Washington -- As the world becomes more peaceful, America becomes more dangerous. The new HBO movie "And the Band Played On" reminds us that virtually every sector of society fiddled while AIDS blazed out of control: from a Legionnaire's Disease-type viral outbreak in 1981 into the killer of 194,000 Americans. AIDS drenches American culture, leaving its indelible melancholy stain and changing behavior patterns forever.
Tragically, the increasing realism of gays about AIDS is being matched by continuing obfuscation from the public-health establishment on another, potentially greater threat to the commonweal: teen promiscuity and pregnancy.
Larry Kramer, the writer and AIDS activist, and Joycelyn Elders, the new surgeon general, are leaders in the fights against, respectively, AIDS and teen-age pregnancy. That's where the similarity ends. Mr. Kramer and Ms. Elders have adopted very different strategies. Mr. Kramer has witnessed the HIV holocaust and offers a message of remorse and reform. Ms. Elders, charged with saving a generation of inner-city kids, seems to think that for them the band can indeed keep playing on.
Mr. Kramer shrewdly chose Playboy to deliver his epitaph to the hedonism the magazine celebrates. In an interview in the September issue, Mr. Kramer said: "I don't know if sex will ever again be as it was in the '60s and '70s -- even if AIDS is cured."
Hugh Hefner seemed a radical three decades ago when he launched his crusade for "The Playboy Philosophy" of sexual liberation. American culture surpassed him. Everyone from the Village People to Madonna pushed the edge of the social, and then the epidemiological, envelope. Mr. Kramer is no prude. Like the Ancient Mariner, he has a story to tell: "The body should be able to do what it wants and enjoy what it wants to enjoy. But it would appear that Mother Nature doesn't allow that."
A few years ago, Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala., was laughed out of the U.S. Senate for promoting "chastity centers." Mr. Kramer, making the same point, has credibility with his community. He is a radical who has been radicalized further, coming full circle -- back to monogamy and abstinence.
Joycelyn Elders is just a radical. As the first black female surgeon general, she would be uniquely qualified to preach a Malcolm X-like message of respect and restraint. Ms. Elders and her liberal allies say this is foolish because there's no stopping the adolescent sex drive. So, instead, she says things like "We've taught our children in driver's education what to do in the front seat, and now we've got to teach them what to do in the back seat." That's the sort of flimsy rationalization that gays used to justify the promiscuous, lethal bathhouse culture.
The bottom line for Ms. Elders and the multibillion-dollar sexual-industrial complex is: They don't want to do anything that would seem to undermine the sexual revolution. There's just one problem: Thousands of children are dying and millions more are being born into lives of dependency and hopelessness. Precautions mean little to teen-agers: Only a profound change in values will keep the next generation from getting sick, pregnant or both.
On other issues, the left knows better. Guns are also part of the inner-city scene. But nobody except maybe the NRA says that we must be realistic and accept "the gun lifestyle." We don't say that gunplay is inevitable, so let's issue everyone a safety manual and a bulletproof vest. Yet condoms are to sex what body armor is to guns: a placebo that doesn't protect over the long run.
With lives at stake, public figures must take an honest stand, even if that means bucking permissive trends. It's called leadership. Mr. Kramer's words ring true beyond the realm of AIDS. In the face of social calamity, silence always equals death.
James P. Pinkerton is the John Locke Foundation fellow in the Manhattan Institute's Washington office. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.