Powell Commits the Sin of Honesty

No matter how overwhelming the evidence, there are always a few true believers who just won't admit they're wrong. This eccentricity of human nature accounts for the fact that you can still find people who insist that the earth is actually flat or that evolution is little more than an interesting theory or that Elvis is alive and well and living in Cincinnati.

Just as amazingly, you can still drum up a rather vocal contingent -- even as the global death toll from AIDS soars into the tens of millions -- to argue that encouraging sexually active young people to use a condom is a destructive idea.

The flat-earth anti-condom chorus was in full cry last week after Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a worldwide audience of MTV viewers this eminently sensible advice: "Condoms are a way to prevent infection ... It's the lives of young people that are put at risk by unsafe sex, and, therefore, protect yourself."

He did not say: "And, therefore, go have sex." Indeed, Powell and his wife, Alma, have long been strong supporters of Best Friends, a highly successful youth abstinence program. Rather he was telling his listeners that if they were going to have sex -- and Powell, versed as he is in the world's realities, knows that millions of them are -- they should at least be smart and safe about it.

But that didn't stop the anti-condom cabal from reacting as if Powell had come out in favor of underage bestiality. Their attacks were as spurious as they were condescending. "Colin Powell is the secretary of state," harrumphed Focus on the Family's James Dobson, "not the secretary of health. He's talking about a subject he doesn't understand."

As if only the secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, should be allowed to comment on a subject that every parent in America should be discussing with their teen-age kids. Does Dobson think that the instant Thompson was sworn in he became some kind of all-knowing expert on sexually transmitted diseases -- the administration's go-to guy on sex, the White House's version of Dr. Ruth?

The simple fact is that we expect, indeed we demand that our leaders comment responsibly on a host of issues in which they are not certified experts. George W. Bush's State of the Union address would have been a sorry affair it if consisted entirely of his well-informed opinions on Texas Rangers baseball.

Rather than come out and admit that he was attacking Powell on moral grounds, Dobson tried to pretend his problem with condoms is purely "scientific," claiming that Powell "clearly doesn't understand the science regarding condom efficacy."

Picking up the science baton -- and trying to bash in Powell's head with it -- was Kenneth Connor, the president of the Family Research Council. His tactic was twisting a National Institutes of Health finding that condoms are more effective in preventing HIV infection than other STDs, such as chlamydia, into "proof" that condoms don't really work and that the idea of "safe sex" is a myth.

It's a mildly diverting smoke screen until you actually read the report, which finds condoms, when used properly, to be effective in preventing the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS almost 100 percent of the time. The problem is that in Africa, where the majority of HIV infections are occurring, only 3 percent of the sexually active population uses them.

In the end, the attack on Powell isn't about "condom efficacy" or which Cabinet post qualifies you to comment on premarital sex. It's about trying to roll back the clock to the 1950s -- or at least the sit-com version of the 50s -- where Ricky and Lucy slept in separate beds, and where if Ozzie gave Harriet the clap, it was a polite round of applause for the yummy pot roast. But this isn't "Leave It to Beaver" -- and our kids are having sex. Even Britney Spears.

Of course, this isn't the first time Powell has provoked the wrath of conservatives by venturing off the reservation. They were just as ticked off when he supported affirmative action, attacked corporate welfare, sounded the alarm about the 2 million Americans living behind bars, and suggested it was time to rethink the drug war.

Instead of being excoriated, Powell deserves to be celebrated for abandoning the double talk that is the lingua franca of those in power, and confronting this life-and-death issue head on. With AIDS claiming 3 million victims last year, and another 42 million people currently infected with HIV, Powell's message is one that can't be repeated often enough -- especially on MTV.

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