But, hey, this was a battle against evil itself. “God has raised up new diseases against debauchery,” John Calvin announced at the peak of the 16th-century syphilis epidemic. Across Europe syphilitics were denounced from pulpits, and medical authorities all too often concurred that the pox was “a notable testimony of the just wrath of God,” to quote William Clowes, a physician who counted Queen Elizabeth I among his patients. Driven by fear and loathing, whole towns panicked and barred their gates against syphilitics, as did many hospitals. Leper houses were reopened to incarcerate this new class of untouchable.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. And so, perhaps, are those who do. Of how far we haven’t come, Allen reminds us in his final chapter on AIDS. Once again, those suffering from a sexually transmitted disease have been blamed for their own affliction and told that they are witnessing the just wrath of God. As the Rev. Jerry Falwell compassionately proclaimed to a national television audience in 1987, “A God who hates sin has stopped [homosexuality] dead in its tracks by saying, ‘Do it and die.’” Once again, the association of sex and disease has served as a justification for condemning — and, more seriously, for abandoning — groups of people deemed morally reprehensible: homosexuals, IV drug users and prostitutes, in particular. America’s refusal to face up squarely to AIDS has resulted in countless unnecessary deaths, Allen writes: 400,000 Americans have died so far of this largely preventable disease. In the end, Allen rightly notes, AIDS too will pass, like all other sexually transmitted epidemics — though it may well kill huge numbers before it subsides, especially in Africa.
But what will come after it, and how will we deal with the next round of “venereal disease”? I spent 1988 working on a documentary about AIDS, and during my research an epidemiologist assured me that one thing of which we can be certain is that there will be more such diseases. The creative genius of Darwinian evolution must never be underestimated; as long as there are people to infect, bacteria and viruses will continue to evolve. If we can learn anything from history, Allen suggests, it is that hiding behind moral opprobrium can never be the solution.
University of Chicago Press | 202 pages | $25 hardcover