Sunday, August 15, 2010

An Angel in America

Here’s a timely and touching article written by Frank Rich, one of the few morally honest writers left at the New York Times. (It would figure he comes from a background of being a theatre reviewer, no? But I digress...)

Of course, the title of the piece caught my eye, as we begin rehearsals in earnest next weekend. But reading the column brings up a lot interesting ideas. Rich juxtaposes the story of Judith Dunnington Peabody, a society woman who died ten days before the Walker ruling on Prop 8 in California, banning the ban on gay marriages. Despite her cartoonishly posh names, which would be a perfect moniker for, say, a customer at Costignton’s on the Simpsons, it turns out there was more to her than a life of idle privilege:

In 1985, Judith Peabody, a frequent contributor to the traditional good causes favored by those of her class, did the unthinkable by volunteering to work as a hands-on caregiver to AIDS patients and their loved ones.

Those patients were then mostly gay men, and, as Guy Trebay recently wrote in The Times, they were “treated not with compassion but as bearers of plague.” There was no drug regimen to combat AIDS, and there were many panicky rumors about how its death sentence could be spread through casual contact. People of all types and political persuasions shunned dying gay men even as they treated healthy gay men and lesbians as, at best, second-class citizens.

Her story points out several things: one, how very much the world has changed in a short time. In 1985 the Times, Rich writes, didn’t even dare to use the word “gay” in its pages. And the newspaper of record didn’t give AIDS front page coverage until the death toll reached 500. And of course Ronald Reagan famously shunned public mention of the issue even as the body count mounted. The president didn't address the issue until 1987, near the end of his second term, passively allowing his supporters in the growing power of the religious right to label the disease as God's wrath on homosexuals.

To be sure, we can celebrate that the cause of equal rights and treatment for everyone has come so far in such a relatively short time. But what strikes me most about this story is how much we have changed in another direction. In 1985, Mrs. Peabody had absolutely no business coming down from her apartment on the Upper East Side and ministering to men from a world so very unlike her own, men dying of a strange, frightening new plague the causes of which were largely unknown. Nor did her mother-in-law, Mary Peabody have any business years before protesting at sit-ins in Florida in support of the civil rights movement.

They had no business doing these things, except for one stubborn fact:

It was the right thing to do.

And I think that’s the second major point here: the difference we see between previous generations and the current crop of pundits, the Terribly Smart People who know what’s best for everyone. It is impossible to have an honest debate today about nearly anything important, because the well has been poisoned with so much disinformation and spin and lies and self-serving bullshit. And that is because these people do not care about what is right.

The lure of lucre is too much these days to expect honesty, or fairness, or basic human empathy. The wingnut welfare these people run on is too great, along with the cheapjack fame afforded those unafraid to spew poison, however odious and patently false, in exchange for cash.

Interestingly, we have some of the same players (or at least their ideological spawn) spewing the same intellectual dishonesty today as they did back in 1985.

How far we’ve come.

How sad that so many of our fellow Americans refuse to join us here in the future.

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