Should the Left Give RFK, Jr. a Chance?

“This is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years. I’ve got a lot to talk about.”

– Robert F. Kennedy Jr. while speaking extemporaneously for almost two hours at his campaign announcement.

“People who advocate for safer vaccines should not be marginalized or denounced as anti-vaccine. I am pro-vaccine. I had all six of my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of humans over the past century and that broad vaccine coverage is critical to public health. But I want our vaccines to be as safe as possible.”

– Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury—a Known Neurotoxin—from Vaccines.

If Joe Biden was hoping to sail through to renomination despite abysmal approval ratings, that’s not going to happen anymore, even if all the potential establishment candidates have backed out. Likewise, if the president still thinks he can avoid debating what I’m sure will be a serious challenger, backed up by rapidly rising poll numbers (RFK Jr. is already at 19%, within a few days of declaring), then he is sorely mistaken. Avoiding debate, and dismissing your opponent as beneath notice despite popularity, suggests a fatal flaw that will rear its ugly head at some point.

When I heard his campaign declaration speech, I was touched even more than my enthusiasm at comparable moments in Ralph Nader’s 2000 candidacy or the early days of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Kennedy is picking up the baton from these earlier iterations of protest against extreme corporate power allied with state tyranny. To these he is adding a unique poetic calibration of his own, which comes from his unmatched personal experience as the nephew and son of a slain president and a possible future president respectively.

I have never known him to play up his traumatic experience for cheap gain, and he is not likely to do so now. Rather, he appeals—like the older Nader in particular—because he speaks in a voice of reason harkening to a rhetorical style that has mostly passed from the American scene. I doubt that we have heard such eloquence and intelligence since the great charismatic leaders of the sixties, our latter-day politicians having spoken mostly in a narrowcasting language of transactionalism. That such language can have so much resonance among young people, as evidenced by the successful insurgent campaigns of the twenty-first century, suggests that political discourse has been unable to fill the vacuum in rational discourse.

It is likely that Kennedy, because he is able to connect apparently disparate developments into an overarching worldview—one that subverts the readymade divisions handed out to a compliant populace like addictive drugs—will soon develop the same kind of passionate following that his immediate predecessors did.

I was always bothered by the fact that recent national progressive campaigns have left the biggest elephant in the room—namely, empire—mostly out of the discussion. It always seemed ridiculous to me to imagine that we could attain Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free higher education, or whatever other welfare prescriptions of the moment were, while leaving the machinery of empire alone. It never computed to me that you could have surveillance, censorship, a uniparty system agreed on fighting new forever wars—in short, the whole apparatus of empire struggling to keep up with emerging challengers—and have the domestic goodies at the same time.

Kennedy is too smart to fall for such an obvious contradiction, and to sell a bill of goods to voters. He notes explicitly among his highest priorities that he will “start the process of unwinding empire” and turn attention to failures at home. To the extent that liberals have bought into the compulsions of the national security state in recent years with unquestioning obedience, because populist nationalism on the right is presented as an existential threat by the organs of the same national security state, liberals in fact create the conditions for a resistance to empire, mostly on the right, that takes distorted forms.

A healthy skepticism toward empire would follow the lines of what Kennedy is presenting as a sane alternative. He promises to seek immediate peace in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, because we all understand that other than the extension of empire’s destructive pathways there is no logical explanation for why we should stake everything, including the future of the human species, on that particular confrontation.

I was also always bothered—including during the anti-Bush 2000s campaigns—that the matter of civil liberties rarely crossed the lips of progressives promising the usual checklist of long-desired welfare initiatives. Kennedy, however, is clear that abjuring censorship, and in general restoring the entire Bill of Rights after the repeated crises of the present century, are prerequisites to promoting a healthy body politic that can iron out internal differences without every issue turning into partisan deadlock. The more we try to suppress dissenting opinion, on everything from foreign wars to public health, the more we turn into a dysfunctional regime where the act of voting is threateningly turned into a tool of abject compliance.

Many of us understand instinctively that as a country we went off the rails somewhere around 1968, the year of major assassinations, including the candidate’s father who held so much promise to heal the racial and class divides. All this led to the inauguration of an era of reckless greed and narcissism, along with the undermining of democratic institutions, that has lasted for more than fifty years now. RFK Jr. is a direct reversion to the moment of rupture that occurred then, having been a teenager at the time of his father’s assassination, and having studied and assimilated the perversions of democracy that have followed since then. His trauma is our trauma.

Not to make it too emotional, but we are being offered a rare chance at redemption, however unlikely it might be after fifty years of having been on the wrong path of multiplying the toxicities in our polity, but it is there for the taking, if we have the courage to seize it. RFK Jr. frames his journey as a successful environmental lawyer and activist, who has fought numerous battles against big corporate polluters like Monsanto and the regulatory agencies that have enabled the bad agents, in a highly spiritualized manner that has every chance to cut across racial and class boundaries, again harkening to his late father’s empathy, even vulnerability.

In his inaugural campaign speech, he said, “God talks to human beings through many factors: through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through wise people, through art and music and literature and poetry, but nowhere with such detail and grace and color and joy as through creation.” Or as he writes in American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family, strongly echoing my own sentiments about species extinction, “I was particularly agitated, at age seven, to learn that entire species of animals were going extinct, and I was angry at the men who had forever doomed the passenger pigeon and the dodo.”

Finally, to address the inevitable go-to line of attack he will face, namely his stance on vaccines through the years (even though vaccines were barely mentioned in his comprehensive announcement speech), and his opposition to the Covid-19 lockdowns. As someone who has been greatly damaged by Covid-19 for more than three years, having been a victim of the earliest wave, I have many questions about the management of this unprecedented public health crisis which haven’t yet begun to be answered to my satisfaction.

This is not the time to go into detail about Kennedy’s researches into the issue, encapsulated in his best-selling book which has gone ignored by mainstream journalism, but I would hope that liberals, instead of dismissing this thoughtful and eloquent man as a rabid anti-vaxxer because that’s how they hear him characterized by the corporate media, will instead give him a chance and listen to the depth of his analysis, such as in his interview with Theo Von, or any of the countless videos available on YouTube, or on his own Spotify podcast. You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions, but at least you will be able to say that you looked into it for yourself. And you just might be surprised at the moderation of his reasoning.

Nearly every aspect of the Covid-19 narrative, from safety measures to treatment protocols, has been constantly reassessed over these last three years, which is how it should be; it’s in the nature of science to proceed by trial and error, and there is no place here for insistence on dogma, or kowtowing to authority while giving up independent thinking despite rapidly changing facts on the ground.

Anthony Fauci just gave an interview to the New York Times where he yet again testily rewrote some of his own positions on key Covid-related issues, each of which would have been subject to bans by social media in recent years, but which the man in charge is himself now reevaluating. No doubt more of the Covid orthodoxies will be similarly subject to revision in the coming years, therefore liberals should not be in the business of stopping the natural flow of questioning.

I interpreted the recent Republican underperformance in the midterms as an endorsement by the electorate of the dystopian status quo, where we have collectively agreed to remain silent on the most pressing emergencies of the recent past, when our whole way of life was sundered. RFK Jr. is willing to open the wounds, not to aggravate the injury but to try to heal.

As someone whose life was irreparably harmed by Covid-19, and who feels doubly hurt because I always did everything possible to preserve my health to the point of fanaticism, I would simply ask the question: Did we utilize the crisis to address long-standing problems of chronic illness in our society? Were we ever directed to the sources of wellness and energy? If we didn’t address the pandemic as a public health matter in the broadest sense of the word, and instead were driven by Big Pharma’s usual reductionism of any health issue toward its preferred direction, then isn’t now the time to take up these postponed questions?

Or will we bury it like the JFK assassination, or 9/11, or the Great Recession, and just want to move on without probing into causes and consequences? I suspect that RFK Jr. is the man of the moment precisely because he speaks so strongly to our biggest current injury which, because free exchange of ideas has been curtailed, has already resulted in highly irrational collective responses.

RFK Jr.’s is the voice of rationality that we badly need, able to connect the immediate anguish to the larger factors that set us up to accept our assaulted state and do nothing about it. I am looking forward to memorable campaign rallies attracting young people with open minds who are willing to soak in his eloquence, framed in a quavering voice which sounds as though it is hardly able to bear the burden of truth it is telling, about all the ways we are poisoning ourselves and all life on earth, and how we might return to health.

I see his campaign as embodying the revival of a skeptical liberalism, within which—as was true of his father or Martin Luther King Jr.—lies a disconcerting radical streak. After decades of environmental activism, consisting of both successes and setbacks, he continues to show great faith in reforming institutional mechanisms to overcome the well-known phenomenon of regulatory capture. Such faith can appear naïve today, after half a century of neoliberal corruption of regulatory bodies, and yet it is perhaps this basic attention to reformulating how we feed ourselves or seek shelter or find satisfaction in employment that may have a better chance of uniting people across the usual divides than any high-falutin ideological speculation.

Both his father and MLK Jr. were moving toward transforming the class system, rather than staying focused on race in isolation, and it is this same impulse that the son is tapping into, as though to pick up the thread from the fatal year of 1968. He argues that “no one is deplorable” (which recognizes the pain of those who have turned from sheer desperation to white nationalism), but he also recognizes the legitimate need for public safety. This sort of straddling may not signify ideological simplification of the kind we have grown used to in the current climate, but it does represent a revival of the best of the liberal tradition when it comes to empowering rationalistic processes to overcome barriers to personal growth.

The left used to harbor great distrust toward the medical establishment, the intelligence agencies, the national security apparatus, and even Big Tech, but lately, in the guise of protecting democracy from an unprecedented existential threat, it has found itself advocating complete submission to the diktats of unaccountable technocrats.

Whereas liberal skepticism after 9/11 would have been directed at other aspects of the technocratic establishment, today an honest assessment by liberals of the biosecurity complex (where all the aforementioned powers have merged) is what can regain the trust of the other side of the political spectrum, which sees liberals as being insufficiently suspicious, and rightly so. National harmony can only come from being unafraid to hold people even on our own side accountable, not with the aim of vengeance but simply to learn whether they have fulfilled their public obligations or not.

I view RFK Jr.’s mistrust of the CIA—he likes to repeat JFK’s claim in the wake of the Bay of Pigs crisis that he would “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds”—as of a piece with his interrogation of the agencies propelling the biosecurity agenda. As a student of the Cold War, I am well aware of the complicated historical record of both JFK and RFK Sr. with respect to the military establishment, but if RFK Jr. wants to emphasize the peace-making aspects of the histories of his father and uncle, such a narrative can only be useful in an environment where the left has taken a pass even on the dangers of nuclear confrontation.

What price is worth paying for empire? Who does it really benefit, and how should we disengage? Is empire literally killing us? These are the kinds of vital questions RFK Jr. is asking, as though we were back in 1968, and an unpopular conflagration in Southeast Asia, a mad war of numbers and statistics, were going on. If you listen and look closely, we actually are in that kind of situation, except that the war has come home at last, as the prophets of the sixties warned in song and sermon. This man’s entire persona is one of deep vulnerability—even damage—and I for one respond very keenly to that. It is a poetic voice that is always canceling out even the roots of his own authority, and I like that very much.

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism