You’ve probably seen the brouhaha about ersatz Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. getting in trouble for saying that COVID was “ethnically targeted” to “spare the Jews.” I wanted to take a moment to dig into just what happened, just what he said and what if anything it all means. This is one of those crazy and yet in many ways predictable stories that manages to be both deeply stupid and yet also quite illustrative of our times.
First, what’s the story? I noticed immediately that all the coverage stemmed from a single story in The New York Post (not a great sign) by Jonathan Levine. I’ve had a couple run-ins with Levine over the years, or at least I’ve seen pieces of his that struck me as tendentious, either by design or lack of familiarity with certain political questions. Don’t get hung up on whether I was right or wrong about him. I note this only to highlight that even though I have an extremely low opinion of RFK Jr. I went into this story with more than a little skepticism.
But in this case, Levine was right on the mark. Kennedy’s words are his words. In fact Levine was so right on the mark it’s a bit shocking he was the only one to write it up. Lots of reporters were at this dinner and a lot of them wrote it up. But none mentioned this. The most one can say about Levine’s reporting in this case is that he drew out the obvious implication of Kennedy’s remark which was necessary because Kennedy used the standard many-people-are-saying and just-asking-questions type phrasings that are the calling card of his brand of conspiracy freaks. But again, his words are his words. He’s guilty as charged.
Here’s what he said …
“COVID-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately … 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.”
If you’re interested you can see the video here.
I’ve seen a number of Kennedy fans, a few of them Jewish, defending these remarks because, they argue, he doesn’t specifically claim that someone deliberately engineered COVID to spare Jews. He just says that there’s “an argument” that it was targeted. But, who knows? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Again, many people are saying …
To my mind, though, the anti-Semitism is almost the least interesting part of this. Kennedy is a full-of-himself conspiracy theorist and bullshit artist. The whole line of thought he’s spouting here is textbook. He makes these pretty outrageous claims. Each link in the chain of his argument comes in a factitious wrapping of bullshit. He claims as a given, for instance, that Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews have greater immunity to COVID. There’s no evidence of this. There’s no evidence of this about “Caucasians and Black people” either, though African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID, presumably through a mix of occupational exposure, pre-existing conditions in the United States and more limited access to the health care system. But again, it’s not just that the big neon-light crazy claim isn’t true. The secondary, in-passing claims are equally bogus.
Kennedy also makes the general remark that China and the U.S. are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on “ethnically targeted bioweapons,” as though this is a given, even if his other claims about sparing the Jews may be surprising to some people. I can’t claim to know just what the U.S. or China are or are not doing in what are presumably secret programs. But I’ve been around DC and the national security chatosphere long enough to know bullshit at a distance. Again, I can’t know. Great Powers likely study or consider all sorts of crazy stuff at some hypothetical level. But this kind of talk is generally the fantasy or agitprop of warmongers and xenophobes. I mentioned earlier the factitious nature of Kennedy’s speech. He routinely peppers his comments with “there are papers” or “I could show you papers.” But these papers either don’t exist or don’t show anything remotely like what he claims. In this case he mentions a paper which supposedly backed all this up but which actually notes broadly that some viruses could have differential presentations in different ethnic groups.
Even with my own very limited understanding of virology and human genetic diversity I suspect it would be extremely hard to engineer a virus that was deadly for one ethnic group and not a problem for another. To be specific, perhaps some geneticists and virologists could engineer a pathogen that killed 30% of victims with predominantly European ancestry and only 15% of people with predominantly Chinese ancestry. But is that a very good weapon for China to release into the world? I kind of doubt it. And I suspect even that kind of differential is wildly beyond anyone’s scientific ability. Besides, what if the engineered virus evolved to kill Chinese people just as effectively? Certainly over the last three years we’ve learned that viruses evolve pretty quickly and in unpredictable ways. This whole line of argument seems silly, though again I’m sure there’s some intelligence report somewhere showing that some scientists have studied the question.
So where is Kennedy getting this from?
What’s gotten far less attention (understandably) than the anti-Semitic neo-blood libel stuff are comments that come just a moment later. After making the sparing-the-Jew claims, he shifts back to the general topic of the ethnically targeted bioweapons that the U.S., China and other powers are allegedly developing. “We are developing ethnic bioweapons. That’s what all those labs in the Ukraine are about. They’re collecting Russian DNA. They’re collecting Chinese DNA.” Does this sound familiar? Here Kennedy is repeating the thoroughly discredited claims Russia made in the Spring of 2022 to justify its invasion of Ukraine, claiming the the CIA was running bioweapons labs in Ukraine to target ethnic Russians. The claim apparently first emerged on QAnon message boards and then hopped to Russian propaganda outlets and then the stateside Trumposphere.
One can easily go down a rabbit hole of whether these claims originated in Russia or were picked up by Russia from the American far right. In a way it hardly matters. There’s a transnational conspiracy discourse that various foreign and domestic forces add to and amplify as it suits their needs. It is sadly also in many ways organic to the various corners of the U.S. political world. You could likely toss off 20 PhD dissertations examining why this is the case. There are various people who gravitate towards this stuff for political reasons, personal idiosyncrasy or ambitions for power. We all know the types.
What does it mean? Is Kennedy an anti-Semite? One of the most instructive things I’ve read on this comes from the writer John Ganz in a post he wrote on the Kennedy press dinner hellscape.
A lot of political discussions get bogged down in trying to divine what people feel in their heart. What do they really think? Well, I happen to think for the most part people aren’t thinking very much at all. Usually, they are just talking: They are participating in discourses that have certain structural possibilities and inherent rules. RFK Jr. plays the language-game “conspiracy” and one available move in that game is “the Jews.”
If you consume a lot of conspiracy material you will brush up against antisemitic propaganda very fast. The fact that it is taboo makes it a tempting move in the discourse: the entire conspiracy game revolves around discovering forbidden knowledge, so the upset caused by mouthing off an antisemitic opinion seems to confirm that you landed on the right square: “Oh, so you’re saying I can’t say that, therefore it must be true.” The more you object and get upset, the more it seems to confirm the correctness of the view.
I’ve discussed this point countless times. I don’t think I’ve captured it so succinctly. It’s no defense of Kennedy on whether he’s an anti-Semite really. He says anti-Semitic things. He says things that aren’t just kinda unfriendly to Jews but suggest horrific and genocidal conspiracies Jews are behind. What he means or believes in his heart hardly matters. He operates in this bullshit world, one in which you glom on to the claims that are most provocative, the most radioactive, and most opposed to “establishment” thinking. Anti-Semitism is just one of the building blocks you’ll eventually use because it’s got the most forbidden power. In a way it’s hardly different than how if you got super into The Rolling Stones you’d eventually get fascinated by Keith’s open G tuning. That’s just how it works.
As a general policy, we shouldn’t listen to people who routinely make nonsensical claims and back them up by referencing studies that either don’t exist or don’t say what the person claims. This should be obvious. It should be as obvious with his anti-vaxxery as it is with his Jewish world conspiracies. There’s no real difference between Kennedy’s anti-Semitic genocide conspiracy theory, his general anti-vaxxery or the various other nonsense he spews if you take a moment to hear him talk. It’s the common parlance of Twiter-based “independent thinkers.” It’s a recurrent theme in American life which for the moment is uniquely rooted in the Trumpite authoritarian world and its various fellow travelers and fellow traveling groups. None of it is any real surprise.