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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Libraries and Funerals

The literal Reagan "Look at All the Fucks I Give" blanket
"Every time a person dies, it's like a library burning down."

That's an observation made by a human being. It's a pretty old observation--I don't know who originally said it, but I first came across it when I was reading Randy Shilt's book ...And the Band Played On, where a distraught human being--one of many distraught human beings in that book--says it.

Every time a person dies, it is like a library burning down. Not an exact quote; it's been years since I read the book. But the sense of the quote remains with me.

We're nearly 30 years out from the year President Reagan finally acknowledged AIDS. Many libraries had burned and many libraries were still burning when Reagan at long last admitted AIDS existed. He stood in the ruins of Alexandria and said, simply, "I want to talk tonight about the disease that has brought us all together."

He also said, "Those of us in government can educate our citizens about the dangers. We can encourage safe behavior. We can test to determine how widespread the virus is. We can do any number of things."

If he'd said these things, of course, in the immediate and obvious beginning, perhaps libraries would have been saved. Human beings. Reagan, like many elderly human beings, quite possibly thought of funerals as a rare chance for social interaction and so encouraged as many funerals as he could.

Nancy Reagan did her part to help social interaction by denying family friend Rock Hudson access to experimental (was there any other kind then?) treatment to prolong his life. Dying of AIDS and finding no help in the US, Hudson had gone to Paris, a transfer between stacks, to seek treatment. Paris refused the transfer, Hudson's publicist wrote a desperate plea to Nancy urging her to encourage the transfer, and... nothing. Nancy Reagan refused to intervene. She was a terrible librarian. Some weeks later, the transfer was returned, unread, to the burning library of the US.

Rock Hudson did force the Reagans to see AIDS for what it was, true. When Hudson died, most of the United States realized AIDS wasn't simply a gay plague, but an actual reality. Also, the US came to the shocking--shocking!--realization that 'gay' was an actual reality. Like AIDS, it could strike anyone at any time.

Libraries are like human beings. All are byzantine, dense, full of references, and full of delights and dreads.

I do not know why Hillary Clinton praised the Reagans for encouraging a national discussion on AIDS, unless she meant that the Reagans forced a nation to face reality by being utterly silent, like a parent waiting for a child's confession. But I do know that when I see a library on fire, my first instinct is not to praise the fire, but to try to grab as many volumes as I can. To put those volumes aside and wait for a new library to be built.

Here's what gets me about Clinton's words: they were bad words. She apologized for what she said, true, by insisting she meant stem-cell research. Her original statement, on the day of Nancy's library being buried, was: "It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about H.I.V./AIDS back in the 1980s."


Two things: how does one substitute HIV/AIDS with stem-cell in that sentence? "It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about stem-cell research back in the 1980s."


Even if one is to take Clinton's sentence at face value, "It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about H.I.V./AIDS back in the 1980s," one must wonder why it was so difficult for people to discuss. Perhaps if the leader of the free world, the former actor and actress, the USSR-destroying President and his blood-dressed wife had said something in 1981 rather than 1987, libraries would've... whatever.

Instead, we got the AIDS quilt on the National Mall. Because once the libraries are gone, all you're left with is a history stitched together.

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