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The Politics of Shame

The Non-war against AIDS.

by Barnabas
March 31, 2004

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Three years after the United Nations declared a worldwide offensive against AIDS and 14 months after President Bush promised $15 billion for AIDS treatment in poor countries, shortages of money and battles over patents have kept antiretroviral drugs from reaching more than 90 percent of the poor people who need them. 
Donald G. McNeil Jr, "Plan to Battle AIDS Worldwide Is Falling Short," New York Times, March 28.

I suppose we all, at one time or another, have said we were going to do something that we didn’t do. We may even, shamefully, have forgotten that we said we were going to do it. I am not letting myself, or you, off the hook in this matter. It’s a very bad deal to let other people down, to minimize their self-respect by failing to live up to the expectations that we created when we made the commitment. Alibis for lack of effort are not the moral equivalent of success.

Yet, because of our weakness, ignorance, and self-inflated notions of what we can do, it’s not surprising that we as individuals fail to do as we say. After a record of disappointing others, we may develop the habit of non-commitment, as in the classic parental declaration, "We’ll see."

The United Nations and the United States may be self-inflated, but they cannot plead weakness or ignorance. They have no worthy alibi for failing to live up to their commitment against AIDS. They have the resources to do as they said; they can perform what they have promised – which wasn’t victory, but a good fight. So far they have barely waged a token resistance.

Shortage of money? No. Only the unwillingness to divert money to a cause we have publicly declared to be of first importance. Battles over patents? That’s like fussing over insurance forms in emergency room when there are thousands of casualties waiting for treatment.

Ethical commitment means the willingness to prioritize resources and personnel. Since the President made this promise on our behalf even as the nation was frantically preparing for an unfunded hot war, we expected him to know how he was going to fulfill it. If he didn’t know where the money was coming from, or that he could command the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry, he should have kept his mouth shut. It is shameful to make promises to the wretched of the world if we are not going to make an earnest effort at keeping them.

In trivial matters like U.S. political campaigns, where both speakers and listeners concentrate more on how words sound than on what they mean, promises don’t mean much. We even have a name for them. "Campaign promises" are not real promises. (That we long ago came to this understanding is a sign of our moral deterioration.)

But the fifteen billion dollars promised to AIDS sufferers in poor nations was to them a real promise from the richest nation in the world. It was in The State of the Union address at the beginning of 2003. To make a promise like that, and then treat it like a campaign promise, is to practice the politics of shame.

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Michael H. Thomson from Merritt Island, Florida writes:
March 31, 2004
I think Barnabas makes an excellent point. It seems like lately, there are a number of promises being made which will never see the light of reality.

One of the major problems the U.S. faces at the moment is a problem of empire i.e. we are glorifying in being the biggest and the best - and we arrogantly do not ask others to share the burden. To make a point:

If a person travels to Europe these days, one of the things that will strike you, is the absence of potholes. Most European countries have excellent roads - one of the first signs of great prosperity. Why is this?

In comparison to the U.S. the Europeans spend very little on defense. They have become so used to Americans taking on their major military tasks that they simply do not outlay a great deal of money to defend themselves or take care of security issues - including terrorism - in their sphere of influence. Here's a breakdown(figures are good through the last two years - source CIA world factbook):

Military expenditures by country

France: 38.8 billion

Germany: 46.5 billion

UK: 31.7 billion

Spain: 8.6 billion (no wonder they caved)

Italy: 20.2 billion

Belgium: 3 billion

Total: 149 billion - approximate

George W. Bush is asking for 399 billion dollars for the U.S. military in this year's budget! Use your calculators and compare the two sets of figures. The EU has as many or more people than the U.S.

A large percentage of OUR defense budget will go to protect and defend the EU's sphere of influence - including the Middle East. The EU's not complaining about THAT!

When the President and the Congress develop the guts it takes to face down our burgeoning military-industrial complex and require our EU allies to put boots on the shoes of their own kids - then we might become that shining castle on the hill that can truly apply our lucre as a balm to heal some of our suffering brothers. Until that time - keep expecting more broken promises.

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