Font Size: A A A


Paradise Lost

Fintan O’Toole
In spreading lies about the risks of vaccines, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has long played on anxieties about purity and pollution.

John Lamparski/Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. visiting the studios of Fox & Friends, New York City, July 14, 2023

History repeats itself, the first time as hope, the second time as dread. In a preface to the 2002 reissue of her classic work on the fear of bodily pollution, first published in 1966, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote:

When I was writing Purity and Danger I had no idea that soon the fear of pollution would be dominating our political scene. The passionate moral principles of the 1960s were turned in the 1970s to attack monstrous technological developments which endangered us. We became afraid of contamination of the air, water, oceans and food.

And, at least in some political and social subcultures, afraid of vaccines.

Just as “the passionate moral principles” of the 1960s were personified in the Democratic Party’s 1968 primaries by Robert F. Kennedy, the turn toward a politics driven by the terror of contamination is now embodied by the quixotic quest of his son and namesake to displace Joe Biden as the party’s candidate for the 2024 presidential election. If he is looking for a slogan as catchy as MAGA, Kennedy Jr. might do worse than adopt Douglas’s title. Purity and danger are his keynotes. In posting a Putinesque video of his topless workouts and ripped torso, he presents his body as a temple of recovered health. In spreading lies about the invasive threats of vaccines and bioweapons, he plays on anxieties about the pollution of that sacred space.

It makes sense that Kennedy Jr. and Donald Trump are effectively in alliance, and that Trump as president contemplated appointing Kennedy to head a putative “vaccine safety and scientific integrity commission.” Both men appeal to a potent myth: paradise lost. In Trump’s case, the paradise is a system of political and economic power in which being white and male was a guarantor of privilege. Kennedy’s sense of loss is more existential, romantic, and even religious. It has its roots in a long tradition of pining for an unspoiled, Edenic America, where neither the natural world nor the human body were fouled by alien elements.

Kennedy’s hankering is more personally poignant than Trump’s. It is tinged with genuine tragedy. But it dovetails neatly with the former president’s reactionary mindset. And it ends up in the same places: a narcissistic indifference to the consequences of public statements, a politics of paranoia, an assault on science and rationality, and an endless salvo of shameless lies—in Kennedy’s case, that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, that vaccines cause autism, that Wi-Fi pierces “the blood-brain barrier,” causing the brain to leak, that Covid-19 is a bioweapon, and that public health measures against it were a “historic coup d’etat against Western democracy.”


In 1997 Kennedy published (with John Cronin) The Riverkeepers, an account of their involvement in the legal and political campaign to clean up the appalling pollution of the Hudson River. In an introductory chapter, he recalls the one moment in his childhood when his father was really angry with him. Kennedy Jr. was twelve years old and growing up on his family’s bucolic Hickory Hill estate in Virginia. But this idyll was shattered by the construction of a state highway that cut through the rustic landscape. He and his younger brother David “sensed that our paradise of horse farms and woodlands and feed and saddle shops was drowning beneath the rising suburban tide. In protest we dislodged some stacked highway culvert pipes and smashed them down an embankment, a crime for which we were soon caught.” That “rising suburban tide” seems to have become, in his imagination, very like W. B. Yeats’s “filthy modern tide,” a surge of physical and social effluence against which he had to build his barriers.

The Kennedys—most especially Robert in his 1968 campaign—are associated with progressive causes. But in that same chapter of The Riverkeepers, Robert Jr. confesses that he may have been at least as much a product of his mother’s family, the reactionary Skakels, whose money came from the coal industry but who compensated for its ruination of the landscape with a manic obsession with nature. Kennedy writes that “the Skakels, a clan of unruly Republican outdoorsmen, might provide a genetic antecedent to my predispositions.” There is indeed a strain of environmentalism that sits comfortably with right-wing politics, driven as it is by a sense of American exceptionalism, a God-given destiny made manifest in the magnificence of the continent the deity chose to bestow on the white settlers who knew best how to appreciate it, and by a belief in one’s entitlement to ownership of this natural bounty.

Kennedy Jr. recalls with relish his (apparently half-mad) Skakel relatives, like his Uncle Jimmy who had a vast aquarium in his house in Bel Air, into which he would dive to feed the sharks he kept in it. He also recalls that Jimmy “kept live mountain lions at his home. He had darted or lassoed them in Canada and brought them across the border in the trunk of his El Camino.” If Kennedy Jr.’s instincts were, as he believes, shaped by these “unruly Republican outdoorsmen,” they led him into a very peculiar wilderness.


His laudable legal activism on behalf of environmental causes immersed him quite literally in pollutants. In The Riverkeepers Kennedy writes vividly of what he calls his “Dantean” descents into the befouled waters of the Hudson tributaries:

Emerging from a thickly vegetated bank in a wooded thicket, the broken pipe blasted a steady stream of soapy black film. Above the pipe Brookside Stream was gin clear; below it was smelly and cream colored. Fecal matter bobbed in pools and carpeted the black eddies.

There is here a poetry of disgust, an inverse lyricism almost as rapturous as a romantic ode.

Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images

Robert F. Kennedy Jr touring Puerto Rico to inspect the environmental impact of US Navy training operations, Vieques, April 18, 2000

As an energy to be channeled into rage against corporate and governmental polluters, this revulsion was a positive force in Kennedy Jr.’s early activism. But it was darkened by its own foul tributaries: murder and drugs. He was fourteen when his father was assassinated. He recalled in movingly laconic terms the sight that greeted him when he was taken from his boarding school to the hospital where Kennedy senior was still just about alive: “My father’s head was bandaged and his eyes were black. His face was bruised, especially around his eyes.” Kennedy Jr. can hardly be blamed for becoming paranoid—the idea that there are hidden forces coming to get you, that lethal conspiracies are shaping both public and intimate events, seems fairly reasonable if you are a Kennedy. His continuing insistence that the CIA killed his uncle, perhaps his father, and poses the same “danger” to his own life may lack any evidence, but it is an understandable way of making sense not just of the turmoil of recent American history but of his own private trauma.

It’s not hard to see the connection between that ordeal and his very early and apparently voracious consumption of narcotics and hallucinogens. In Jerry Oppenheimer’s biography, RFK Jr., one of Kennedy’s high school friends reflects that “I think his goal was just to sort of get stoned at any cost, or to let me know that he was a little reckless. In my experience, he was interested in acting out for shock value.” At Palfrey day school in Boston, Kennedy caused outrage when he and two friends painted a mural of “a dead body with an erection” on the cupola. It does not take a psychoanalyst to figure out that Eros and Thanatos were pretty close companions in his teenage consciousness. His acting out took the form of a deliberate self-endangerment that bordered on a death wish.

This recklessness eventually led in 1983, when he was twenty-nine, to his arrest for heroin possession after he overdosed onboard a flight to South Dakota. His sentencing was just two months before his younger brother David died of a heroin overdose in a Palm Beach hotel. Robert Jr. came to believe that he himself was “hardwired to drink and drug myself to death.”

This dicing with death and disgrace was obviously a reaction to his father’s murder. But it also seems to have been shaped by an attraction to a twisted version of martyrdom. Kennedy Jr. wrote in The Riverkeepers that in his childhood “our parents supplemented our parochial school instruction in the Catholic creed by emphasizing the lives of the Saints and particularly the joys of martyrdom, secular or religious.” In American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family (2018), he doubled down on the grandiosity of imagining oneself dying, like Christ, to redeem the sins of the world. The book’s opening lines are: “From my youngest days I always had the feeling that we were all involved in some great crusade, that the world was a battleground for good and evil, and that our lives would be consumed in that conflict.”

Kennedy Jr. himself recognizes that in this mentality politics is fused with messianic religiosity. He sees it as an Irish Catholic thing: “Such passion came naturally to a people for whom the distinction between political and religious martyrdom had blurred during eight hundred years of British occupation.” But what happens when the “joy” of sacrificing one’s life in a Manichean struggle of good against evil meets the terrible reality of a crusading father dying before your eyes? If young Bobby could not have the quasi-religious mystique of his father’s and uncle’s sacrificial sainthood, he could perform his own parody of it. He could prove his willingness to die—not to save the world, but to take his revenge on it through self-harm and provocation.



There is much to admire in Kennedy’s ability to get himself out of a fourteen-year heroin habit. But his perverse martyr complex lingered, and it now resonates with a mindset common among the entitled class of wealthy men who form much of his support base—the belief that one is being crucified by the woke elites for “speaking one’s mind.” It also bequeathed him the obsessive concern with bodily purity that is often necessary for recovering addicts. Hypervigilance in relation to what is being ingested is the user’s defense against the cravings. Kennedy Jr. recently told David Remnick in a New Yorker Radio Hour interview that “my addiction was a gift because…the recovery from the addiction gave me a blueprint about how to live the rest of my life.”

That blueprint is the obverse of the addiction years—instead of sticking needles in his veins, he preaches against jabs. The evil substance is switched from heroin to thimerosal. In 2005, in a long article published jointly by Rolling Stone and Salon, Kennedy Jr. alleged the existence of a vast conspiracy to cover up the devasting effects—including the triggering of autism—of this mercury-based preservative. Thimerosal had in fact ceased to be used in all childhood vaccines in 2001, the journalist Seth Mnookin later wrote in Scientific American, “except for some variations of the flu vaccine.” Yet, in full apocalyptic mode, Kennedy claimed that “our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children.”

This made Kennedy, as the unmasker of the heinous plot, a savior of humanity. He notes in American Values that “Susan Sontag observed that addicts have a unique opportunity for redemption.” But in his mentality it is a short step from being uniquely redeemed to being the unique redeemer. “My recovery,” he wrote, “seemed to me as much a miracle as if I could suddenly walk on water.” It was, of course, Jesus Christ himself who did that.

In order for Kennedy Jr. to fulfill the family destiny of having his life consumed in the conflict between good and evil, the evil has to be colossal. Faced with contradiction by scientists, Kennedy inflated his claims. He insisted that the dose of thimerosal in a vaccine was 187 times greater than the recommended limit for daily exposure to methyl mercury. It was in fact 40 percent greater. When this was pointed out, Kennedy simply added a zero to the forty and, according to Mnookin, claimed that it was four hundred times greater. Trump did not invent the tactic of countering the exposure of his falsehoods by magnifying the lie to such vast proportions that it blots out reality altogether. Kennedy was way ahead of him.

He also anticipated Trump’s mobilization of the persecution complex. In Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple, General Burgoyne remarks of an American rebel who is about to be hanged that “martyrdom, sir, is what these people like: it is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.” Kennedy Jr. lacks Trump’s political abilities, but he presents to his admirers the same proposition: I suffer on your behalf. For the faithful, every correction of their champion’s falsehoods, every criticism of the harm he is inflicting on others, is a further proof of his heroic self-sacrifice. Kennedy, who has enjoyed privileged access to the political and media elites since his childhood, paints himself as a victim of censorship by—who else?—the elites.

Most importantly, Kennedy’s micro-paranoia (fear of invasion of the body) operates in tandem with Trump’s macro-level version (fear of invasion by migrants). In Purity and Danger, Douglas wrote that “some pollutions are used as analogies for expressing a general view of the social order.” Kennedy’s obsession with the danger posed by vaccines to the purity of the body serves as such an analogy. It draws on a very long tradition on the far right of characterizing alien people as both disease-carrying contaminants of public health and as polluters of the nation’s genetic stock. Since the archetypal bearers of these impurities are the Jews, there is an inevitability to the way Kennedy Jr. has begun to endorse antisemitic tropes. In July he told a press event in New York that “there is an argument” that “Covid-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”

It is equally unsurprising that he has ended up demanding the use of violence to drive away invasive immigrants. He has promised, in a conversation with Elon Musk, to travel to the Mexican border to “try to formulate policies that will seal the border permanently.” On the Breaking Points podcast, he said he wants to move US military spending from foreign involvements into “Fortress America—arming ourselves to the teeth at home.” Into the clear stream of his father’s progressive values, he pipes this ever more toxic sludge.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.