By any measure one might like to use, the last few days have been rough for longtime antivax activist turned Democratic Presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with RFK Jr. just how far into the bonkers conspiracy theories he went. (At least, other than timing, it wasn’t a surprise to me, given that I’ve covered his antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories since 2005.) I also can’t help but do a double-take at how fast a funny story about a fart-filled argument at an RFK Jr. press event turned dark, with reports later in the week relating how RFK Jr. had echoed an antisemitic and racist conspiracy theory about how COVID-19 might have been “ethnically targeted” at Caucasians and Blacks, while sparing Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese. The whiplash I got from the story led me to think of certain prominent COVID-19 contrarians who had defended RFK Jr., one of whom amplified one of his old antivax tropes, and another of whom expressed how she “liked him” and whether they had learned any lessons about him.
It started with a Page Six report by Mara Siegler that, I must admit, made me chuckle out loud as I read it, starting with the title, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. press dinner explodes in war of words and farting. Seriously, the six-year-old in every person can’t help but laugh at the introduction:
Camelot it ain’t.
Page Six regrets to report that a press dinner to boost Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign descended into a foul bout of screaming and polemic farting Tuesday night.
I’m sorry, but that introduction is just objectively funny—”polemic farting”!—not to mention incredibly fitting for the entire misbegotten endeavor that is RFK Jr.’s campaign. Unfortunately, as you will soon see, the hilarity was soon superseded by reports of what RFK Jr. said at the Q&A held at the event, in which he trotted out a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory about COVID-19 possibly being “ethnically targeted” that is more blatantly antisemitic than I have heard from him before, in which he echoed a very old racist conspiracy theory repurposed for the COVID-19 pandemic. Before I get to the nasty bonkers, though, forgive me if I indulge myself a bit in looking at the funny bonkers, because it encapsulates the level of ridiculousness that RFK Jr.’s conspiracy theories embrace.
The gaseous exchange apparently began when the host of the event, Doug Dechert, screamed “The climate hoax!” at the top of his lungs. This roused and enraged “octogenarian art critic” Anthony Haden-Guest, who was apparently a friend of Dechert, to start yelling at him, “calling him variously ‘f–king insane’ and ‘insignificant.’” Then things got even weirder:
Here, it seems, Dechert sensed the need for a new rhetorical tack, and let rip a loud, prolonged fart while yelling, as if to underscore his point, “I’m farting!”
The room, which included a handful of journalists as well as Kennedy’s campaign manager, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, was stunned, seemingly unsure about whether Dechert was farting at Haden-Guest personally or at the very notion of global warming.
(Regrettably, we may assure readers that there was no room for doubt that the climate changed in the immediate environs of the dinner table.)
We are, however, assured that:
The candidate maintained a steady composure in the face of the crisis.
Imagine my relief.
The stock photo of the candidate chosen for this particular story was perfect, too:
Normally, a story like this would provoke a round of social media guffawing that would soon fade into the background noise. After all, almost everyone loves to make fart jokes at one time or another, and it is rare that a story like this is published that provides such an—shall we say?—irresistibly pungent opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, the pungency changed from that of farts to the foul stench of antisemitic pseudoscientific conspiracy theories.
“Ethnically targeted” COVID-19?
As the fart jokes were fading away like Dechert’s rectal emissions, unfortunately the stench changed to something far worse than just that of flatulence, no matter how prolonged or epic. By Saturday, the NY Post had published a story featuring video of the Q&A at the event, and let’s just say that it was…something:
Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dished out wild COVID-19 conspiracy theories this week during a press event at an Upper East Side restaurant, claiming the bug was a genetically engineered bioweapon that may have been “ethnically targeted” to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.
Kennedy floated the idea during a question-and-answer portion of raucous booze and fart-filled dinner at Tony’s Di Napoli on East 63d Street.
“COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately,” Kennedy said. “COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
“We don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not but there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact,” Kennedy hedged.
Lest you miss the message:
In between bites of linguini and clam sauce, Kennedy, 69, warned of more dire biological weapons in the pipeline with a “50% infection fatality rate” that would make COVID-19 “look like a walk in the park.”
“We do know that the Chinese are spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing ethnic bioweapons and we are developing ethnic bioweapons,” he claimed. “They’re collecting Russian DNA. They’re collecting Chinese DNA so we can target people by race.”
My first reaction to this outburst, besides my usual horror at how openly racist and antisemitic it was, was a bit of confusion. After all, RFK Jr. actually seemed here to be acknowledging that COVID-19 can be deadly, by saying that there were “biological weapons” that are much worse. But if COVID-19 is just a cold that kills only the elderly and infirm, then why would RFK Jr. have used it as a comparison to the supposedly even worse bioweapons that are in the pipeline? My next thought was: Why was anyone surprised that RFK Jr. said something like this? He’s been making similar claims for quite a while now, most recently in June:
On Newsmax, RFK Jr. claims that "the Chinese are developing ethnic bioweapons … that are designed to attack people of certain racial types" pic.twitter.com/BynWB5nkRF
— aliciasadowski (@aliciasadowski6) June 20, 2023
My last thought was, given how RFK Jr. has been touting his upcoming appearance at the Republican-controlled House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government next week, whether or not any members of the committee will hammer him over his remarks last week about an “ethnically targeted” bioweapon. I hope so. (Maybe the committee chair, Rep. Jim Jordan, will quietly disinvite RFK Jr. in embarrassment, but I doubt it.) Let’s just put it this way; When an antivaxxer like Marianne Williamson is calling your conspiracy “sinister and unfounded,” that really is something.
As an aside, I can’t help but mention that the NY Post, being the NY Post, couldn’t resist adding:
There has been a growing consensus among US intelligence agencies that COVID-19 was man-made and escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China — but there is no evidence it was designed to spare certain religious groups or ethnicities, and Kennedy offered no studies to support his claims.
Lab leak conspiracy theorists touted this report as slam-dunk evidence that the US intelligence community had concluded that COVID-19 was man-made and had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, but in reality it cited very low quality evidence, nothing that changes the current scientific consensus that COVID-19 most likely arose from a zoonotic overflow event or makes current lab leak claims sound any less like conspiracy theories. Even the latest version of the report cited does not support lab leak as the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Indeed, the Post misrepresented the report, which states quite clearly that almost “all IC agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically engineered” and most “agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not laboratory-adapted.”
Unsurprisingly, as soon as news about his remarks had begun to spread, leading to widespread (and deserved) denunciations, RFK Jr. took to Twitter to try to deny that he had said what, in fact, he had said:
The @nypost story is mistaken. I have never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews. I accurately pointed out — during an off-the-record conversation — that the U.S. and other governments are developing ethnically targeted bioweapons and that a 2021…
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@RobertKennedyJr) July 15, 2023
Here’s the complete quote, for those of you who don’t have Twitter accounts:
The @nypost story is mistaken. I have never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews. I accurately pointed out — during an off-the-record conversation — that the U.S. and other governments are developing ethnically targeted bioweapons and that a 2021 study of the COVID-19 virus shows that COVID-19 appears to disproportionately affect certain races since the furin cleave docking site is most compatible with Blacks and Caucasians and least compatible with ethnic Chinese, Finns, and Ashkenazi Jews. In that sense, it serves as a kind of proof of concept for ethnically targeted bioweapons. I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered. That study is here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32664879/
I note that the above study is actually old, dating back to July 2020, and was largely speculative. We know a lot more about SARS-CoV-2 and how it interacts with the ACE-2 receptor now than we did then. In addition, sure, RFK Jr. never actually outright claimed that SARS-CoV-2 was targeted against “Caucasians and Blacks” and designed to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people. He merely insinuated it by JAQing off, a well-known technique to couch claims in a manner that allows a modicum of plausible deniability.
RFK Jr. also complained about being quoted “off-the-record.” Poor baby:
This cynical maneuver is consistent with the mainstream media playbook to discredit me as a crank — and by association, to discredit revelations of genuine corruption and collusion.
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@RobertKennedyJr) July 15, 2023
Actually, RFK Jr. discredits himself as a crank just fine all by himself by saying things like this and then pivoting to reveal that he’s gone all-in on lab leak conspiracy theories:
As I describe in my new book, “The Wuhan Cover-Up,” ethnically targeted bioweapons are real, and history makes clear there is no population who should be more concerned about a thing like that than people of Jewish and African descent. #Kennedy24
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@RobertKennedyJr) July 15, 2023
Even worse, though, it turns out that his insinuation about COVID-19 being a “bioweapon” designed to target “Caucasians and Blacks” is actually Russian propaganda:
Not only did this conspiracy theory have political origins, but it isn’t even correct about COVID-19 sparing Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews, as people on Twitter were quick to point out:
“Chinese New Yorkers… had the highest mortality rate of all racial & ethnic groups…. mortality rate of 35.7%, compared to 25.5% for all Asian Americans & 23.7% for Black New Yorkers…. abt 1.5 times more likely to die from #Covid19 than white patients.”https://t.co/5eE6wozWv9
— Dr. Richard Pan 🇺🇸 (@DrPanMD) July 15, 2023
They also made fun of his defense:
2/ The best part is his defense. I didn’t say the Jews and Chinese were behind covid. That’s crazy. I just meant the government is creating ethnically targeted bio weapons to exterminate us. All totally normal. pic.twitter.com/eRnXyTq57t
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 15, 2023
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from taking to Twitter again to invoke the old “some of my best friends are Jews” defense that all antisemites use:
All of this conspiracy mongering, however, also ignores the reasons that Blacks, for example, suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, which were largely socioeconomic. As you will see, the antisemitic conspiracy theory that there are “bioweapons” designed to spare Jews and “ethnically target” other races dates back to long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine or Russian disinformation on social media, however.
The return of the “ethnobomb”!
As soon as I read about RFK Jr.’s insinuation, a memory came back to me. Does anyone remember the “ethnobomb”? I do, and a quick Google search reminded me a bit more of what the conspiracy theory of the “ethnobomb” claimed. For example, here’s a Salon.com story from 1998 written in response to a Sunday Times story, Israel planning ‘ethnic’ bomb as Saddam caves in, entitled Debunking the “ethno-bomb”:
American biological warfare experts are reacting skeptically to a report that Israel is working on a biological weapon that could infect and kill Arabs but not Jews.
The top secret Israeli “ethno-bomb” project is the product of medical research that has identified distinctive genes carried by some Arabs, particularly Iraqis, according to a report last month in the London Sunday Times. The project’s aim is to manufacture a genetically engineered bacterium or virus that would kill certain Arab ethnic groups, the paper said.
The notion that the Jewish state is developing a bomb targeting people by “race” outraged some members of Israel’s parliament. But ethics and morality aside, American experts are skeptical that such a weapon is possible today.
Does any of this sound familiar? I will briefly mention here that I wish these COVID-19 conspiracy theorists could get their stories straight. Is it SARS-CoV-2 that’s the “ethnically targeted” bioweapon, or is it, as this conspiracy theorist claims, the COVID-19 vaccines that are the “ethnobomb” that these stories claimed that Israel was developing a quarter century ago?
Remember, though, that this report is nearly 25 years old. It was five years before the first complete human genome sequence determined by the Human Genome Project was published. One could wonder: Is such a weapon, which was likely impossible then, possible now given what we know now that we didn’t know then? Certainly, antivaxxer John Leake, who co-authors a blog with fellow antivaxxer Dr. Peter McCullough, really wants you to think so, so that you don’t think that RFK Jr. is peddling antisemitic conspiracy theories. I love how he includes the complete quote by RFK Jr. in order to try to argue that the press had quote mined it to make you think that he didn’t claim that SARS-CoV-2 was a targeted bioweapon when clearly he JAQed off in order to suggest that, yes, SARS-CoV-2 is a targeted bioweapon that spares Chinese and people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent:
We need to talk about bioweapons. …. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars into ethnically targeted microbes. The Chinese have done the same thing. In fact, COVID-19, there is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately.
How else is one to interpret what RFK Jr. said in the first part of RFK Jr.’s quote that I reproduce above, other than that RFK Jr. was strongly suggesting —at least!—that SARS-CoV-2 might be a targeted bioweapon? Leake also laments that the “presidential candidate’s allegedly outrageous remarks were captured in a video (apparently shot clandestinely) of him sitting at a dining table, talking to his companions about the frequently observed and documented fact that some ethnic groups appear to be more susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness than others,” as if it were some sort of heinous violation of a Presidential candidate’s privacy to video his remarks at a press event, only to conclude that, if “RFK, Jr. can be fairly criticized for any of his remarks, it is that some of his statements could be interpreted as jumping to conclusions.”
But what evidence does Leake actually cite? First, he notes:
What are we to make of this statement? Let’s start with his assertion that the United States and China are investing in developing ethnically target bioweapons. A quick search of the literature revealed several recent reports in which American and Chinese officials accuse each other of developing racially targeted bioweapons.
The Coming Threat of a Genetically Engineered ‘Ethnic Bioweapon, The National Review, April 10, 2023.
Pentagon Making Race-Specific Bioweapons to Target Citizens, China Says, Newsweek, May 11, 2023.
Could you make a genetically targeted weapon? The Guardian, 28 October 2004.
I read all three articles, and let’s just say that the evidence cited is very thin gruel indeed, mostly speculative and consisting of unsubstantiated accusations. The National Review article, for instance quotes one source
The 2017 edition of Science of Military Strategy (战略学), a textbook published by the PLA’s National Defense University that is considered to be relatively authoritative, debuted a section about biology as a domain of military struggle, similarly mentioning the potential for new kinds of biological warfare to include “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”
The second article reports that the Chinese have accused the US of working on ethnically targeted bioweapons aimed at the Chinese, with even less evidence.
While this report suggests that the Chinese could actually be working on “ethnically targeted” bioweapons, every time I consider such a claim, I also consider the extreme implausibility of it all, not so much because it is impossible to target certain genes to make a putative “bioweapon” more likely to target one ethnic group over another, but because any such bioweapon would be so incredibly “leaky” as to be too dangerous to deploy. Biologically and genetically, humans, both individually and at the population level, are far more similar than they are different, and most differences in the frequency of different alleles (variants) of a gene are between different ethnic populations are nowhere near absolute. It is rare for an allele to be present in 0% of one ethnic group compared to 100% in another. Even if such an ethnically targeted bioweapon that is designed to latch onto an allele that is more common in one ethnic group than another were developed, it would almost certainly soon start affecting the attacker as well. Once spreading in one population, there is little to stop it spreading in another, even if that population is less susceptible.
One of the articles even outright says this:
Others say the concerns are exaggerated. “Trying to find a weapon that affects quite a few of one ethnic group and none of another ethnic group is just not going to happen,” says David Goldstein, who studies population genetics at University College London. “Because all groups are quite similar you will never get something that is highly selective. The best you would probably do is something that kills 20% of one group and 28% of another.”
The groups in question are also far broader than those associated with ethnic conflict. Geneticists can only distinguish between people with ancestry traced to regions such as Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.
Precisely. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough that human beings are more alike biologically and genetically than we are different. Different allele frequencies in different populations are almost never black and white, 0% in one population and 100% in another. Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon or the Chinese military the possibility of ethnically targeted bioweapons has never been considered or even seriously investigated. After all, if you’ve ever read Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats, you know that the Pentagon has pursued some truly bizarre ideas, and I have little doubt that the same is probably true of the fringes of the Chinese and Israeli military—likely of all major militaries. However, again, one would suspect that the fringe dwellers championing such ideas would be countered by actual biochemists, geneticists, and virologists who know that, while it might be theoretically possible to target an allele or aspect of biology that is more frequent in one ethnic group than another, unless the difference is huge and the allele actually targetable compared to other alleles of the same gene, the specificity that would be mandatory for such a bioweapon not to boomerang back on its creators, Frankenstein monster-like, is just not there. Moreover, even if there were such an allele that could be so specifically targeted, COVID-19 has taught us the power of evolution. Inevitably, the bioweapon would mutate once released into the wild, and very likely a variant that could target its creators would arise.
Indeed, let me just cite one study that conspiracy theorists are citing:
We identified three novel nonsynonymous variants predicted to alter ACE2 function, and showed that three variants (p.K26R, p. H378R, p. Y515N) alter receptor affinity for the viral Spike (S) protein. Variant p. N720D, more prevalent in the European population (p < 0.001), potentially increases viral entry by affecting the ACE2-TMPRSS2 complex. The spectrum of genetic variants in ACE2 may inform risk stratification of COVID-19 patients and could partially explain the differences in disease susceptibility and severity among different ethnic groups.
The spectrum of genetic variants of ACE-2 could “partially explain the differences in disease susceptibility and severity between different ethnic groups”? This is hardly the sort of observation that would make a SARS-CoV-2 “targeted bioweapon” based on ethnic/racial differences in the distribution of ACE2 alleles possible.
Will this be a bridge too far for RFK Jr. stans among the COVID-19 minimization crowd?
As hilariously appropriate as I found the the link between a fart-filled argument and the news of RFK Jr.’s racist and antisemitic conspiracy theory to be, at the same time I was a bit more disturbed than I normally would have been. The reason is simple. Thanks to RFK Jr.’s bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he is enjoying something of a moment. As you might expect, he’s basking in more publicity and attention than he likely has ever had, even 18 years ago when he first came out as an antivaxxer. Moreover, he’s been normalizing a lot of old antivax tropes, which has pulled the “new school” anti-COVID-19 vaccine antivaxxers more into “old school” antivax misinformation.
For example, last month Drs. Vinay Prasad and Tracy Beth Høeg were showing a fair amount of attraction to many of RFK Jr.’s ideas:
Doctors helped normalize this man.
— Jonathan Howard MD (@19joho) July 15, 2023
Let’s just say that a lot of people let Dr. Høeg know what she got wrong. In fairness, she didn’t agree that MMR causes autism and was puzzled by RFK Jr.’s misleading half-truth of a claim that most childhood vaccines have never been subjected to a saline placebo-controlled clinical trial. As for Dr. Prasad, you might remember that it didn’t take him long to start sucking up to RFK Jr. and Joe Rogan in the wake of their challenge to Dr. Peter Hotez to “debate” RFK Jr. on Rogan’s podcast. In a Substack post entitled Take RFK Jr seriously: what RFK Jr. gets right and wrong, Dr. Prasad revealed that he agreed with RFK Jr. on almost everything, dismissing his disagreements thusly:
RFK Jr holds views I disagree with. Mostly because I think he has not made a strong or sufficient case. Yet, I’m am willing to compromise on some of these issues, and I can devise a study that we will both agree upon that will adjudicate the question. If I were to speak with him, I would suggest that we agree to run these proposed studies, and let’s let that result settle the question. I strongly suspect he’s going to be incorrect about several things he believes. But I do think the best way to disarm his concerns is to sit down and agree upon the study that will settle the question. I think insulting him is very unlikely to be fruitful, yet that is the preferred media tactic.
“Views I disagree with”? “Because he has not made a strong or sufficient case”? How about views that are utterly bonkers, based as they are in pseudoscience, bad antivax science, and conspiracy theories? Views for which there is no reasonable science-based case, like vaccines causing autism? And that was a month before RFK Jr. made the news for repeating racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories. I’m sure an unethical randomized controlled trial or two of existing childhood vaccines would take care of RFK Jr.’s “concerns.” (Sarcasm alert!)
Seriously, though, to some people (like Dr. Prasad), RFK Jr.’s more—shall we say?—problematic views can be waved aside:
The news media keeps labeling RFK Jr as a conspiracy theorist and a charlatan, but that is a colossal mistake. He is somebody who on many issues is saying something deeply true. On other issues, I think he is off the mark. One of those is his views on wifi. Another is his views on early childhood immunization with MMR and DTAP. He has not made a strong enough case that the harms of these programs outweigh the massive benefits. I understand why many doctors are critical of his statements on these topics.
“He has not made a strong enough case that the harms of these programs outweigh the massive benefits”? “I understand why many doctors are critical of his statements on these topics”? Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Also, let’s just say that perusing both Dr. Høeg’s and Dr. Prasad’s Twitter feeds failed to yield any mention of what they surely must know about, namely RFK Jr.’s invocation of an antisemitic conspiracy theory. One wonders if they still think it’s a mistake to label RFK Jr. a conspiracy theorist and a charlatan. Maybe they’ll tell us at some point.
I like to say that antisemitism is the ur-conspiracy theory of our society, thanks to over a millennium of conspiracy theories like the Blood Libel, which posits that Jews murder Christian children for their blood, which they were then said to use to bake their matzos for Passover rituals (note the similarity to Qanon conspiracy theories about pedophiles and adenochrome); poisoning the well, a conspiracy theory that rose during the Black Death in which it was claimed that Jews had literally poisoned the wells, resulting in the plague; and the various conspiracy theories in which Jews are powerful malevolent players who own all the banks and control all the finances behind the scenes. It should therefore come as no surprise that nearly all—if not all—conspiracy theories sooner or later ultimately devolve into antisemitism. (Similarly, given the longstanding history of anti-Asian bigotry in this country, it shouldn’t be surprising that a racist anti-Chinese conspiracy theory tags along for the ride with the antisemitism.) Antivaccine conspiracy theories are no different. Just look at a lot of the imagery and language used by antivaxxers to invoke George Soros, characterize big pharma, and to portray the medical profession (which, of course, has large number of Jews in it). Remember the idea of “purebloods” embraced by some antivaxxers, which echoes outright Nazi ideas of “purity.”
Here are a few examples:
Also, don’t get me started on how eagerly antivaxxers coopted a symbol of Jewish “othering” and suffering during the Holocaust, the Yellow Star of David, which the Nazis used forced Jews in Germany and their occupied territories to wear in order to be easily identifiable as Jews. They do it to falsely portray themselves as “oppressed,” and it’s not for nothing that I’ve argued that the misuse of such symbols is a form of Holocaust denial.
It therefore should not be a surprise at all that RFK Jr. has “gone there” and repeated an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Indeed, Yair Rosenberg just published a rather accurate article on The Most Shocking Aspect of RFK Jr.’s Antisemitism: “What’s surprising isn’t that Kennedy voiced an anti-Jewish conspiracy, but that it took this long.”
Here is just a small sampling of what Kennedy believes: that radiation from wireless internet causes cancer; that chemicals in the water supply are producing gender dysphoria; that the CIA killed both his father and his uncle, President John F. Kennedy; that antidepressants cause today’s mass shootings; that George W. Bush stole the 2004 presidential election; and that your phone’s 5G connection is part of a plot “to harvest our data and control our behavior.”
Seen in the context of Kennedy’s career, what’s surprising is not his foray into anti-Semitism but that it took him this long to arrive here.
Again, as I said above, antisemitism is the ur-conspiracy theory of our civilization, at least in much of what is called “Western Civilization.” Rosenberg notes elsewhere:
Anti-Semitism is arguably the world’s oldest and most durable conspiracy theory. It presents Jews as the string-pulling puppet masters behind the world’s political, economic, and social problems. For those seeking simple solutions to life’s complexities, this outlook offers a ready-made explanation—and enemy. Anyone seeking a single source for society’s travails may start with run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories but will soon end up parroting anti-Jewish ideas.
I’m known for saying on Twitter, scratch an antivaxxer, and quite often you’ll find an antisemite, and Rosenberg explains why this is true:
That Kennedy would ultimately echo the anti-Semitic assumptions of his conspiratorial cohort was inevitable. Indeed, he is far from the first traveler on the well-trodden path from conspiracism to outright anti-Semitism. In recent years, individuals as diverse as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kyrie Irving, and Elon Musk have graduated from garden-variety conspiracy theories to anti-Jewish arguments. Even the content of Kennedy’s COVID-19 conjecture isn’t original: Jews have been blamed for spreading plagues for centuries, most famously during Europe’s Black Death.
Or, as he puts it, RFK Jr.’s “conspiratorial compass ensured that he would eventually arrive at this destination, because it points in only one direction.” Nor is this the first time that RFK Jr. has winked and nodded at antisemites. For example, eight years ago he was cozying up with Minister Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam:
— THE HONORABLE MINISTER LOUIS FARRAKHAN (@LouisFarrakhan) June 27, 2015
On my not-so-super-secret other blog, I described how in 2015 RFK Jr. was seen a number of times at antivax demonstrations and rallies with prominent Nation of Islam figures. At one rally, the Fruit of Islam (the Nation of Islam’s security detail) provided security for him. It gets even weirder. If you’re not up-to-date in your knowledge of the Nation of Islam, you might not be aware that it is now tightly associated with the Church of Scientology, to the point where the two have almost merged. Instrumental to this was Nation of Islam Minister Tony Muhammad, who was also a fixture at all the antivax rallies supported and attended by the Nation of Islam in 2015. Unfortunately, the Nation of Islam is known for its antisemitism. For example, the Minister Farrakhan has called Jews “satanic” and “blood suckers,” engaged in Holocaust denial, and at various has accused them of controlling the economy, basically the usual antisemitic tropes.
All of this brings me back to some simple questions. Perhaps Dr. Prasad can tell us if he thinks that RFK Jr.’s conspiracy mongering about COVID-19 being a potential “bioweapon” targeted at Blacks and Caucasians that spares Ashkenazi Jews would qualify him as a “conspiracy theorist and a charlatan.” While he’s at it, maybe he can tell us if RFK Jr.’s belief that COVID-19 might have been an ethnically targeted bioweapon is just one other minor opinion about which he disagrees. Maybe Dr. Høeg can tell us if she still “likes RFK Jr.” Inquiring minds want to know! Will the stench of his ideas drive them away as much as the stench of Mr. Dechert’s choice of bodily discharge as rhetorical flourish did beforehand? Maybe, but I bet that they’ll just try to quietly disassociate themselves from RFK Jr., rather than admit that they had been taken in.
I’ve expressed my concern that RFK Jr.’s run for the Presidency is normalizing antivax misinformation and conspiracy theories, to the point that the more “reasonable”-seeming wing of the COVID-19 misinformation machine, like Drs. Prasad and Høeg, have been attracted to many of his antivax conspiracy theories because they sound, if not reasonable, at least not totally bonkers if you don’t know the background and how strongly and how many times they’ve been debunked over the years. Personally, I keep hoping that his “Chinese-Jewish bioweapon” conspiracy theory is an inflection point, a point where the political and medical class members who find his less bonkers proclamations about regulatory capture, for example, attractive realize that he is nothing more than an all-purpose conspiracy theorist, little different from Alex Jones or Mike Adams, except that he’s a Kennedy. On the other hand, if his HIV/AIDS denial didn’t accomplish that, I’m not sure that his semi-plausibly deniable proclamations about COVID-19 being an “ethnically targeted” bioweapon designed to spare Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish people will chase them away.
And the Overton window for antivax conspiracy theories continues to shift more and more into conspiracy-land.