To the Editor: In his review of Paul Monette’s “Borrowed Time”' and Emmanuel Dreuilhe’s “Mortal Embrace” (Sept. 11), William M. Hoffman discusses the use of the metaphor of war, specifically the Holocaust, for the AIDS epidemic, and notes that “the comparison of people with AIDS to the Jews was first made in Larry Kramer’s play ‘The Normal Heart’ and my own ‘As Is.’” In fact, comparisons between people with AIDS and the Jews were common in the gay community during the four years of the epidemic that preceded the premieres of “As Is” and “The Normal Heart” in 1985. For example, in his essay “Till Death Us Do Part” (The Advocate, March 17, 1983), Arnie Kantrowitz devotes paragraphs to this analogy. He writes: “Instead of sympathizing with us as the victims of a disease, those who wish us dead will accuse us of having invented AIDS and will . . . accuse us of being unclean. ‘Unclean’ is what they called the Jews of Germany before the racial purity laws made it illegal to have sex with them.” Mr. Hoffman’s statement likewise demanded that I review my own work. In my coverage of the AIDS epidemic for The New York Native and in essays for Christopher Street magazine between 1981 and 1984, didn’t I also make the comparison? As it turns out, I did not. By contrast, my early coverage contained a number of discussions of the dangers of metaphorizing illness and references to Susan Sontag’s flawed but timely essay “Illness as Metaphor.” For example, from “Cancer Signs” (Christopher Street, Sept. 10, 1981): “‘The cancer metaphor will be made obsolete,’ Sontag predicts, ‘long before the problems it has reflected so persuasively will be resolved.’ In the meantime, gay people must arm themselves for intellectual confrontation. We must be prepared, with ammunition like ‘Illness as Metaphor,’ to fight on several fronts what Nixon called the ‘war on cancer.’” (In those earliest days of the epidemic, it was not clear that Kaposi’s sarcoma, an unusual cancer, was part of an epidemic that would become known as AIDS.) Because the comparison between the AIDS epidemic and the Holocaust has helped rouse the public, its use has been valid and I not only haven’t regretted it, I’ve applauded it. But however worthwhile the comparison, as Mr. Hoffman rather bravely observes in his review, “fighting against a disease just isn’t armed combat.” In the long run, I still believe what I said in that 1981 essay, that eventually “it will no longer be powerful to metaphorize cancer (KS, AIDS) any more than it is currently powerful to metaphorize influenza or acne.” In the meantime, however, we must continue to act up and out with every metaphor and every other tactic that might help to change the genocidal indifference of government bureaucracies and the murderous prejudices of large segments of the public. LAWRENCE D. MASS, M.D. New York William M. Hoffman replies:
I had two reactions to Lawrence D. Mass’s letter. First, I wanted to thank him for his correction. Larry Kramer and I were not the first to compare AIDS and the Holocaust. Second, all the people Dr. Mass mentioned as having made the comparison are Jews, including myself. I wondered why that was so. In my own case, it is obvious to me that I was drawn to the comparison because my only other experience with the loss of so many people close to me was the murder of my family in Latvia and Poland by the Germans and their local sympathizers. And as with the present situation, the general population by and large viewed the victims with a mixture of fear, hatred and indifference. But however enticing it would be for me to draw further parallels, at this point I feel the analogy must stop short: behind the Holocaust was deliberate human evil; behind AIDS is an indifferent virus. To date there have been no roundups of gay people, drug addicts or people infected with HIV, no death factories, no systematic terrors. There certainly are some people who would like to see a “final solution” to the AIDS problem, as witness two propositions on the California ballot that would in effect turn the ill and those suspected of being ill into a criminal class.
But to equate AIDS with the Holocaust can be dangerous when the comparison robs us of the clarity we need to combat the bigots in California and our criminally negligent Administration with weapons appropriate to a flawed democracy, not a totalitarian state.