Mermel: RFK Jr., duty, and The Plague

EAI president’s introduction at recent dinner explains much about Robert Kennedy Jr.

The Ethan Allen Institute invited Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to participate in the Gen. John Stark Lectures and address the topic, “Climate, Free Markets, and Economic Fairness.” Myers Mermel, the President of the Institute, offered the following introduction at the Doubletree in South Burlington on the evening of June 21st before a sold-out audience of 300 people. 

by Myers Mermel

Before I begin with my introduction of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., I would like to thank the person who helped make this event possible. That person was Frederick J Bailey the former President of the City Council of Burlington. Thank you Fred. As an aside –Fred’s lasting legislative accomplishment is that he had a sandwich named after him at Halverson’s –it’s still on the menu. It’s called the Bailey Melt. But don’t order one, your arteries will never recover. 

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a noted author, attorney, public intellectual, environmentalist, and public health expert. 

His books include among other titles: The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health; Vax-Unvax: Let the Science Speak; A Letter to Liberals: Censorship and COVID: An Attack on Science and American Ideals; American Values: Lessons I learned from My Family; Climate in Crisis: Who’s Causing It, Who’s Fighting It, and How We Can Reverse It Before It’s Too Late; and, lastly, Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy. 

His career is marked by the environmental movement he created and his decades long successful pursuit to clean up the Hudson River.  He attended Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Prep, and Millbrook. He received an A.B. from Harvard and a J.D. from the University of Virginia 

If a man’s resume is the sum of his being you have just heard it. But we know from looking at other public figures that accomplishments alone are a poor lens through which to view character. We need a better introduction, I believe. 

The best introduction of Robert is the one he gives about himself. It is a story he tells frequently about his character, but no one as far as I know has yet unpacked it. He told the story recently to journalist David Samuels who briefly touched it, and he told it to Joe Rogan who only danced around it like a puppy in spring flowers and didn’t get near it. 

To really understand RFK Jr., to make this introduction worthy, we should listen to him and unpack his explanation of his own character. Remember that character in our republic used to be the defining aspect of an individual. Before Washington’s Cincinnatus moment, then the apogee of good character, and the consequent rise of political parties, voters selected candidates not on the basis of issue positions they held, but on the basis of character alone.  Voting on the basis of issues was vulgar because it elevated the interests of self over the interests of the community as a whole. 

As Robert tells the story, his father, two weeks before his tragic death, gave him a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus. His father had read the book during a period of reflection, following President Kennedy’s assassination, in which he addressed his relationship with God, and while he continued to embrace the Catholic Church, he looked to other areas for meaning, as part of that he had found a connection with existentialism. Camus was a post-war philosopher and existentialist, though he denied it, and The Plague was one of his three most important novels. Robert’s father with a “particular intensity” directed Robert to read the book, and Robert says he read it three times to decipher the message.

In the book, a doctor confronts the reality that his walled city has been infected by an unknown plague. He has no ability to stop the destructive effects of the plague. This initially leads him to stay inside since going out among the sick would lead to no cure, only his own destruction.  Ultimately the doctor, however, does go out. His response is to comfort those who are suffering around him. Robert points out that the existentialists were legatees of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.  Robert suggests that Camus’ doctor had brought order to the chaos created by the plague, by doing his own duty, and performing service at great sacrifice to himself.  

Camus, an existentialist, saw in the doctor’s actions a reflection of the efforts of Sisyphus, the iconic model of Stoicism.  Sisyphus was an ancient Homeric figure who performed a great service to mankind by capturing death and chaining him up. Zeus punished Sisyphus by condemning him to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. Yet, every time Sisyphus would near the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down. 

According to Robert, through a stoic cosmology, Camus saw Sisyphus as a happy man because he put his shoulder to the stone. Sisyphus was given a duty and he did his duty. This self-sacrifice by Sisyphus brought order to a chaotic universe. Robert suggests that our universe is chaotic and that he can bring order to it by the performance of his own duty. 

That’s a lot to take in. You can see why Rogan passed on it. But what does this mean? He introduces four parts. He goes from (1) existentialism with Camu– to (2) stoicism with Sisyphus– to (3) the exercise of duty– to (4) ordering of the universe. There are large steps between the parts and it’s not easy to follow. What is that Robert telling us about who he is?

For Camus, existentialism was the project through which he analyzed questions of responsibility, innocence, and guilt. Camus saw the futile actions of Sisyphus as absurd, but Camus believed Sisyphus accepted his fate and therefore was happy with it.

But let’s test this metaphor of Sisyphus a little bit further. Sisyphus was active, in motion, yes. He was a man under responsibility. But despite his duty– his actions were always futile. The endless repetition of his actions signaled no progress. But let’s consider this. Without progress there could be no Hegelian dialectic. So, Sisyphus was in essence the end of the dialectic. And the end of dialectic suggests it would have been the end of history. Haven’t we heard about the end of history recently under another public figure somewhere else before?

You know they made a movie about Sisyphus. You probably saw it. It was called Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray. In the movie, every day is a repetition of the last and no matter what happens during the day, Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, ends up in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania getting awakened by the same clock at the same time. And, in the day that follows, Phil Connors and his metaphysical boulder roll down the hill. Phil Connors is trapped until the point when he realizes he is powerless in the face of life. When the old vagrant dies and Phil Connors cannot stop the vagrant’s death — that is the moment when Phil Connors becomes a Stoic. Once he accepts things that he can’t change, he immediately breaks out of the Sisyphean cycle. He then realizes he personally has a duty to care for others. Albert Camus and RFK Sr. probably would have loved Ground Hog Day. 

But Robert’s ideas about Sisyphus are slightly different. From Robert’s description there is no breakthrough moment like the one Phil Connors enjoys.  For Robert continued service is the breakthrough moment because service itself is the expression of virtue. And Stoics believe virtue is the summum bonum -the highest good—and from it derives all happiness. 

Yet if all the actions of Sisyphus result in failure, why should we commend Robert’s character if he believes he can only fail—that cosmology sounds vaguely Calvinistic with double predestination – where God chooses who to save and God chooses who to damn. Didn’t we switch out of this line of deterministic thought with the Enlightenment? Is Robert telling us to keep trying despite the fact that we will also ultimately fail in our aims? That we should all engage in repetitive failure? No, he’s not focused on the repetitive action, the work we do, Robert explains that fulfillment of duty is the goal. He believes his duty of service is paramount to his character. It is the Rosetta Stone through which we can understand him.

In concept it is vaguely reminiscent of the “ask not what your country can do for you” type of call to duty. And most would agree that we as a society need to find our way back to communities full of people willing to serve. In his own way, Robert is offering himself as something akin to the Halfway Covenant of 1662. He is offering a way to bind the present to the very best parts of the past. In that sense Robert is telling us that he sees himself as an interlocutor of the past as it becomes our American future. Given the current state of censorship a trusted interlocutor could be a very good thing indeed. That all is worth deep consideration. 

But one last thing. How does everyone doing their duty of service –actually result in “bringing order to the universe”? I mean if everyone was doing their duty of service, then everyone would be virtuous, and I thought wholly virtuous societies were composed only of angels not people born of Adam.

The “bringing order to the universe concept” is a philosophic curveball. It’s not a Stoic idea. Stoics accept the universe as it is and order their lives to it, not the reverse. They accepted the vicissitudes of life, through providence, much as eastern philosophies caution the same response. They didn’t try to subordinate the world to themselves.

Why does Robert believe order is important? Perhaps because Robert knows society seeks order in this current time of chaos. But Stoicism doesn’t bring or impose order. In the metaphysical clock of Stoicism, virtue is the counterweight to entropy which remains the heavy pendulum of our temporal existence.  The desire for order ontologically arises elsewhere. 

Where does the desire to bring order come from? It is a Reformation impulse. An attempt to mold the temporal world to resemble the supernatural. It is Utopianism. It is evanescent. It too is doomed to failure. However, Utopianism is one of the most significant impulses behind the idea of this Republic. While in places it can wear the cloak of exceptionalism, it is the quest to use socio-political and economic reforms to build a society where all citizens live in peace and harmony, like the image which Quaker Edward Hicks painted of his Peaceable Kingdom. While not consistent with Stoicism, this telos, this end, imbues his character with a deeply American spirit. This utopian American spirit is uniting; it binds our individual dreams and desires for a better life with his collective desire for a better society. 

Our speaker tells us his character is formed out of a desire to do his duty, to be of service to others. He asks us to follow his example. He wants us to join him in his happy work. His career history tells us that his work is not futile. For many years, his primary occupation was cleaning up the Hudson. For decades he did the work rolling the boulder up the hill on the Hudson cleanup. But he eventually got the boulder over the top. The Hudson, and many other waters, are much cleaner now than they were when he began, demonstrably cleaner. His efforts were not futile there. 

In summary, not many people understand what motivates them or can describe it clearly. Robert has given us insights into his character which can help us understand his worldview. He stands alone on our public stage today with his desire to explore difficult areas, to find meaning, and to perform the duty of virtuous service. I present to you Robert F Kennedy Jr.. 

Categories: Commentary

7 replies »

  1. I am glad that Vermonters paid $100+ to attend. No affordability in Vermont.

  2. He’s not an Obama/Biden “democrat, i.e.: A Communist. Got it. He’s instead a highly wealthy, liberal guy, a DEMOCRAT, from another political dynasty like the Bush family who has the family name, money, & power to make his voice heard, SOME of which are more moderate.

    Nonetheless? MAGA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Oh, and btw? I’m originally from suburbia just outside NYC and hold a four year college-plus degree.) So much for stereotyping.

    But as long as you’re out there, Mr. Mermel, exactly what are the card-carrying Vermont “GOP” wealthy elitists such as yourself doing to counteract the ruthless Marxist-style, totalitarian legislative anti-Constitutional bills which the crazed left is instituting here in Vermont? In the event you need a reminder: non-citizen voting, prosecutors who refuse to prosecute, abject racist policies (against whites) via medical access & banking/loans, s5, Obama/Biden “low income” HIGH-DENSITY housing now being allowed virtually all over VT (except, but of course, if one is wealthy enough to own huge tracts of property or one resides in a H.O.A.), etc.

    And so I again ask: Well, how about all that, Mr. Mermel and Mr. Dame?

    Yeah….you don’t read VDC……suuuuuure ya don’t……..crickets as usual.

  3. IF this represents what went on at that Meeting ……


  4. Ms Gaffney, I read VDC everyday. I think every Vermont conservative should. The interesting thing about RFK Jr is that he believes in free market solutions to climate just as many on the right do. His lecture opens that issue up to debate on the left, particularly with regards to the Affordable Heat Act. Having the left debate free markets and climate is a good starting point. I hear what you are saying about all the other issues you mention confronting Vermonters. You mention some real legitimate problems. No one is giving up and no one who is committed is ignoring them. But it’s not up to Paul and me alone. Frankly, I’m just one person trying to help. It’s really up to all of us. I look forward to meeting you in person someday I read your comments frequently. Best, Myers

    • Myers Mermel says: “Having the left debate free markets and climate is a good starting point.” That’s why Ethan Allen Institute, the conservative think tank he leads, brought Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to Vermont.

      RFK Jr. is running for President as a Democrat knowing that his party will not let him win the primary. See: Sanders, Bernard 2016, 2020. More important is the fact that RFK Jr. is a long time climate change fanatic whose “resume is replete with decades of corporate and nonprofit lawfare and activism attempting to place burdensome regulations on energy production.”

      More from this article –>
      “RFK Jr. has expressed a desire for laws punishing public officials who “sell out the public trust” by resisting climate alarmism, and described skeptics of environmental fanaticism as going “against all the evidence of the rational mind.” He wrongly insisted that “any state attorney general” with enough chutzpah to stand up to the “dangerous and duplicitous corporate propagandists, has authority to annul the charters” of energy companies like Exxon and political groups benefiting from their nonprofit donations. In recent years, he has continued attacking efficient means of energy production — coal, nuclear, and fossil fuels — while bolstering ineffective and expensive green energy technologies like windmills.”

      John McClaughry produces numerous articles against VT Left’s climate extremism. So, what made EAI promote a climate extremist and then boast about it?

      Just because 1-2 of RFK Jr.’s recent positions align with Republican views does not mean that the GOP and conservative policy organizations should go around promoting him. Jim Geraghty shows what this Democrat really stands for in this article:

      “Note that RFK Jr. does not fit any traditional definition of conservative. He supports abortion and opposes fracking. Kennedy now says he opposes gun control, but in 2018, he stated, “Parkland students are right; the NRA is a terror group.”

      He wanted to ban ExxonMobil from operating in New York state because he contended that it misled the public about climate change. He has called for the Koch brothers to be tried at the Hague as war criminals, and said he wished there was a law that would allow him to punish climate-change skepticism.

      He argued that state attorneys general should revoke the charters of the American Enterprise Institute and Competitive Enterprise Institute because they were “oil industry surrogates.” He now wishes for voters to see him as a defender of the First Amendment.

      In other words, Kennedy is an unhinged hard-left loon who, given the opportunity, would use the power of the state to punish people who think differently from him.”

      Promoting this “hard-left loon” shows utter contempt for Republicans. That seems to be the case with the Ethan Allen Institute who also recently brought GOP-base hating George Will to Vermont. With friends like these…

  5. Actually, Mr. Mermel – I was being sarcastic as I regularly question the decisions made by the head of the VT GOP here and receive absolutely no responses whatsoever.

    I just question why Conservatives are promoting a Democrat for president whilst ignoring the immense popularity which President Trump garners and still receives. After all, I don’t believe that anyone could rationally argue that Donald Trump is anti-free market. Much of his wealth is based upon the free market, as he certainly didn’t earn any of it while serving in public office. As far as the climate debate goes, I’m convinced that it’s just a cover for installing Communism – in fact, one of the representatives of Manchester openly admitted in a public meeting that the tax or surcharge the state plans to place on home heating oil and propane will be used to give to “people who need it”. In other words? Wealth redistribution. And further implying that the folks they are playing “Robin Hood” with – somehow don’t need it.

    And as I’ve mentioned previously in posts, I’ve spent years here in VT serving on a Town Planning Commission, writing and distributing several petitions for ballot issues, composing & submitting dozens of letters to the editor & commentaries for the Bennington Banner/Brattleboro Reformer, helping candidates running for public office, etc.

    However, Paul Dame chose his position in leading the VT GOP and therefore it is Paul Dame who needs to accept the bulk of responsibility for the fact that Republicans are consistently gaining no traction whatsoever in the state of VT. And chronically bashing a highly popular president with conservatives and Republicans likely isn’t helping matters either. The majority of Republicans appreciate Donald Trump, and that’s the reality. I look forward to meeting you as well.

  6. Vermont will not be voting for Donald Trump. The Democratic primary is the only vote that matters in Vermont. Good on the EAI for understanding logic and promoting a better Democrat.

    Miss Gaffney,
    I’m sorry to inform you that Brattleboro and Bennington are parts of northern Massachusetts according to all the Vermonters I know, and I’m no Vermonter. I believe down there you receive a month less snow on both ends of the season.

    John, $100 is a tank of gas, sir, and many working people in this state spend that much everyday just to go work and have food on the table.

    When people ask me about Vermont I tell them my slogan is “You Can’t Afford It”.
    Best to live in VT and work/shop in NH. Or go to Wyoming or Idaho where real conservatives live.