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Myles Helfand

Myles Helfand

Posted: November 5, 2010 02:45 PM

Is it somehow "wrong" to protest President Barack Obama on HIV/AIDS? If you have mixed feelings on the question, you're not alone: The HIV community itself is divided over the issue.

We got a rare, but important, public glimpse into that division this week. POZ Editor-in-Chief Regan Hofmann and Housing Works President/CEO Charles King, both well-known HIV/AIDS advocates, criticized one another over when it's "appropriate" to protest Obama on HIV/AIDS issues. Hofmann, writing the day before midterm elections swept dozens of congressional Democrats from power, pointed specifically at a few recent examples (university students heckling Obama in Connecticut; Charles King's own outburst during an Obama speech earlier this year) and said that, while she agrees with "the message they were delivering," she disagrees with "the timing and venue they chose."

Hofmann went on to explain her views:

... to be realistic, we are in a recession the likes that no one (not even Obama on the campaign trail) could have seen coming three years ago when those promises were made. That doesn't mean it's okay to break them, or that we should stand silently when they are broken.

But it means that a critical first step in fixing the problem of low levels of funding for global AIDS has to be to support democratic control of government and ensure that the people best poised and most willing to help us maintain their political power. Do you think it's going to get better with Republicans? Then why would you do anything to undermine the Democrats? Even if they have yet to deliver all we hoped for, all they promised? ...

Have they given us everything we want? No. Not by a long shot. But the channels of communication are open and it seems they are willing to try to solve the problems with us. Which is why I was shocked by King's need to yell about his agenda in a room with hundreds of others who had arguably equally valid agendas who had found other ways to communicate them.

And, it's why I was shocked to see the group of AIDS activists confront the president in the midst of him fighting, arguably, for our lives.

In a response posted on POZ.com, King responded that there's no wrong time to protest a U.S. President, regardless of whose "side" he seems to be on or what he's achieved so far:

I disagree that the Democrats are our allies, and that the Republicans are the enemy. Over the years, both parties, at all levels of government have been lackluster in their response to the AIDS epidemic, and both parties have had folk who have risen to the occasion in one way or another to advance prevention and treatment. ...

The real question is the value of a life and whether we believe that saving lives of people with AIDS is just as important as saving banks, saving GM, or waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not the Republicans that have been making those choices over the last two years, and as people living with AIDS and HIV, we shouldn't buy into the false dichotomy of people with AIDS versus the economy. I would be crying tears for the Democrats if they were going down for saving people's lives. But they are going down for saving Wall Street! ...

The truth is that the activism that has saved millions of lives around the globe has always been unpopular and controversial. But it has laid the issues squarely on the table and forced elected officials to respond. As long as there are pretty receptions and happy pep rallies, some of us are going to keep on being the skunk at the party.

It's unusual, and refreshing, to see this kind of conversation happen in a public forum. HIV/AIDS advocacy has felt stagnant to many within the community for a long time now, and discussions like these are critical for us to figure out the best way to move forward -- and for us to coordinate and support each other in those efforts.

But Hofmann's and King's disagreement isn't just over the timing of protests. There's a reason this kind of discussion didn't happen during the George W. Bush administration, despite widespread despair over Bush's utter lack of attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the United States Hofmann's post betrays a deep disappointment not just in government, but in Obama -- a growing sense that he may not be anything close to the panacea that she, and many others in the United States HIV/AIDS community, had hoped he would be when he took office.

King, by contrast, wasn't sold on Obama to begin with. The day after Obama won the presidential election in 2008, he wrote:

Too many people in the AIDS community, and, dare I say, the AIDS industry, think we won last night. They now believe the folks taking office are our friends. We are going to have access now more than ever before, whether in the White House or the Halls of Congress. And, of course, we are going to be called on to be patient with our friends and certainly not do anything to embarrass them.

But they aren't our friends. They are politicians who, however progressive they might appear, live in a world of compromise and competing interests. Now is not the time to be less militant.

Steadfast Obama supporters in the HIV/AIDS community have reached the point at which the honey has long since dripped off the moon, and they're beginning to see the craters that are left behind. For activists like Hofmann, that's a bitter truth to acknowledge -- and the desire is still strong to give the man the benefit of the doubt. But for King, there never was a benefit of the doubt to begin with. Call him a pragmatist or a cynic, but it's all about the delivery -- and thus far, most in the HIV/AIDS community can agree that Obama's delivery has largely been in words rather than dollars.

The next two years, of course, will be critical. We have a national HIV/AIDS strategy, but it has yet to be implemented -- and doing so will take a tremendous amount of money during a time when political pressure will likely squeeze health budgets rather than expand them. We've seen a trickle of relief for severely hard-hit federal aid efforts like AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, but a far greater flow of funds will be needed to ensure that those efforts succeed (or at least don't fail completely).

The dilemma for the HIV/AIDS community is: How much should President Obama be taken to task? Is it wrong to shout at a man who seems sympathetic to our cause, or is the shouting all the more necessary because sympathy isn't enough? Is it better to wait on the sidelines and pressure politicians quietly, given the more overarching issues they need to deal with in a time of great national strife? Or is now exactly the time when pressure needs to be more vocal, because otherwise "smaller" issues such as HIV/AIDS will be buried or ignored? How much of our perceived lack of progress on HIV/AIDS issues in the United States is President Obama's fault, and how much of it is our own fault for expecting more of him than he could realistically hope (or, in many cases, explicitly promised) to deliver in the first two years of his presidency?

I don't pretend to have answers to these questions. On the one hand, I share Hofmann's instinct to give this president some more slack, as well as her sentiment that it is inappropriate to shout when the guy is giving a speech at a reception he specifically invited HIV/AIDS advocates to attend (as was the case in July, when King yelled out while Obama spoke about the newly unveiled National HIV/AIDS Strategy). But I also agree with King that good things don't magically come to those who sit quietly and wait their turn, and I share that increasingly oppressive feeling that nothing's really going to get done about the domestic epidemic unless a lot more people start screaming.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was that screaming that made a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- a true, fundamental difference, a difference that has saved countless lives. But here's the thing: In the 1980s and 1990s, there was no Internet. Cable news was in its infancy. There was no Glenn Beck, no Keith Olbermann, no Tea Party movement. Screaming meant more. Today, on television, on the radio and on the Web, it feels like everyone is screaming. About everything. So much so that it's becoming difficult to make out any of the voices.

As Jon Stewart said at his Washington, DC rally last month, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." Putting aside how creepy it is to be quoting timeless words of wisdom from a comedian who loves to make NAMBLA jokes, the fact is that activism itself is not what it was 20 years ago. And I'm not sure we've figured out a way to make it effective in a cynical, media-saturated, anger-touting age. Until we solve that puzzle, the debate between dedicated HIV/AIDS activists like Hofmann and King may be moot. Because even though both of them believe so deeply and so passionately in the same cause, their two divergent approaches to activism may both ultimately be lost in the din.

 

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