June 12, 2005

Column 2005-6-12 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks reveals the true breadth of his genius: after a mere handful of days in Africa, he has already completely analyzed the problem of AIDS in Africa and discovered the only possible solution. Applying the full power of his mighty brain, Brooks rapidly identifies the logical flaws in all previous attempts to deal with this issue and then conclusively proves that the answer is to Christianize those heathen Africans. Technical expertise, with its fancy drugs and medical science, is all very well, but the real way to beat this disease is with missionaries. Small-minded men, envious of Brooks's capabilities, will undoubtedly be skeptical of his ability to prescribe an instant solution to a vast and complicated problem which he has been studying for less than a week, but they are merely embittered by the fact that they will never rise to the heights that Brooks scales with ease. These same men, hopelessly jealous of Brooks's intellect, will then resort to the last refuge of the petty-minded: facts. They will compare AIDS prevalence rates in 34 countries of sub-Saharan Africa with the percentage of the inhabitants of those countries that are Christians, using the profoundly secularist and un-American CIA World Factbook. They will point out that of the 11 nations with the highest AIDS prevalence rates, all but three are majority Christian, and two of those that are not are 10th and 11th on the list (if you decide that religions which are described as combining elements of indigenous beliefs with Christianity are not Christian, then five countries are not majority Christian). They will also note that of the five nations with the lowest AIDS prevalence rates, not one is majority Christian. They will wonder why, if Mozambique and Benin have the same distribution of religions -- half of the people follow indigenous beliefs, 30% are Christian, and 20% Muslim -- Mozambique's prevalence rate is six times that of Benin. And then they will smile smugly and sit back, certain that they have proved that there is very little connection between religion and AIDS in Africa. Naturally, Brooks will instantly discover the two gaping holes in their argument and dismiss it as the piece of illogical claptrap it is. Firstly, of course, countries with high AIDS prevalence rates are clearly not Christian countries, and so anyone from those countries who claims to be practicing Christianity is actually engaged in some heathen religion and needs to be converted to the real Christianity as practiced in God's chosen country. Perhaps Halliburton can be given a no-bid contract to bring the American God to the heathen. And secondly, of course, anyone who would advance such an argument clearly hates America. Or, maybe, Africa. This point may actually require more thought: AIDS in Africa may be trivial, but puzzling out the twisted motives of America- (or possibly Africa-) hating leftists is a problem that could perplex even the most powerful of brains.

Well, enough sarcasm. To be fair to Brooks, he doesn't explicitly call for a wave of missionaries, but the code words -- "evil", "sanctity of life", "faiths", "faithful", "abstinent", "creed" -- are there, along with a reference to the Book of Job. Furthermore, Brooks writes "The most subtle analysis of human nature I heard came in that church made of sticks" in reference to this exceedingly subtle analysis: "They say, "It is easier for those who have been touched by God to accept when a woman says no." They talk about praying for the man who beats his H.I.V.-positive wife, and trying to bring him into the congregation. They have polygamists in their church but say God loves monogamy best." It's extremely subtle, but reading between the lines it seems to me that these people think that God (and since it's a church, the Christian God) is the best bulwark against AIDS. Of course, the first thing these people talked about was condoms and safe sex, and it took them a while to "slip out of the language of safety . . . ." In fact, it seems not unlikely that Brooks is inflating the importance of their religious "analysis of human nature" to support his pro-Christianizing thesis. Recall now that Brooks is, in fact, Jewish. Well, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt: he may be a member of Jews for Jesus.

But the most ridiculous part of the column comes as Brooks argues that condoms and economic development are insufficient to defeat AIDS. First, he says that "Surveys [what surveys, he doesn't say] . . . show that a vast majority know where they can get condoms." But clearly they aren't using them, and therefore condoms just aren't good enough. Apparently, the condoms themselves are responsible for encouraging people to use them. The idea of working harder to convince people that they need to use condoms far more often just doesn't occur to Brooks. But this is not even as ludicrous as his argument that economic development won't help fight AIDS, which runs as follows:

"We have tried economic development, but that too is necessary but insufficient. The most aggressive spreaders of the disease are relatively well off. They are miners who have sex with prostitutes and bring the disease home to their wives. They are teachers who trade grades for sex. They are sugar daddies who have sex with 14-year-old girls in exchange for cellphone time."

So the fact that the not-quite-as-desperately-poor of Africa are exploiting the desperately poor for sex means that further economic development won't be good enough to curb the spread of the disease. Sure, maybe it would allow those 14-year-old girls to have cell phones of their own, and maybe those prostitutes could get actual jobs that paid as well or better as the sex trade did (or even any jobs at all: unemployment in Mozambique, where Brooks writes this column from, is 21%, according to the CIA World Factbook), but that wouldn't have an impact. And Brooks's examples are probably not the main vectors for HIV transmission. According to that pesky CIA World Factbook, Mozambique has (or had in 2003) 428,900 cell phones for a population of 19,000,000 (and only 83,700 non-cell phones). Maybe 14-year-old girls are trading sex for cell phone time, but who are they calling? And claims about teachers trading grades for sex also seem a little exaggerated in a country where only about one-third of women are literate (CIA WF again) and only 9% of females enroll in secondary school. In fact, this paper suggests that sugar daddies are not nearly as prevalent as Brooks seems to think, and that furthermore "these findings suggest that men who are sugar daddies are not more risky than other men with nonmarital sexual partnerships." Even more significantly, this study finds that "The odds of condom use increased by 20% with each additional year of education" and that "Other studies have found a similar association, and educated populations in Africa appear to have modified their sexual behavior in response to condom promotion and other prevention campaigns related to HIV/AIDS." Maybe massive Christianization isn't necessary after all. And finally, "Male partner's income was not associated with condom use . . . ." It's only natural that Brooks would want to blame the problem on elites (and they're probably liberal elites, too), but it would behoove him to check on some facts first.

Finally, I'd like to cite a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. They compared an area of rural Zimbabwe with an AIDS prevalence rate of 15.4% with an area of rural Tanzania with an AIDS prevalence rate of 5.3%. They found that "Marriage is later, spatial mobility more common, cohabitation with marital partners less frequent, education levels are higher, and male circumcision is less common in Manicaland [in Zimbabwe]." And "Respondents in Kisesa [in Tanzania] started sex earlier and reported more sexual partners." Their conclusion: "Substantial differences exist between the contemporary sociodemographic profiles of rural Manicaland and Kisesa. However, these differences did not translate into measurable differences in the biologic or behavioral factors for which data were available and did not explain the much higher HIV prevalence found in Manicaland." Translation: Brooks is, always and forever, full of shit.