RFK Jr. (a.k.a. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) has long been antivaccine. Indeed, he rapidly became a prominent figure in the antivaccine movement in 2005. That was when when his publication of Deadly Immunity simultaneously in Salon.com and Rolling Stone (to their eternal shame, a shame I will never stop reminding them of) popularized the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory, which posited that in 2000 the CDC met in an Atlanta suburb to “cover up” the evidence that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal was the cause of the “autism epidemic.” It was nonsense, of course, based on a misrepresentation of how in epidemiological studies seemingly “positive” associations disappear when confounders are properly taken into account.
From there, it was off to the races, with RFK Jr. ultimately forming his antivaccine organization World Mercury Project, which was ultimately renamed Children’s Health Defense after it had become very clear nearly two decades after thimerosal was removed from vaccines that autism rates were not falling (quite the contrary, in fact), thus showing no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. Along the way, his claims to be “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding, RFK Jr. demonstrated himself to be, in reality, fiercely antivaccine, whether he was likening vaccination to the Holocaust, trying to persuade Samoan officials that the MMR vaccine was dangerous (in the middle of a deadly measles outbreak!), claiming that today’s generation of children is the “sickest generation” (due to vaccines, of course!), or toadying up to President-Elect Donald Trump during the transition period to be chair of a “vaccine safety commission.” Indeed, last year his own family called him out for his antivaccine activism, while, predictably, RFK Jr. has, as so many antivaxxers have done, gone all-in on COVID-19 pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and become antimask, “anti-lockdown,” and pro-quack treatments.
No, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is most definitely not “fiercely pro-vaccine.” Rather, he is antivaccine to the core. Amusingly, though, he does really, really, really hate being called antivaccine, which leads me to an incredibly hilarious whine that he posted yesterday on the Children’s Health Defense website, RFK, Jr. to NPR’s Terry Gross: ‘I Urge You to Correct the Record’. This particular post is a rant against everything and everyone he hates, and it’s gloriously giggle-inducing to read, particularly his numerous threats to sue people like children’s health advocate Dr. Peter Hotez for expressing the opinion that RFK Jr. is antivaccine, a threat that is particularly hypocritical given how much of his screed is devoted to false complaints about “censorship” and “silencing” free speech.
One thing I can’t figure out is why it took RFK Jr. so long to write this post. The Fresh Air segment that set him off aired over a month and a half ago, right before Thanksgiving. I note the contrast to his response to a December 30 op-ed by his niece Dr. Kerry Meltzer in the New York Times, calling him out for spreading antivaccine disinformation. That time, it took him less than a week to do an equally amusing article complaining about how the NYT had declined his request to print a rebuttal. (Good going for once, NYT! Never give a crank a forum!) Equally entertaining was how RFK Jr. called his niece’s op-ed “defamatory.” Maybe he reacted so fast because Dr. Meltzer is a relative, while perhaps he was reluctant to get on Terry Gross’ bad side given how much Fresh Air likes to feature environmental causes, the area where RFK Jr. first became an activist and primary claim to fame (at least before he went full antivax nearly 16 years ago). He probably was reluctant to foreclose any chance of being on the show in the future, although it does appear that he hasn’t been on the show in a very long time.
The statement that really appears to have irked RFK Jr. the most was the observation that he had spoken to an antilockdown protest in Germany that had involved far right wing groups and QAnon conspiracy theorists:
During your November 24 interview, Dr. Peter Hotez made several inaccurate and damaging statements about me that went unchallenged. I know you value accuracy and integrity, and so I urge you to correct the record.
Dr. Hotez falsely claimed that I spoke to Nazis and QAnon in Germany.
Dr. Hotez was apparently referring to my August 29 speech at the Rally for Peace and Freedom in Berlin organized by the German group, Querdenken 711, or “Critical Thinking 711.” Querdenken is neither Nazi nor QAnon.
Querdenken is a broad-based, peaceful citizens’ movement launched by a large group of European human and civil rights lawyers and others to promote freedom, peace, democracy,and human rights. It strongly opposes Nazism, anti-Semitism, and all forces of extremism. There was no evidence of Nazi iconography anywhere near the Querdenken protest. (Dr. Hotez apparently conflated the large Querdenken rally-reliably estimated crowds = 100k to 1 million plus-with a tiny, staged demonstration by about 50 Nazis and QAnon supporters that occurred simultaneously across town at the Reichstag).
Perhaps my German-speaking friends can look at RFK Jr.’s claim that Querdenken means “critical thinking,” because when I run it through Google Translate and look it up on other sources I get the translation of “thinking outside the box.” (I don’t speak German; so I don’t know which is correct.) As for denying that Querdenken 711 is far right, this Daily Beast story about the demonstration at which RFK Jr. spoke tells a rather different tale:
Querdenken 711, whose name loosely translates to “Thinking Outside the Box 711,” had tried to invite other controversial world leaders to the rally before landing Kennedy. On Aug. 7, the group’s Twitter account tweeted at Donald Trump, calling him “the only American President who has not started a war,” despite his record escalating the U.S.’s foreign conflicts, and cordially invited him “to speak on the subject of ‘peace.’” Three days later, the account tweeted at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, asking him, too, to speak about “Peace in Europe,” apparently ignoring Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine. (Members of Querdenken’s many Telegram channels noted that Putin might be too busy with the escalating tensions in Belarus to attend.)
In a last-ditch effort to score a major speaker outside of their own ranks, the group finally tweeted at Kennedy, asking him to join them on stage for “freedom and peace” on Aug. 19. Kennedy had already signaled his interest in the growing “anti-COVID” movement in Germany. On Aug. 11, his anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense, published a letter by an anonymous “Friend in Germany” on the organization’s website. Four days later, Querdenken 711 founder Michael Ballweg offered an official public invitation during a speech in Hamburg.
That’s got to sting. Querdenken 711 couldn’t get Trump or Putin, so it settled for RFK Jr. instead. Its members were quite happy, too:
The news of Kennedy’s arrival put German QAnon Telegram channels into a frenzy. The conspiracy theorists, many of whom are obsessed with JFK, had been hoping for a resurrection-style reappearance of the 35th U.S. president, but were mostly content with his nephew filling in. Members had long been sharing Kennedy’s attacks on Bill Gates. Some QAnon followers have even fantasized about Kennedy throwing Bill Gates in Gitmo.
Admiration for Kennedy and hatred for Gates connects QAnon conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists and the more mainstream corners of anti-COVID activism. Kennedy’s interview, “Perspectives on the Pandemic” has been widely shared by Querdenken activists. Anti-Bill-Gates shirts and signs are a common sight at Querdenken protests. Ballweg—a tech entrepreneur and self-styled apolitical freedom activist—denies any connection between the event featuring Kennedy and the group that attempted to break into the parliament building in the wake of Querdenken’s protest, but the speeches he’s been giving throughout the summer seem to tell a different story.
My conclusion based on what I’ve been able to find is that Querdenken 711 appears very much aligned with and full of QAnon cultists and full of far right wing activists, but that its leadership likes to try to maintain plausible deniability with respect to such groups. RFK Jr., being the longtime liberal icon that he is, probably has serious cognitive dissonance when it is pointed out to him that most of his admirers now are Trump supporters, far right wing anti-“lockdown” protesters, and QAnon conspiracy theorists. Indeed, he was listed as a keynote speaker in the initial advertising for AMPFest, a QAnon gathering held October, although it appears that he must have backed out, as I never saw evidence that he spoke there.
It is, of course, true that RFK Jr. did rail against “tyranny.” He did it in the same way that he has in the past invoked Nazi-ism and the Holocaust to demonize vaccines. As he likened vaccine mandates to tyranny, so in Berlin he likened COVID-19 measures, 5G, digital currency, and the like to “slavery.” (His speech is here, if you can stomach it, and the transcript of his press conference afterward shows how he went further than in his brief speech.) However, it’s also clear from his very first remarks that RFK Jr. was quite aware of Querdenken 711’s reputation, as the transcript shows that he started right out saying:
Back at home, in the United States, the newspapers are saying that I came here today to speak to about 5,000 Nazis. Tomorrow, they are going to report that, yes, I was here, that I spoke to maybe 3,000 to 5,000 Nazis.
And, at his press conference, he returned to his old playbook:
Hitler could point at the Jews and say those are the big threat, we need to be frightened of them, and everybody else needs to obey so that we can fight them off. Other countries were scared of the Bolsheviks. In the United States, our demigods point to the Mexicans or dark-skinned people and say we need to be scared of them, or terrorists. All of those things get us to voluntarily give up, relinquish our human rights, our civil rights and walk like sheep into the Abattoir.
Now they have a source of fear that is the most pervasive, an all-encompassing power that they’ve ever had which is the fear of pandemic.
I won’t dwell on this. RFK Jr. has been playing footsies with the right wing at least since he helped lead the opposition to the California law SB 277, which eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates six years ago.
More amusing is how very, very much RFK Jr. hates being called “antivaccine”:
I am not anti-vaccine. I have said this hundreds of times over the years. I have explained, ad nauseam, that my demand for safer vaccines, robust science and regulatory agencies — free from Big Pharma’s corrupting conflicts — does not make me anti-vaccine. (I have fought for four decades to remove mercury from fish, yet nobody calls me “anti-fish”). Characterizing all questions about vaccine safety and efficacy as “anti-vaccine” is a calculated industry propaganda technique for muzzling debate, and for marginalizing and vilifying critics. It is Dr. Hotez’s strategy to apply the “anti-vaccine” ad hominem to anyone who questions the medical cartel’s orthodoxy that all vaccines are safe, effective and thoroughly tested. Dr. Hotez applies the defamation broadly: to discredit attorneys like me who sue his industry, to intimidate the many doctors, scientists and public health educators who ask reasonable and thoughtful questions about vaccine safety protocols; and to bully, silence and gaslight the mothers of millions of intellectually damaged children who believe that vaccines harmed their children.
I’ve addressed this risible claim more times than I can remember, ever since RFK Jr. first referred to himself as “fiercely pro-vaccine” on—and you can’t make stuff like this up!—The Dr. Oz Show in 2014. I already summarized a number of examples of RFK Jr.’s antivaccine statements and beliefs in the introduction to this post, but I’ll add a couple of more. There was the time when RFK Jr. teamed up with Robert De Niro to do a dishonest Jock Doubleday-like “challenge” to vaccine advocates to provide him with enough evidence to convince him that vaccines are safe. Then there are the continued lies about vaccines promoted by his organization Children’s Health Defense. I could go on and on and on, but it is very clear that RFK Jr. is not a “skeptic.” He is antivaccine.
Let me just put it this way. If RKF Jr. is ever so utterly foolish as to sue someone for libel or slander for calling him antivaccine, I hope that the lawyers for the defense ask him a very simple question at his deposition: Name a childhood vaccine (or childhood vaccines) that you personally consider sufficiently safe and effective to recommend generally. After all, if you’re “not antivaccine,” then surely there must be at least one vaccine whose use you support. (If I were on the legal team for the defense, I’d also follow up by asking him to do the same for adult vaccines.) My prediction is that he wouldn’t be able to name a single vaccine that he considers safe and effective or that he’d do his best to dance around the question. These sorts responses reveal how antivaxxers can’t help but reveal that their posturing as “vaccine safety advocates” is nothing more than a ruse, a misdirection, a camouflage designed to hide their antivaccine views. I could, of course recommend a whole lot of other questions for his deposition that would help bolster the case that he is antivaccine, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader (not to mention to keep them in reserve, in case RFK Jr. is ever actually stupid enough to sue a pro-vaccine advocate for libel for calling him “antivaccine”). Certainly, his funding sources are likely to be a fruitful area for such explorations.
Next up, RFK Jr. doesn’t like being called “antimask” either. To deflect, he does the same dance that he does around vaccines:
I am not anti-mask. Neither I, nor my organization, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), take a position on masks. I have asked legitimate and thoughtful questions about the science that justifies government mask mandates. I have also complained about the absence of notice and common rulemaking and due process accompanying the imposition of mask mandates. This advocacy means that I believe in science, democracy and our Constitution. This does not make me anti-mask.
On CHD’s website, we publish every peer-reviewed study we can find on mask efficacy, regardless of their conclusions. We have identified over 35 placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed studies to date. We have not been able to find any peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled study that supports the efficacy of masks against viral or bacteriological transmission — even in hospital settings. Meanwhile, dozens of studies suggest negative efficacy and several link masks to a grim inventory of respiratory, pulmonary, dental, gastrointestinal and dermatological injuries.
Oh, no. I’m not antivaccine. It’s just that I never, ever write about or amplify any studies or data that conclude that vaccines are safe and effective. Substitute the word “antimask” for “antivaccine” and “masks for “vaccines,” and you see RFK Jr.’s game here. Oh, no, he says. I’m not “antimask.” I’m just asking questions. Funny, though, how if you search his website you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single study or any data cited by him that masks do work to slow the spread of COVID-19. As with vaccines, RFK Jr. is a master of cherry picking studies that support his preexisting beliefs, to the point where I’ll paraphrase him: “I’m not ‘antimask.’ I’m a mask safety advocate.”
RFK Jr. then goes on to do basically the same thing with “lockdowns,” before launching into his conspiracy theories about Peter Hotez, Bill Gates, and, of course, “censorship,” in essence taking a chorus from the old Warren Zevon tune, “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”:
For more than a year beginning in 2017, Dr. Hotez and I privately maintained a regular telephone debate about vaccine safety moderated by my cousin, Special Olympics Director Tim Shriver. It is my memory that Peter did not fare well in those exchanges. I continue to publish scrupulously sourced science-based castigations of Peter’s serial self-serving inaccuracies that he routinely broadcasts from his Twitter feed. I have frequently challenged him to debate publicly about those whoppers. I am not surprised that he has steadfastly refused my invitations. On March 11, 2019, Dr. Hotez told Joe Rogan that he would hesitate to debate me because I am a “clever lawyer.” In an earlier conversation, he told me that he would happily participate in a public debate, but only if NIH (presumably Dr. Fauci) gave him permission. That peculiar demurrer raises its own parade of questions about the cozy relationship between government and industry that, I hope, you also find troubling.
Here we go again with that favorite science denier and crank gambit, “all truth comes from live public debate.” No, it doesn’t, at least in science. Of course, cranks like RFK Jr. love “live debates,” be they on TV, radio, or live in front of an audience, for reasons that I’ve explained time and time again. Many are the example I’ve discussed over many years, such as, for example., when antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield challenged Dr. David Salisbury to a “live public debate” about whether the MMR vaccine causes autism or not. (Hint: It doesn’t.) Then there was the time when all-purpose quack Julian Whitaker debated Steve Novella at FreedomFest in 2012. Sometimes cranks have tried to trick me, such as when an HIV-AIDS denialist tried to lure me into a “debate” with HIV-AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore back in 2007. Then there were Michael Shermer’s “debate” with Deepak Chopra; antivaccine propagandist David Kirby debating author Arthur Allen; and, of course, antivaccine activist Nick Haas’ challenge to have a blogger from Science-Based Medicine do a live public debate about vaccines. As I’ve pointed out before, time and time again, I don’t “debate” cranks, at least not live on stage in such artificial events, because such events (1) make it appear that there is an actual scientific debate when there is not and (2) give the crank the freedom to Gish gallop to his or her heart’s content.
Peter Hotez was wise not to fall into RFK Jr.’s trap. As I’ve said more times than I can remember, it’s very perilous for a science-based advocate to agree to such a “debate” with someone like RFK Jr. (or anti-“lockdown” groups), because unless one is very familiar with the tactics and obscure studies that such a crank will use and reference it is very easy to lose the debate while winning on science.
Then, of course, RFK Jr. goes straight to the pharma shill gambit, as he always does:
As you surely must know, Mr. Gates is also Dr. Hotez’s mentor and principal funder. Mr. Gates reportedly donated $52,000,000 to develop and conduct clinical trials in Brazil for his hookworm vaccine. After that donation, Dr. Hotez emerged as the principal voice for promoting vaccines globally and as a carnival barker for Everything Gates. In that sense, Dr. Hotez has become the most visible promoter of the government/Pharma partnership and the rich government subsidies and mandates that underpin the global vaccine industry.
Or it could be that the Gates Foundation donated the money because whatever committee is responsible for reviewing grant proposals thought the project was worthwhile. It could also be that Dr. Hotez is so vocally pro-vaccine because he really believes in vaccines. Such thoughts, of course, never occur to a conspiracy theorist like RFK Jr, who after the passage above goes straight into the usual (and a not very original) litany of Bill Gates conspiracy theories. Bill Gates might have many flaws, but one of them is not being the enemy and principal Dark Lord of Vaccination that cranks like RFK Jr. love to attack. That is perhaps his most admirable trait.
RFK Jr finishes with an appeal to Terry Gross about “fairness” and “censorship” that is so transparent in its intent that I laughed out loud when I read it:
You have long been a champion of the idea that censorship is the weapon of tyrants. You understand that America’s founders adopted the First Amendment not to protect popular speech approved by government and industry power centers, but to protect unpopular speech — especially during times of crisis. Democracy functions best when public policy emerges from the cauldron of open, and even fierce, debate. Turning “Fresh Air” over to pharmaceutical industry insiders to promote shoddily tested mandatory medical products and broadcast unchallenged industry propaganda is not consistent with your show’s proud tradition.
RFK Jr.’s rant about being “censored” is nothing new. It’s the same old schtick he’s been doing for a long time now, most recently when he so risibly proclaimed himself willing to “die with his boots on” over “censorship” and attempts to combat his disinformation. One can’t help but laugh at how someone as privileged as RFK Jr., who’s had access to the highest government officials, the richest and most famous people, and the most influential media figures for his entire adult life solely because of who his father was and the family into which he had had the fortune of being born whines about “censorship.” He reminds me of Donald Trump, having been born on third base and going through life thinking he’d hit a triple.
Finally, I would counter RFK Jr.’s appeal to fairness and against “censorship” by suggesting that Gross also likely recognizes that she is not obligated to provide her platform to every crank who feels maligned by one of her shows. There’s no requirement that she invite, for example, flat earthers, evolution deniers, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, HIV/AIDS denialists, or moon landing hoaxers on her show to “rebut” criticisms of their views in the name of “fairness.” What RFK Jr. just can’t accept is that it is entirely appropriate to lump him in with these other cranks, because his antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are, at their core of denying reality, no different than other common forms of denial and conspiracy theories. On second thought, this is not quite accurate. In actuality, RFK Jr.’s denial of vaccine and public health science in the middle of a pandemic whose death toll in the US alone is fast approaching 400,000 has the potential to harm and kill far more people.