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And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th-Anniversary Edition Paperback – November 27, 2007
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“Shilts successfully weaves comprehensive investigative reporting and commercial page-turning pacing, political intrigue, and personal tragedy into a landmark book . . . Its importance cannot be overstated.” ―Publishers Weekly
“A monumental history.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“The most thorough, comprehensive exploration of the AIDS epidemic to date . . . It is fascinating, frightening, and essential reading.” ―San Francisco Sentinel
“Rivals in power and intensity, and in the brilliance of its reporting and writing, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.” ―The Boston Globe
“A heroic work of journalism.” ―The New York Times
About the Author
RANDY SHILTS was one of the first journalists to recognize AIDS as an important national issue and, in the early 1980s, he began to report on AIDS full time for the San Francisco Chronicle, making him the only journalist to do so. He was also the author of The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and Conduct Unbecoming: Gay and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. Shilts died of AIDS-related complications in early 1994.
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By choosing to blame others, Shilts will to some degree continue to provide male homosexuals with a reason not to stop their behavior. It is this denial of the reality of the HIV virus and the deadly consequences of AIDS that will continue to result in the deaths of not just homosexuals, but those heterosexuals engaging in risky behaviors.
This book and it's author's opinions are a disgrace to all thinking and caring people. It is filled with hatred and blaming of those who simply said, "It's your choice." Shilts perpetuates the monstrous lie that it's really someone else's fault. AIDS is a terrible way to die. Until scientists (the good guys!) can find a cure or at least an immunization for it, the only thing that will prevent it is to act responsibly. If you don't like that truth, then join Shilts, blame others, and keep AIDS going. Indeed the band does play on.
- The American People: Search for My Heart (Larry Kramer)
I wanted to like this book more. There are so many five-star reviews for this book and I get that it is a product of the time period it was written but it seems fitting with this 20th Anniversary edition to also look at the book in its current context and for me there was so much blame in the book it was hard to get the story. When everyone is to blame, is anyone to blame?
“In San Francisco, Bill Kraus attributed the reports of the new diseases to anti-gay bias in the press. Reporters never talked about the constructive things the gay community did, he thought, but let a few people get sick and they’re all over it.”
“The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York had put the accumulated wisdom of homosexual physicians in one phrase: “Have as much sex as you want, but with fewer people and HEALTHY people.””
At a recent meeting of my gay book club we read a book concerning the Holocaust and one man said that he wished more Jewish people from the time were alive so he could ask them why they didn’t do more. Why didn’t they leave Germany when it became clear the writing was on the wall? I said I was reading this book, And the Band Played On, and similar questions came up. Why didn’t the gay community do more at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic? Why weren’t the bathhouses closed earlier? Why didn’t this man specifically do more?
He said at the time of the start of the AIDS epidemic there were no human rights protections for gay men. If your employer found out you were gay you could lose your job. To me the answer was clear. People were dying but you didn’t want to lose your job. It’s that simple. This is the same answer the Jewish people would give. And this is the answer that frequently appears in this book.
“The invitations were mailed out, but Kramer wondered about what would happen later, when this community really needed something and the people who were supposed to do the demanding were so ashamed of themselves that they didn’t even want their mailmen to know they were gay.”
If Shilts were alive today I would have liked some kind of addendum to this 20th Anniversary Edition acknowledging this, accepting humans as imperfect, and some forgiveness for everyone involved in the mistakes made at the beginning of the epidemic. That was really missing in this book.
So many thoughts as I was reading this, even today advertisements for AIDS medications show people climbing mountains with the attitude of “Now I can ride a bike again!” AIDSSpeak, so dominant in this book, continues to this day with people not wanting to offend People With AIDS in safe sex literature. The gay paper Xtra in Toronto this very week printed an article saying “AIDS is no less treatable than diabetes!” No one still comes out and says “This is preventable and not something you want to get. You can die. Treat yourself well and avoid unnecessary risks.” Will people 20 years from now be asking why we didn’t do more, why we didn’t speak more clearly, why we didn’t make more effort to stop the spread of this disease?
The book could also have used more focus. I remember watching a segment on cable news before Obama was elected and they cut to some guy standing in front of Walmart saying if Obama got elected he’d plant watermelon on the lawn of the White House. There will always be yokels running their mouths, it doesn’t mean you have to give them a platform and I felt too many times Shilts would include quotes from random sources of people with no power simply to sensationalize.
“For some, it appeared that donating blood was an act that could overcome their personal fears about having AIDS. Thus, blood banks occasionally became the stages for gay men living out the psychodramas of denial.”
Some and occasionally are in no way proof of fact.
Referencing my quote at the start of this review, there is too much here. Often the book gets lost in specifics, as in the following quote:
“Heckler said Weiss should proceed in a more “orderly” fashion and said she would have HHS officials help him once he outlined specific questions and areas of research. Weiss had no choice but to call Steinmetz back to Washington.”
Granted it’s taken out of context but all these names and acronyms are often impossible to navigate. There is some humour in the book, but little, and it seems most of the book is concerned with laying blame.
“At best, he tried to counsel the Elizabeth Taylor approach to sexuality and suggest serial monogamy, a series of affairs that may not last forever but that at least left you with a vague awareness of which bed you slept in most evenings.”
“Being gay in New York was something you did on weekends, it seemed. During the week everybody went back to their careers and played the game, carefully concealing their sexuality and acting like everything was okay.”
An interesting aspect that is clear from the reading though is that the Centre for Disease Control really didn’t control a thing during this crisis and was not adequately funded or staffed. Still, this is often framed in blame:
“The CDC had spent $1 million on the outbreak, compared with $9 million on Legionnaire’s disease.”
There is also the eternal struggle that exists in all mentions of US politics of the us-and-them mentality of the Democrats vs the Republicans.
“Thus an epidemic that had wholly unfolded within a Republican administration had a distinctly Democratic cast for Republicans; for Democrats, AIDS was a Republican epidemic.”
No other country that I know of puts people into groups like this and places such weight on it. This lack of ability to see people beyond their political stripes also created problems dealing with this epidemic and that is not at all explored in this book.
In the 25 years since the book was published, some things have changed and some haven’t:
“There was no one to say, “Hang in there.” Instead, there was a prevailing sentiment that was sympathetic and at times compassionate but still detached and ultimately uncaring, as if to imply that, somehow, this whole mess is your own fault.”
The blame continues to this day. At one point in the book drug trials were mentioned with the attitude that patients should be given access to experimental drugs as they had nothing to lose.
“Patients with AIDS and ARC were told to simply wait until the carefully controlled drug studies were completed before trying the experimental drugs—even though many knew they would be dead before that happened.”
Yet this isn’t the full picture. AZT when it was first prescribed was over-prescribed and many people died from the drug before the dosage was corrected. It seems you can’t win. Either you don’t give the patients the drug and they die and you are blamed or you do give them the drug and they die and you are blamed. This comes back to the start of this review, if everyone is to blame, is anyone to blame?
I would have liked acknowledgement that people were in most cases doing their best. The virus was terrible but it brought the community together in a way it never had before and once people realized the seriousness of the disease many crossed party lines to help, even Reagan. Mistakes were made and we should learn from them but the pointing fingers doesn’t let us move on to the healing. As long as “they” are to blame we don’t have to look at ourselves, just like when “they” are dying we don’t have to help as much. 600 pages of anger doesn’t make the situation better.
This was the chant of protesters at Ronald Reagan's first speech on the AIDS crisis in 1987, and it rightfully should be Reagan's most enduring shameful legacy being the bandleader of "And the Band Played On." Randy Shilts masterful work has plenty of other villains, too, such as Robert Gallo who pilfered lab samples of what was later to be named HIV from the French researchers who first discovered and isolated the virus, to the leaders of the blood bank organizations who insisted on more evidence before they would move to protect the country's blood supply, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Shilts' work has its heroes, too, in those such as CDC scientist Don Francis fighting an entrenched bureaucracy, and Marcus Conant, a dermatologist who unexpectedly found himself becoming one of the first AIDS specialists.
Shilts' book reads like a mix between a 19th century novel with its intertwined story lines, and a thriller as frustrated detectives sought to unravel the mystery of this strange new disease against the backdrop of a steady drumbeat of an accelerating body count. I was troubled at first by the omniscient point of view as Shilts attributed thoughts and emotions to his enormous cast of characters, but in a final note on sources he explains that his book is a work of journalism, based in large part on interviews with its many subjects. The pedantic scholar in me, however, would like to have seen more in the way of citations and notes, even though it would have made this massive work even more cumbersome and would have detracted from its thrilling narrative flow.
I would love for someone to compile a companion volume of some sort which would include some of the many documents and reports referenced in the book, such as the Office of Technology Assessment's "Review of the Public Health Service's Response to AIDS" or C. Everett Koop's "Surgeon General's Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome" or even Larry Kramer's "1,112 and Counting." It's fine to have a few sentences devoted to these important documents in the history of AIDS, but a scholar or a reader interested in the details of this sordid chapter of history would want to be able to read these important documents for themselves. It is true that these three particular documents can be found online, but Shilts references numerous other documents, some of which were obtainable only through Freedom of Information Act requests, which deserve compilation in some sort of "AIDS reader."
But these are only pedantic criticisms of an outstanding work of journalism. Shilts' text only covers the period from 1976 to 1987 which might seem dated given the significant developments which have occurred in the history of HIV/AIDS between then and 2016, but Shilts' book is one that still demands reading even at this relatively late date. Although Shilts takes a dispassionate tone appropriate for a journalistic work, a reader cannot help but become infuriated by media indifference to the emerging disease as long as it was viewed as a "gay plague" (The New York Times, supposedly reporting on "All the news fit to print" was a particularly egregious offender), as well as the extreme politicization of scientific research which purports to be above such mundane matters. These lessons are as relevant to 2016 as they were in 1987.
Most recent customer reviews
aspects of the disease are covered. An eye opening book.