Stephen Lewis’s ‘Race Against Time’

Stephen Lewis did the Massey Lectures this year. Previous Massey lecturers (that I’ve read and loved) include Noam Chomsky, Thomas King, and (that I’ve read and found interesting) Richard Lewontin and John Ralston Saul.

For those who don’t know who Stephen Lewis is, he’s the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He’s also been a politician in Canada, a very important activist for Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).


Stephen Lewis did the Massey Lectures this year. Previous Massey lecturers (that I’ve read and loved) include Noam Chomsky, Thomas King, and (that I’ve read and found interesting) Richard Lewontin and John Ralston Saul.

For those who don’t know who Stephen Lewis is, he’s the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He’s also been a politician in Canada, a very important activist for Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).

His lectures are on HIV/AIDS in Africa, discussed in terms of the Millenium Development Goals developed by Jeffrey Sachs and I guess described in Sachs’s book Out of Poverty (which I haven’t read yet).

Lewis’s lectures are powerful and should, and will, be widely read. It will probably be the only book a lot of people read on this most important of issues, and as such I am very glad of what is in it. He discusses all kinds of things one could have anticipated, like the unique problems of children who are raised by other children because all of their adult family has died of AIDS, or the problems of grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren because their children have died of aids.

He fingers the wealthy countries, the international institutions, and the IMF in a way that, like the ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’, a leftist analyst just can’t, because he was in the system while all of the stuff was going down. Lewis was in a meeting when a Ugandan official put forward a very sensible public health program which was promptly shot down by the IMF representative. He knew the government official and the IMF rep. The fact that it comes from an inside source doesn’t mean that it is more true than when it was said five or ten years ago by outsiders, but maybe it will be credible to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise hear it.

It has some powerful anecdotes. It has some practical policy proposals. And a couple of sections that made me think…

There’s a part where Lewis describes his ideological differences with Jeffrey Sachs. Lewis calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’ and calls Sachs a ‘profoundly misguided democratic capitalist’. But because Sachs wants to eradicate poverty, Lewis says he is an ally and cannot let ideology get in the way. I don’t know if I would put it quite that way. I would put it this way: “We are with you as far as you are with us and against you so far as you are against us.” But you can’t even have the conversation, can’t even figure out where positions are the same and where they differ, if you start from a moralistic position (as opposed to an ethical one, and they’re not the same). I think what Lewis is really saying is that the problems of poverty, and our responsibility in them, are too important for moralistic politics (related, ZNet ran a piece today from Doug Ireland’s blog by Sean Strub – trace that trajectory – on AIDS and moralism).

Another thing that made me think was Lewis’s discussion of his own history. He talks about the role he played in working for a boycott of South Africa to try to end apartheid. He talks about time he spent in Ghana just after independence, when Ghana was a place where many South African exiles would end up, struggling against apartheid.

“One of the bizarre consequences of these… contacts in Ghana was a phone cal my father received in the fall of 1960, out of the blue… saying that I had been banned from South Africa… he soon understood: one of the well-known incidental truths about apartheid was its twisted and demented irrationality. I was persona non grata by association, and it was particularly absurd because of course I had not the slightest intention of visiting South Africa. However, the encounters with my new South African friends, and their tales of ugly fascism at home had an influence on me which lasted for the rest of my life. It was no accident that when I was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1963, one of my earliest private member’s bills was an act designed to ban the import of South african wines and liquors into Ontario. Many of my legislative colleagues were mystified; my Tory friends were derisive. But my views had been well and truly formed.”

How could I read the above and not think of Israel? The connection is glaring, as is the impossibility of such a bill being introduced on Israel in the Canadian Parliament today. The reason isn’t that it isn’t apartheid (try Uri Davis, Jeff Halper, or Ilan Pappe if you want to restrict yourself to Israelis who make the case and provide evidence), but that Israel is more politically powerful than apartheid South Africa was.

The point of making this obvious connection in a post about Stephen Lewis’s lectures on Africa is just that. The anger in Lewis’s lectures, the part that speaks clearly and the part that is actually really good, is the part that acknowledges that everything he is saying is utterly obvious and yet we pretend it isn’t so. It is our ability to tolerate that kind of affront to our intelligence and to other people’s dignity that creates space for atrocity and tragedy.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

2 thoughts on “Stephen Lewis’s ‘Race Against Time’”

  1. Here are bittorrents for a
    Here are bittorrents for a few Massey Lectures:

    * Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis: chomskytorrents.org/DownloadTorrent.php?TorrentID=556

    * A Brief History of Time by Ronald Wright: chomskytorrents.org/DownloadTorrent.php?TorrentID=509

    * Necessary Illusions by Noam Chomsky: chomskytorrents.org/DownloadTorrent.php?TorrentID=59

  2. Stephen Lewis’s ‘Race Against Time’
    It is mind-boggling that Stephen Lewis has had so little impact on the course of the international institutions, especially those in which he has had leading roles (e.g. UNICEF) given his wit, intelligence and eloquence. Does this reflect on the real character of the man or rather on the forces he is up against?

    Kristian Laubjerg
    klaubjerg@gmail.com

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