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Larry Kramer, Hannah Arendt, Vladimir Putin and the Life-and-Death Importance of Speaking Out

08/20/2013 04:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. Physician; co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis; wrote the first press reports about AIDS
Melanie Burford For The Washington Post via Getty

When you watch Gay Cable News Network, co-hosted by Andy Humm and Ann Northrop, there is an introductory montage of LGBT figures, demonstrations and events. The soundtrack is likewise a montage in which little is distinguishable, save for one clear voice that says that we're escalating our voices in protest "because that's the only way we're going to be heard!" Yes, that's the voice of Larry Kramer from an ACT UP demonstration. That Larry's was the earliest, loudest, strongest and most effective of voices to be heard in the course of what became the global pandemic of AIDS is hardly news and not in dispute. But it's worth taking a moment to look back at this voice that has cut such a huge swath across populations, communities, continents, time spans, literature, theater, medicine and science.

I am among many who sometimes questioned the pitch of that voice, especially in the early years of AIDS. I was among those who argued for greater moderation on various fronts, to the extent that I supported, albeit reluctantly, the reconfiguration in the leadership of GMHC that resulted in Larry's departure from the GMHC Board. After leaving GMHC, Larry then went on to found another leading AIDS organization, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which brandished a principal logo, "We Are Fighting For Our Lives," and the symbol "SILENCE = DEATH," with a pink triangle. As Larry split from GMHC and ACT UP exploded into a grassroots movement for health care access and accommodation that remains -- in ambition, breadth and Nobel Prize level of achievement -- without historical precedent, there was growing discussion about the rationale for this organization. Why were such outspokenness and confrontational tactics necessary?

Obviously because we were "fighting for our lives!" Straightforward, clear and persuasive, yes, but where were the political and historical context and philosophical framework of how to proceed? Beyond specific concerns of health research and services, were we just wildly flailing about in anger and rage? Was that enough? Or was there more to this? Of course, there was the civil rights movement, with its proud and vivid history of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest that resulted in social change. Clearly, that was a role model. But while allusions and analogies to that movement were commonplace among gay and AIDS activists, there was another chapter of history that was embraced primarily by Larry Kramer, and with him ACT UP, as more immediately pertinent to our experience: that of the Holocaust of World War II.

I've known Larry Kramer for 45 years and knew something of his influences, mentors and heroes, one of whom was Hannah Arendt, the influential German-Jewish philosopher, intellectual and political theorist. As is reprised in a recent film dramatization, Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Arendt was, not so unlike Larry, a remarkable but very controversial figure. The controversy that erupted around her stemmed from two key assertions that she made in the epic tome she published in The New Yorker on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, which she attended. The first assertion had to do with her now-famous phrase "the banality of evil." As captured by Arendt, Eichmann seemed to come across more as a just-following-orders bureaucrat than a figure of Satanic evil. As we now realize (given a recent re-exploration of the matter in a New Yorker feature, and in von Trotta's film), Arendt's perspective of Eichmann was simplified and distorted by her critics.

Arendt's other assertion caused even greater controversy: She suggested that the Jews of World War II should have done more to organize and protest than they did. Had they done so, she concluded, it might have made a difference in the outcome. Larry Kramer found himself frequently under attack by critics, including me, who wondered whether there weren't elements of internalized anti-Semitism in his Arendt-inspired assertions that gays must not go silently to our own slaughter the ways Jews did in World War II. At that time I was undergoing my own very personal journey of coming to terms with my own Jewishness, and with internalized, historical and resurgent anti-Semitism. And here was Larry, who seemed to have little awareness of anti-Semitism in his own life and times, and virtually no inclination to address what was becoming a tidal wave of resurgent anti-Semitism across the globe, embracing a certainty that the Jews had worsened and hastened their own fate by responding sheepishly to the Nazi onslaught. Not so unlike Arendt, Larry seemed to be making judgments of those whose fight he himself had evaded. All this became the stuff of my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America.

There were other questions about the appropriateness of analogizing AIDS to the Holocaust. How otherwise was AIDS comparable to Nazi genocide? "Genocide" was a term used frequently by Larry. It seemed disrespectful of the Holocaust, co-opting the great tragic experience of the Jews under Nazism for a very great but very different realm of tragedy, a disease that had become a public health catastrophe. Larry went so far with this as to entitle a collection of his political essays Reports From the Holocaust. Though AIDS was not a conscious, planned act of genocide on anyone's part, "genocide" became the predominant metaphor used by Larry and many in ACT UP. Were government homophobia, indifference and weakness really the equivalent of the Nazi genocide against Jews? Were Reagan and Koch really the equivalent of Hitler? Were gays falling victim to a plague really like the Jews or even the gays whom Nazis persecuted in the camps under the emblem of the pink triangle? Weren't we more like blacks struggling for our rights, for tolerance and equality, for parity of health care access and services, than a minority targeted for genocide by a maniacal dictator?

So how did all this play out? Well, the way it played out proved that in greater perspective, Larry was right. And by inference and example, so was Hannah Arendt. What Larry realized, the experience that fueled his insights and energies, was that if gays did not organize and fight back against enemy forces that were understood to be no less than genocidal, however indirectly, even if standing up and fighting back were at great risk to ourselves, we were inviting even worse calamity. By standing up, acting up, acting out, by screaming bloody murder, by using every tactic we could muster, including character assassination, we had a chance. That Larry proved so right regarding gay people and AIDS could not be clearer or more impressive. Not so coincidentally, as Arendt's views are reconsidered, there is growing respect for her perspective about the role that Jewish silence played in the deaths of 6 million Jews. The experience of Larry Kramer and ACT UP invites us to look back now at the Holocaust of World War II with special attention to what might have happened had Jewish protest been bolder, more commonplace and more impassioned.

In other words, if the Jews of the world had had a Larry Kramer to organize and lead them in World War II, might the Holocaust have turned out differently? Hindsight is always relatively easy, and in this case extremely controversial. But it is impossible now to look back at the achievements of Larry Kramer and answer anything but yes. What Larry Kramer, inspired so profoundly by Hannah Arendt, and ACT UP have demonstrated is that the importance of our voices -- of speaking our minds and our truths, of speaking out, of organizing, of acting up and out -- can mean the difference between life and death, not only for ourselves but for others, for populations and times we know and those scarcely imaginable.

Which brings us to the situation in Russia. The distinguished British actor and activist Stephen Fry has already posted a public statement suggesting that Putin's anti-gay laws are eerily redolent of the early anti-Jewish laws of Hitler and the Nazis. Is he right? If the examples of Larry Kramer and Hannah Arendt are any measure, you can bet your life that he's right! Which means that now is the time to act up and act out, to do everything we can to stop the pretender to the throne of Stalin. Appeasement, being "good Jews," hoping for the best, showing our best face to the world by winning some events in the Olympics? These are not the answer.