Health lunacy: Adorno helps out
[This was originally part of this radio commentary, but I’ve posted it separately here.]
And now a bit more Pacifica arcana, though that’s only the taking-off point. WBAI, the New York station where this program ran for 15 years until the interim program director decided to cut its frequency, has brought back health guru Gary Null to do a daily noontime show. Null was fired several years ago because of a personality conflict with an earlier program director. He really made the phones ring at pledging time, and his departure was financially damaging to WBAI. So presumably bringing him back will make the phones ring again, since they’ve been pretty quiet lately. Maybe, but at a considerable price to reputation and decency.
WBAI helped make Gary Null both famous and rich. He is much admired by many, though he strikes me as a classic snake-oil salesman, with an unctuous manner and a selfless self-presentation that is actually a mask for a raging egomania. But, that aside, Null, like many health freaks, is an HIV denialist. That is, he denies that HIV is a cause of AIDS, and that AIDS is a contagious disease. He said recently on another radio show that “Everything about AIDS is a lie, it’s a fraud being perpetrated….” That sort of talk really excites the credulous, for sure. He also counsels against the use of modern antiviral therapies, without which legions of AIDS patients would be dead. So no matter what you think of the rest of the naturalist’s armamentarium, this sort of advice can kill people. That may be a rude thing to say, but it’s true. Telling people that AIDS is not a communicable disease and that antiviral therapies do more harm than good can kill people.
I’ve got personal experience of two of the “healers” he had on his show. One was the late Dr Emanuel Revici (who died in 1998). My uncle, who was dying of advanced prostate cancer, was brought to Revici by his wife (my mother’s sister). Revici saw him for five minutes, handed him three unlabeled vials of fluid, and billed him for $500. My uncle took the stuff, and died a short while later. The other: my father, who was then about 80, consulted another of Null”s “healers” because of some arthritis-like pains he felt in his knee. The healer diagnosed my father with “cytomegalovirus infection” and prescribed a round of intravenous vitamin C infusions at $100 a pop. CMV infections are ubiquitous—over 90% of Americans aged 80 and over carry the virus. And vitamin C is very cheap—the markup must have been on the order of 50 times. These two characters are nothing but quacks in a very profitable line of business.
But I promised this wouldn’t be another inside-Pacifica story, so now onto the larger point. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of therapies and practices in the “alternative” realm that are useful and less toxic than the orthodox kind. But these need to be tested rigorously, with full disclosure of the contents of the elixirs and the results of their application. Now, Null & Co. circulate their propaganda through self-reported testimony with no outside check on their veracity. Those who died, like my uncle, aren’t called upon to be guests. And this gang of alterna-health types tap into the suspicions of the dominant discourse so prevalent on today’s left—a reflexive skepticism that’s as anti-intellectual as the reflexive credulity of so many in the mainstream.
Why is this sort of thing so popular? As I was thinking about this, the phrase “modern big-time irrationality” popped into my head. It comes from a great essay by the German philosopher T.W. Adorno on astrology—specifically the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times that Adorno read when he was in exile there during World War II. And it turns out that something in Adorno’s analysis of mass-produced occultism that bears on the popularity of quackery.
Adorno pointed out that mass consumption of an astrology column is a lot different from classical astrology, which emerged before astronomy was codified as a science, and even today lives on in the form of custom readings done by professionals. But it also co-exists with a world in which astronomy is a science, and so requires a serious degree of intellectual retrogression among the faithful. People should, in other words, know better. But one reason they don’t is because so much of what goes on in the name of rationality is actually opaque and irrational—the worlds of technology and money which leave most people dazed and confused. So in some sense, the fascination with astrology and other forms of occultism are an escape from the world of well-compensated expertise from which most people are excluded. But the escape reproduces the patterns of the larger society—even more irrationally. People accept the declarations of the astrology column (insofar as they accept them—there’s often a note of irony and self-teasing as one cites the day’s capsule summary) as a form of abstract authority. The syndicated astrologer becomes just another kind of disembodied expertise.
I think something similar is going on with the appeal of alterna-health gurus. People are confused by actual science and repelled by its debasement by the pursuit of money. Everyone knows how drug companies taint research and medical practice is distorted by fee maximization. So to escape that unpleasant reality, connoisseurs of quackery embrace the critique offered by the likes of Null, who confidently declare that the official line on AIDS is just a fraud. (In that, they can sound like climate change denialists, who think the whole story of warming is a fraud perpetrated by academics.) But the appeal of Null & Co. is one of pure authority: the word of the guru takes the place of rigorous evidence. Because for all the corruptions of science, it does depend on the disclosure of techniques, the reproducibility of results, and the scrutiny of peers. Yes, there’s a lot of authority behind the scientist in the white lab coat, but there’s also a lot of rigor. There’s none in the alterna-world.
Still, there’s plenty of money-making going on—but the adherents never look into that.