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Did Royko Have It Coming?



Like the Bible and William Shakespeare, Mike Royko has now been annotated. The guerrilla wing of gay activism in Chicago performed this scholarly deed two weeks ago, picking apart a July column about AIDS and offering it as proof of Royko's sins.

During the night of August 2, members of ACT UP/Chicago faxed the Royko column and their own paragraph-by-paragraph critique of it to some 50 newsrooms around the country. They also faxed a flier that attacked Royko in much blunter language. Under the headline "Today in the Chicago Tribune," there was a photo of Royko's smiling mug, alongside of which, in blocky type, ran a bill of particulars:

"Racist. Sexist. Anti-gay. AIDS Illiterate. Bigot."

"Mike Royko," said the bottom of the poster, "spreads ignorance, hate and intolerance."

The next morning, ACT UP stood outside the Tribune Tower handing this flier to employees coming to work. Other fliers were glued to Tribune vending boxes.

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), many of whose members are HIV-positive, is notorious for its over-the-top behavior. The Royko action, carried off without bullhorns, billy clubs, or bail bondsmen, was so moderate by ACT UP's standards that one participant actually described it to us as "subtle."

The fact remains that Royko was vilified. We think Royko has written obtusely on gays and we've said so in Hot Type. But we remembered reading the column that infuriated ACT UP when it ran in the Tribune on July 12 and agreeing with the thrust of it. Could we have been so wrong? We gave ACT UP's annotations a close, self-interested read.

Royko's subject had been the poster by the New York collective Gran Fury that was supposed to have appeared on CTA buses last month. Under the legend "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do" were photographs of three couples kissing mouth to mouth: two men, two women, and a black man with a white woman. The CTA accepted this poster as public-service advertising but found reasons to put off displaying it once various aldermen and legislators began calling the poster outrageous. The poster's sponsor, Art Against AIDS, had asked numerous artists to contribute to a consciousness-raising show that would travel from city to city, appearing on billboards and along transit systems. The Gran Fury poster was just one of three dozen works coming to Chicago to be mounted on 1,500 buses, billboards, and el platforms. (The CTA finally said this week that the poster is now going up.)

"Some artists were very didactic and educational. Others were more enigmatic," Annie Philbin, the director of the Art Against AIDS project, told us. Apparently Gran Fury was both. She called their poster educational art, and commented, "Theirs was a very sophisticated, media-aware approach. The message works on many, many levels. People take double takes. The first and foremost message is, kissing doesn't kill. In some places of the world, that's big news. Then there are all the other levels."

Obviously, Gran Fury and Mike Royko (and Hot Type, too) were operating on different wavelengths from the get go. Gran Fury produced art that works on "many, many levels." Royko wasn't thinking art; he was thinking advertising, which is what the posters you stare at on buses usually are. Advertising makes simple points and makes them irresistibly. So what's the point? Royko wondered. Possibly in the back of his mind (it was in the back of ours) was the recent tempest over the stillborn "I Will Not Get AIDS" ad campaign cooked up for the city by DDB Needham. Gays put that campaign on ice, denouncing it as too uninformative to work.

Now here was the Gran Fury poster. Was this supposed to be an ad that would? Royko found the poster dishonest and unintelligible. "Whose greed and whose indifference are they talking about?" he wrote. "Vast sums are being spent on AIDS research. Far more per victim than on cancer, heart disease, and other diseases that kill far more people."

Reluctantly, he found himself agreeing with the political hacks who'd denounced it. "Yes, the poster appears to be nothing more than a plug for gay sex and lifestyle," he wrote. "And, no, it really has nothing to do with the realities of how people get or don't get AIDS."

At the top of his column, Royko made an unforgivable mistake. He screwed up the wording of the Gran Fury poster. "The printed message says something to the effect that love doesn't kill; greed and indifference kills," Royko wrote. But what the poster said, of course, was "Kissing doesn't kill." (So much for Gran Fury's first and foremost message.) Royko's carelessness led him off on a tangent that sounded mean spirited and absurd.

"I'm a bit puzzled," he wrote, "by the statement that love doesn't cause AIDS, but greed and indifference does. For one thing, I haven't heard anyone suggest that love causes AIDS. Love isn't an issue at all, unless you define love as having anal sex with a stranger in a bathhouse, which would be kind of stretching love's definition."

Handed the high ground by Royko's blunder, ACT UP brandished that highly fallible sixth sense that allows the oppressed to think they know the oppressor's mind better than the oppressor does. ACT UP aimed its guns past Royko's mere words at the suppositions and prejudices ACT UP was certain lurked behind them. When Royko called the poster "nothing more than a plug for gay sex," ACT UP annotated:

"Gay sex is not the problem. Gay sex is not wrong, nor should it be reduced to a cheap comparison of an advertisement for mouthwash. AIDS ignorance, homophobia and racism are the problems that need to be confronted and overcome. The poster addresses these issues, yes, by shoving them down people's throats and in their faces. Because those people living that 'gay lifestyle' Royko is so appalled by are parents, siblings, lovers, best friends and career people; people who deserve the same freedoms as Royko."

But Royko hadn't said that gay sex was "the problem." He hadn't, so far as we can see, declared that he was appalled by it. He'd simply said that the poster was a promo for a "gay lifestyle"--a point ACT UP more or less concedes.

ACT UP properly ripped into Royko for the bathhouse jibe, but proceeded to make too much of it: "Presuming that all, or even most gay sex takes place in bathhouses is stretching reality's definition. It is the first installment of Royko's Blame the Victim theory: the only people who get AIDS are promiscuous gay males and it is suitable punishment for errant behavior. Apparently Royko believes everyone who is not a gay male has led a puritan, monogamous life."

ACT UP reasonably infers the unfortunate notion that only "promiscuous gay males" get AIDS. But find one word betraying a conviction that AIDS "is suitable punishment." We wish that instead of conjuring up intolerance that isn't there, ACT UP had met Royko's actual text head-on. Contrary to what Royko says, love is an issue. A sexual disease, AIDS truly is spread by love, and that is one of the most damnable things about it.

Did Royko say that "vast sums are being spent" on research, more, per victim, than other diseases receive? To ACT UP, "Royko implies that AIDS research is receiving too much of the health care budget." Did Royko say that "Yes, more young women are getting AIDS. But how? Same old story. Most share dirty drug needles with other addicts"? ACT UP's response is that "for some reason it seems a source of comfort to Royko that women who are injection drug users are dying of AIDS."

"You want to do a poster?" wrote Royko in conclusion. "Show a couple of glassy-eyed fools jamming the same needle into their arms. Or a couple of guys in a bathhouse saying: 'Let's get it on, and we can exchange phone numbers later.'

"Why not try: 'Love doesn't kill; stupidity, moronic self-indulgence and flat-out ignorance kills.' Or maybe a poster showing a dying infant and a line saying: 'This baby has AIDS because his mother stuck a dirty needle full of dope in her arm. President Bush didn't stick the needle in her arm. The U.S. surgeon general didn't. Society didn't. You didn't. She did it to herself. So blame her. And if you don't want your baby to get AIDS, don't stick dirty dope needles in your arms.'"

In other words, responded ACT UP, "Blame the victims. Punish the victims. Let them die. Ignore our social responsibility. The lives of injection drug users and gay males are expendable."

If someone as prominent and influential as Mike Royko despised you and wanted to see you and your people dead, and was saying so in print, you'd be right to trash him. But we can't find that message to gays in the column Royko has written. What we find him saying is something we'd say, too: AIDS is hell. The AIDS poster needed most should not pause to grieve for the dead. It should not pause to comfort the doomed. By hook or by crook it should speak to the lives that are not past saving and try to save them.

We should mention that we read the closing paragraphs of Royko's column to Annie Philbin and they made her furious. "Clearly, this guy doesn't know the first thing beyond being a white privileged male heterosexual in this country," Philbin exclaimed. "He is exactly, exactly the problem why AIDS is devastating this country. He's just so uninformed that it's pathetic." For information, she directed us to a recent op-ed piece by Larry Kramer, playwright and ACT UP founder, in the New York Times. Kramer called the nation's AIDS research program mismanaged and unproductive and begged for something like the Manhattan project to "stem the ocean of death."

Desperation has driven ACT UP to the streets. "It is their job to overreact," said Annie Philbin. "It is their job to overstate. It is their job to be maniacs." It is our modest job, on the other hand, to take seriously the language they sling around. As an occasion for great writing, AIDS is not one that Mike Royko has risen to, but neither has it found him spreading "ignorance, hate and intolerance." We suppose one reason ACT UP makes this charge is that Royko has written so sympathetically of battered Communards of other causes. But not, unfortunately, of theirs.

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