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The Important and Dangerous Campaign of RFK Jr.
Plus reinterpreting history through art, and Hello from Aspen, Colorado!
Me after my conversation with Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert
As always, the full edition of this email is available by subscription via Puck. I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and interviewed Patagonia C.E.O. Ryan Gellert last night about leading a company with a radical commitment to solving climate change. Midweek, I’m hosting a hands-on generative A.I. workshop, before closing out the festival with a conversation with architect Sir David Adjaye (famed designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture) and writer Spencer Bailey, who collaborated on a new book, Alchemy, which is centered around Adjaye’s work.
I’m constantly thinking about the intersection of democracy, people power, and how we show up for each other, and those themes are even more resonant during “Civic Season,” the period between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. Yesterday, I found myself profoundly moved by an exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s called re:mancipation, and it’s an elegant and thoughtful way of engaging with our nation’s past, simultaneously honoring and challenging it to help us envision a better future.
The exhibit includes a famous Thomas Ball sculpture depicting Abraham Lincoln towering over a newly-freed Black American after the Emancipation Proclamation. That image has been criticized for denying agency to the formerly enslaved, and for depicting a feeble helplessness and inequality even as it ostensibly celebrates liberty. The re:mancipation exhibit is a collaboration between contemporary artist Sanford Biggers, the MASK Consortium, and the Chazen Museum to reckon with that original image, recontextualize it, and offer a creative response. It’s literally everything I want us to do collectively with our past.
The bad news is that the exhibit closed this weekend. The good news is that you can explore it online, and I hope the physical installation will find its way to another location in the near future.
Here’s what else I’m giving my attention to lately:
The European Union’s digital commissioner, Thierry Breton, inaugurated the bloc’s physical office in Silicon Valley by meeting in person with leaders at Twitter and Meta—a step to ensure compliance with new E.U. rules requiring tech platforms to combat disinformation. In other words, Breton swung by to say: There’s a new sheriff in town. I’m here for it, because our domestic sheriffs haven’t been doing their jobs.
Kudos to The Washington Post, which published an epic investigation into the delayed Justice Department inquiry into the Jan 6 insurrection, and the role played by Trump and his top level advisors. What stands out to me is how the D.O.J. only focused its investigation on Trump after the House of Representatives and the media embarrassed them by out-investigating them. Hooray for multiple branches of government and the fourth estate!
And now for something I never expected to write about: the presidential aspirations of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and why we shouldn’t ignore it…
R.F.K. Jr. & the Latest Kennedy Tragedy
As usual, I’ll just share some snippets from the full essay. In this case I’ll start with what drew me into Kennedy’s orbit: an unexpected run-in with Bitcoin 2023 conference attendees in Miami this May which led me to observe:
If you’ve dismissed crypto as a speculative financial nothingburger, you have been missing the rabid ideological community of Bitcoin evangelists who see themselves as part of a larger fight for financial and political freedom. If the government can shut down your access to your money, they fear, you’re not really free. Kennedy understands this connection, and understands that if he can tap into the organizing and evangelizing power of Bitcoin, he can boost his name recognition, fundraising capacity, and political power—if not as a conveyer for the presidency than for ubiquitous and long-lasting demagoguery, and we know how that can turn out.
It’s not fringe; it’s smart and is a key piece of a larger puzzle that explains why you’re hearing his name more, and why I’m spending considerable bytes of server space writing about him now.
I acknowledge his significant contributions to environmental causes and fighting polluters, but then he started to see vaccines as pollution, and he did this well-before COVID. More interesting than all his vaccine skepticism to me is the fact that he was early to be part of a community of doubters and skeptics in a world of declining trust:
Indeed, the skepticism that fuels Kennedy’s campaign has arrived at a perfect moment of deteriorating social trust. Kennedy speaks of “they” and “them” and “elites” who want to hold us back, whether it’s Big Government or Big Business or the military industrial complex. After all, who among us doesn’t worry that we are subject to corporate or governmental manipulation, or that President Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex wasn’t obviously prescient?
In fact, on some level, Kennedy speaks in a language I can very much identify with—about leaning into a story where humans are inextricably connected to nature, not just exercising dominion over it, while also talking honestly about our racist past. He’s capturing the interest of a new kind of public philosophy and spirituality that exists in the voices of people like the writer and public speaker Charles Eisenstein, who joined Kennedy’s campaign and spoke on the candidate’s podcast. They chat about spirituality, the environment, the power of rediscovering our neighbors, and of sharing values even as we disagree. You can spot Eisenstein’s influence on Kennedy’s website, too, which features language about reconciliation and the role of division in American life. Kennedy recognizes and connects with people who are searching for deeper meaning in public life, who are uneasy with the world as it is, and who are happy to identify the culprit as powerful agents outside their control.
Ultimately, I see Kennedy as a possibly-well-intentioned opportunist who’s doing work that advances the cause of people committed to undermining our practice of democracy.
He’s also receiving praise from the hardcore Trump people, like Roger Stone, Steve Banon, Charlie Kirk, and Alex Jones, who love him is because they view him as a Democratic Trojan Horse—great family legacy on the outside, batshit ideas on the inside, and the Trump-y ability to placate a smorgasbord of groups—who will weaken Biden’s shot at reelection. Kennedy, hardly a principled actor, is willing to accept that support, not merely from a distance, but in the form of media appearances on Fox News, the Joe Rogan podcast, with Glenn Greenwald, and even at fundraisers hosted by DeSantis supporter David Sacks. Next week, Kennedy will be speaking in Philadelphia at an event hosted by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group that is behind much of the effort to remove books that mention sexuality, feature LGBGT+ stories, or teach the truth about America’s racial history from schools and libraries. If you’ve noticed your local school board meetings have gotten more heated and even violent, there’s a good chance it’s because many M4L chapters have close ties to the Proud Boys, “sovereign citizen” militias, and other right-wing extremist movements. And yet his message also lands with rich finance bros on yachts in Biscayne Bay.
Seeking alignment with these groups does not reflect a sincere effort to bring the nation together but quite the opposite. While Kennedy talks a lot about “healing the divide” in the country—and that’s a worthy goal—he’s crossing that divide with support from people dedicated to deepening it.
Full essay here.
Thanks for reading!