As everyone likely knows by now, freshly-minted Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai recently — just a day after winning the prize — claimed before a news conference that AIDS was “created by a scientist for biological warfare” to kill blacks. “Some say that AIDS came from the monkeys, and I doubt that because we have been living with monkeys (since) time immemorial; others say it was a curse from God, but I say it cannot be that,” she proclaimed.Now, one hesitates to judge someone whose epistemological circumstances are so radically different from one’s own.  And it’s certainly not beyond understanding why blacks in Africa might feel a degree of paranoia toward the West.  But Maathai is a trained biologist, and really, this is pernicious nonsense.  It is of a piece with South African President Thabo Mbeki’s ongoing absurd statements about AIDS — both public figures are muddying the waters around a disease that is devastating their countries and their continent.  Every hesitation, every delay in dealing forthrightly and openly with the disease leads directly to more death.  It’s unforgiveable.

But at the same time, Maathai’s accomplishments cannot be denied, bringing not only ecological restoration but hope to a part of the world where both are rare.  And the Nobel Committee’s acknowledgement of the connection between environmental health and peace is genuinely historic.

So, out here in the real world sometimes people can be both good and evil, both with us and against us.  It can be unsatisfying to hold contradictory ideas about a person or place in our heads at once, but let’s be grown-ups.  The battles against AIDS and environmental destruction are two of the paramount struggles of our time, and in both cases we need help from wherever we can get it.

(A shout-out to pioneering Gristmill commenter da silva, who raised the issue earlier today.)

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