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Joe Rogan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Are AIDS Denialists
The anti-vax candidate and the endlessly gullible podcast host find common ground: On batshit HIV misinformation. Happy Pride.
Joe Rogan likes to read Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s books while sitting in the sauna.
When it came to one of the last remaining Kennedys, Rogan mused, he believed the hype: The narrative that RFK Jr. was “anti-vaccine” and “believed in pseudoscience.”
But then, a book came out during the pandemic that changed everything: The Real Anthony Fauci.
It rocketed up the charts, despite a media blackout. And as it rose, Rogan figured, it must be true. Otherwise, Kennedy “would instantly immediately be sued.” So Rogan climbed into his sauna, set it to 185 degrees, and got to reading. And it was a revelation.
“If it's telling the truth, just about the AIDS crisis, just about the use of AZT, just about-” Rogan stammered on his recent show. “Just about…all of it.”
With his patented brand of dough-brained credulity, Rogan wonders aloud: “Is this the guy that's telling the truth?”
This is how Rogan’s marathon three-hour interview with RFK Jr. begins.
A few weeks back, I wrote about the rise of the Children’s Health Defense network as a source of growing influence and impact. But while I was chipping away at that look at the organization’s finances, Kennedy’s presidential bid did something that is both unsurprising and deeply concerning: It went mainstream.
He has big money behind him: He is backed by billionaires Jack Dorsey, David Sacks, and Chamath Palihapitiya. (And, functionally, Elon Musk.) He’s got former Congressman, one-time progressive darling, and ex-presidential candidate Dennis Kuninich running his campaign. And he’s got star power — or, at least, whatever star power Alicia Silverstone’s endorsement’s offers.
But his real power is in playing the media.
Some outlets are inviting Kennedy on the air, with the vague plan of calling him on his various bullshit. Others are ignoring him, waging their fingers are anyone who dares consider the Kennedy scion.
But RFK Jr.’s biggest asset is the constellation of blogs, social media channels, podcasts, livestreams, and alternative media outlets that are tripping over themselves to hail him as a hero, a whistleblower, the liberal answer to Donald Trump.
RFK Jr., no doubt, knows the power of this online media ecosystem. He’s been doing all manner of interviews, from Jordan B. Peterson to Daniel Liszt, a.k.a “Dark Journalist,” a minor QAnon/InfoWars-affiliated streamer.
And he understands that no figure is more important, more cloaked in a thin greasy layer of authenticity, than Joe Rogan.
His truly bug-eyed and shameless campaign threatens to mainstream all kinds of nonsense. But there has been one particular narrative in RFK Jr.’s crusade that threatens to feed into a burgeoning anti-Queer hate campaign. And Joe Rogan is his helpful bullhorn.
Together, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Joe Rogan are taking AIDS denialism mainstream.
Inside Bug-eyed and Shameless are clues to decipher who really killed JFK.
Hidden histories have enormous appeal these days.
We live in an era where people straight across the political spectrum feel that something has gone fundamentally rotten. For those who feel that way, there is a deeply held believe that there must be bigger factors at play than what is directly in front of our faces. In their quest to discover these hidden pressures, they go looking for the roots of our current malaise to another point in time.
And, hey, it’s a good instinct. You’ll notice that this newsletter loves a historical deep dive.
But history is much easier to weaponize than the present day. You can conjure scenes, narratives, and realities for people who either weren’t there or don’t remember. Revisionism helps normalize fringe ideas. (Dispatch #15) Arguing we live in a totalitarian Communist hellscape is an easier sell if you believe that, just decades prior, society was healthier and freer. Buying the idea that the COVID-19 vaccines were tools of mass murder is more believable if you can be convinced that the players responsible for designing and approving the innoculations have a long track record of causing human suffering.
Which brings us to RFK Jr.’s book: The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. The book that blew Joe Rogan’s mind.
As a polemic, the book is actually useless. At no point does RFK Jr. come out and make his point. He leans on thoroughly discredited doctors like Vladimir Zelenko (Dispatch #15) to argue that COVID-19 could have been treated more effectively, with cheaper pharmaceuticals like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. (Bullshit, as discussed in Dispatch #49.) He surveys a history of military exercises and tabletop planning exercises as proof that the U.S. state had foreknowledge of the pandemic. He points to erosions of freedoms and civil liberties the world over as proof of….something.
RFK Jr., of course, doesn’t need to spell any of this out because his readers are already primed with the right conclusions. The blurbs at the beginning are a good guide as to who composes his readers’ media diet: Tucker Carlson; anti-vaccine doctor Robert Malone; Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo Rob Schneider; Naomi Wolf; amongst other unsavory characters.
The case that RFK Jr. does forcefully make isn’t about COVID-19 itself. It is, as the book’s title suggests, about Anthony Fauci. And the crux of his fantastical assault on Fauci is the AIDS epidemic.
I’ll give you the short version first: Anthony Fauci began his career as a ruthlessly ambitious bureaucrat in a backwater agency, forever on the brink of abolition. He realized that the only way to amass the power he so desperately sought was to give his National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases a raison d’être. He had to find an epidemic. If he couldn’t exploit one, he’d create one. And HIV became his trial ballon. Over-hyping the threat of the virus to inflate his own budgets, he cajoled scientists to fudge the research and partnered with private industry to undermine the scientific and regulatory process to approve drugs that were neither necessary, effective, nor safe.
This tale could only be told with the help of a determined crew of longtime AIDS denialists, and enabled by the paradigm brought on by COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Prior to 2020, the misinformation around AIDS occupied a small-but-stubborn corner of society. But COVID truthers like RFK Jr. saw an opportunity, a way to connect the strawman villain they had made in Fauci’s likeness to an alleged history of crimes.
RFK Jr.’s frames these denialists, hitherto jokes and clowns, as whistleblowers and heroes. And for his readers — like Rogan — it’s quite compelling. So long as you never do an iota of serious research. And that’s like Rogan’s brand, man.
Meet the protagonists: Calia Farber and Peter Duesberg
Farber is a former magazine reporter and Duesberg, who she has profiled at great length, is a molecular biologist. (RFK Jr. acknowledges Farber for her work in editing sections of the book.)
RFK Jr. quotes Farber at length, including her lamentations that “real scientists” have faced endemic “persecution” at the hands of “Fauci’s vendetta system.” And “Peter Duesberg is one very famous example.” Indeed, Duesberg is the world’s pre-eminent AIDS denialist.
RFK Jr. sums up Duesberg’s theory thus:
The HIV virus…was a kind of free rider that was also associated with overlapping lifestyle exposures. Duesberg and many who have followed him offered evidence that heavy recreational drug use in gay men and drug addicts was the real cause of immune deficiency among the first generation of AIDS sufferers. They argued that the initial signals of AIDS, Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), were both strongly linked to amyl nitrite — “poppers” — a popular drug among promiscuous gays. Other common “wasting” symptoms were all associated with heavy drug use and lifestyle stressors.
In short: HIV does not cause AIDS. The afflictions that tortured and kill those AIDS patients were, in fact, a result of their drug use and “compulsive homosexual behavior,” as RFK Jr. phrased it to Rogan. Duesberg popularized this idea in his book Inventing the AIDS Crisis. Farber wrote her own book, another vehicle for Duesberg’s views: Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS.
Duesberg, RFK Jr. tells us, had his career ended by Fauci for advancing this theory and for refusing to fall in line with the woke political consensus around HIV — and, more pointedly, for standing in the way of Fauci’s hysteria around the virus.
While he may have feigned amazement at the stunning revelations in RFK Jr.’s book, Rogan is certainly familiar with Duesberg: He interviewed Duesberg on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2012. (And has cited him numerous times since.)
While the official, Spotify-backed, description of the episode notes Duesberg “is a proponent of the debunked claim that HIV does not cause AIDS,” that’s far from Rogan’s point-of-view in the original episode.
Giving Duesberg plenty of room to wax about how gay men are doing this to themselves with their degenerate lifestyle, Rogan largely fawned over the doctor’s insights. “How many scientists are working in the field on HIV and AIDS?” Rogan asked. “20,000,” Duesberg guessed. “20,000?” Rogan responds. “How did they not understand what you're saying? And how do they not see what you're saying? How is it not being discovered?”
Duesberg, unsurprisingly, concluded that it was the research money that created a culture of conspiracy, leading all of those 20,000 doctors to cover up the true nature of HIV and AIDS, pushing dangerous drugs and developing an unnecessary vaccine, all in order to get that sweet, sweet research money.
“These people are not willing to look at the truth because there's a massive amount of money that's being spent perpetrating a lie,” Rogan said. “That's what you're saying.” Yes, yes it was.
The interview is interspersed with all kinds of homophobic banter and asides. “You know, it can't be healthy being a gay dude,” Rogan remarks at one point.
While Rogan was a credulous interviewer, his co-host for the episode, comedian Bryan Callen, was more skeptical. AIDS is no longer a death sentence, Callen pointed out, and it seems to coincide perfectly with the advent of better pharmaceuticals. “How do you explain that?”
Duesberg stammers out some non-sequiturs before finally arriving at something resembling an explanation. “Now, at least many of them know — or, at least, suspect — that nitrite inhalants, the poppers…are wearing them out,” he says. In other words: The only thing that has stopped gays dying from AIDS is that they stopped using poppers.
This, of course, is wildly untrue. Poppers remain incredibly popular in the gay community. And while they’re probably not good for your health, the evidence of their dangers is shaky at best. (The most serious side effect is likely heart-related.)
Callen goes on to point out that he had friends in the 80s who contracted AIDS and didn’t use drugs. He keeps pushing: The correlation between people with HIV living longer is better treatment.
“No treatment,” Duesberg interjects. “That's the only way to go ahead.”
Rogan jumps in to bridge the divide with a truly stupid observation: “So you're saying it was like a placebo effect for the entire community?”
The conversation goes around and around. Duesberg continues to insist that HIV drugs are, in fact, toxic. The death rate from HIV declined, he insists, by falling rates of drug use. And despite some brief efforts from Callen to poke holes in his flimsy theory, the show becomes a glowing profile of a mad scientist.
Interspersed in the episode — as Rogan nods sagely as Duesberg argues that crystal meth, not AIDS, killed millions of gay men — is references to how much Rogan loves doing cocaine. Go figure.
They’re afraid to debate, RFK Jr. says.
So much of the tire-pumping for this deeply unserious conspiracy theory hangs on the idea that the medical establishment, the U.S. government, Fauci, and the media are all coordinating to suppress the truth.
RFK Jr. writes:
In a rational universe, or in a functioning democracy, combatants would duke out the incendiary HIV/AIDS dispute in an open public debate in the scientific literature between the foremost establishment scientists and the best-credentialed dissenting ones. But in Tony Fauci’s authoritarian technocracy, the ruling medical cabal refuses to allow this sort of dialogue. Like Inquisition priests, HIV’s high clergy stubbornly resist the possibility that they might be wrong. From the outset, the HIV/AIDS religion has seen its survival in moral absolutism, outright discrimination, and merciless suppression of doubt.
This, of course, is exactly what happened. And Duesberg lost. Because the science does not support his crackpot ideas.
To make his point, RFK Jr. pretends like he remains open-minded to the science. “I recognize that there are some fifty thousand articles on AIDS in the scientific literature,” he writes. “A casual novitiate like myself has little chance of unraveling this baroque controversy in a vacuum. Without rigorous debate…” He continues as you expect, arguing that the theories of a few must be given equal standing next to the lifetime work of thousands of others. And refusing to offer that platform is tantamount to censorship.
His feigning at objectivity aside, RFK Jr. spends the rest of the book treating Duesberg’s theory as gospel. He calls it “clear and convincing.” He writes: “I haven’t found any evidence that HIV ever actually kills a T-cell.” Elsewhere he muses how the “HIV/AIDS hypothesis came under attack for its many discrepancies and internal contradictions.”
This nonsense builds to RFK Jr.’s larger point point: That the early treatment approved by the U.S. government and recommended by Fauci, AZT, was, in fact, ineffective and dangerous. Talking to Rogan, RFK Jr. explained: “This stuff was killing people faster than AIDS was killing people.”
This was kept from the public because “the United States mainstream media heavily censored journalistic criticism of Dr. Fauci and the corruption in the AZT studies,” Kennedy writes.
This is a massive part of what makes RFK Jr. and Rogan so effective: They appeal to their followers’ thirst for knowledge, while also appealing to their paranoia and vanity. They trade in hidden truths and secrets they don’t want you to know. Anyone who claims the science is settled is part of the cabal.
The science, of course, is settled on the matter. As RFK Jr. rightly points out, there are tens of thousands of studies on HIV/AIDS, and every serious and peer-reviewed study comes to the same conclusion: HIV causes AIDS, and antiretrovirals are effective in slowing, or stopping altogether, the progressive of the illness and lessening the chances of death.
There has been and continues to be, however, plenty of debate around the role of drugs in managing the virus. Certainly, the Queer community was vocal about the miserable side-effects of AZT. But good, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies proved that AZT slowed the progression of HIV. It saved an incalculable number of lives. Newer drugs have done so more effectively, with even fewer serious side-effects. This is a miracle of science.
The fact that RFK Jr. and Rogan are promoting the idea that HIV-positive people should toss these live-saving drugs in favor of some bathtub remedy of supplements and vitamins — the kinds of which both men happen to endorse and market for profit — is homicidal.
AIDS Denialism has a short, but unpleasant, history.
Much like the intense skepticism that fed COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the HIV epidemic fostered disbelief that something so deadly could be so natural.
Duesberg’s theory, that the government was doing too much to respond to the epidemic — or, supposed epidemic — is exactly the opposite of the claims of most of these conspiracy theories. Many of people at the time, particularly those living with HIV or in communities hard-hit by it, saw a conspiracy of silence. They thought the government wanted them dead.
The inaction of governments lent credence to the idea that they were in on it. That HIV may have been designed, or released intentionally: To murder gays, Black people, or both. And these ideas had some help. We know that the KGB worked to foment the idea that HIV was a U.S-designed bioweapon that leaked from a lab. (Sound familiar?)
Thanks to the diligent work of ACT UP and other activists — through die-ins, coffin deliveries, and acts of civil disobedience — that conspiracy was slowly dismantled. The massive weight of science since then has revealed the complex zoonotic origins of HIV, and the improbable but actual route it took to infect humans.
Duesberg, of course, argues the opposite. Governments did too much to warn of HIV and to finance a response.
That theory gets particularly odious when it reaches the AIDS crisis on the African continent.
Africa, for the AIDS denialisms, became both an opportunity and a prop.
These denialists point to Africa, suggesting that the millions of people who have contracted the virus have been, largely, healthy. It’s the gay lifestyle that drives AIDS deaths, and Africa proves it, they reason.
RFK Jr., repeating a common myth promoted by Duesberg, writes “most HIV-infected Africans showed no sign of illness.” On Rogan’s podcast in 2012, Duesberg said “they” — without ever specifying who he meant — said “the continent would die out. Remember that? Guess what happened?…Guess how many we have now, Africans.” Rogan confessed he didn’t know. “One billion.”
This, of course, is a crock. Calculating the death toll for the entire continent is difficult, but it is estimated that tens of millions have died from AIDS in Africa over recent decades, with more than a half-million still dying per year.
While Duesberg’s work was, rightly, cast into the trash bin by all serious policy-makers, he found an unexpected fan: Thabo Mbeki, the prime minister of South Africa from 1999 to 2008. Mbeki appointed Duesberg and other denialists to an official government task force. He ran programs to encourage South Africans to ditch their antiretrovirals and take vitamins instead, like Duesberg recommended.
Zimbabwean doctor Pride Chigwedere calculated the cost of Mbeki’s — and, by extension, Duesberg’s — policies. In a peer-reviewed paper, Chigwedere estimated that “more than 330,000 lives…were lost because a feasible and timely ARV [anti-retroviral] treatment program was not implemented in South Africa.” What’s more, he found, because Mbeki’s government did not encourage these drugs to pregnant HIV-positive mothers “thirty-five thousand babies were born with HIV.”
The human toll of Duesberg’s AIDS denialism is heartbreaking, and it is recent. It has been enabled by people like Rogan and RFK Jr. And now, thanks to our short collective memory, they’re at it again.
Mbeki’s name appears nowhere in The Real Anthony Fauci.
It’s a tough June for Queer people.
Protests, often stuffed with armed goons, have targeted drag queen events across North America. Influencers and blowhards have ramped up anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Ron DeSantis, one of a cabal of governors signing anti-Queer bills into law, is running for president on the back of his service in the culture wars. Polls show mounting opposition to rights for trans people, and rising support for bills stripping them of their rights, particularly, but not exclusively, amongst Republicans. Twitter, ostensibly the digital town square, has gone full transphobic as a matter of policy. In just the past year, mass shootings targeted Queer bars in Colorado and Slovakia, likely motivated by homophobia.
Hatred is having an impact.
We — both collectively and the Queer community specifically — are incredibly lucky to have put distance between ourselves and an era where AIDS was a death sentence. Modern medical science, funded specifically because Queer people fought back against institutional homophobia, is what gave us the luxury of that distance.
But with distance comes amnesia. Non-Queer people, most of whom never really appreciated the horrors of HIV, are prone to forgetting the stunning indifference of the state in the face of all that death. They forget the obsessive moralizing, the finger-pointing, the feet-dragging. They forget how drug companies were never the heroes, but instead the villains: Gouging for life-saving drugs. For decades, Queer people had to source these life-saving drugs through the black market. They forget how it was only through the fearless work of people like Larry Kramer, Marsha P. Johnston, and everybody who participated in groups like ACT UP. Institutional support was not unconditional: If pressure let up for even a second, governments defunded and deflected.
In this story, the real story of the AIDS epidemic, Fauci is a well-intentioned scientist who wanted to do better. Far from a devilish mastermind, he was part of a slow, indifferent machine. Larry Kramer, in Reports from the Holocaust, sums up Fauci’s record on the AIDS crisis with perfect directness. “Dr. Fauci is an ambitious bureaucrat who is the recipient of all the buck-passing and dumping-on from all of the above. He staggers, without complaint, under his heavy load.”
The criminal indifference of the state did not end in the 1980s. In many ways, it continued until very recently. It was only in the last few years that governments have used their regulatory powers to make widely available Truvada, an antiretroviral that prevents HIV transmission if taken regularly. (Drug-maker Gilead sponsored the Pride event I was at last night.) The real proliferation of these critical drugs only occurred once their generic versions became available. And the stigmatization of HIV-positive people continues: Even today, criminal law continues to put people in jail for the crime of being HIV-positive.
For a long time, it was easy to ignore people like Duesberg — at least here at home. (His effect on HIV policy in South Africa and further afield remains a shameful.) Today, however, the weaponization of the AIDS pandemic is not just a possibility but a reality. There is a man running for president, who has access to some of the biggest platforms in the world, espousing this denialism to advance his own brand of anti-scientific hokum.
That’s it for this week!
Thanks, as always, to my paying subscribers. You make these kind of deep-dives possible.
If you want to learn more about the history of the AIDS crisis, season three of my podcast The Village — hosted by Francis Plourde — is all about those difficult times.
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Until next week!