Sunday, October 30, 2005

Law & Order SVU: Straining the Truth

I was reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier the other day, and happened across this observation: “This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist. All his opinions change into their opposites at the first brush of reality.” What Orwell was referring to was the way in which certain “progressives” claim to hold radical views, often pushing them to ridiculous limits, all in a (sub-conscious?) process of setting themselves up for disappointment, so that later they can claim “I used to be open-minded”, “I was a radical when I was younger”, “I found out the hard way”, etc.


In other words, insincere radicalism is merely a way of setting the stage for subsequent conservatism.

This is exploited to good effect by the smarter propagandists. It is elementary that effective propaganda must clothe itself as something other than indoctrination. This is so obvious that any little kid trying to pull one over on their parents sees the logic in it. Telling people to “be happy”, “obey authority”, “trust your leaders” is worst than useless: today it is only understood as irony or sarcasm. Which is why nobody except the most stupid reactionary ever takes that approach.

Rather, good propaganda seduces through false-assurances, offering the possibility of being like Orwell’s sentimentalist, the repentant ex-liberal, allowing one to vicariously “give them the benefit of the doubt” and then feel “betrayed by them”. Finally having this feeling of betrayal validated. Good propaganda allows its consumers to be bitter as the result of experiences they have never actually had.

All of which is why one of my favorite television universes, Law & Order, is such a good example of effective propaganda. With few exceptions, Law & Order episodes are billed as fiction, yet it is the way in which they often trace the outlines of real stories that makes them so appealing. With none of the responsibility of making a “dramatization of real events”, the scriptwriters get to play fast and loose with the facts, often inserting critically misleading twists. Add to this the fact that so many of their episodes deal with issues that may be of particular interest to “progressives”, and you can see why this sneaky dishonesty is so effective. The show paves a liberal road that consistently leads to reactionary conclusions.

Time and time again Law & Order follows this script, and so after slightly more than a decade the series and its spin-offs have become a kind a metaphor for white America’s rightward shift.

Take last week’s Special Victims Unit, which was summed up as follows by

”STRAIN: A man is found murdered execution style in the window of his workplace, and above him the word Killer is written. A stamp on his hand leads Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Fin (Ice-T) to a gay circuit club, also a methamphetamine hangout. Detectives Benson and Fin scan the ID's of the guests who were at the club and during the investigation, Fin discovers his estranged son Ken Randall (guest-star Ernest Wadell) was also there. As the case continues, Detective Fin confronts his son and Medical Examiner Warner (Tamara Tunie) confirms that the victim Robin Weller had the deadly and contagious new strain of AIDS which is becoming an epidemic. When Weller's boyfriend, who also carried the deadly strain of AIDS, is also found murdered, eyes turn toward Gabriel Thurman (guest-star Brian Bloom) an activist trying to stop the spread of the disease. The case goes to trial and Thompson's attorney Carolyn Maddox, (guest-star CCH Pounder) tries to sway the jury that her client's actions were justified.”

Now, let’s fill in the blanks:

Robin Weller and his boyfriend Lydon Grant are both heavily into crystal meth, they are both promiscuous, they both practice unsafe sex, and they both have this “killer strain” of HIV, which is supposed to lead to AIDS and death within a year of seroconversion. Gabriel Thurman is a prominent member of the “Rainbow Army”, an ACT-UP style group, whose younger brother Alex (also gay) contracted and died from the killer strain of HIV. Thurman is presented as takes the “radical activist” approach to the question, deciding to kill the men infected with this strain.

Let me repeat that: in this episode of Law & Order: SVU a prominent AIDS activist is portrayed supporting the execution of HIV+ individuals who do not practice safe sex!

Now please, take a few deep breaths and scour your brains, and ask yourselves: (1) What parts of this story are true, and what parts aren’t? (2) Do we have any “Rainbow Armies” and would we be better off if we did? (3) What politics does this story advance?

Truth or Fiction?

First things first: there is indeed some inconclusive evidence of a “new more deadly strain” of HIV, and some health officials fear its spread (and the continuing spread of plain-old-vanilla-HIV) may be abetted by meth use. There were several reports in the media (for instance in the New York Blade, WebMDHealth and The San Francisco Chronicle) with at times different opinions of this back in February, after New York Public Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden issued a public alert. However, at this point it seems that there was more hysteria than wisdom in much of the initial hype, as detailed at

Yet the far more important question is one which we can answer far more unambiguously. That is: is the execution of HIV+ individuals something one might associate with AIDS activists, either past or present? Here the answer is a resounding no.

“Strain” is classic Law & Order: a factual inspiration which is likely to appeal to a “progressive” audience (i.e. people who are concerned about crystal meth, HIV/AIDS, and the politics of direct action) that leads to a story that – at the most critical juncture – reverses the facts.

Rainbow Armies

The Rainbow Army we see in “Strain” is an activist group which hands out condoms and enjoins gay men to practice safe sex and avoid crystal meth. Like Fin’s gay son Ken says, “They do good work”. As presented in the episode, they come across as a fairly dull, white, male and healthy incarnation of an AIDS activist group.

Gabriel Thurman explains his motivation for joining the group as follows: “I came of age hearing about how so many gay men died in the 80s when there was no treatment. And now it’s happening again, because of crystal meth.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that this kind of “entertainment” irresponsibly plays into the false belief that the AIDS epidemic ended in the 90s, or that gay men have not been dying in considerable numbers since "the 80s". Instead, let us take a moment to remember the period which Thurman is referring to, because in a sense that’s the backdrop to this story.

The 1980s were a time when AIDS activism was born, only to peak in the early 90s. If resources were devoted to preventing HIV, if funds were made available for researching new medicines, and if this research was at times done in an ethical manner, it is quite simply because of this AIDS activism – including the very kind that the “Rainbow Army” is supposed to allude to, but also taking much more radical and flamboyant and queer forms.

While some AIDS activist groups do still exist, a web search for “Rainbow Army” only turns up a pro-military rainbow bumper-sticker available from GayMart (oh what a sad sign of the times that is!)

This provides the answer to our second question: it would be nice if we had a few “Rainbow Armies” around today – based on their track record in the past, they would almost certainly do some good.

Dreams of Quarantine

The thing about AIDS activism which is worth remembering is that it is an approach generally based on “harm reduction”. In a nutshell, harm reduction “ Works to minimize the harms associated with certain behaviours (eg. Drug Use, Sex, Partying) [and] Respects the individual's needs and lifestyle choices” (

This is a far cry from the approach Thurman took, which his lawyer Carolyn Maddox presents as follows: “Two men with HIV having drug-fuelled compulsive sex puts other gay men in danger. [By killing them] my client was protecting the entire gay community from two men whose sexual behaviour threatens thousands.”

Gabriel Thurman is presented as the radical individual within the “Rainbow Army”, the guy whose actions and ideas obviously push the groups politics too far – all of which subtly covers up the fact that if Thurman were a real person his politics and actions would not be “too radical” for real AIDS activists, but would rather be diametrically opposed to the entire historic push of real AIDS activism. It’s like suggesting that a rapist was someone who “pushed feminist politics too far”, or that the Klan represents an “overly radical kind of anti-racism”…

So Thurman’s repressive strategy of murder would really have no place in the tradition of AIDS activism. Indeed, individuals like Lyndon Larouche and Paul Cameron who have advocated the murder of HIV+ individuals have been isolated and exposed as fascists largely as a result of hard work by AIDS activists. This was not something people took lightly: when Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer proposed a quarantine for anyone who was HIV+ and continued to have sex (even safe sex), he needed a special police bodyguard the reaction was so intense!

But if “Strain” lies in characterizing AIDS activists as being pro-quarantine and pro-murder, it does not do so simply in order to paint “radical activism” as being dangerous and violent, but also as a way of propagandizing in favor of repressive measures itself.

Consider this courtroom testimony by the fictitious “Dr Sloan of the Centers for Disease Control”. She starts by mentioning “radicals” who are proposing “Prosecuting people who knowingly infect their partners or making them bear part of the cost of their medical treatment.”

(Please note that these “radicals” sound like Republicans…)

She continues, describing the “new killer strain of HIV”: “If it spreads further we may not be able to stop it, ever. I believe we might be on the verge of a disaster, a new worldwide pandemic.” (one must ask: how can we be on the verge of a new pandemic when the old one is still going full steam ahead?)

The testimony continues, with Maddox asking the questions:

Q: So what can we do – test everyone and quarantine those with HIV to a desert island?
A: Back in the nineties, the New York City Health Department established detention centers for people with TB who refused to take their medicine.
Q: Sounds like a good way to protect the public, why haven’t you tried that?
A: The law doesn’t allow us to quarantine people with HIV.
Q: So those infected with this new strain can keep on having unprotected sex and spreading this virus?
A: Yes, we have no way to stop them.

In other words, quarantine is made to seem as a quite reasonable response, one which the State is unfortunately unable to put into place because “the law doesn’t allow us to”.

Now do i think the State is writing our television shows? No, i doubt it. Rather, ideas are developed collectively within classes. Repressive epidemiology (i.e. quarantines, criminalization, or in this case murder) is a set of ideas currently being mulled over by the "well informed" (i.e. the establishment). Tensions around the “coming any day soon” bird flu pandemic, the continuing HIV pandemic, the spread of crystal meth, and myriad other health problems are just so much grist for the mill of “sentimentalist” television.

Silly to spend so much time dissecting a television show? Perhaps. But you know, it is one of my favorite shows, and i am not kidding when i say that this is a frequent formula. It’s worth watching if you have nothing better to do, but it’s also worth analyzing.

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  1. The point of the episode was that he didn't really kill them because they were potential threats to others, but rather to avenge the death of his brother...that was the whole "twist" to the episode...

  2. That's why i started my post by explaining how didactic prpaganda - saying "people should do this" or "people should do that" and leaving it as the central message - is less effective than weaving false "facts" into a storyline.
    Why the fantasy character Thurman actually went on his killing spree is beside the point - the fantasy trial allowed actors pretending to be CDC officials to state incorrect medical information and the fantasy lawyer to make a convincing case for repressive measures (quarantine or worst!) based on this nicorrect information, and this slides in under the radar because, hey, we viewers all know that Thurman was not really doing it for these "lofty" reasons.

  3. I really enjoyed this analysis and found the grieving father's statement to the judge to be further evidence of the propaganda you discuss. The fact that he not only appeals to the judge to spare his son's murderer but that he goes so far as to say his son was already "missing" prior to his death, that he does not desire revenge but understands Gabriel's reasons for murder adds another element entirely. His speech symbolizes his trascendence of his personal pain and loss and his seeming compassion for another but ultimately he is not so much forgiving as he is rationlizing - just as he did when he took out the life insurance policy on his son.

  4. i believe you have all missed the point, i.e.,
    Brian Bloom is gorgeous therefore nothing else matters, duh...