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Robert David Steele, the conspiracy theorist best known for his claim that the New World Order has a slave colony on Mars (a ridiculous assertion that nevertheless prompted a denial from NASA) died on August 28, 2021. He was a man whose conspiracy belief (or his grift, or both) was so strong that even on his deathbed he claimed that the real danger of Covid-19 was not that it might kill you, but that elite pedophiles were using it to scare people into wearing masks.

Steele picked up the Covid-19 virus as his “Arise! USA bus tour” mobile super-spreader event was winding its way through the south. This was a Rolling Thunder Revue of anti-vaxxers, self-styled “constitutional sheriffs,” an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and a number of locals rounded up at each stop to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing pop-country songs to karaoke backing tracks. The highlight of the event in Beaver, Pennsylvania, was a woman who sang “Vaccine” to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” 

The tour began in Nevada on May 15 and was scheduled to arrive in Florida on August 15. On August 17, Steele was in a Florida hospital, posting the final entry to his blog: “We will never be the same because now we know that we’ve all been lied to about everything,” he wrote. He died of COVID-19 on August 28, 2021. The most ironic of his many claims is that in 2020 he was the first person to call COVID a hoax.

Would you trust this man to tell you the truth about COVID-19?

Would you trust this man to tell you the truth about COVID-19?

Like Robert David Steele, who’d only recently adopted his populist schtick, Dr. James Lyons-Weiler began his career as a reasonable-seeming professional. He earned his Masters of Science in Zoology from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada in Reno, then worked at the University of Pittsburgh Bioinformatics Analysis Core as director until it closed in 2014. After this he struck out on his own, founding the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, a nonprofit research organization.

I’ve met Lyons-Weiler once, at an Eat’n Park restaurant somewhere outside of Pittsburgh. I’d been trying to speak with him for months, but he wouldn’t go for it. When he sent me a Facebook invite for some sort of meeting of concerned parents of vaccine-damaged autistics I knew that it was probably a mistake, but I went anyways.

There were maybe ten of us at the meeting, most of whom were women. I introduced myself as a journalist and Lyons-Weiler said that I could stay as an observer, as long as I respected everyone’s privacy. If I wanted to do a formal interview with the doctor in the future that could be arranged, he said, but it wouldn’t be happening today.

The meeting was truly heartbreaking. They were all parents of kids with autism, and you could tell that there was plenty of suffering to go around. One woman spoke of how her kids have “good days” and “bad days” — and the good days seemed to be when her kids drank a lot of Fiji Water. According to the World Stem Cells Clinic’s guide to autism detoxification, “Fiji water contains silica that can cross the blood barriers and eliminates [sic] bind aluminum in the brain.” The only problem was that the stuff was so damn expensive.

Although I was only supposed to observe, a lot of people pitched their stories to me; not their personal stories as much as their grassroots medical expertise. These people were strongly in the “vaccine causes autism” camp (of course), and they were well-acquainted with the jargon. They shared their knowledge with me as their guru crunched away on a side salad, waiting for the main course (baked ziti, if I remember correctly).

I never got back in touch with Lyons-Weiler — there seemed to be nothing more to his story than a man spreading medical conspiracy theories, and I already knew plenty of people like that already.

Lyons-Weiler also spoke at the Arise! USA rally in Beaver: “Looking out here, I see free American citizens,” he said. “The beautiful faces of free American citizens… that use and exercise their right of choice.” From there, the medical maverick in cargo shorts made some calculated local references: “I power my research with coffee from Eat’n Park.” He’s got a faint smile now, like he’s about to deliver a killer line. “There must be something in the coffee from Eat’n Park that’s not in the coffee that Dr. Anthony Fauci’s drinking. I don’t know what’s in the coffee that Anthony Fauci’s drinking, because he powers his so-called science with lie after lie after lie after lie.”

There’s clearly something about the COVID-19 conspiracy scene that turns people into assholes.

And this isn’t just anecdotally true. According to a report titled “The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on Radicalisation to Violent Extremism,” right-wing extremists were able to take advantage of the pandemic in a way that other lunatics were not. The far-right has a history of capitalizing on fears of government overreach and medical conspiracies, and has mobilized successfully to do so in the past. And this time around, the far-right had a secret weapon: the Trump Administration. If “rational” and “reasonable” public pseudo-intellectuals like Steele and Lyons-Weiler were transformed into raving nutbags by COVID, it’s because they’re receptive to the propaganda — just like everyone else is.

The New York Times, January 25, 1991

The New York Times, January 25, 1991

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In some ways, the assholes of the current “plandemic” have nothing on the early AIDS denialists. This particular strain of pseudoscience was largely launched by one man: Peter Duesberg, a noted cancer researcher whose 1987 paper “Retroviruses as Carcinogens and Pathogens: Expectations and Reality” made the case that HIV is a harmless virus that just so happens to be found in AIDS patients. The illness known as AIDS, he claimed, was actually caused by environmental toxins, drug use, and gay sex. Most people scoffed at his findings, although they have endured in some corners of conspiracy-world.

This morning I dug out a twenty-year old article from GQ, “The AIDS Deniers” by Jim Nelson. It’s the story of the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP, which was kicked out of the activist organization after wholeheartedly embracing AIDS denialism.

Founded in 1987, ACT UP is known for its provocative civil disobedience: members chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange, stormed the NIH, “condomed” Jesse Helms’s house. The activities of its breakaway San Francisco chapter, Nelson writes, were on another level entirely:

And while they do not believe in the virus, they believe in extreme measures for those who do. Gone is the fake blood of older, paler protests. In its place: cat shit. Yes, the men and women in this room have performed unspeakable acts, thrown unspeakable things upon the heads of their enemies. By the time you read this, some of them may already be in jail…

Ronnie Burk hates the elites of the AIDS orthodoxy, the fat cats in their salaried jobs, and he knows how to get to them. In a notorious incident in 1996, Burk stormed into an AIDS health forum, ran up to the director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and dumped twenty-five pounds of used cat litter on her head.

Cat shit! Who would dare? The hall was full of people with AIDS, and everyone with AIDS knows about cat litter, about the need to avoid it, how for those with compromised immune systems the stuff is nuclear. Puts you in danger of toxoplasmosis. (“The AIDS Deniers,” GQ, September 2001)

See what I mean about assholes?

Christine Maggiore and family in 2001

Christine Maggiore and family in 2001

Of everything I find repulsive about Twitter, the worst is the inhuman glee with which certain people share the news of COVID deniers’ COVID-19 deaths. I don’t find it at all funny when someone dies — even if they have the wrong ideas — and for all our sake I hope that this cruel strain of online culture is overrepresented on social media. (Is it too much to hope that everybody offline is quite sane and rational and generous of spirit? Probably yes.)

That said, it is certainly news when someone like Robert David Steele goes to his death bed denying the reality of the disease that’s clearly killing him. It points to a particular sort of insanity that is self-perpetuating and feels nearly unstoppable these days.

As I read Jim Nelson’s GQ story, I started Googling the various characters he profiled. As you’d expect, the life expectancy of an AIDS denier is not good:

  • David Pasquarelli, co-leader of the rogue San Francisco ACT UP chapter, claimed that AIDS was nonexistent, a “propaganda war” created by lousy science, perpetuated by money-grubbing pharmaceutical companies and homophobic government officials. He died of complications from HIV on March 8, 2004 at age 36.
  • Michael Bellefountaine, the other co-leader of ACT UP San Francisco, had HIV and lymphoma at the time of the story. He refused treatment for both, believing that he was healthy despite the diagnosis. He died on May 10, 2007 of a “sudden systemic infection.” He was 41.
  • Christine Maggiore was an HIV-positive mother and activist who met Peter Duesberg in 1994. She had tested positive for HIV two years previously, but it was Duesberg’s work that radicalized her. She refused to take antiretroviral drugs and worked tirelessly to stop other women from taking them as well. Her children were both born HIV-positive — the youngest, a daughter, died in 2005 at age 3 of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and HIV encephalitis. When Christine died in 2008, her death certificate listed disseminated herpes viral infection and bilateral bronchial pneumonia as the causes of death, with oral candidiasis as a contributing cause. All three are commonly the result of HIV infection. She was 52 when she died.

What David, Michael, and Christine didn’t know — what they’d never know — is that between 2000 and 2015, antiretroviral drugs would slash the rate of new HIV infections by more than a third and save nearly 8 million people, according to a report by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the Kaiser Family Foundation. That is enough to decisively end the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” myth. If HIV wasn’t the cause of AIDS, antiretrovirals wouldn’t have done anything to slow it down.

Would this information have changed the minds of the AIDS deniers? Probably not. But then again, there is a lot of information about COVID-19 that isn’t making a dent with the COVID deniers, that hasn’t convinced them that the virus is real, and that it’s deadly. As many as 1 in 500 Americans have died so far as a result.

The anti-masker rally I attended earlier this year was promoted as an event for the entire family. And indeed, all age groups were represented — grandmothers bought their children ice cream and teenagers made eyes with each other while Robert David Steele screamed into an overdriven microphone about deep state pedophiles, a large American flag hanging from a ladder truck parked behind the stage. All the speakers that day proclaimed love for their country and trust in God’s plan, almost as if they were trying to convince themselves it was true.

There is an unalloyed heaviness in having a child with severe autism, living with HIV, or trying to get by in a world ravaged by Covid. It’s no wonder that anyone enduring any of this would look for solace in conspiracy theories. But COVID-19, like AIDS and autism before it, is where our ideas about the world collide with reality itself. And if you can be sure of one thing, it’s that reality always wins in the end.