E's Reviews > And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
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's review
Dec 07, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: 2008, bodies, politics-history-etc, queer, death-and-mourning

Shilts writes at the end of And The Band Played On that the book is a work of journalism and that there has been no fictionalization, yet goes on to state that he reconstructs scenes and conversations, albeit based on interviews and other research. To me this process necessarily entails some degree of fictionalization, or at the very least, a departure from an 'objective' history of AIDS in Europe and America. Shilts can hardly be faulted for this given his professional and personal immersion in San Francisco's gay community so I don't think it's reasonable to criticize him for not being impartial, but I do wish he'd explicitly acknowledged his authorial power and influence at one point or another. Instead, and particularly in the last hundred pages or so, Shilts' anger, frustration and disappointment with the factionalism among not only bureaucrats and doctors but gay men themselves shine through: he's angry with those who wanted to keep the bathhouses open, angry with what he calls AIDSpeak, angry with those "more concerned with the politics of AIDS than its medicine" (a thought he [probably accurately, given what I've read of his] attributes to Larry Kramer). He had good reason to be angry, of course, and no sane person would deny that especially in this case laborious and circular politicking eventually caused immeasurable suffering and death.

However, Shilts seems to refuse to acknowledge that his own position is political: that his support for closing bathhouses was not "just" about containment and control, that fears of persecution by Christian fundamentalists and the Reagan administration were not "just" hysterical overreaction, that desperately wanting a rapid overhaul of health agencies was not "just" about restructuring government bureaucracies. While recognizing and so despising the political stalemates he witnessed, Shilts assumes his own position is more or less apolitical, or at least more responsible, moral and essentially just than those of his adversaries.

These judgments may very well be true depending on one's own political persuasion, but his failure to address it somewhat undermines the book's "definitive" status (to say nothing of the scant attention he affords to the effects of AIDS on "the underclass"). Rather, I think ATBPO is best read as an inversion of two standard if contradictory norms: first, the notion that history is/should be objective, and second, that history is always written by the victors. ATBPO rejects both of these charges, and for this reason alone is certainly a classic.
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