Will the reality of Magic end the denial or will his message fall on deaf ears? Shock, emotion are too familiar

ROGER SIMON

November 10, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Magic Johnson has about as much chance of doing something meaningful to stop the spread of AIDS as Len Bias had in stopping the spread of cocaine or John Lennon had in stopping the spread of handguns.

Which does not mean it's not worth the effort. But we have seen outpourings of shock and emotion before. And we should all remember one thing: They do not last.

Johnson, of course, will be among us to carry on his campaign, while Bias and Lennon were dead symbols of their campaigns. But let's not let the stardust carry us away.

If we genuinely wanted to stop the spread of the AIDS virus, we could. But we don't really want to. Not badly enough.

And the eruption of interest we are now seeing has more to do with Johnson's celebrity status and apparent sexual orientation than a true commitment to combating AIDS.

As long as most people thought AIDS was killing only gay people or drug addicts, well, it wasn't that big a deal was it?

But now a "normal" guy, a nice guy, a superstar, has gotten it and well, hell, this is a tragedy.

And that, I believe, is the subtext of a lot of what has been said in the last few days. Johnson's friends and admirers are shocked that a nice guy can get the AIDS virus too.

So shocked, I think, some of them did not really want to know how he got it. They were afraid he might have gotten it the "wrong" way.

But the day after the press conference, Johnson's doctor hastened to assure everybody: "This is a heterosexual individual who was infected through heterosexual activity."

We can all can relax now, I guess. Magic can still remain a hero, his reputation untarnished. He will almost certainly die from his condition nonetheless, but at least he got his death sentence in a socially acceptable way.

I am not blaming Johnson for our attitude toward him and his condition. The courage he showed at his press conference, what truly can be called grace under pressure, was testimony to what everybody says about him: He is an extraordinary guy.

And it is natural for him and us to try to find value and meaning in tragedy. It makes life bearable. And so we can find much value in Johnson's crisis.

But the initial reaction, at least on the part of a few dippy anchormen, was to repeat "Remember now, he does not have AIDS, he only has the AIDS or HIV virus," as if that means that Johnson is going to shake this thing off like a bad cold.

He is not. In all likelihood, he will develop AIDS and die from it. That is the hard reality that people should face up to.

Think of it this way: Contracting the HIV virus has put Johnson in a locked car on a one-way street. The street ends in AIDS and death.

The car has not gotten there yet, but that is the way the car is heading. And the drugs we have right now serve only to slow down the car, maybe by as much as 10 years.

In fact, the best hope of current AIDS research is to develop drugs that will slow down the car a lot, maybe by 20 years or 30 or 40.

But that is not the same thing as a cure. It is not the same thing as unlocking the car door or finding a turning in the road. It is not the same as beating this thing.

Johnson is right to minimize the negative and accentuate the positive. What else does he have?

And he does lend a new dimension to the public education campaign against AIDS that a Rock Hudson or a Liberace could not because Johnson, apparently, is straight, and they were gay. And so straight people, the reasoning goes, will now take greater precautions.

Except they probably won't. Why am I so pessimistic? Because AIDS is already to a large extent a preventable disease.

You can virtually assure yourself that you will not get AIDS by avoiding certain activities. These include using infected needles and engaging in unsafe sex, which is sex without a condom.

But this is a message that we have all heard for years and years now. Sure, some people can't be expected to listen to the message. Drug addicts are not by the nature of their addiction the most socially responsible of individuals. And kids, the most sexually active segment of our population, don't believe in their own mortality.

But Magic Johnson was no kid. And he was bright. And he still engaged in behavior that put his life at risk. Why?

The reason is both simple and frightening: It is because most of us would rather risk our lives than deny ourselves pleasure.

Think I exaggerate? Consider this: The survival rate of lung cancer is almost as bad as the survival rate of AIDS. If you get lung cancer you have an 87 percent chance of dying from it in the next five years.

We know one big cause of lung cancer is smoking. So it follows that people would stop smoking right?

Wrong. The Tobacco Institute estimates that 50 million to 55 million Americans, or 28 percent to 33 percent of all adults, smoke. And the Centers for Disease Control estimate that smoking killed nearly 1,189 Americans per day in 1988, which was up 11 percent from 1985.

But people still smoke.

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