendable among the right’s foot soldiers. He might have mentioned, for example, how the Bush administration’s Department of Health and Human Services instituted new funding guidelines that make it virtually impossible to use federal funds for explicit prevention work among gay men, drug users and sex workers. Stop AIDS, a San Francisco community-based prevention organization that does exactly that, was one of the first groups defunded under this new mandate. But for Kramer to notice what happened to Stop AIDS or the dozens of other community organizations under threat would mean to surrender the rhetorical privilege he has so scrupulously hoarded. It would mean leaving behind the Cassandra routine and making contact with the “unglamorous.” “But I am so very, very tired of fighting with so few troops,” Kramer laments. And so, like a general who fails to notice that the war has long since moved on to new frontiers, Kramer keeps beating the drums and waiting for people to show up.
Richard Kim teaches American studies at Skidmore College and writes and blogs for The Nation magazine.More Richard Kim.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)