While looking everywhere for the deep state — you might fall down a sinkhole.
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My recent columns on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ‘s presidential candidacy and his views on vaccines have provoked many comments, both public and private, from those who feel Kennedy is the Man of the Hour — an honest broker calling out the fundamental rottenness of the system writ large.
I especially appreciated a tweet I got from one of those people, @ImJustDebi. She wanted to explain why she doubts (I assume she means why she has doubts about vaccines, and anything that the medical and scientific establishment says about COVID-19 and other matters):
Things that made me doubt… JFK, Iran Hostages, coming ice age, Iran Contra, acid rain, Desert Storm, Whitewater, ozone layer, 9/11, Iraq war, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, GMO, Chemtrails, climate change, COVID…..
Debi honestly summed up the mindset of a vocal and, to all appearances, growing minority in the United States (and elsewhere).
The following comments are not about Debi, whom I don’t know, but about people like Debi whom I do know.
These folks have concluded — from partial and sometimes complete cover-ups involving many major historical traumas — that basically the establishment cannot be believed at all, about anything, ever.
Some of the issues Debi cited, like chemtrails, are classic speculative theories that discount plausible, less sinister explanations. Others, such as the failure to investigate the true motives for US mideast wars under two presidents Bush, come with evidentiary backing. It’s a very mixed bag, but in the hands of someone prone to confirmation bias and given to broad generalizing, it can be dangerous.
From this fundamental doubt about… almost everything have emerged such toxic myths as the belief that no one died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And “doubt” may be the wrong word here, because many have no doubt. I wish they did. No, what they seem to have is absolute, dogmatic certainty.
It starts with real things and disappointment, alienation, and mistrust around them — then gradually the mind hardens, the filter turns on, and more and more events become “things to doubt.”
In any case, Debi represents a worldview. And once one accepts this premise without any critical thinking, then of course Robert F. Kennedy is the one truly honest man, and therefore what he says about public health is the one real truth. Everything else is a lie or a coverup.
How many of these people ever confirmed — on their own — what various studies on viruses and vaccines have proven or not proven? Or even what studies exist?
Many seem to accept a distorted if not completely discredited set of facts — from a cherry-picked set of articles.
This will, alas, leave me open to the howls of those who insist they have “studied the literature” and have reached the conclusion that the pro-vax studies were all rigged. (Of course, this generalization is built on the fact that some of them were, as is always true of studies, flawed.)
They say that quality anti-vax studies have been censored and unfairly pilloried. These folks may present as sophisticated, and can spout all kinds of impressive-sounding facts and figures — but from a limited number of their own questionable studies.
In the end they still are working from a place of deep and all but immutable skepticism and distrust. I know quite a few such people — who come off smart and discriminating and hard to dismiss but still wind up cherry-picking their way to the same place.
And those of us who basically trust fact-based data about science and medicine — along with millions of workers in those fields with first-hand knowledge — good, decent people doing the best they can — are all considered by RFK Jr.’s followers to have lost clarity or perspective on the nefariousness behind so many things.
The establishment media typically dismisses the mindset of people like Debi by quoting (and this comes up like clockwork) historian Richard Hofstadter’s remarks about the paranoid tendency within America.
I am not sure I agree it is pointless paranoia. There’s certainly some basis for skepticism. But those who turn doubt into a fetishistic mind-set — without a fact-based openness to considering each matter on its merits and to weighing alternate, plausible explanations for the same phenomena — are damaging the public marketplace of ideas so necessary to democracy.
I have focused considerable effort and time over the years researching what is referred to as the “deep state.” In the process, I have acquired a bit of insight on this subject.
Some understand that this is not a static thing but rather a political-science concept that needs to be reanalyzed in each epoch. Those who do not understand this — or choose not to — it seems to me are often constitutionally disposed to dislike everything about the establishment, from the Pentagon to the medical profession, and they feel betrayed when they see someone who they thought was in their camp turn out to be more agnostic and inclined to view each case on its specific merits.
The term “deep state” was hijacked by Roger Stone and Donald Trump and it worked very well to convince those who deny all nuance and require a simple black and white dogma to explain a complex world, including in many cases buying that there was some omnipotent “cabal” directing everything.
In fact, the deep state was and is a concept (originating in Turkey) that relates to a consensus among a constituency within institutions — shared values and goals and, sometimes, methods. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War and business interests united many of these people.
Today, what Trump and his acolytes call the “deep state” is a very different beast. It does not necessarily embody the same narrow-minded ruthlessness in pursuit of goals that often benefited a narrow class of individuals.
But both the “old,” documented deep state and the current one — if we can even identify a group to which that applies today — have played not only a troubling but also a salutary role in our country.
That is, the deep state has sometimes served as a steadying influence for society, rejecting extreme ideological swings that could tear the country apart. When Trump said that deep state elements in the CIA, Pentagon, etc. were against him, what he was actually talking about was the justifiable concern that Trump was some combination of a self-serving force for chaos and a willing cooperator with the enemies of America — as well as violating basic tenets of American democracy.
The deep state has also been a source of historical memory, and in some ways a nonpartisan force for order; and, if it can be said to still exist, its concern about the harm posed by Trump and his band of reckless deregulators and foreign policy buffoons was one such example.
So it’s complicated, as most things are.
When RFK’s disciples complain that the Pentagon — the Pentagon! — had a role in developing vaccines, they see a sinister, nefarious force up to no good.
I, on the other hand, see the military as one of the country’s largest institutions for handling responses to threats to public safety, and having the infrastructure and processes to help other governmental agencies not up to a crisis of this magnitude.
Does the Pentagon’s role necessarily portend some kind of military takeover? Of course not. For one thing, any large public health emergency necessarily concerns an organization responsible for the lives of millions of people. Having done (and continuing to do) investigative reporting on the military-intelligence complex, I understand that the Pentagon — and similar institutions — serve the established order, and indeed have an odious track record on many things. But they also do indispensable work.
And this is where the RFK-anti vaxxer worldview disappoints most. The critique vilifies many governmental and private sector institutions and, seemingly, entire professions — challenging anyone who trusts them.
Do these people not want a doctor to see them when they need it? Do they not trust hospitals to have the life-saving know-how when they are gravely ill? Do they not count on the government to reliably issue Social Security checks? Did they not attend universities and understand that, despite the obvious limitations, these institutions host an enormous amount of essential research that underpins many of the advances benefiting us all?
One commenter from the RFK Jr. School of Doubters wrote:
Russ, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone, and especially we critical thinkers, give credence to the “official LI(n)ES” of the corrupt Machiavellian minions of the #nefariousNewWorldOrder’s seemingly murderous eugenicists.
We have to find ways to discuss what is going on in the country without making the divide greater and the parties even more confused, and therefore easier to manipulate.
Condemning the entire medical science and public health establishment as conspirators in a plot, and the science that underpins it as inherently corrupt — rather than sometimes fallible — is just stunningly simplistic and obviously does great harm. It’s time to push back at this lunacy.
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