Poly Books of 2009:
2. Gaia and the New Politics of Love: Notes for a Poly Planet
Gaia and the New Politics of Love: Notes for a Poly Planet, by Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio (North Atlantic Books).
This book is a very different animal. Rather than a practical guide, it's an ethereal, philosophical polemic for multiple love as a means to save the world — from the predations, imbalances, and overall bad vibes that we unfulfilled humans are inflicting upon it.
The title refers to the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock. In the early 1970s Lovelock pointed out that Earth's systems (atmosphere, temperature, etc.) seem to be self-regulating like those in a living organism, governed by feedback processes in the biosphere. This interesting observation, of Earth as a homeostatic organism, has sometimes been exaggerated by New Age enthusiasts who treat it the way fundamentalists treat Bible stories: as flat literal truth, rather than as useful metaphor.
What's the poly connection? Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio, a professor of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, argues as follows (in the book's description on her website):
According to [Gaia] theory, humankind is the most powerful species in this web and also its biggest threat. This provocative book explores ways to minimize and ultimately eliminate this threat with love and intimacy. Controversial Italian author Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio has authored the first global ecology study based on an analysis of human health. Anderlini-D’Onofrio identifies her remedy within the context of Gaia theory, re-envisioning it as a more inclusive philosophy that positively impacts not only relationships, but world ecology under duress. The author links human sexuality to the global ecosystem, claiming that freedom from fear will stimulate a holistic health movement powerful enough to heal relationships and restore planetary balance.
Not quite clear how that works? Here's from the book itself:
A new politics of love is a new way to think of love in the arena of public life. Love, who has been maligned as a disease, in this new politics resurrects as an art. The arts of loving are ancient and postmodern at the same time. They are a branch of the arts of healing, and when humanity is humble enough to recognize the pranic forces that interconnect all the parts of our living planet, the practice of these arts will turn scarcity into abundance, fear into hope, hatred into love.... Above and beyond identity politics, this new presence of love in public life amounts to an appreciation for the knowledge in the arts of loving that comes to us from communities already familiar with the practices of sharing emotional resources, including those embracing polyamorous and bisexual lovestyles.
Learning the arts of loving allows emotional resources to multiply and become abundant on a planetary scale. This amounts to invoking the arts of loving as a form of ecological science... the science of turning one's life into an experiment in living as if the new planetary consciousness we humans need, to get out of our multiple current crises, was already a reality.
Okay, I want to be sympathetic to this. In my own scientific-rationalist way, I do think that the polyamory paradigm could help to humanize the world — that it might generalize the magic of romantic love into something larger and more powerful than the isolated couple-love where society has safely walled it off. I think that freedom from sexual repression would reduce irrational hatreds and war-hysterias worldwide. And that poly could help people lead rich, rewarding lives without chasing the fruitless, Earth-killing, debt-and-dependency-making Consumption Of Ever More Stuff.
But I'm sorry. The whole book reads like the section above. Too much of it lives in the outer reaches of New Age academic woo-woo where reality need not apply.
Which brings me to the horrible elephant in Serena's otherwise lovely room. No one wants to talk about it, but someone has to. I've met Serena several times and like her personally. She has a wonderful, joyous, visionary spirit. But she has allowed herself to be seduced by the crackpot movement of AIDS denialism. And it pervades the book.
How could such a thing happen to an intelligent, well-read academic? Here's how.
Central to New Age ideas of the "woo-woo" variety is a rejection of so-called "Western linear objective thinking." The reason for this is simple. Woo-woo, by definition, is whatever crumbles to nothing under honest, objective testing and inquiry. Therefore, it has evolved its own protective philosophy — its own immune-system defense — that rejects the very concept of objective facts and testing.
This rejection of "linear thinking" leaves even otherwise intelligent people defenseless against infection by all sorts of ridiculous mind viruses, because such people are self-blocked from examining incoming ideas critically. In Serena's case, her mind virus is a nasty one: the meme that, against overwhelming evidence, the HIV virus is a hoax — or at least an exaggeration — perpetrated by evil, linear-thinking Western medicine.
Supposedly, Serena repeats, the real reason people get AIDS is because our immune systems are weakened by pollution and our awful modern way of life. The HIV virus is only a small part of the process at most (HIV "dissenters" differ on exactly how small). Dire warnings that you should protect yourself from HIV infection are, we learn, a conspiracy by sex-negative, linear-thinking haters to keep you from having your God-given, Earth-healing fun. Apparently without a condom, even when, as Serena described in an earlier book, receiving anal sex from a man from sub-Saharan Africa, the most HIV-infected part of the world. (She wrote in that book that she was happy for him not to use a condom anally "since I don't really believe in HIV infection."1 )
HIV denialism is on a factual par with Holocaust denialism, in its imperviousness to evidence, except it's worse because it kills — by the hundreds of thousands so far2. On October 5, 2008, in the Bluestockings Bookstore in Greenwich Village, Serena gave a crowd of 70 a public reading from her previous book in which she denounced the sex-negative "AIDS scare" promoted by the medical HIV conspirators. I was there. The reaction from Polyamorous NYC (which had unwittingly sponsored the reading) was explosive. There was denunciation at the microphone and sobbing outside on the sidewalk by another scheduled speaker, who had lost her father to AIDS. In gay Greenwich Village, it was like a Holocaust denier giving a surprise public reading at Yad Vashem.
Amazingly, Serena seemed to have no idea that she would get such a reaction. She was devastated, apologized profusely to Polyamorous NYC for upsetting people, and offered to return her travel-expenses check. Since then she has been radioactive in the poly world.
Yet now, again, Gaia dwells at length on AIDS-denialist theory and how she came to believe in it. She extols Peter Duesberg, the chief architect of the movement and author of Inventing the AIDS Virus (1996), as one of the "'dissenters' whose fierce logic and defiance of the establishment have been my guide".
My friend Michael Rios has written:
One entire section (43 pages, a full 25% of her writing [in Gaia]) is devoted to AIDS denialism. She quotes and references extensively Peter Duesberg, who has been discredited by the rest of the scientific community, and who has *never* done a single experiment with HIV, nor ever done any work with *any* retrovirus....
As it happens, I have a personal friend, well known in the poly community, who worked with Duesberg at the time he was formulating his theories, until quitting in disgust. This person considers him to be fundamentally unethical, and describes him as "racist, sexist, homophobic." Duesberg is primarily supported by extreme right-wing organizations, which, like Duesberg, are strongly anti-gay.
When Serena read this material at [the] Polyamorous NYC event, it created extreme reactions. An extensive document summarizing the issues [was prepared by Polyamorous NYC], which was sent to all the people involved, including Serena. So she has published [Gaia] knowing full well that the main "authority" she relies on and quotes extensively is unqualified and likely dishonest, and that there is no significant scientific support anywhere in the world for her positions.
AIDS denialism claims that HIV doesn't [primarily] cause AIDS, that AIDS is caused by environmental and diet factors. This leads people not to take proper precautions against AIDS, and not to get proper treatment when they get it. [This] not only has immediate and disastrous effects on the lives of individuals [and their partners], it propagates even more confusion as to what science is, and how it proceeds. This kind of slanted pseudoscience creates a context where large numbers of people hear a competing claim for every real piece of scientific information that comes out, and, lacking the ability or training to distinguish between real science and profit- or politically-motivated pseudoscience, leads them to dismiss all sources of scientific information as biased and mere opinion.
Wikipedia has an article on AIDS denialism well worth reading: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aids_denial.
I can't recommend Gaia. That one of poly's public figures has been caught up by this pernicious nonsense is an embarrassment.
1 Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living (2004), page 213.
2 The HIV denialist movement got the ear of South African president Thabo Mbeki when he was in office (1999–2008). As a result, his government blocked the use of anti-retroviral drugs for people with HIV at public hospitals and clinics. (Mbeki's health minister urged people to eat garlic and beetroot instead.) This policy — based on pseudoscience and conspiracy-mongering from California, and spread around the world by well-meaning New Age anti-rationalists — was estimated by a Harvard study to have caused 330,000 preventable deaths in South Africa over a decade. See New York Times articles here and more recently here. Here's a recent update on the new government's change of policy. Also see the recent book Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy by Seth C. Kalichman.