Aug 11 • 50M

A new book on "Disobedient Women," and more on RFK & censorship

And Andrew Sullivan issues another warning

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Jon Ward
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Hello friends,

Summer is winding down, sadly. But life goes on, and carries meaning and purpose with it. I hope that you have had at least a few moments this summer of rest and restoration, of healing, of reenergizing, of quiet solitude, of laughter with friends, of uninterrupted peacefulness.

And if not, I hope you (and I) can steal a few moments of early morning quiet yet, for we have many good labors ahead of us. I pray that the work to come gives energy back to us as well, as we ground ourselves during these slower times in the purpose of it, the meaning, the bigger picture.

My podcast interview with journalist Sarah Stankorb

Journalist Sarah Stankorb has written a book about the way that the Internet allowed women stuck in controlling religious environments to find one another and realize they were not crazy to think they were being mistreated, or that their subculture was off or toxic.

The book is called "Disobedient Women: How a Small Group of Faithful Women Exposed Abuse, Brought Down Powerful Pastors, And Started an Evangelical Reckoning."

Her history starts with Bill Gothard and his Institutes of Basic Life Principles, which was featured recently in "Shiny Happy People," the documentary about the Duggar family. The Duggar's were deeply influenced by Gothard, who resigned from his organization in 2014 after he was accused by more than 30 women of sexual harassment.

Stankorb traces the story of women whose families sent them to work for Gothard as very young teens, and recounts their allegations of Gothard's harassment. Stankorb is a journalist who has been documenting and reporting on these stories for years. She quotes one blog of survivors as writing that the culture of "Biblical womanhood ... turns Scripture (often in well-intentioned ways) into a spiritual abuse guidbook, a manual for how to slowly but steadily crush every last spark of life in your bones."

I think that is a good description of what Shannon Harris' new book, The Women They Wanted, also talks about.

As I talk with Sarah, I try to explore first the culture of male-dominated conservative religion, which can be called many things: complementarianism by its defenders, chauvinistic patriarchy by its critics. And then we talk about the abuse allegations in the book.

I also talk with Sarah about how she assesses the credibility of abuse claims: her process for evaluating whether to write about something or not.

Sarah writes in her book about her own experience with a violent and angry father, and her journey of seeking faith in Jesus as a young person. But she notes that her experience of abuse and trauma was different from those who were victimized by religious leaders.

"Abuse is a unique violence when paired with faith. It takes people at their most vulnerable, raw and innocent, and attempts to dominate a secret place," she writes. "My father terrorized me, but from a young age, I understood something was wrong with him. I didn't understand him as an emissary for God on earth."

Sarah also writes about a rare medical condition she has suffered from that affects her speaking voice and has at times rendered her mute: spasmodic dysphonia. It is the same condition that has afflicted NPR's Diane Rehm, and it's why Sarah's voice sounds shaky. But like the difficulty of the subject matter that Sarah has reported on, she presses on bravely, and is an inspiration.

RFK JR, Rogan and Vaccines

Robert Kennedy Jr. had downplayed his vaccine criticisms for much of the past few months until he went on Joe Rogan’s podcast in June, and talked at length about them.

A friend noted RFK’s extensive discussion of scientific studies in the interview, and mentioned one study in particular in which he challenged a scientist named Paul Offit about mercury showing up in the brains of monkeys. RFK claimed that Offit had no response.

But Offit responded in a detailed Substack post, which you can read here. Offit, step by step, shows how RFK misrepresented him and the science in the study of monkey, and demonstrates quite clearly that RFK was not accurate in his comments on Rogan.

RFK is a fascinating figure. He knows a lot. He has a compelling personal story. He grounds his claims in scientific literature, and there are many elements of what he says that are accurate, or possible. And that’s what makes his misrepresentations and lies so powerful.

One of my favorite details about RFK is how his persistence in questioning who killed his father has caused his sister, establishment Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to question it too.

A 2018 Washington Post article quoted Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lending credibility to the theory of at least a second shooter in RFK’s murder.

“Bobby makes a compelling case. I think [the investigation] should be reopened,” said Townsend, who is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and who joined the Biden administration’s Labor department in 2021. (Townsend has also publicly critiqued her brother for spreading “misinformation” about vaccines.)

A federal judge has ruled that the notion of a second shooter who “managed to escape the crowded room without notice of almost any of the roomful of witnesses lacks any evidentiary support.”

RFK has expressed a belief that a “military-industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in 1961 could have been the motivation for his father and uncle’s executions.

“My uncle came into office three days [after Eisenhower’s speech] and  spent the next three years fighting a battle against his own military  and intelligence apparatus to make sure that Eisenhower’s predictions  didn’t come true and … my uncle died in that process,” Kennedy told Tablet Magazine in an interview this year. “Then my father campaigned five years later for president against the Vietnam War, against the domination of American democracy by the  military-industrial complex, and he died in that endeavor.”

Kennedy’s suspicion of the CIA in relation to his father and uncle’s killings came after he had spent over a decade questioning the efficacy and safety of vaccines for children.

His questioning of vaccines came after Kennedy spent years in environmental advocacy, and came to believe that big businesses got away with polluting the rivers and waterways because they influenced federal regulators to let them do so.

Kennedy has been credited with doing good work to clean up the environment. But since he took up his advocacy against vaccines, his veracity and reliability have come under greater scrutiny and questioning.

But the COVID-19 pandemic was a boon for Kennedy’s profile and his nonprofit, causing his fame and finances to skyrocket.

In 2005, Kennedy published a 4,700-word essay in Rolling Stone Magazine calling vaccine safety into question. He said that vaccines contained mercury, based on the fact that until 1999 many vaccines used thimerosal — a “mercury based compound” — as a preservative to “prevent the growth of microbes” that would be harmful, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The essay was found to have several errors, and journalist Seth Mnookin documented Kennedy’s misquoting of experts to distort what they had said. Rolling Stone and Salon withdrew the article in 2011.

The CDC discontinued the use of thimerosal in a 1999 decision, except for in three cases. It is still used as a preservative in multi-dose vials of some flu vaccines, and during manufacture of DTaP and “one DTaP-Hib combination vaccine,” the CDC says.

“No reputable scientific studies have found an association between thimerosal in vaccines and autism,” the CDC says.

But Kennedy and other vaccine skeptics simply respond that the studies cited by the medical and health establishment are essentially fake.

“The CDC worked with the pharmaceutical industry to gin up seven epidemiological studies that purport to exculpate thimerosal from causing the autism epidemic,” Kennedy said in an interview published on the website of his anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense.

And this is the nub of the issue, when it comes to vaccines, or the 2020 election, or who killed JFK, or pretty much anything else these days: Who do you trust? In a world of overwhelming information saturation, which story, and which storytellers, do you believe?

Kennedy’s story is that those in power in government and business are looking out for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. And there is plenty of evidence that this happens.

But a 2021 Associated Press investigation into Kennedy’s claims about the COVID vaccine found that he had contributed to “a disinformation echo chamber that reinforces false narratives that downplay the dangers of COVID-19 while exaggerating the risks of the vaccine.”

Yet for some people, the metanarrative behind that AP investigation — that the COVID vaccines were manufactured by pharmaceutical companies that do make extraordinary amounts of money but that they do work in greatly reducing the risk of death or serious illness from COVID — is dissatisfying.

For Kennedy, in particular, his life story has given him plenty of reason to question the “official story.” It has paid dividends in recent years. Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense, saw its revenue double in 2020 to nearly $7 million, and visits to its website went from less than 150,000 a month pre-pandemic to more than 4.5 million a month, according to the AP investigation.

Kennedy’s vaccine skepticism laid the groundwork for his revisitation of the story behind his father’s murder, which has now led to a worldview steeped in conspiracism, or a tendency to see conspiracies behind virtually everything.

And COVID made Kennedy a hero to many who believe that free speech is under assault, especially on the internet.

About Free Speech and Censorship

I continue to report and write about the ways in which Republicans are claiming to have been censored online by the government.

In my latest piece for Yahoo News, I delve into a court ruling in Louisiana by a federal judge who found the Biden administration had created “a federal regime of mass censorship” that was biased against conservatives.

I also report on evidence that the Biden administration put a lot of pressure on Facebook in 2021 to restrict the reach, and sometimes take down, content that they didn’t like. The Biden White House argued to Facebook that the content violated Facebook’s rules on misinformation and posed a threat to public health, but no one is really defending some of the ways in which Biden aides tried to bully and pressure Facebook.

I’ve been writing for months that how the government interacts with social media companies over these content decisions probably needs to be much more transparent. This is a view of nonpartisan experts.

At the same time, no one is seriously arguing that the government should not be talking to these companies at all, at least in terms of information sharing to discuss real threats to the public.

So, Biden officials tried to pressure Facebook, Twitter and others. These companies often resisted that pressure, and sometimes made concessions. Everyone agrees this kind of pressure is improper. But the evidence also shows that the companies have retained a large degree of independence, and that on key stories (such as the Hunter Biden laptop) the government did not exert any pressure one way or another.

In addition, a key detail that keeps getting overlooked is that these companies have free speech rights themselves, and which content gets to stay up or come down, and especially which content gets to be spread and promoted and broadcast far and wide, is a matter of their right to “speak.” At least, that’s how the law has been mostly interpreted with one recent aberration, and this issue is likely headed to the Supreme Court in the next year or two.

Republicans in Congress are spinning every detail in one direction to prop up a political narrative that plays into their 2024 election messaging. They are right to raise concerns, but also are casting many things as wrong or nefarious that are not.

For example, the Twitter files. They were over a dozen releases of internal communications from Twitter (now X) that Elon Musk facilitated. They are the foundation of Republican claims of censorship.

I’ve read every single sentence of the Twitter files. But let me allow Mike Masnick at TechDirt to summarize the Twitter Files himself:

Over the last few months, Elon Musk’s handpicked journalists have continued revealing less and less with each new edition of the “Twitter Files,” to the point that even those of us who write about this area have mostly been skimming each new release, confirming that yet again these reporters have no idea what they’re talking about, are cherry picking misleading examples, and then misrepresenting basically everything.

In this same post, Masnick explains how time and again, when the original claims don’t pan out, folks yelling about censorship move the goal posts:

Over the last few “Twitter Files” releases, Taibbi has been pushing hard on the false claim that, okay, maybe he can’t find any actual  evidence that the government tried to force Twitter to remove content, but he can find… information about how certain university programs and  non-governmental organizations received government grants… and they setup “censorship programs.”

It’s “censorship by proxy!” Or so the claim goes.

Except, it’s not even remotely accurate. The issue, again, goes back  to understanding some pretty fundamental concepts that seem to escape Taibbi’s ability to understand. Let’s go through them.'

Read the rest here if you want to get into the details.

And read Renee Diresta here for more evidence of dishonesty and duplicity from another of the key figures involved in the Twitter files, Michael Shellenberger.

Andrew Sullivan’s Latest Warning

Andrew has been sounding alarms for many years about the danger that Trump poses to the freedoms we enjoy in this American democracy.

After Trump was elected president in 2016, Andrew wrote this:

A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.

I e-mailed that column around, and one family friend who is deeply involved in a form of evangelical Christianity that is adjacent to and somewhat affiliated with figures in the New Apostolic Reformation wrote this back to me:

Dear God. I guess this guy better just end it now! Time will tell if he has got it all figured out. He seems to claim to.  I tend toward a much more faith-filled and hopeful view and trust in my Almighty to appoint the leaders and rulers. I'm prophesying hope and life into this country rather than death destruction and terror.

… I'm praying for Donald Trump and for wisdom. Gods ways are higher than our ways....and most of the time they 'seem' ass-backwards.  You should take some time and detox from reading this stuff. It's sucking all of your joy.

It was e-mails like this that provided some of the impetus for me to write my book, Testimony.

We often think of corruption as the product of conscious malice. But this is a type of corruption too: a corruption of Christianity and the whole notion of religious faith. It is not malicious, but brings to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his sermon “Love in Action,” which can be read in the “Strength to Love” collection.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity … Devoid of intelligence, goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forces leading to shameful crucifixions. Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.

Anyway, Andrew’s latest column sounds a new alarm, in which he points to a section in Jack Smith’s indictment of Trump for his actions related to the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

It is the clearest detail yet to show that as Trump and those around him were stoking chaos and violence, they were also discussing using greater levels of violence prompted by their anti-democratic actions as a pretext (via the Insurrection Act) for bringing the military — which under U.S. law is to be deployed almost entirely outside the U.S. borders — under the direct control of the president, a clear reference to a possible military takeover of the government.

In one vivid moment in the indictment, Smith relates a discussion about  what would happen if Trump had succeeded in throwing the election result  into chaos, as he hoped to do:

The  Deputy White House Counsel reiterated to Co-Conspirator 4 that there  had not been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that if the  Defendant remained in office nonetheless, there would be “riots in  every major city in the United States.” Co-Conspirator 4 responded,  “Well, [Deputy White House Counsel], that’s why there’s an Insurrection  Act.”

That’s where we’re headed: in the absence of a legitimate democratic order. In  the ashes of liberal democracy, institutions buckle, legitimacy disappears, violence breaks out, cold civil wars get hot, and the demand  for someone to reinstate order will gain traction. Trump is already calling the indictment “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.” His fundraising  email screams, “I could now face a combined 561 YEARS in prison,” and his Truth Social is whipping his base into a frenzy: “New charges against Trump carry DEATH PENALTY.” Even MAGA members of Congress are invoking “war.”

We are entering late-stage democratic collapse, where tribalism overwhelms reason,  common trust evaporates, debate is gone, norms destroyed,  and all that matters is the purity of the extremes, and who can win  power by any means. The latest indictment of Trump — and more  specifically, the reaction to it — is proof that the “extinction-level event” of liberal democracy is here. Future historians may look back and conclude, in fact, that it has already happened.

If you’ll pardon me, I don’t have much patience for those who seek to “prophesy hope and faith into this country” while sticking their heads in the sand.

There is still an off-ramp for the Republican party. It does not have to come down, again, to Trump vs a Democrat. But time is running short.

Hope you have a great weekend! Unplug, get that solitude, and I’ll see you next week!

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