Kennedy is a Friend of the People, Whatever the Media Says

Kennedy is a Friend of the People, Whatever the Media Says
American Values 2024 | June 2, 2024

By Elsa Hjalmarsson Lyons, Special to The Kennedy Beacon

Inching through midtown Manhattan in a taxicab last week, I noticed a poster for the new Broadway revival of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Its four-month run, directed and adapted by Amy Herzog, closes on June 16, just a little over a week before the first 2024 presidential debate on CNN – which currently excludes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from the stage.

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When I saw the poster, I had just finished reading the 2021 Skyhorse Publishing edition of the play, which features an incisive introduction written by Kennedy. I can’t vouch for the adaptation, but anyone who wants to understand how the media, Big Tech, and the political establishment have been trying to discredit Kennedy should read the play with his foreword.

In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen exposes an early version of the playbook from which recent multi-pronged attacks on Kennedy have borrowed. If we can recognize that playbook, maybe we can tune out the mob of naysayers and listen to Kennedy with real curiosity. And these days, curiosity is a form of dissent. These days, curiosity requires courage.

An Enemy of the People tells the story of Thomas Stockmann, a vigorously earnest doctor who discovers a grave threat to public health in his Norwegian village. Stockmann finds that the town’s beloved and lucrative public baths are contaminated with runoff from a local tannery and are making people sick. It’s an inconvenient truth, and the town’s political leadership conspires with what Stockmann previously saw as the “liberal-minded” media to silence the concerned doctor. When he refuses to be silenced, they resort to character assassination, questioning his mental health and branding him an “enemy of the people.” Stockmann slowly realizes that the baths are not the only problem – the political consciousness of the whole town is also polluted. Does any of that sound familiar?

Surely today’s “liberal-minded” media doesn’t see itself as treating dissent like blasphemy or crucifying whistleblowers. But that’s exactly what it has been doing to Bobby Kennedy since 2005, when he first became involved in the vaccine safety movement.

At that time, Kennedy was primarily an environmental lawyer working with the Riverkeeper Alliance to hold big corporations accountable for ravaging the environment in the name of expediency. As highlighted in the recently released (and heavily censored) short film, “Who is Bobby Kennedy?” the media celebrated Kennedy’s work fighting mercury pollution in the Hudson River. He was a hero of the planet. But when he began paying attention to mercury pollution in children’s bodies, he became a villain. This time, the polluters were big pharmaceutical companies – and apparently, those polluters were untouchable.

Kennedy is our Thomas Stockmann, demonized for speaking a truth that threatens a sacrosanct industry. The baths are the vaccines; the vaccines are the baths.

Kennedy has been subjected to all the same silencing techniques that are used against Stockmann in An Enemy of the People. The first step is censorship. In the play, Stockmann’s brother – who also happens to be the mayor – advocates against allowing “the Medical Officer [Thomas Stockmann] either to read or to comment on his proposed lecture.” Nearly everyone in the room supports this motion, including the two hypocritical editors of the town’s liberal newspaper, “The People’s Messenger.” The man who agreed to host the meeting in the first place, Horster, is lambasted for “[lending his] house to enemies of the people.” Like Stockmann, he is harshly deplatformed, kicked off the ship he was previously slated to captain.

This part of the play reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a radio show host who aims to empower new voices across the political spectrum, and who eagerly accepted an opportunity to interview Kennedy. He told me that he was perplexed when Kennedy praised him for his “courage” in going through with the interview. Why would it take courage to conduct a fair interview with a presidential candidate in a democracy? The host said he figured that one out pretty quickly.

But the symmetry between Stockmann and Kennedy doesn’t end there.

Hovstad, the editor of “The People’s Messenger,” refers to Stockmann’s conclusion that the town’s bathwater is polluted as a “misrepresentation of the state of affairs” (italics mine). Ibsen didn’t yet have the buzzword “misinformation,” but I’m sure he would have used it if he’d seen the way the media routinely flings it at Kennedy. “Conspiracy theorist” wasn’t yet a popular slur during Ibsen’s time, but it too belongs in any tuned-in modern version of An Enemy of the People. Headlines like “5 Noteworthy Falsehoods Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Has Promoted” and “How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Sells Misleading Ideas” – both published by The New York Times shortly after Kennedy announced his presidential run – bear a striking resemblance to Hovstad’s derisive comments about Stockmann.

In the play, Billing, Hovstad’s second-in-command at the newspaper, not-so-subtly insinuates that Stockmann might be driven by money rather than principles, noting that “certainly he suggested a rise in his salary on one occasion lately, and did not get it.” The Times used the same smear tactic on Kennedy this past fall, when it published a scathing article titled “How R.F.K. Jr.’s Causes Made Him Millions of Dollars.” Stockmann is finally dismissed as a lunatic; when an unnamed townsperson suggests that “he goes quite off his head sometimes,” another wonders, “if there is any madness in his family.” Billing responds, “I shouldn’t wonder if there were.”

The media has been even more explicit when it comes to Kennedy. Vanity Fair, one of the papers that once celebrated Kennedy’s environmental work, published an article last year called “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” A 2023 Times opinion piece entitled “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Is Where Paranoia Meets Legacy Admissions,” calls Kennedy “a crank who cranks out whoppers the way Taylor Swift disgorges perfect pop songs.” As the “Who is Bobby Kennedy?” short film emphasizes, similar headlines have appeared in The Standard, the New York Post, and The Guardian, just to name a few.

The Times published a gushing review of Herzog’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People in March, calling it “crackling and persuasive.” But it’s hard to know exactly what we’re supposed to be persuaded of. Times theater critic Jesse Green writes that “[Jeremy] Strong must have modeled his […] performance on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the embattled former infectious disease expert,” emulating not only his “barely mastered disdain, social weirdness and haircut,” but also his “messianic faith in science.”

I haven’t seen the revival, but I know that Fauci bears little resemblance to the textual Stockmann – and not just because the fictional doctor loses his job, his reputation, and nearly all of his friendships, whereas Fauci was recently awarded his 58th honorary doctoral degree. In fact, it is precisely Fauci’s “messianic faith in science” that most powerfully differentiates him from Ibsen’s hero. Stockmann doesn’t treat science like a religion, an enduring set of precepts that we are expected to accept entirely or reject entirely. For Stockmann, scientific and other forms of truth are dynamic in nature – he insists that “truths are by no means as long-lived […] as some folk imagine” and encourages his fellow villagers to nourish themselves with “new and vigorous truths” as opposed to “old marrowless truths” with “no great nutritive value.”

Meanwhile, as “America’s Doctor” during the COVID lockdowns, Fauci declared himself to be the single valid source of scientific truth, the messiah of public health. “Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science,” he declared on national television in 2021. Since when does criticizing a public official in America make you anti-science? Maybe since it was decided that calling out Big Pharma corruption makes you anti-vaccine. I’ve heard Fauci’s statement compared to Louis XIV’s famous proclamation: “l’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Louis claimed to embody the state; Fauci claims to embody science. But Ibsen knew that as soon as science becomes authoritative rather than inquisitive, it ceases to be science. The moment that truth presumes to be absolute and indisputable, it is no longer truth.

I believe Bobby Kennedy knows this too – and not just when it comes to public health. An Enemy of the People is about more than a contaminated water source. It’s also about how political parties claiming to have a monopoly on truth and morality are actually doomed to succumb to (real, governmental) disinformation and corruption.

Stockmann’s thesis is “that party programmes strangle every young and vigorous truth – that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down.” The problem with polarization isn’t that people passionately disagree; when Kennedy pledges to “Heal the Divide,” he isn’t saying that his views are timid, tepid, or non-disruptive. He’s saying when we hate each other too much to listen to each other, we let the real culprits slip by.

Who are the real culprits? They aren’t people; they are corporations and industries. These entities care about expediency and profitability much more than they care about human life. They are the defense industry, which profits from the endless wars that drain our economy to make the world less safe for Americans and everybody else; the pharmaceutical companies that gobble up unholy amounts of money only to make us more and more sick; the big polluters who, as Kennedy once put it, “diminish our capacity to sense the divine” in nature. And on and on and on.

When Kennedy refuses to take sides on certain hot-button topics, he isn’t just trying to connect with voters across the political spectrum – he’s creating and nurturing coalitions that prefigure the ones he would build while in office. Coalitions like the ones mobilized in the 1960s by his father, his uncle, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and towards the end of his life, Malcolm X (all assassinated with suspected CIA involvement, except for Hampton, who is broadly known to have been murdered by the FBI). It is these coalitions that will take on the real enemies of the people, and find innovative solutions to the problems that truly matter to Americans.

In his introduction to An Enemy of the People, Kennedy writes that his father “believed moral courage to be the rarest species of bravery.” He concludes that “[i]f we are to continue to enjoy democracy and protect our children from the forces that seek to commoditize humanity, then we need courageous scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens who are willing to speak truth to power, even at terrible personal cost.”

The media seems to think that Kennedy’s commitment to freedom and the right to dissent makes him less committed to public health and truth. But Kennedy understands something they don’t – that fledgling truths cannot flourish when they are not expressed in a free and vibrant marketplace of ideas.

Ibsen and Kennedy voice in harmony what is all at once a literary, political, and even a spiritual law: that in multiplicity, there is unity; in the particular, the universal; in free disagreement, understanding; in individual freedom, communal symbiosis; in shapeshifting ideas, truth; and in curiosity, courage.

Elsa Hjalmarsson Lyons is a student at Amherst College.

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