You do not, under any circumstances, “gotta hand it to RFK Jr.”
If you fancy yourself a nuanced, just-asking-questions, politically tribeless centrist—and are so desperate to find an activist avatar that will give voice to your outrage against the mainstream media, various government and corporate institutions, and the Democratic Party in general—then consider seeking out and elevating one who hasn’t demonstrated through decades of high-profile activism and innumerable media appearances that his two speeds are “dishonest” and “dumb as shit.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—the 69-year-old longshot Democratic presidential candidate—would be just another anonymous, unemployed nepo baby if he had a different last name. But thanks to descending from mid-20th-century political royalty, he’s polling well enough against President Joe Biden that it’s tough to ignore his candidacy, even as some commentators argue we should freeze him out as a moral imperative. (Just as when the media at first tried to pretend Donald Trump’s political rise wasn’t happening, I don’t agree that ignoring faux-populist demagogues will make the problem go away.)
While it’s unlikely that Kennedy will do much more damage to the sitting president than Pat Buchanan did to President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 GOP primary, by having his candidacy serve as a waystation for “populist” grievances (much like Buchanan’s “culture war” candidacy provided a home for the overt antisemities, racists, and homophobes who had started to feel tribeless in the early ’90s Republican Party), RFK Jr.’s campaign feels more astroturf than grassroots.
Virtually no one in the liberal political establishment supports him, but he’s already been feted not just by malevolent far-right hucksters like Steve Bannon, he’s found warm company among the crowd of libertarianish tech bros, some of whom have already stated their support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Those same “centrists” who’ve gone gaga for the illiberal, authoritarian Florida governor are also frequently affiliated with many influential commentators among the ostensibly “heterodox,” nonpartisan center—a group that gets very touchy when described as “right-wing,” despite being coherently unified by little more than their opposition to “wokeness,” mainstream media, and the Democratic Party.
And they’re warming to the idea of an RFK Jr. insurgency.
SKEPTICS WHO JETTISON THEIR SKEPTICISM
As I’ve previously written in a column titled, “Pushing Total Bullshit Misinformation Is Not ‘Healthy Skepticism’ of the Powerful,” in the name of nuance and heroic iconoclasm, a good number of self-described freethinkers regularly contort themselves into pretzels to laud lying scumbags-for-profit like Alex Jones as important contributors to the discourse.
They generally concede that Jones may have spread vile lies that incited repeated harassment of parents of murdered children, but at least he’s fighting the “establishment.” (It’s a variation on the MAGA motto about Trump, “At least he fights.”)
This, of course, also implies that people like Jones (or RFK Jr.) are the only voices pushing back against mainstream groupthink or government mission creep, and that what they’re in opposition to matters far more than the substance of what they espouse. It’s this kind of anti-establishment cynicism that has led some otherwise intelligent pundits—who have made “skepticism” a major part of their branding—into becoming useful idiots for RFK Jr.’s campaign.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the skeptics, the politically tribeless, the heterodox freethinkers—to have some goddamn standards.”
Take for example, Dr. Vinay Prasad’s recent article in The Free Press, with the predictably whataboutist headline, “What RFK Jr. Gets Right—and What He Gets Wrong.”
Lest you think this will be a skeptical, facts-only analysis, Prasad tips his hand in the introduction, writing, “I believe Kennedy will be an important force in the Democratic Party.”
“I am largely sympathetic to Kennedy’s views on the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, Kennedy thinks lockdowns were antithetical to public health, is critical of prolonged school closure, and is against COVID-19 vaccination mandates,” Prasad adds.
There’s nothing objectionable in that passage. As a somewhat politically undefinable “centrist” type myself, I’m pretty supportive of the first of Kennedy’s objections, completely on board with the second, and have mixed feelings about the third (I was fine with employers requiring customers and employees to be vaccinated during the early days of the vaccine rollout in 2021, when each wave of massive COVID infections continued to strain the healthcare system close to the breaking point. That time has long since passed, and with it, any need for temporary vaccine mandates. Feel free to disagree.)
And while my feelings on these topics are not of great importance (I’m as much of a non-scientist as RFK Jr.), I mention my stances on those issues to demonstrate my beef with the Camelot scion is not over his skepticism about how the government managed the pandemic—but, rather, that many of his criticisms are borne of the same wrongheadedness and misinformation that informs his positions on so many other issues.
I’d fully support a nonpartisan fact-finding panel that analyzes which COVID mitigation techniques worked, which didn’t, and which politically influential groups dictated policy that had little to do with science (for example, teachers’ unions successfully lobbying to keep schools closed for an unconscionable length of time).
The point would be to learn from the recent past, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes during the next inevitable mass health crisis. It would also have the added benefit of neutering some of the more ridiculous notions of conspiracy cranks like RFK Jr., who insist the COVID-19 pandemic was all just a Davos elite-created mind-control hoax.
Returning to Prasad’s Free Press article, he explains a bit about why he feels RFK Jr. will be an “important force in the Democratic Party,” citing social media speech suppression about COVID-related stories that were wrongly censored as misinformation, but which later turned out to be fact-based, or at the very least, worthy of debate and discussion. (Again, no argument from me on this one!) Prasad also cites Kennedy’s critiques of regulatory capture, and a lack of transparency from companies like Pfizer on how risky their vaccines are with regards to causing myocarditis in young people. (I don’t object to pushing for greater transparency from government-favored corporations.)
But here’s where Prasad loses the plot: “One reason I think he is resonating is that he makes Americans feel that they are being spoken to honestly, answering a deep longing from a public who feels battered by officials and skeptical of ‘approved’ experts.”
Yes, that is a huge part of RFK Jr. appeal. And it presents thinkers like Prasad with a choice.
Do the “skeptics” soft-pedal how stupid and dangerous much of RFK Jr.’s rhetoric is (because they share common enemies in “the establishment”)? Or do they say, “Thank you for your service in skepticism, RFK Jr., but I’m not going to be a party to mainstreaming your asinine bullshit. We can do better than you.”
Prasad, sadly and predictably, chooses the former.
In the second half of the article, after going into detail about a small portion of the very significant things RFK Jr. has gotten wrong—including his decades-long anti-vaccine advocacy, which Prasad concedes has contributed to the decline in “faith in standard childhood vaccines,” and which he calls “an unmitigated public health disaster”—Prasad whatabouts his way to a non-committal conclusion.
“I have not reached a final verdict,” Prasad writes. “To many citizens, Kennedy sounds like a man who can’t be bought and won’t be silenced. Those in power should be listening closely.”
RFK. JR.’s LEGACY OF BEING WRONG ABOUT JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING
It’s possible that Prasad, as a voter, places a primacy on a candidate’s medical expertise or anti-establishment bona fides. If so, that’s his right.
But given Prasad’s expertise is science, how can he not consider it disqualifying that RFK Jr. has been one of the premier influencers pushing fake anti-vaccine science, leading to what Prasad calls “an unmitigated public health disaster”? Isn’t that destructive legacy a little more significant than an “on the other hand” contrast to Kennedy’s anti-establishment skepticism?
Speaking of public health disasters, it’s in large part thanks to the efforts of RFK Jr.—a longtime climate activist—that New York state spews much more carbon than it did a few years ago.
That’s because Kennedy lobbied for decades to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located about 25 miles north of New York City, eventually helping to persuade his former brother-in-law Andrew Cuomo that a safe and carbon-neutral source of energy was too dangerous to keep in operation. (RFK Jr. was the star of an unwatchable and science-ignorant 2004 HBO documentary directed by his sister, Rory, that argued Indian Point must be closed because al-Qaeda could attack it and launch a nuclear explosion—which is not how any of this works.)
Lest you think I’m cherry-picking an example of RFK Jr.’s abandonment of his progressive passions, he recently said on the Breaking Points podcast: “In my campaign I’m not going to be talking a lot about climate. Why is that? Because climate has become a crisis like COVID that the Davos groups and other totalitarian elements in our society have used as a pretext for clamping down totalitarian controls.”
In essence, his environmental activism (one of his few actual left-wing bona fides) is yesterday’s news, replaced by his current babbling of tinfoil hat copypasta about Davos elites.
There’s no shortage of readily available fresh content from the fever brain of RFK Jr. A very small and recent representative sampling includes his evidence-free insistence, in a recent interview with the anti-trans culture warrior Jordan Peterson, that there’s an epidemic of gender dysphoria among boys that’s caused by “chemical exposure.”
Or there’s his uncritical reposting of a video shared by a pro-Putin Twitter rando (who regularly denies Serbian war crimes) that Kennedy claims is proof that the Biden administration scuttled a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. “This was never about the Ukrainian people. It was always about engineering a war against Russia,” RFK Jr. the “skeptical” geopolitical expert declared.
Then there’s Kennedy’s blaming mass shootings on antidepressants, believing Bill Gates is engineering an injectable mind control chip, and fear that he’s in danger of being assassinated by the CIA. Again, this is just a small—but readily available—sampling of RFK Jr.’s expertise.
Perhaps Dr. Prasad’s Google machine was broken the day he wrote his RFK Jr. article. It’s hard to explain why he’d consider Kennedy “an important force” in Democratic politics—unless he were ignorant of who the candidate actually is.
CONTRARIAN BRAIN ROT
Commenting on the cognitive dissonance that’s leading tech entrepreneurs to back RFK, Jr., “one of the most anti-progress, technophobic people on the left in hopes of scoring some bankshot victory for Donald Trump,” the center-left (heterodox?) pundit Matt Yglesias tweeted this week, “Don’t let cynicism poison your brain.”
On the same topic, the economist Adam Ozimek tweeted: “You can watch someone’s effective IQ drop as they lean into contrarianism. They lose the ability to judge others they consider contrarian, become unable to tell good evidence from bad, a total unanchoring of belief that leads them to cling to low quality contrarian fads.”
“Speaking of public health disasters, it’s in large part thanks to the efforts of RFK Jr.—a longtime climate activist—that New York state spews much more carbon than it did a few years ago.”
Ozimek added: “As soon as ‘experts are wrong’ becomes their guidestar, instead of the more reasonable placing of uncertainty bands around experts [sic] opinions and specifically identifying cases of expert bias, their ability to gauge reality becomes extremely restricted. It’s like mental glaucoma.”
Another way of putting it is, “The enemy of my enemy (the establishment) is my friend, even if he’s a complete jackass.”
I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the skeptics, the politically tribeless, the heterodox freethinkers—to have some goddamn standards.
Are you still pissed that in summer 2020 the activist left (enabled by a pliant mainstream media) gaslit the hell out of everyone by saying riots weren’t happening, but also that the riots are good and just, and also don’t call them “riots” because that’s problematic? Hey, I am, too!
Furious that the twin epidemics of learning loss and the youth mental health crisis were needlessly exacerbated by prolonged school closures that couldn’t be justified by available scientific data at the time? Even more pissed off that the architects of the plans to keep kids out of school for a year and a half not only won’t take responsibility for the damage, they won’t even talk about it? Same!
Think mainstream institutions, especially the media, have frittered away what little trust the public had in them through arrogance, deception, and an aversion to accountability? Dammit, you’ve got a point.
But none of those concerns can justify cozying up politically to someone like RFK Jr.—an environmentalist whose activism has hurt the environment, a science skeptic whose quack anti-vaccine advocacy has contributed to untold numbers of unnecessary childhood illnesses, and a would-be president who retweets crude Kremlin propaganda because he’s just that fearlessly “anti-establishment.”
If you’re truly a skeptic, a freethinker, and politically tribeless—apply those values when choosing your allies. The alternative is to concede that there is no war but the culture war, and you’ll waive any skepticism when it comes to welcoming a fellow traveler with a famous name to the tribe.
RFK Jr. is not an “important force” in Democratic politics—or any politics. He is, by all rights, an embarrassment. Whitewashing his idiocy and penchant for spreading lies isn’t “nuance”—it’s reflexive contrarianism. It’s dull and predictable, and it sure as hell isn’t brave.
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