Monday, January 18, 2010

Jennifer Brier's "Infectious Ideas"

Jennifer Brier is assistant professor of gender and women's studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis we find Gary Bauer, then a senior advisor to President Ronald Reagan and the administration’s point person on the AIDS epidemic, and several other presidential advisors, frantically trying to revise the content of Understanding AIDS, an AIDS prevention brochure being produced by the Department of Health Human Services (HHS). The booklet, authorized by Congress to be designed “without necessary clearance of the content by any official,” provided readers with information on how to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus by using condoms when having sex. HHS’s 1988 decision to focus on condoms infuriated Bauer: he argued the brochure “promotes condoms, assumes widespread promiscuity among young people, and is medically inaccurate by making categorical statements about the way AIDS cannot be transmitted [through kissing]. (100) In an attempt to censor this kind of educational material, Bauer had personally convinced the president, one year earlier, to sign a directive requiring all federally funded AIDS education to “encourage responsible sexual behavior…within the context of marriage.” That HHS was now designing Understanding AIDS in contradiction to this order left Bauer doubly mad. He not only opposed the discussion of sexuality and condoms, he also feared the “gradual dilution of or attenuation of executive power” because HHS was moving forward without presidential oversight.

While this battle’s resolution appears on page 100 of Infectious Ideas (HHS mailed 100 million copies of the brochure without making a single change to the document’s content), the disagreement detailed on page 99 is representative of one of the book’s major arguments: that internal battles within the Reagan administration often left social conservatives like Bauer unable to push through an agenda that relied exclusively on morality as a form of public health advice. In this respect, the content of the brochure was much more similar to the AIDS prevention material produced by AIDS workers (a term I’ve coined to refer to both AIDS activists and service providers) than it was to what Bauer called for.

Infectious Ideas’ argument is much larger than what appears on page 99, however. I detail the scope and substance of AIDS prevention produced by a wide range of actors over the course of the 1980s and 1990s to argue that with AIDS at the center of a political history of the 1980s we no longer see the decade as overwhelmingly conservative.
Read more about Infectious Ideas at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue