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Body in Soul's Possession

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

David Brooks offered a thoughtful analysis of the dynamics underlying the AIDS pandemic in his June 12, 2005 column: The Wisdom We Need to Fight AIDS. This column is a response, and employs the form of an open letter. The URL for Brooks' original column is: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/12/opinion/12brooks.html.

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Dear David,
In his 1958 novel, A Mixture of Frailties, Robertson Davies offered a contemporary definition of chastity as "body in soul's possession". Whether one is describing the tragedies of AIDS devastation in sub-Saharan Africa or that of the bare-backers of Fire Island and Key West, Davies' definition strikes me as one that is as relevant as any in our time.

People of good will be they straight or gay, or politically liberal or conservative, or be they traditionally religious, or spiritual and secular, or secular and ethical are largely in agreement that the hyper-sexuality of our era is simply unsustainable. But the vexing question we must answer is how we go about transforming this situation.

Your colleague Nicholas Kristof wrote a column a few weeks back in which he noted that in El Salvador only 4% of first time sexual partners use condoms. Kristof further noted that the Catholic Church had used its influence in that nation to push through a law requiring a warning be printed on every package of condoms, asserting that rubbers did not offer protection against the spread of AIDS. He reported in another recent column how some of the deeply religious women of South and Central America that he had spoken to were as up-in-arms over the contraceptive policies set forth by the old men of the Vatican as any college-educated American woman.

There's a common thread that connects the sewing of so many shrouds: men telling women what to do with their bodies; men forcing themselves on vulnerable women in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America; men showing so little regard for their own lives that they increasingly return to unprotected sex, or actively seek to infect each other as a form of initiation (as documented in Louise Hogarth's powerful film, The Gift).

While I don't want to discount your conclusion that an appeal to a "transcendent set of ideals" would help, I do want to make the point that the AIDS crisis is ultimately a crisis perpetuated by men. Our gender certainly appears to have lost its way.

I'd further argue that this phenomenon extends far beyond the realm of sexuality, to the realm of war and peace. The loudest advocates for the war in Iraq were men who never saw a day in battle, yet had little problem discounting the hard earned experience and wisdom of men who did. From my reality-based perspective, I am forced to conclude that these advocates' initial enthusiasm was nothing more than posturing, bluster, and machismo attitudes not far removed from that of the man who, in an age of AIDS, convinces his partner that there's no need this time for use of a condom. This kind of mindless bravado and deadly self-deception, be it in the cause of immediate sexual gratification or gratuitous wars of liberation, hardly strikes me as a shining example of healthy male behavior.

So, yes, I agree that an appeal to a "transcendent set of ideals" is in order. Men are in crisis, and men need to be healed. Our gender needs to collectively discover new models for empowered masculine behavior. We need to become strong enough in our psyches to allow women to emerge as true partners, and exert full dominion over their bodies. We need to loosen the tie between our sexuality and our egos, and instead acquaint ourselves with the ideal of an inner marriage between head and heart or as Davies phrased it, "body in soul's possession".

If the men alive today accomplished nothing but this, then the spread of AIDS would surely end in our lifetime. And the sacrifice of everyone who died as a result of this terrible plague would have not been in vain since the world their suffering brought into being would be a far, far better place than the one they left behind.

Sincerely yours,

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on June 19, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.