Yesterday, perusing the Washington Post, I ran across this fascinating article/excerpt from Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin on the origins of the HIV epidemic. Read the piece; it’s genuinely interesting. The argument in brief is that the particular confluence of late-era colonialism in Africa and the global ivory/rubber trade led to a large influx of porters and other colonial workers into remote parts of southern Cameroon, who then brought the virus into the bustling colonial metropolis of Kinshasa, providing it with the environment it needed to spread. It’s an important analysis of the confluence of politics, economics and biology that created one of the great and terrible epidemics of our time.
Then, a couple of hours later, I ran across this Robert Dreyfuss post over at The Nation, and I remembered why some people mock the Left. Dreyfuss introduces the Post article thusly: “Maybe it’s too much to say that imperialism caused AIDS. But at the very least, it’s karma—payback, if you will, for mass slaughter, slavery and vicious exploitation in central Africa more than a century ago.”
I invite you to pause for a moment and let that sink in. HIV as karmic justice for colonialism.
Even by its own twisted logic, of course, this is an absurd statement. Here’s a list, derived from 2007 CIA World Factbook estimates, of HIV/AIDS prevalence rates by country, rank-0rdered from highest to lowest. See all those former colonial powers up there at the top? Neither do I.
More to the point, though, this kind of thinking is just offensive. Understanding disease vectors, and how changes in political and economic interactions can affect them, is very important. It’s important as a historical matter, as well as for the way we think about contemporary pandemics. But to argue, even with tongue planted in cheek (which I’m not sure he’s doing here) that the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS around the world today are paying some kind of karmic price for the Berlin Conference is only marginally less revolting than labeling the epidemic God’s punishment for homosexuality.
Colonialism was awful. As a movement it combined the authoritarian indifference of medieval empire with the acquisitive rapaciousness of early industrial capitalism to create a horrific vortex of exploitation and human misery that spread across the globe. It was, entirely on its own terms, one of the great crimes of modern history. Those who can’t get that across without drawing stupid cosmic connections to contemporary suffering should find something else to write about.