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Opinion: AIDS denialism in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

In 2000, the Foo Fighters embraced the kind of anti-science thinking we still see today. It's time they apologized.

I don’t pay much attention to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, the news that the Foo Fighters are among this year’s inductees gave me a queasy feeling. 

That has nothing to do with their music, about which I’m generally indifferent. It’s because of something that the band, and the rock world more broadly, seem to have memory-holed: The Foo Fighters once embraced the cult of HIV/AIDS denial—which claimed, among other things, that HIV did not exist, or that it did not cause harm—enthusiastically spreading a potentially lethal message to their young fans. And they seem to have never apologized or admitted their mistake. 

As Mother Jones reported in February, 2000:

The multimillion-album-selling alternative rock outfit has thrown its weight behind Alive and Well, an “alternative AIDS information group” that denies any link between HIV and AIDS. In January, Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel helped organize a sold-out concert in Hollywood to benefit the group. Foo fans were treated to a speech by Alive and Well founder Christine Maggiore, who believes AIDS may be caused by HIV-related medications, anal sex, stress, and drug use, and implies that people should not get tested for HIV nor take medications to counter the virus. Free copies of Maggiore’s self-published book, “What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?,” in which she declares “there is no proof that HIV causes AIDS,” were also passed out to the concert-goers. 

In a response to the unflattering Mother Jones article, Mendel perfectly parroted Maggiore’s talking points, including evoking canards we still see in anti-science circles today, about “open-mindedness” and personal “research.”

This was territory I knew. I spent several years debunking the denialists, still have my copy of Maggiore’s bizarre little book, and had a number of direct contacts with her. The book is a pastiche of distortions, half-truths, and occasional hilarious bursts of scientific ignorance. (In one passage purporting to debunk treatments for AIDS wasting syndrome, Maggiore confuses anabolic steroids with corticosteroids, an entirely different class of drugs. When I pointed out the error, she dismissed her mistake as “just one word.” Seriously.)

A friend at the time called Maggiore “a dissembling ghoul,” but I actually think that was too harsh. She wasn’t a liar; she was a cultist. I have no doubt she absolutely believed what she said and wrote, and that what she was doing saved lives. Like all cultists, she had an extraordinary ability to filter out and deny information that contradicted the cult’s beliefs.

We actually attempted a dialogue once, and I had lunch in San Francisco with her and her husband Robin, who was as deeply into AIDS denial as she was. Aside from having to suppress the urge to call Child Protective Services as this HIV-positive woman breast-fed her baby, what sticks most in my mind from that encounter was Robin casually referencing what he termed conventional medicine’s “HIV = AIDS = death paradigm.”

When I pointed out that standard HIV medicine said no such thing—indeed at that point the success of anti-HIV combination therapy had been headline news for three or four years—he was momentarily nonplussed, and then went into an anecdote about a doctor they’d encountered who may well have been ignorant or ill-informed.  

That was all he had, just an anecdote. The denialists didn’t really have arguments, they had talking points. Talking points that worked quite well as long as you didn’t look up their references or check their facts.

Those talking points apparently worked on Mendel, who eventually brought the rest of the band on board. Asked by Mother Jones if he worried he might be inducing his fans to risk their health, Mendel responded, “I’m absolutely confident that I’m doing the right thing. No, I wouldn’t feel responsible for possibly harming somebody. I (feel) I’m doing the opposite.”

Maggiore was certainly enthusiastic about the band’s support, writing on the Alive and Well website that “If Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters question AIDS, questioning AIDS becomes okay and even, well, cool.”

That spring I ended up writing an article about the controversy (sadly not available online, apparently) that ran in the July issue of A&U magazine, one of the more disturbing experiences of my journalistic career. I spoke to AIDS educators who worked with young people, and some told me they’d heard from youth they worked with that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. I tried to speak to Mendel, but instead of letting me interview him, he wrote to the magazine saying he wouldn’t talk to me because I wasn’t “objective” on the subject.

Well, yeah, I’m not objective about people spreading deadly misinformation about something that by that point had killed dozens of my friends. Go figure. 

Mendel wrote that he would talk to the magazine, which was pretty celebrity-driven, only if they found someone else to do the interview. The editor caved, over my furious objections. So what finally appeared was my article, a separate happy-talk interview with Mendel in which he spoke of admiring Maggiore’s “skepticism” and—as a result of my howls—an open letter from me to Mendel. 

In my open letter, I asked the questions the musician refused to give me the chance to ask him in person:

Have you ever taken the time to get to know people with HIV who aren’t part of Christine Maggiore’s movement?  Have you talked to any of the people who, like a number of my friends, were literally pulled out of their deathbeds by anti-HIV drugs?  What about the former dissidents who developed AIDS despite having none of the behavioral risks that Alive and Well and others blame—and despite assurances from people like Maggiore that being HIV-positive couldn’t hurt them?  

Did you take the time to verify what the “dissidents” were telling you? Did you look up the references in Maggiore’s book to see if she quoted them accurately? Did you search the medical literature to see if she was leaving anything out? I ask because it took me all of about four minutes to find a handful of papers contradicting your statement that “not one [paper] has shown a solid link that HIV kills cells.”

Did you talk to physicians who treat AIDS patients every day? To researchers who study HIV and AIDS?  To real, live people with AIDS?

I concluded with an invitation. I invited him to get together—not for an interview, but a conversation, off the record. I offered to walk him page by page through Maggiore’s book and show him the data. I offered to introduce him to people with AIDS and AIDS activists who studied treatment and research issues… pretty much anything he wanted.

I never heard from him.

But over time, things began to change. US AIDS deaths, which began dropping as soon as combination therapy arrived in 1996, continued to drop. And HIV-positive “AIDS dissidents” who refused those treatments started dying of AIDS complications—including Nate Mendel’s mentor, Christine Maggiore. Most went to their graves insisting that what was killing them couldn’t possibly be killing them. 

And, somewhere along the line, references to Alive and Well quietly disappeared from the Foo Fighters’ website. It’s hard to tell precisely when that happened, but a writer for POZ magazine noticed it in 2009. In 2019 writer Alexander Pan noted that the band had “all but erased that period from their band history.”

What Mendel, Grohl and company seem never to have done is to apologize, or acknowledge in any way that they got it wrong. Rather, they—and the rock world writ large—seem to have just memory-holed the whole sorry episode.

Did the Foo Fighters’ promotion of AIDS denial kill anyone? It’s hard to know for sure, but there have been plenty of instances in which celebrity statements correlated with a change in people’s health behavior, including that time when calls to poison control centers spiked after a certain alleged president suggested that disinfectant injections might be the answer to COVID-19. In 2000 the Foos were filling arenas and selling multi-platinum albums. It’s hard to conceive that no one followed their advice.

So, I think it’s time for another open letter to Nate Mendel:

Dear Nate,

You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you. I’m the guy you wouldn’t talk to about the “AIDS dissidents” because you were afraid to face anyone capable of proving that you were full of shit.

Well, 21 years have gone by, and I think you owe an apology—not to me, but to all the fans you misled, all the people who’s health you damaged by convincing them they shouldn’t get an HIV test, take life-saving medicines, or worry about practicing safer sex.

Do you ever think about them, Nate? Do you care at all? I’m sure there are next of kin who still wonder about that.

You have a perfect chance later this year to start making amends. In a few months you and your bandmates will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Lots of people will be watching. You’ll get a chance to say a few words. You know what you need to say, don’t you?

You can’t undo the damage you did, but you can at least say you’re sorry you did it.

It’s a start.

Sincerely,

Bruce Mirken

3 COMMENTS

  1. @mzonta The year 2000 was very different from 1985. It’s one thing to participate more fully in medical treatments with informed questions, quite another to turn your back on any medical treatment at all, which is basically what was being encouraged, especially in San Francisco. Almost all the people that did that are dead, no matter how many spiritual healing sessions were being held, of how much comfort they may have brought during the darkness and confusion of the early days. Despite the horrendousness of the system itself, it was corporate medicine that saved us from AIDS, and that medicine was brought to us by brave and outspoken activists. Propagating false information when there was a proven treatment available was pretty inexcusable.

  2. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, it certainly was the general consensus that AIDS=death. That’s why in 1985 we organized the Metaphysical Alliance: to refute that premise. We held monthly AIDS healing services for many years at the local MCC church and later at the Unitarian Church so that we could highlight any and all hopeful messages about long-term survivors of AIDS.

    Science and scientists should be in the constant process of questioning itself and the AIDS dissidents were certainly doing that.

    One of the big lessons I think many people learned from the AIDS crisis is that medical treatment should no longer be a simple top-down treatment plan. That the patient is an equal is not greater part of the decision-making process in any medication treatment plan.

    So I thank the Foo Fighters for questioning medical orthodoxy.

  3. You have cause for resolution with Nate, and I hope you get it.

    However, the “reach” of the band back then was negligible, In 2000 they were not filling arenas like you claim, instead they were the support act to Red Hot Chili Peppers. The benefit show in support of Alive & Well (which was one too many granted) was a $12 ticket at a place with a capacity of 1,500.
    Beyond that show there was no concerted effort as a band to push this elsewhere – no PSAs, they weren’t mentioning it at gigs or in interviews. Just that one gig, at the request of the bassist.
    At the time there was an immediate cry of “bullshit” on the band’s messageboard (which in those none-WIFI days probably had about 3000 active users globally) and then … it was never mentioned again.

    Citing Trump as proof celebrity endorsements change behavior – the guy had millions of followers on twitter & led a cult of Covid denial over a period of months. This was nothing like this.

    Ultimately though, I agree – if this benefit gig caused even one HIV+ person to forego treatment then it’s unforgivable. I just think that suggesting the band had the reach and influence that they have today, back in 2000 paints a slightly different picture.

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