In Democratic congressman Tim Ryan’s first major campaign, he made a promise that he has been silent on ever since: to investigate whether the U.S. government created the “HIV-AIDS virus” with the intention of murdering the nation’s black population.
During his first run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002, Ryan was asked in an interview with a local radio station whether, if elected, he would open a congressional investigation into “the intentional creation of the HIV-AIDS virus and other life-threatening diseases and targeting of black populations by agencies of the U.S. government.”
“Absolutely,” Ryan responded, prompting a laugh from the host who expressed surprise at how quickly he answered.
The exchange was captured by filmmakers for Ryan for Congress, an obscure British documentary that focused on Ryan’s low-budget campaign for federal office. The little-circulated documentary, available for purchase on major streaming platforms, depicts Ryan, at the time not even 30 years old, running a campaign out of a beaten-up camper that focused on winning grassroots support. Part of winning that grassroots support meant conducting interviews with just about anyone, according to the film, including the host who asks Ryan about the origins of HIV.
The HIV question was described as “unusual” by the documentary’s narrator. But Ryan’s lack of hesitation in agreeing with the radio host’s premises highlights an under-covered problem many Democratic candidates face when running for office: Their voter base often holds a wide array of beliefs that range from impractical to complete fantasy.
For Democrats such as Ryan, who is running for Senate this November, appeasing those voters can often prove to be a liability down the road. When Donald Trump was president, Ryan attacked his trade agenda as “designed to inflict maximum damage on the U.S. economy, for minimal gain.” Following Trump’s large margin of victory in Ohio in the 2020 presidential race, Ryan says he agreed with the former president’s tariffs and attempts to protect the nation’s domestic manufacturers.
Ryan’s flip-flopping on issues related to trade or whether the United States should ban gas-powered vehicles is hardly unique for office-seekers, even if it ultimately becomes the subject of attack ads. Many Democrats this cycle find themselves regretting taking far-left positions on defunding the police or dismantling the nation’s immigration system.
The radio host’s bizarre question on HIV’s origin, however, speaks to a much darker strain of conspiracy theories that have infected Democratic politics over the years. The origin of the theory—unanimously discredited by the medical community—remains up for debate, but it was embraced by the Soviet Union and left-wing fringe groups such as the Nation of Islam.
A spokeswoman for Ryan did not respond to a request for comment.
Prior to expounding the theory, Ryan’s interviewer mentioned “Dr.” Boyd Ed Graves. A former Youngstown and Cleveland resident, Boyd—who was a lawyer but referred to himself as a doctor—wrote extensively about his belief that the HIV virus originated in a U.S. laboratory and was deliberately spread by the federal government through vaccines and blow darts.
Such a theory proved potent in the black community, unfortunately with disastrous results. A 1999 study featured in the medical journal Preventive Medicine found that roughly 50 percent of blacks held an HIV-related conspiracy, or were undecided. As recently as 2005, Kanye West was rapping about how “I know the government administer AIDS.”
The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 on how “black extremists [in Chicago] are stepping up efforts to blame the AIDS epidemic on Jews.” A state lawmaker even went as far as to give $500 from his office allowance to the anti-Semitic Black Hebrew Israelites in order to investigate the claim that HIV was created in a laboratory.
Other black radicals at the time, such as members of the Nation of Islam extremist group, accused Jewish doctors of infecting blacks with HIV through vaccinations. The Nation of Islam and other similar organizations demanded federal investigations, similar to the kind Ryan agreed to launch, over the lie.
A State Department report from 1987 on Soviet propaganda programs describes an “extensive campaign to convince the world that the AIDS virus … had been ‘manufactured’ as a result of genetic engineering experiments” for the purpose of generating “anti-American sentiment abroad.” The report goes on to cite myriad doctors, including Soviet doctors, who refuted the claim.
Despite tremendous evidence that debunked the theory, its spread proved deadly. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki cited the lab theory when delaying funding for HIV-related drug therapies. A New Yorker report said that decision cost potentially hundreds of thousands of lives.
In the United States, researchers believe misinformation about HIV is a major barrier to eradicating the disease. Black Americans make up a disproportionate number of HIV cases, a rate of more than 10 times that of white Americans. A 2015 paper in the American Journal for Public Health surmised that higher rate may be attributable in part due to “conspiracy rumors” in the black community.
Ryan will face Republican J.D. Vance in November for the Senate seat occupied by the retiring Rob Portman (R.). A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Vance holding a narrow lead.
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