From the Archive | Part four: Lizard talk

In the final instalment of a four-part series, Peter Linebaugh completes his review of 10 historical plagues by looking at the 1918 flu pandemic and the US syphilis experiments.

Marxist historian Peter Linebaugh wrote Lizard Talk; Or, Ten Plagues and Another An Historical Reprise in Celebration of the Anniversary of Boston ACT UP February 26, 1989 to honour the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). It was published by the Midnight Notes Collective and is republished here with permission. 

9. “I had a little bird…” Bolshevism and the flu

The largest, quickest and most devastating pandemic in all of human history was the influenza epidemic whose first of three waves began in Kansas in March 1918, and recurred in ever widening and more mortal forms in the autumn and the winter. Yet, this epidemic is distinguished from others by a second reason, the historical amnesia – a virtual black-out of memory – that has greeted it in subsequent generations. Its historian summarises: “Nothing else – no infection, no war, no famine – has ever killed so many in as short a period. And yet it has never inspired awe.” 

Between 22 and 30 million people were killed in a year. Half a million of these were in the United States whose troop ships carrying young men to the Western Front of Europe during World War I, in conditions that were floating test tubes of the virus, brought the flu to France, then Germany, England and Russia, and from the European continent the virus was transmitted along the sealanes of European imperialism to Latin America, to West Africa, to India (where 12 million died), to China, Japan and the Pacific islands. More were killed by the epidemic than were killed by the Civil War or World War I – which Robert Graves called “the Sausage Machine, because it was fed with men, churned out corpses and remained firmly screwed in place”. 

The age-specific mortality curve of the epidemic was shaped more like a “W” than a “U”, which is to say that those in the strong middle years of life were as affected, and more so than the very young or very old. This characteristic deeply worried the official macroparasitic institutions which relied on those in their middle years to produce, to reproduce and to fight. To them, not so much life, as production and reproduction was the worry. Henry Cabot Lodge was concerned about the productivity of munitions plants. In March, 1 000 workers at the Ford Motor Company fell sick. The number of rivets driven per day at the Philadelphia shipyards fell at a rate that alarmed the war producers. The equivalent of two combat divisions of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force (“Ass End First”), were incapacitated in France. Forty percent of US Navy personnel were affected. Thirty-seven life insurance companies omitted or reduced their annual stock dividends. The macroparasites and the microparasite were thus in mortal competition for the bodies of the healthy ones in middle life, and that for another reason too. As an airborne infection, “the rich died as readily as the poor”. 

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War censorship and political repression of the Wobblies opposing the war impeded both epidemiological knowledge and the transmission of therapies. In the United States, public health policies seemed directed at regulating all forms of human communication and by savage law enforcement. The girls in Brockton, Massachusetts, ac­knowledged the isolation as they ignored it, skipping rope to: “I had a little bird / And its name was Enza / I opened the window / And in flew Enza.” (Theirs was a lizard talk in its way, for by the 1970s research in the epidemiology of flu concentrated on the migration of birds.)

Five hundred were arrested in New York on “Spitless Sunday”. Large gatherings were prohibited. Telephone booths were padlocked. Public water fountains were closed. In San Francisco, face masks were required to be worn. Cash tellers were equipped with finger bowls. A municipal ordinance of Prescott, Anzona, adopted a suggestion from an obscure newspaper by the fascist, Benito Mussolini, making it a crime to shake hands. The army surgeon general reported that “civilisation could easily disappear from the Earth”. 

The middle point of the “W” grew and as a result the famous “Lost Generation” of despairing American writers came into being, and yet with the exception of Katherine Ann Porter, none wrote about the flu epidemic. Was this massive social denial? Was this male chauvinism? Was sequela of the disease’s “profound systemic depression”?­ They are important, unanswered questions.  

Katherine Anne Porter synthesised the times, the creation of the “new man”, and the “new woman”. As Prohibition loomed, guys started sporting hip flasks, and the new woman took up the cigarette – alcohol and nicotine, traditional responses, since the 1790s, towards epidemics. The government-issue wrist watch became the emblem of the urban individual; it became essential to the urban-and-factory planning of the 1920s. The government drive for money (War Bonds) was the only occasion of permitted gathering, and that under the slogan “Give ’til it Hurts”. Indeed, “sacrifice” was the watchword for the soldier and the “new” woman alike: give money, give your time, give your labour, give your life. 

One accomplishment of the American search for an antibody to the flu in 1918 was the recognition, following the disastrous results of experimenting on prisoners of Deer Island, Boston Harbor, that human beings make for the least satisfactory of laboratory animals. The virologists discovered something else. Historical memory is not a matter of our minds, research and intelligence alone. It exists in our blood. Thus it is of the 1918 epidemic. That epidemic, and all flu epidemics, leave “their footprints in our serum”. 

Woodrow Wilson spoke in favour of votes for women at the height of the epidemic, appearing to offer a deal: votes in exchange for the flu. His famous Fourteen Points with its right of self-determination to colonised nations was enunciated at the beginning of the epidemic. Towards its end he was in Paris redrawing the map of world imperialism, and when he fell to the aches and fever of influenza he refused to take his doctor’s advice (“take it easy”) and explained, “We are running a race with Bolshevism and the world is on fire.” 

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In Pale Horse, Pale Rider Katherine Anne Porter wrote, “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.” Yes, time for proletarian revolution in Czarist Russia, time for the Arab revolt, time for insurrection in South Africa, time for the mobilisation of the textile workers of Bombay, time for the revolt in Haiti led by Charlemagne Peralte, time for the Mexican revolution, time for the Irish “troubles”, time for the Spartacist revolt in Berlin and the Red Rag in Budapest, time for the Portland General Strike and the great steel strike of Pittsburg, time for the pan-Africanism of Garvey. Thus, health improves as a result of strikes, riots, rebellions and revolution. 

The multinational, worldwide host upon which the macroparasite preyed through its vectors of the assembly lines of Detroit, the gold mines of South Africa, the sweatshops of Bombay, the plantations of Haiti, the shipyards of Belfast, the metallurgical shops of Kronstadt, the slums of cities all over had begun to develop their own “antibodies” – the international revolutionary offensive, thus walking the talk of the lizard.  

Against them the macroparasite struck back with savage repression – invasions of Russia, the Amritsar massacre in Punjab, coordinated infantry-air attacks in Haiti and Tulsa alike, race riots in Chicago, the Ku Klux Klan in the White House, facsism in Italy and National Socialism to Germany. 

10. Mein Kampf and Tuskegee

“Administrators fear that one thing will lead to another –­ that prisoners will strike for better food, that they will try to escape. This is why they must keep prisoners feeling powerless and divided.”

Beverly Abplanalp, Prisoners’ Legal Services (NY), Gay Community News, 1988.

The Nazis learned much from America. In Mein Kampf (1925-1926) Hitler praised American race policy as being closest to that “folkish state concept” he wished to bring to Germany, and did. Hitler and the Nazis in the 1920s shared with American medical opinion an obsessive preoc­cupation with syphilis.

The racial medicine that developed in American in the 19th century sought to establish differences in disease immunity, susceptibility and relative severity between the races. They tried to prove that blacks were physically inferior and sexually promiscuous. When the census indi­cated a declining birth rate among Afro-Americans in the second half of the 19th century, some physicians regarded this as confirmation of the racist belief that freedom from slavery would lead to racial extinction.

1938: The wife and two children of an unemployed mine worker living in an abandoned mining town in Marine, West Virginia. She is suffering from both tuberculosis and syphilis. (Photograph by Corbis/ Corbis via Getty Images)
1938: The wife and two children of an unemployed mine worker living in an abandoned mining town in Marine, West Virginia. She is suffering from both tuberculosis and syphilis. (Photograph by Corbis/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Syphilis was depicted “as the quintessential black disease”. Another physician said Afro-Americans were “a notoriously syphilis-soaked race”. No doubt these attitudes affected the “social hygience” movement of the turn of the century when white professionals educated the white population to safer sex. The huge manpower needs of World War I led to the creation of the Division of Venereal Diseases of the US Public Health Service, and to neighbour­hood VD clinics. Yet even these structural changes in the social reproduction of a healthy labour force failed to modify the virulent assumptions of American racial medicine.

The Nazis also associated syphilis with an op­pressed minority, the Jews. “This Jewish disease” is what Hitler called it. It contaminated the people, corrupted the young and poisoned the blood of the race. Hitler censured the sexual stimulation of the city (movies, billboards, shop windows), which he associated with syphilis and “blood sin and desecration of the race” in a process he called “Jewifica­tion”. To the Nazis, the disease whose origin and name is inseparable from European conquest, massive migrations, slavery and misogynist family policy, became once again, this time in the name of cleanliness, the means to institute an ascending scale of murder – “euthanasia” of syphilitics, forced migration, slave labour and death camps.

In America, too, genocide was practised in the name of science. In 1932, the year the National Socialists won a plurality in the German Reichstag, the US Public Health Service instituted its own “official, premedidated policy of genocide” (as one critic called it when it was exposed in 1972) under the name of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. About 600 Afro­-American men in Macon County, Alabama, were hood­winked into the study. In exchange for an occasional hot meal, a ride in a Buick and a burial stipend, the syphilitic men enrolled in a study which was designed to show what no evidence had ever suggested, that the mortality of Afro­-American syphilitic men differed from that of white syphi­litic men.

The men were not told they had syphilis. They were denied treatment for syphilis. Their wives and their chil­dren contracted syphilis. The study was racist in its goal, its means and its techniques. The “government doctors” hoped to show that the mortality of tertiary syphilis in black men indicated a higher incidence of cardiovascular pathol­ogy than in syphilitic white men who were believed to die more often from neural complications. The men were treated like cattle – “corralled” in annual “round-ups” and given lumbar punctures with huge needles.

1943: A scene from a film released by the British Ministry of Information as part of a campaign against venereal disease. It depicts the son of an infected parent in danger of becoming blind through inherited syphilis. (Photograph by Getty Bettmann Archive)
1943: A scene from a film released by the British Ministry of Information as part of a campaign against venereal disease. It depicts the son of an infected parent in danger of becoming blind through inherited syphilis. (Photograph by Getty Bettmann Archive)

While Macon County thus became a “private laboratory” or “sick farm” analogous to Buchenwald, Nordhausen and Auschwitz, one should not infer that the experiments were a local aspect of “Southern exceptional­ism” any more than the freezing, immersion and typhus experiments of the Nazis were exceptional, because as the Tuskegee “subjects” migrated northwards, as some would, Public Health officials in Cleveland, New York and Detroit provided “collegial cooperation” by withholding treat­ment to the afflicted men, despite the Hippocratic oath and despite state and federal public health laws of 1927, 1943, 1957 and 1969 specifically prohibiting the withholding of treatment.

The Tuskegee experiment continued for 40 years. The trial of the Nazi doctors, and the resulting Nuremberg Code against human experimentation, didn’t even give the post-war public health officials pause (indeed, in the late 1940s the US government assisted and protected Nazi doc­tors!). Nor did the Helsinki Declaration of 1964 on the same subject cause the project to be questioned. What brought an end to the “study” was a combination of the efforts of a San Francisco whistleblower whose parents had fled the Nazis, and the legal efforts of Fred Gray, the civil rights lawyer of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Behind them in 1972 was of course both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Revolution.

Scores of men had died from a disease that could have been cured. The US government to this day has not apologised for the experiment. Even the liberal critique of the experiment shares a moral attitude with the racial medicine of the Nazis and Klan, for when they charge that the Tuskegee Study was “bad science” they mean that some of the men may have been “contaminated” by unauthorised treatment. This is the topsy-turvy, ass backwards, world of science, where saved lives equals “bad science” and treat­ment equals “contamination”.

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Indeed, it may be up to the same tricks. In February 1988 Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced that the US is planning to conduct large-­scale human experiments in Africa to test potential Aids vaccines. In the same month Dr Robert W Ryder, director of an American Aids research programme on humans in Zaire, explained, “What we can do here that we cannot do in the United States is to follow thousands and thousands of Aids victims because wages are low.”

Such research is conducted in a specific economic and demographic context, in the case of Africa one largely determined by the World Bank. It promotes an anti-natalist policy and seeks to reduce the number of Africans who, being too attached to “old ways”, ie, their land, are obstacles to the development of macroparasitic agribusiness. In this context, the Aids scare is highly useful. The international medical establishment has gone out of its way, from the Panos Dossier to Dr Gallo and his monkey business, to produce the appearance in the West of massive HIV prevalence in Africa.

The authors of Aids, Africa and Racism summarise their unequalled command of the medical literature: Western doctors “gathered together groups of sick and dying patients, and diagnosed them as suffering from Aids to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Without the ethical constraints that applied in their own countries, they conducted small and unreliable seroepidemiological surveys that ‘proved’ that millions of Africans were infected with the virus. They barely paused to question, let alone explain why so few of these seropositive people showed any evidence of the disease. To prove the disease had originated in Africa they fetched old blood samples collected on previous safaris from the bottom of their freezers, and subjected them to the same unreliable tests. And then they broke the news to a Western public eager for yet another story of millions dying in Africa.”

1932: A doctor draws blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. (Photography by Wikimedia Commons/ US National Archive)
1932: A doctor draws blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. (Photography by Wikimedia Commons/ US National Archive)

It is the old story, going back to the sharecroppers of Macon County, to the free blacks of Philadelphia, to the yellow fever in Haiti, to the shepherd “Syphilis” of Hispaniola, and back further to Thucydides and Moses. It is the story of racism. Once it is believed that black people are dirty, disease-ridden, sexually promiscuous and about to die anyway, then it becomes possible to institute genocide.

In the midst of the Tuskegee experiment at the time of the “Final Solution”, Zora Neale Hurston, steeped in the pan-Africanism that swept the world after 1918, rewrote the Moses tale in 1939 telling about Mentu and his “nice lizard talk”. Compared to then, Africa is immeasurably stronger. It will take care of itself. To be sure it needs our help. But this help is not the help of crocodile tears. It must be the help of our own lizard talk against the controlled, selective, and secretive knot-heads who manage our illnesses in the pretence of our health

We have learned from our history that the more we commingle and converse, the more we eat each other’s food, sleep with each other and deal with one another’s shit, the stronger we become. We have learned from our history that the microparasites that destroy us appear as godsends to the macroparasites, until they threaten, or until we threaten, to get “out of control”. We have learned from our history that the macroparasites need us both for their wealth and power and for their health. That is why we developed lizard talk to begin with. They can no longer produce those genocidal microparasites without paying a price of such social disorder that we must take power ourselves for justice’s and our own lives’ sake. 

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