Why did the Corona-Panic happen?
As of this writing, there are some signs that the corner has been turned (really this time), that the Pro-Panic coalition of 2020-21 is softening and may soon break and not recover. That’s the optimist’s reading of the situation. Even if that does happen, the Panic itself still demands answers, as civilizational disaster. The Corona-Panic itself remains, in important ways, a mystery; yet it is the most important question of our time.
Pandemia, published in late November 2021, is Alex Berenson‘s book. The full title is Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives. Berenson’s name has long been associated with the Anti-Panic side.
This is a review of Pandemia, and it covers a lot of ground.
One might think or hope that Berenson’s book holds or proposes answers to the big question of why the Corona-Panic happened. The book’s subtitle basically boasts as much.
Certainly desire for a good, clean look at the big question was my motivation for reading the book and for writing this review. I was interested in hearing what Berenson proposes, where he goes with it.
The book was not quite what I expected. Berenson treats it in part as kind of a CoronaPanic-era memoir, which is a mixed-blessing. He goes in some other directions I think are unhelpful or counter-productive. As the memoir part, the book ends up becoming a primary source in its own right, to be used by future authors.
Berenson probably justified his turning the book into a memoir or open-journal in part by thinking that he had become something of an Anti-Panic celebrity by the time of writing in 2021. This is a double-edged sword because he also shows some clear signs of neutralizing his own message to perhaps extend a hand in friendship to his many former friends who came down on the Pro-Panic side of the divide. Anyway, all this is of some interest and was not what I or you might have expected in a book like this, so read on for much more commentary.
The real goal, though, is and must remain, the big question: “Why did the Corona-Panic happen?” and the multiple sub-questions that flow from that big question.
We on the Anti-Panic side have had plenty of ideas on why the Corona-Panic happened. But as this is meant to be a review and respect is due to the author, I want to focus on ideas we might extract from the book, from Alex Berenson’s Pandemia.
There’s nothing like a book-length treatment from someone who was well-engaged in a matter of interest, in this case the trench warfare of Pro-Panic vs. Anti-Panic fighting throughout most of 2020 and all of 2021, and Berenson is without doubt qualified on those grounds…
There was therefore every reason for followers of Corona-Panic discourse to have been excited about the Berenson book. Quite a few bought it immediately and gave high reviews (93% of reviews are five-star on Amazon!), I think as a way of paying Alex Berenson for his efforts. They were thinking they were doing a good deed for the Anti-Panic side in general, like people of some distant-past generation tossed coins in collection cups for some political cause.
It is past time in this review to come out and say what I think, if you haven’t guessed it already: the book shone in spots but was a disappointment in the most important way and actually I can be harsh enough to say it failed in (what I think was, or should have been ) its goal. This doesn’t mean there is nothing of value here, but it goes mean that the Great Anti-CoronaPanic book, this is not.
What I was hoping for with Pandemia was some synthesis of previous information to yield new insights for new answers, which the ‘book’ format allows for, or even cries out for. Done well or done right, that’s what a book should deliver.
Unfortunately, the book does not properly engage with the Big Question (“why did the Corona-Panic happen?”). While I feel compelled to reluctantly give Pandemia a negative review on this account, there is much of interest to engage with or learn from, and I will try to build something of value.
Let me put it this way. While there is a lot of good individual-level info in Pandemia, the whole felt to me “less than the sum of its parts.” It came up short for what it is, a piece of writing with substantial real estate to work with (125,000 words of main text, plus fifty-nine pages of small-font notes), organized as a coherent book, attached to a legitimate publishing house (Regnery), by an experienced author, professionally printed and distributed. Despite all these head-starts, it felt less than what it should have been, to justify itself as a book at all. It often felt like “reporting,” endless summarizing or lists of news stories or Tweets and fill-in commentary around those news stories or Tweets, loosely grouped together in thematic chapters.
I struggled with how to open this review. I regret sounding as negative as I do, but I have decided I am much interested in the Big Question[s] (“Why did the Corona-Panic happen?” “What does it mean for us?”) than in the reputation of one single person within the Corona-Panic controversy. My hope is that this review calls attention to the failures of Pandemia and inspires the right person or group of people, now or at some time in the future, to attack the question and eventually give us our great Corona-Panic book, for Pandemia is not it.
(A lesson: don’t judge a book by its subtitle; this book’s subtitle does not properly summarize this book, and is deceiving. Anti-Panicker Berenson fans will give this a pass and as a sympathetic reader I was willing to as well. But with a reviewer cap on, I cannot.)
Lest you think I am ungrateful to Berenson, a nod to my appreciation for Berenson’s efforts between April 2020 and mid-late 2021, at one point I resolved to open this review with this single, simple, five-word sentence: “Alex Berenson is a hero,” before saying anything else. But after seeing how my review evolved, I dropped the idea. Instead, I instead could pose it as a question: “Is Alex Berenson a hero?” Judged on the whole for the two-year Corona-Panic period, the answer is probably a ‘Yes.’ Judged on the book alone (or book-as-book, not book as proxy for Berenson’s full body of work), it’s a ‘No.’
The book is inconsistent and only qualifies as heroic, or near-heroic, in spots. The spotty heroism draws attention the overall weaknesses of the book, and Berenson’s unwillingness to grapple with the big questions, and his apparent desire to play it safe and concede important points to the Pro-Panic people, undercutting his own arguments at times. This is a disappointment.
On the purpose and scope of this review and book theme overview
There is an art to the “book review.” It can be hard to get right. I find many book reviews end up being rather frustratingly hard to read. I’m not sure why this is, or how general the tendency is. In some cases, reviewers hardly touch on the contents or ideas the book under ostensible review, instead wandering through their own ideas. That may be inevitable in any piece of writing of substantial length, but I’ve always felt it amounts to being partly a scam on the reader who enthusiastically wants to grab value in a short or mid-length book review without having to invest in reading a whole book.
Unless a given venue is unusually strict on its reviewers, something printed as a book review can easily have more content amounting to sidebars or reviewer’s thoughts than actual engagement with the content or arguments of the book.
A book review should also not simply be a “cliff notes” bullet-pointed summary of main arguments, etc., from within the book, or trudge through the contents too much, which also loses readers.
It’s harder to say what a book review should be. I believe there are important tasks to be done for the non-fiction reviewer. These include explaining what the book is, its scope and structure, surely at least something of its core arguments or points or findings, something on its relevance (why was the book written, why should one bother to read it) while still having some space to peek down interesting alleys offered up by the book. This review will do tall that for Pandemia.
One feature of this review, for those who stick it out through the whole 18,000 words with me, will be commentary on Alex Berenson’s position within Corona-Panic discourse. For Pandemia is partly an open-journal or memoir of a high-profile Anti-Panic figure during the Corona-Panic in the USA, covering early 2020 to about September 2021 (when main writing on the book stopped). The author is kind of lucky that the timeframe ended up including his Twitter life-ban (late August 2021) so he could include a lot on that and brag on it.
Most of the book’s sections try to hold to a steady, New York Times-like journalistic line, as if hemmed in by an unseen editor or editorial line. I think this was a pretty serious error in Pandemia, as will become clear in this review. It undercuts the entire book’s premise in places and hurts or undermines the pursuit of the big question of why the Corona-Panic happened. I think it was the wrong approach, but I think I see why Berenson did it. His loyal fans, desperate for anything close to a high-profile, strident Anti-Panic spokesman, give it a pass; the Anti-Panic side should have higher confidence, for we have won the debate and the facts are with us; the Anti-Panic side should have higher standards. Alas, I am getting ahead of myself.
The New York Times is another big running theme of Pandemia, and perhaps by extension all elite media in the USA of that type are intended. The NYT focus is largely an extension of the book being in part autobiographical, for Berenson’s claim to fame at the start of the Panic was that he had been a New York Times reporter for more than ten years. That tagline got him more attention early in the Panic in 2020 than he’d have otherwise gotten. In other words, while not one of The Experts, Berenson was also not some nobody. He was one of that semi-anointed class. I am sure this helped him dodge the bans that were meted out to Anti-Panic figures in much of 2020, though there is more to that story.
Pandemia contains lots of observations of, thoughts about, and criticisms of the NYT as Berenson has observed it at least since joining as an employee in December 1999, and these observations are some of the most interesting parts of the book. He implies that the 2000s-era NYT was not there yet, still had basic commitments to neutral reporting and would not have participated in a CoronaPanic-like mass delusion event, much less been a leader in one.
But Twitter is the biggest single theme of the book.
At times, Pandemia even feels like a bookification of his Twitter stream and his Twitter-related thoughts during Corona-Panic Year-One and most of Year-Two. A social media memoir. Phrasing it this way doesn’t sound too appealing, I’m sure, but alas there is no way to approach the Corona-Panic without dealing with Internet discourse. On the one hand there is “the Twitterization of discourse” (my term). Berenson himself is an example of it, as he more-or-less says openly throughout the book in several places.
Berenson’s Twitter focus gives us a feasting-board on which to dive into a topic of great interest to all students of the Great Corona-Panic of the Early 2020s: the entire Corona-Panic was rather an example of the “Internetization of discourse,” I think. Berenson himself doesn’t make a direct approach to these ideas as an analyst, which is again a disappointment. On the bright side, we can consider a lot of his material as of high primary-source value for whoever ends up writing the great Corona-Panic book.
There are some considerable weaknesses to this book when judged as a full, stand-alone product. Even in weakness there are lessons, though, and am interested in part in the causes of these weaknesses. While reading the book and reflecting on it and formulating this review, it occurred to be that some of the answers to the big question, Why did the Corona-Panic happen, this book might offer indirect clues by what it says, how it says it, what sources it uses, and what it doesn’t say at all, and more. For these reasons, I feel confident in proceeding with this review.
Berenson the Hero emerges
Alex Berenson emerged as one of the champions of the Corona Anti-Panic side relatively early on in 2020. He embraced the role, and as of early 2022 he still embraces the role. recently vowing to journalistically hunt down Big Pharma players who knew about vaccine injuries and deaths and covering them up.
Reading between a few lines, we get a fairly good answer on how Berenson emerged as an Anti-Panic activist in spring 2020. Berenson was already “in” with important networks of media people long before the Corona-Panic, and tapped some of these along with his reserves of elite-media prestige.
His claim to fame was having been with the New York Times for more than ten years, 1999-2010, including as a medical reporter for some of that time. That credential gave him “street cred” with media-talkers, and I think in a weird way gave him even more clout than even qualified if unpolished or non-media-savvy academics, epidemiologists, or scientists.
There were plenty of Anti-Panic or dissident (non-Pro-Panic) experts in March and April 2020, but most were intimidated off the stage, and a few were crushed. Take Knut Wittkowski, one of the earliest Anti-Panic hardliners. Wittkowski is, inconveniently to the Panic-pushers and the Panic coalition, one of the most qualified people alive to comment on respiratory-disease epidemics. He emerged as a strong critic of the Panic in its early days, said the Panic was a lie, a scam, a kind of delusion (these are paraphrases, but he was blunt and harsh). He said that all lockdowns and restrictions should be lifted and never brought back. He had been sought out for comment by the media as an expert, but when it became clear that Wittkowski opposed the Panic outright and in such a radical way, Pro-Panic mobs were riled up and began to yell “crucify him!” at which point Big Tech silenced him. Wittkowski had never in his life been a media personality. It was relatively easy to crucify him. The much-cannier Berenson dodged anything like a Corona-heretic crucifixion as happened to Wittkowski and countless smaller-fry Anti-Panickers in spring 2020 and later.
Berenson strikes the pose of something like a self-promoter, and does not really shy away from it in Pandemia‘s pages. Several times in the text, Berenson claims to have made important discoveries. But Wittkowski (and others) essentially correctly outlined the entire trajectory of the “pandemic,” using early data, in his March 31, 2020 paper. He said much the same in his interviews of early April and a second series of interviews later in April. He knew what he was talking about and recognized the then-in-formation epidemic-curves operating as expected. He knew exactly what was coming next. Men like Wittkowski and Ioannidis and Wodarg were right, and right early, but they never really got traction. Targeted demonization, pressure of all kinds, and Big Tech censorship in part defeated their efforts, and most of these men like Wittkowski were not by nature ‘political’ actors willing to become Anti-Panic talking heads, though the loquacious Bhattacharya and a few others (including Berenson!) are willing to play that role.
Backing up a little on this hero’s journey narrative. One interesting revelation in Pandemia is when Berenson admits he was an early Panicker. In February 2020 he embraced the Panic, as it then existed, and urged others to join him in panicking. He says he had only seven thousand Twitter followers at this time, when he began urging panic. (Berenson in Pandemia often judges someone by the number of Twitter followers he has, adding also that he made a policy of ignoring low-follower-count people. When introducing someone new, he also generally adds the new person’s Twitter follower-count.) By early-mid April, he was fairly firmly on the the Anti-Panic side, then relatively small, lonely, and weak in political power but possessing the substantial asset of being right, being evidence- and data-centric, and being away from the deep mental fog of the Panic coalition’s “abundance of caution” imperatives, bound to cause group-think as those were. Unlike the Pro-Panic side’s emotional drumbeating, data-looseness, and incuriosity, we who had found our way to the Anti-Panic side seemed to exist on a brighter and happier plane, at least in our consciences. We were all still affected by the extremist lockdowns and all the rest.
Anyway, by his peak Berenson had hundreds of thousands of followers, his originally 7000 doubling more than five times, an absolute increase of 50x.
There arose a class of Anti-Panic media-celebrities, and Berenson did embrace that role. But someone had to do it. In early 2021, I asked “Where are the high-profile opinion-leaders for the Anti-Panic side?” It’s better that there were a few than none.
Detractors might say Berenson “did it” for the fame, which is a claim he doesn’t particularly address. I am not entirely willing to dismiss the criticism based on some clues in the text of Pandemia. Clearly he was a convinced Anti-Panicker and not some kind of cynical snake-oil salesman, but he’s also cashed in on it in a way beyond what I would feel proper if I ended up in that position somehow. My disappointment with Pandemia not living up to what it could/should be adds at least a little to the suspicion.
Berenson’s timeline: he says the March 16, 2020, Imperial College paper’s wacko predictions of a second-rate horror-movie-style virus apocalypse started pushing him towards the Anti-Panic position he had previously scorned. Berenson says the report had been privately shown in closed-door sessions between March 10-15 to top leaders (terrifying hapless little Emmanuel Macron, for one, who turned white as a sheet, immediately caved into lockdowns and only waited for how to best maneuver the ship-of-state to implement the lockdowns The Experts demanded — this is a paraphrased summary of Berenson’s narrative). The terror-report promising (projecting) unprecedented death and mayhem and “swamped hospitals” was then released publicly March 16. Berenson says that between evening March 16 and March 17 he had read the Imperial College’s crazed, Panic-demanding, lockdown-shrieking report several times, and was shocked enough by the bad-seeming science or the extreme liberties taken with “projections” to seriously consider defecting to the Anti-Panic side. He then did so, tentatively at first.
At one point in Pandemia, he says something that happened (or failed to happen) April 5 was “the final straw” for him. This puts March 16 to April 5 his transition period, and April 5 his first day as unambiguously Anti-Panic.
However, Berenson’s first Corona-skeptic tweet came already on March 26, 2020. Because of his status as already a semi-insider, this first salvo of Anti-Panic tweets got retweeted by some major political figures, including Donald Trump Jr. and Elon Musk. (Elon Musk had some kind of preexisting immune from the Corona-Panic entirely and mocked the Panic early and often; he never changed his tune. Berenson praises him in Pandemia.) Berenson says the unexpected attention he received after his Covid-skeptic tweets “changed [his] life.” The life-changing period, he specifies, was over the 24 hours or so after he posted them on March 26. As Berenson is clearly a major figure in the Corona-Panic phenomenon, this time window (March 26-27, 2020) needs to be “flagged” as we reconstruct it all.
But even as March came to a close, Berenson was not quite yet the Anti-Panic stalwart he would emerge as later. He was absent for most of the critical month of March 2020 (after its warm-up and ascent in January and February), except for this one brief missive mega-boosted by powerful backers. He was, for example, totally absent when CoronaPanic-supervillain Neil Ferguson told the New York Times “there’s really no option but follow China’s footsteps and suppress” (printed March 17).
Berenson’s timeline on his hero’s journey, his shift from Pro-Panic to Skeptic to Anti-Panic, and how he was considerably late to the game, is another example of how the Pro-Panic side pulled off a coup d’etat, seizing the initiative before opponents could organize. The Anti-Panic coalition came together quite a bit later than the Pro-Panic coalition, and Alex Berenson is as one data-point on that.
Back briefly to “why Berenson.” he emerged from obscurity as a major Corona figure not because he was the only one daring to speak out against the Panic. There were millions speaking out in some way, and plenty with either better qualifications, perhaps more courage, more drive to turn the tide and not give into the Panic, even some with more potential influence, but rare were all those traits combined. The key remains, though, that few were as good at promoting themselves as Berenson.
Berenson, who is Jewish, was good at plugging himself into the handful of media ecosystems which eventually became receptive to Anti-Panic talking points. One outlet that gave lots of air-time was Tucker Carlson, who spent March and April 2020 aggressively pushing the Panic before snapping out of it at some point. (I’m not sure when.)
Berenson does not state this in the book, but he’d actually been on Tucker Carlson it seems several times in 2019 to talk about his marijuana book, which argues that marijuana is considerably more dangerous than the new consensus suggests. This is the kind of contact or “in” which Berenson had already going into the Corona-Panic. The first Berenson appearance on Tucker Carlson was apparently January 7, 2019, which is around the time he was making media rounds doing interviews about his book, around its release date. I find it curious that he doesn’t mention this, as one can read Pandemia and not know he’d ever appeared on Tucker, one of his biggest non-Twitter platforms, before the Corona-Panic.
As a trusted former guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Berenson was able to insert himself and make himself available. Another date which doesn’t appear in the book but which I’ve dug up in the process of writing this review is: April 2, 2020. That is Berenson’s first appearance on Tucker. He meekly questioned the then-mighty Corona-consensus in a brief mid-show segment, eliciting lots of Pro-Panic pushback and polite skepticism from the host. His segment was not apparently meant to convince anyone. He may have had a few more brief appearances on Tucker in April 2020 as the show’s host and writers and producers continued to aggressively push the Panic. He was also often on Laura Ingraham show (but never on Sean Hannity, who basically embraced the Panic uncritically), and Laura Ingraham by all evidence was the most Anti-Panic of the big Fox hosts when it mattered most.
By early May, Berenson was making somewhat regular appearances on Tucker a segment which they apparently called “Covid Contrarian,” like a beefed-up version of that first, non-convincing appearance. Still, he was “on the air.” It was still a long ascent up.
He also worked backroom connections to stay non-banned Twitter, and reveals some snippets of how this worked in Pandemia. He ended up with at least one important ally/benefactor/protector high placed on the inside, whom he names in the book as Brandon Borrman. Berenson’s lobbying to stay unbanned succeeded for a long time. It was only with the departure from Twitter Inc. of the protector Mr Borrman\n that things started getting tougher.
Berenson suggests Borrman, his high-ranking ally on the inside at Twitter, may have blocked attempts to put pressure on Berenson, to give him light penalties here and there so as to get him on the “life-ban” track with many other Covid-skeptics. News reports say Borrman’s last day at the company was June 10, 2021, and things changed after that. With Borrman out, “they” soon started targeting Berenson. (I find these small windows on insight to be fascinating revelation of the book. There is generally an iceberg-like nature to things like this by which every little revelation of behind-the-scenes action is as the visible part of the iceberg above water. We have to guess at the full scale of the whole from available evidence.)
Berenson started using the term “Team Reality” to refer to the Anti-Panic side, those against lockdowns, mandates, masks, and the general consensus that panic was the only way forward and life should be re-shaped by flu panic. What I have called the Pro-Panic side, he called “Team Apocalypse.” These terms are straightforward in the context of the Corona-Panic. Other terms he uses are less so.
Despite long affiliation with the New York Times — 10 years full time, 10+ years occasional as of early 2020, when the early-phase of the Corona-Panic started — they disowned him and cut him off forever when he turned Anti-Panic. Exact dates are a little hard on things like this, but I think by late March 2020 already to have come out as Anti-Panic began to feel like a class betrayal in some way. It was not all the way there yet, but it was already perceivable I think before April 1, 2020. And so Alex Berenson was cast out. He came to bear the scarlet letters “C. D.,” Corona Denier. He was a hero of the Corona-Panic but for as long as the Pro-Panic coalition “held the whip hand,” he was going to be on the outs. He had positioned himself to swoop down to victory once the spell broke, which two years later still has not quite happened in the way it should have given the rightness of the Anti-Panic position.
Berenson spends a fair bit of time on the earliest large, organized Anti-Panicker protests in the USA in May 2020, which he identifies as those against the fanatical, Corona-maniac governor of Michigan and the Panicker regime behind her. The first organized Anti-Panic protests of any note in the USA came around two months into the major restrictions. This long period of a weak or absent opposition is a pretty good example of how the Pro-Panic side’s coup d’etat, and its strategy of keeping actual and potential opposition off balance, was successful. Even when these protests did occur, there was near-unanimity in condemning them; only mild support was heard in a few public venues.
The kind of pressure exerted on Anti-Panickers, Corona-skeptics, doubters, and open opponents of restrictions (the early Michigan protesters were called virus-terrorists) was the kind of pressure enough to break people and break oppositions, which is why traditionally anti-war protests don’t occur early in wars, once a regime declares a war, internal dissent quiets up and people lose confidence in organizing opposition (the war which we call “World War I” was something of an exception in the USA in 1917, with strong opposition immediately before and after entry, and an unprecedented conscription system introduced within weeks because of totally underwhelming volunteer numbers).
Often we cannot blame people for failing to speak out properly at the right time, for going dark or apologizing (even recanting) if they have mouths to feed. Berenson did, in a sense, have mouths to feed in that he has two children of young school age, but his wife is also employed as a high-flying doctor of some kind. He credits his wife with being right on the Corona-Panic from the start, but says she was also annoyed at his turn towards Anti-Panic radicalism in April 2020 and over his constant appearances for tv segments in which camera crews were often pulling up to the house and setting up for the segments (these agenda-setting cable-talk shows are all pretty sleekly choreographed).
In short, Berenson became a true-believer in the Anti-Panic cause. For whatever reason he quickly developed some kind of immunity to the Pro-Panic side’s hysterical pronouncements and plowed on into the dark night of the soul that it was to be a Corona-heretic in 2020. This is my rendering, using information in Pandemia as the major source, of the emergence of Berenson The Hero in 2020.
Hits and misses
The above section, on Berenson’s bio with a focus on the 2019-21 period, is necessary for my purposes in this review. Now that it’s done, I want to push into a discussion of his hits and misses in the book itself, i.e., the actual book content and arguments judged on their own merits.
Berenson, at times, does strike hard in the book. But it’s inconsistent. He does not properly frame a “through-argument.” I find myself critical of this and I have already mentioned this criticism in this review. I think a lot of people might read the book and have reactions like: “Wow,” “That’s outrageous!” “Huh! I didn’t know that!” on many occasions, but will fail to take away a “point” of the book. It seems like a long list of news stories some of the time. A book isn’t a book because it reaches a certain word-count.
A good example of what I mean is on p.288, when Berenson tosses in a finding that suggested the global population had crossed 10% total infections in or about September 2020, despite test-positives being far below that at the time. Plenty of Anti-Panickers were saying such things or proposing them, and there was always a serious “denominator problem” in the Corona-stats, confusions of which or simply bad analysis of which led to some crazed predictions of either millions of deaths or tens of millions of deaths in the USA alone (Berenson cites a left-wing journalist, Molly Jong-Fast, like Berenson drawn from the New York Jewish set, who predicted on March 24 that 2% at best and 7% at worst of Americans would die in 2020 without lockdowns, drawing lots of activity from her Twitter followers who amplified that insane, irresponsible, and delusional, and dangerous message, but all too characteristic of the Peak Panic discourse).
If the 10% figure circa September 2020 was true, the entire pandemic narrative looks a lot like a hubris-based delusion. This finding put the global death rate in the high flu range, again a consistent argument from the thoughtful Anti-Panic side from the start, back to the February 2020 arguments over that cruise ship’s dataset. It became common over on the Pro-Panic side to mock those “Just the Flu, Bro” attitude as irresponsibly reckless and ignorant. They crowed about how “Just the Flu” was laughable and obviously wrong, even while study after study began implying it was in the severe influenza range (influenza is not one virus but many, always changing, and some end up being severe, including many in living memory apparently worse, age-and-condition adjusted, than Wuhan-Corona in 2020). Throughout spring and summer 2020, the studies which tried to measure all-population susceptibility and correct for the “denominator problem” almost all pointed towards the Anti-Panic position. Berenson doesn’t stress this enough or go through enough of these. At one time, Swiss Policy Research (then called Swiss Propaganda Research) had a long master list of studies around the world. (Berenson never mentions Swiss Policy Research or many other sources of value.)
Berenson is good at reporting much of this but not good at using it for the book’s purposes. Instead he often buries deep in interior chapters things that should have been part of the central message of the book.
Towards the end of the book, Berenson says:
“These were not small mistakes, and they had real consequences. Spreading panic about Covid and pretending hospitals were full when they weren’t could keep people from going to the emergency room for medical care.”
And later, this:
“In reality, as with everything else related to Covid, the elite insistence on vaccinations seemed to arise from motivations as much sociological as scientific. We know what’s best, dummies! Don’t make us tell you again! …” [emphasis on “We know what’s best, dummies!…” in original]
These kinds of lies or ideas should have been a/the centerpiece of the book. They are good lines and good points but a coherent whole is not built upon them. The kernel of the answer to our big question of interest, “Why did the Corona-Panic happen,” may be buried here. But Berenson expends too little effort digging into it before he dashes off to the next skirmish or to prepare the next volley he wants to fire at the enemy at a place of his choosing. Nor does he even make explicit where future people might want to break out the spaces and start digging to find answers to the Corona-Panic mystery.
So far I’ve highlighted some of his “hits,” but criticized them for not being exploited properly in the service of a greater or coherent, “through-point” within the book. These are still hits, but they are akin to a general winning skirmishes or small-scale tactical victories within a battle or campaign but then doing nothing with them, or not enough with them.
There are going to be plenty of other Anti-Panickers and later readers somewhat emotionally detached from the fights over the Corona-Panic who might see this as unfair criticism, or too harsh. I don’t think they’ll be able to say the same for some of his more-outright “misses.”
Berenson in Pandemia too often says incredibly disappointing things like this:
“Meanwhile, for reasons that remained unclear, East Asian nations dodged the pandemic throughout 2020. After its initial wave subsided, China reported almost no new cases or deaths. Even with the near lockout of Western media, the country’s post-February figures appeared trustworthy. China’s seeming success appeared to show the value of tough early lockdowns.”
This is one of the most flagrant examples of Berenson’s “misses” throughout Pandemia. I couldn’t believe Berenson actually wrote those lines in good conscience. Every idea in what I just quoted is problematic:
(1) Berenson (in the above-quoted paragraph) casually concedes an important premise by using the “pandemic” wording/narrative/framing. ‘Pandemic’ is arguably a scare-word in the context of global circulation of a flu virus. Is every year a ‘pandemic’ year? Because flu viruses sometimes of the same magnitude was Wuhan-Corona at its worst, circulate globally every year. A braver book would have confronted the scary P-word itself, interrogated the WHO-enforced and media-complied “pandemic” consensus, something like that. Berenson never touches that at all, or at least makes so little a point of it I don’t recall it.
(2) Berenson seems to praise China’s response.
(3) He uses the word “case” unironically here (and elsewhere).
(4) Berenson implies those countries which actually or apparently kept “cases” down were great successes and to be praised. The alternate view is they either having suspect data, or there being some other factor like preexisting immunity or seasonality, or (the boldest criticism) that these crazed Covid-fighting regimes simply prolonged the “pandemic” with bizarre, demagogic-and-destructive “zero-covid” policies, simply delaying inevitable infections.
(5) Berenson blindly trusts what the CCP tells the world about the most politicized dataset of our time.
There are a few instances of this kind of major “miss” in Pandemia, enough to be worth drawing attention to. The problem is, he is conceding major premises without a fight.
This kind of writing and framing weakens the initial good feelings with which I approached the book, and he began to lose me. For every attack or two, there seemed to be a concession like this. Was he hoping enough of this would endear him again with his former big-media jet-setters with the New York Times and overlapping circles?
Yes, what Berenson was doing, I conclude, is consciously and calculatedly neutralizing his own writing to maintain a journalistic-seeming standard, which in this case (and others) includes bowing to The Narrative at times as a show of respect, a kind of head-nod loyalty oath. A bad idea. It undermines the purpose and effectiveness of the book. It makes the Anti-Panic thrusts look, sometimes, cheap and mean. Or, as the Tucker producers named the Berenson segments by about early May 2020, like he is a “Covid contrarian,” wanting to argue for its own sake rather than because the Corona-Panic and the Pro-Panic line were disastrous and wrong (which I do believe Berenson genuinely believes). I shall return to this theme later in this review.
Another “miss” category: Berenson is aware of, but often glosses over, some important features of the Panic, including the political. There was always a political side to Corona-demagoguery, and one senses it is here that we find some clues to our big question (lest anyone forget it, it’s “Why did the Corona-Panic happen?”).
As it turned out, for example, ruling parties generally benefited from Panic-pushing by triggering a wartime-like mass psychological mobilization in which people flocked to presumed safety, or promised safety, or at the least hoped-for safety. This basic tactic works, and if anyone doubts it, I would recommend he study the Corona-Panic more deeply. It works on enough of the population to tip the balance, if opposition can be kept down, and if a coalition can be assembled to push whatever is at issue to completion. It didn’t seem to take ruling parties or regimes long to figure this out and exploit it.
The Corona-Panic was not solely political, nor even primarily political, and to view it through some kind of US-style Red-Blue lens is a profound mistake, but to ignore or downplay the political is also a mistake, and I would consider this a big “miss.” He talks plenty about Trump but not enough about other forms of political split.
Berenson ought to have made this political aspect a key part of his overall thesis. Instead, he just tosses it in, here and there, as if an afterthought, or some neat parallel-track thing, and most often about Trump.
On the political front, at one point late in the book (p.304) we find something in New Zealand’s crazy lockdownist government and (from the distance of time) its deranged, Corona-maniac prime minister Jacinda Arden (b.1980, first elected mid-2017 soon after turning 37). Berenson points out Ardern won reelection (in October 2020) with the biggest share of voters for her party (Labour) of any time in living political memory. In other words, the Corona-Panic was very good to the New Zealand prime minister despite/because she was seen as a Corona-fanatic and zero-covid’er.
So it was in most places. Almost all political actors of substantial size or importance fell into the trap of fairly extreme demagoguery in some way on a flu virus, which was incredibly irresponsible, a prolonged descent into madness, which again highlights our ‘big question.’ How the heck could this happen? Don’t we live in stable, rational liberal-democracies? And so on.
I highlight this political part because Berenson doesn’t do much with it (except narrowly on Trump), and I consider that a major weakness of the book. He quickly moves on from the likes of Corona-addled prime ministers and ruling parties who shored up support by promoting the Panic, to focus on the New York Times and comparable media hysteria.
Berenson shines through at times when making quick hits in journalistic style:
“The stories were the same everywhere, in every wave. Hospitals were always about to collapse. But they never did. And the field hospitals, which should have provided the most tangible evidence that Covid patients were too great a strain for the system, instead showed the opposite.”
This is another line buried in the middle of the book which could have been the opening lines of the book itself as a set-up for a bold J’accuse in which he calls the Corona-Panic a mass delusion, or a swindle, or something to that effect. This is what a brave or well-conceived book of this kind would do but which Berenson for some reason chooses not to do, or not as strongly enough to be effective.
The chapter on “deaths of despair” is similar. It was good, but could have done with having gotten much more attention. Why would a large spike in deaths of despair be almost marginalized in this narrative (it is chapter 21 of 35 chapters)? (See also at Hail To You, “All Life-Years Matter,” Feb. 2021m for my contribution on that.)
By late 2021, the deaths of despair rhetoric was swamped by alleged or presumed vaccine side-effect deaths. There are definitely vaccine side-effect deaths but it’s unlikely they exceed Panic-induced or Corona-Panic second-order effect deaths.
Here are a few more ‘hits’:
“By the summer [of 2020], many American parents had fears about schools and Covid’s risks to their kids that verged on the fictional.”
“[California]’s experience provided yet more real-world evidence that lockdowns could be imposed in only two possible ways—too early, or too late. Too early, and locking down caused economic carnage, while leaving nearly the entire population vulnerable to viral spread when the restrictions were lifted. Too late, and forcing infected people to stay home with their families risked accelerating transmission.
Yet even a year into the epidemic, public health experts and journalists refused to see reality, much less admit it. ‘California Has Lost Control,’ The Atlantic said on December 21 …[after previously praising California’s response].”
“The fiasco over athletics was a microcosm of the way colleges and universities dealt with Covid. Whether from fear of lawsuits, a desire to appease left-leaning faculty members, pressure from their host towns, or a genuine misunderstanding of the tiny risks to their students, colleges encouraged ‘safetyism’ at all costs. …”
These all seem pretty strong, except that all are buried in the middle of chapters in the middle of the book and often balanced out by “misses.”
On the very same page as one of the above quotes, Berenson again uses the term “cases” unironically, for example. Nowhere in the book does Berenson particularly stress or slam-home the point that there was a redefinition of the term “case” with the Corona-Panic, to make it refer (for the first time ever) to a positive test rather than an illness, its usual/historical definition. This is a strange omission for a book like this.
At one point, Berenson says this:
“A fresh wave of cases accelerated in the United States and worldwide, leading to new lockdowns in Europe and some [U.S.] states.”
The line opens a chapter on what was going on in November 2020 soon after the “Vaccine” was announced. You may have read the line quickly and not noticed, but the line stands out as just awful, almost every other word having serious problem, and in this case it was no oversight for it occupies some of the most prime real estate an author has: the first words of a chapter.
Berenson there uses the terms “fresh wave,” “cases,” “accelerated,” “leading to new lockdowns.” Not a fresh wave, an expected winter wave of flu. Not “cases,” but test-positives. Not “accelerated,” rose seasonally. (The Sun could be said to accelerate down to the horizon daily after noon, but why uses such language?) As for “leading to new lockdowns,” that passive sentence should be red-flagged most of all. It will be read by many to mean the government had no choice—those “swamped hospitals,” remember! No choice! Lockdowns are just something natural, inevitable! It removes the agency from the governments as actors. It implies lockdowns are natural, and/or that Wuhan-Corona was truly terrifying. This is a surprisingly big “miss,” and too often crops up in Pandemia, and given these kinds of concessions to the Panic, we’re pretty far afield from our question of interest, “Why did the Corona-Panic happen?” What I mean is, it seems Berenson at times is willing to say the Corona-Panic was natural or inevitable, regardless of whom crazy or wrong it was. If so, that is a profoundly disappointing (and wrong) analysis.
Berenson does better on “Long Covid” in a late-book chapter on the matter. It could probably have been one of the things to lead the book itself. He makes very clear that he disbelieves in the existence of “Long Covid” and explains why. It is effective. It is a psychosomatic condition, which is a polite or technical way of saying it’s not real.
When some of us on the Anti-Panic side said things like this in 2020, it was easy to criticize us as uncaring. Most people concerned with their reputations and not wanting to look like ogres just believed, or kept quiet about their doubts about the so-called condition of Long Covid, and the Panic-pushers and Corona mythweavers made great use of the whole thing. Everyone seemed to be highly aware of this so-called condition, though none had ever heard of Long Flu. Studies started suggesting there was no difference between rates of Long Flu and so-called Long Covid. Other studies found most people claiming to have Long Covid never had Covid at all, so they were either lying for attention, or just imagining an illness, or had some other illness they wrapped in the Covid label to get sympathy points. These were almost always women, by the way. The symptoms of most supposed Long Covid sufferers were vague at best, including things like unspecified fatigue and confusion as main symptoms.
Berenson’s chapter on Long Covid is excellent. I have no criticisms of it on its own terms. It may even be one of Berenson’s strongest in the book. The non-existence of “Long Covid” strikes me as a great metaphor for the entire Corona-Panic. A direct frontal attack on “Long Covid” could have easily led the book, but instead the whole thing is relegated to near the end. According to the Index, Long Covid never gets mentioned once outside this one chapter. Its impact within the book-as-book is limited, which is a shame. The Long Covid takedown is a “hit,” but again he doesn’t use it effectively and the victory gains us little headway.
One of Berenson’s big storytelling chapters is on Trump getting The Virus, a big story in October 2020. Berenson makes a mistake (typical of the types of mistake he makes with this book) in playing it for tension or suspense, as if it were a chapter in one of his novels. (He wrote a series of novels in the 2010 while occasionally continuing with regular journalism.) Trump was never under any real threat. But Berenson’s narrative-prose suggests he was, multiple times. He even opens the chapter alleging the white House had recklessly not taken enough counter-measures (another example of undermining his own point).
In the denouement at the end of the Trump Gets Covid chapter (the chapter is somewhat unhelpfully titled simply “Trump”), Berenson says that (in effect): Yep, there wasn’t any real threat. Sorry for leading you on, readers. And of course we already know the outcome, that Trump “survived.”
Had there been no Corona-Panic phenomenon, Trump getting a flu-like illness for a few days in late 2020 might have earned a single footnote in a 500-page, small-print book about the Trump presidency. Just like the entire Corona-Panic, the “Trump Gets Covid” storyline was mostly hype. Berenson calls it “the world’s top story,” and is clearly sucked into the glitz and glamor of it from a reporter’s perspective, but never makes the kind of attack on the whole thing I have just done.
The temptation to render a set of facts in suspenseful narrative form is novelist’s or longform journalistic storyteller’s instinct, and that’s what Berenson allows himself to do with the Trump Gets Covid chapter, which runs about 2500 words but, having chosen the suspense path, he loses some valuable real-estate and cannot slam-home any point about overhype, which (in any case) he doesn’t seem to want to do here.
The proper approach to the Trump Gets Covid issue would have been to slam and mock the Panic-pushers and demagogues on all sides. (And this was not exactly a hard thing to do; at the time, for example, the on-again-off-again Trump Guy social-media-personality Mike Cernovich gushed over and promoted the diagnosis as the start of a heroic Rebirth story, leading to a triumphant reelection on the backs of people overjoyed that the orange-haired hero “beat the virus.”
I don’t know when, exactly, Berenson conceived or banged-out the bulk of the content of Pandemia, but I think it mostly reflects the status as of his thinking as of spring 2021. The final stage of main writing apparently was in mid-September to judge from some of the sources used and material covered. (This is relevant to Pandemia as a historic document in itself.)
The timing may be especially interesting for how Berenson treats the Trump election dispute of November and December 2020. Here he abandons the tone of neutrality he often strove for, bashing Trump and the election-integrity activists, even tiptoeing up to condemning the “insurrectionists” who protested in Washington over the certification of slates of electors they considered dubious due to election irregularities, hardly some unprecedented allegation or feeling in U.S. history, and a narrative itself tied profoundly to the wider Corona-Panic phenomenon. Election authorities overturned all their own election laws simply waving towards “Covid” or “the pandemic,” and established law was discarded and voting loosened up considerably. It was not some sneaky trick out of nowhere, it was entirely caused by (allow for by) the Corona-Panic, another point Berenson basically doesn’t touch.
If I am right that Berenson’s book mostly reflects his own position (or thinking, attitudes, or carefully curated positions) as of spring 2021, well that was only weeks after the angry month of January 2021. The blind-spot Berenson seems to have on the meaning of the election dispute and how it tied to the Corona-Panic (as social phenomenon) makes more sense if we understand he is bowing to the perceived need to tow a political line about the protestors being “enemies of democracy” (or whatever), which was surprisingly strong for a while, top-down pressure. None of this advances us towards the target of why the Corona-Panic happened.
Relatedly: the book also neglects to give any serious treatment to Black Lives Matter political movement, or the major moral-panic associated with it which washed over the Western world in mid-2020. Clearly the Corona-Panic’s lockdowns triggered the sudden revival of BLM, the mass-gathering protests, riots, looting, were all rather like extensions of the Corona-Panic (which I identified immediately at the time). Berenson is curiously uninterested in this topic.
On Anti-Panic leaders and personalities
By late April 2020, the Anti-Panic side had won the debate on the hard facts and data. There was no crisis as alleged; nothing comparable to the Pro-Panic side’s narrative was actually happening or even close to likely.
The Panic-pushers and Corona-activists had enough images (it’s been pointed out most people think in images); and the power of a strong mass delusion, well guarded by a jealous coalition of enthusiasts; and the power of emotion(al blackmail) to convince people there was a crisis as alleged. Berenson cites the predictable numbers on just how persistently and wildly wrong people tended to be on the threat of Wuhan-Corona throughout the Corona-Panic, with one poll finding a median belief in a 25% death rate, far, far above anything even the most crazed Panic-pushers came up with in spring 2020. People were reacting to the kind of tone they hear, saw, felt. As a result they overestimated their own risk by hundreds, thousands, or tens-of-thousands (!) of times over. The people demanding a crisis were simply wrong on the facts, but after some point it didn’t seem to matter. All that could be done would have been a vigorous Anti-Panic counter-revolution.
Among the fifteen or so most important U.S. governors, only Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis took decisive action to confront, defeat, and dismantle the local Panic apparatus in mid-2020 (earning himself major enemies along the way but many more supporters). Of large-state governors, only DeSantis successfully slew the beast called Corona-Panic and stood guard to make sure the beast did not revive.
DeSantis emerged as a leading Anti-Panic figure and unsurprisingly gets a fair number of mentions in Berenson’s book, as is right and proper. But others don’t get mentioned anywhere near as much. South Dakota’s governor, Noem, is not mentioned, for example, and she ran a state-level Anti-Panic regime, one even more admirable than Florida’s in some ways. She embraced the role of Anti-Panic activist. Why would Berenson not mention her? I know her state population is low, less than half Manhattan Island’s alone, but still.
But I would have to also call it a “miss” that Berenson fails to mention important players on both the Pro- and Anti-Panic sides. No mention of Knut Wittkowski, the early and influential Anti-Panic figure; no mention of the Bakersfield doctors crushed by a Panic-loyal mob and excised from the Internet thanks to the Panic-enforcers at Big Tech because they’d urged an end to the restrictions in mid-April 2020.
No mention of any European figures like Dr Wodarg or Dr Bhakdi, or even the native-English speakers like Ivor Cummins.
Maybe most surprising is how little he mentions Sweden (that great key to the Corona puzzle , the early-mid 2020 natural experiment) or anyone associated with the Swedish effort, one of the only consistently Non-Panic regimes in Western Europe. The same for Belarus. Both were major natural experiments which rejected lockdowns and Pro-Panic advocates’ demanded “counter-measures.”
No mention of Ioannidis or even Kulldorff, though Berenson does mention Anti-Panic media-darling Jay Bhattacharya, once. No mention of the many Anti-Panic bloggers of consistent quality and reach, excellent figures like William M Briggs or the indefatigable Karl Denninger, or Canadian scholar Denis Rancourt (a consistent and strident Anti-Panicker, Professor Rancourt was even banned from scholarly article reporting site ResearchGate for a paper against mask-wearing). No mention mainstream media writers who snuck in moderate Anti-Panic views. Nor of that handful of Anti-Panic websites with relatively high traffic like OffGuardian, or the excellent Swiss Policy Research, or the also-excellent Daily Sceptic (formerly known as Lockdown Sceptics, UK-focused).
Berenson makes little mention even of other Anti-Panic social-media personalities like Eugyppius or the Puerto Rican who wrote under El Gato Malo (@boriquagato), or the excellent Corona Anti-Panic medical writer Mark Changizi. Both those three and many others operated mainly on Berenson’s preferred platform, Twitter, to tens of thousands of followers, and could get retweeted by even bigger fish like large-platform conservative talkers. El Gato Malo was life-banned in Jan. 2021 for Covid Denial (or whatever). Mark Changizi was banned in mid-December 2021. Eugyppius still not only unbanned but has generally avoided too much deboosting or shadow-banning; in his words, Twitter has been very good to him.
I am pretty sure Berenson retweeted some of these kinds of figures (as he reveals in the book, only if they had lots of followers), but he doesn’t find time to mention them in Pandemia, much less even more obscure Anti-Panickers of possible note, small-time bloggers or blog commentariats (I note that Steve Sailer, who fully embraced and pushed the Panic, had a commentariat always much more Anti-Panic than Pro-Panic, from start to finish; this is a kind of large sample size group of great interest, but of course Berenson would never mention Steve Sailer, much less his commenters).
It ought to be of interest to see who was right (as in, what kind of person), when they either snapped out of Corona-delusions or otherwise got it right, and how they got it right. There does seem to have been a set people with some kind of pre-existing immunity to the Panic. Others in effect argued their way out of it, but the mechanisms here are not really well understood. Berenson doesn’t even try, anywhere in Pandemia, to explore these things, not even to raise the question(s). This kind of question is an important corollary to the big question, on Why the Corona-Panic happened.
To wrap up this section of the review, I ask: Why does Berenson decline to mention all these important Anti-Panic figures even close within his own Anti-Panicker ecosystem at its height, much less ones operating outside the US-English sphere.
I think the answer may be this: Berenson’s approach to this book project was highly personal. He empowered himself to mold reality in such a way as to suggest that he himself was doing much of the heavy lifting for the entire Anti-Panic side. He often centers the narrative in Pandemia around things happening to him on Twitter at any given time. This offers a great opportunity to wade into the topic of Twitter and its role in the Corona-Panic and more, definitely a central theme of the book under review and a rich source of material for Corona-Panic Studies.
The Twitterization of discourse / The Internetzation of discourse
Twitter is a major, major theme of Pandemia. It is worth considerable comment in this review, which unfortunately is already quite long, but onward we go anyway.
Twitter’s influence on Pandemia, the book, is deeper than just the thematic, I suspect. what I mean is that much of Berenson’s writing in this book seems influenced by 2010s-era social media writing.
Some no doubt will say that long-form writing is a lost art. If you can’t say something in 280 characters, these people might say, then you simply aren’t worth listening to. Writers are not immune from such a perceived consensus shift, and perhaps are even much more susceptible to it. Berenson’s 17 months of constant Twitter use, from which he started on something of a springboard (as discussed above) but from which he got millions of readers and much non-social-media attention, must have convinced him of the rightness of the message that social-media-style writing is all that matters, and all the rest is just quaint.
I believe the societal-level causes for why the Corona-Panic happened definitely and absolutely and positively include “the Internetization if discourse.” It’s really a tired and oft-made point by now, at least in Anti-Panic circles, that the Corona-Panic would definitely not have happened in the Walter Cronkite era of media, and quite unlikely even in the Rather–Jennings–Brokaw era. (And, as I have tried my best from my limited platform to say, the best evidence we have is that there were flu viruses spreading freely throughout both those periods which were approximately equal to 2020-“Covid” even at its worst, at a usual rate of one or two seasons per decade.)
Let me here quote another book reviewer, Jean M. Yarbrough, reviewing Senator Josh Hawley’s Anti-Big Tech book (it is a negative review):
“It comes as no surprise that spending large chunks of the day online is not good for our mental and civic health. Our powers of concentration decline, our social skills deteriorate. We’re not summoned to make rational arguments or try to persuade. All we have to do is click ‘like,’ or choose from an ever-expanding world of skin-toned emojis, many designed to express anger. Outrage rules. As bad as this is for adults, it is even worse for children….”
Twitter and other social media writing is meant in part to be consumable, and easily so, on smartphone screens, basically on the run. This is some of what I mean by “the Twitterization of discourse.” With quick info-bites and score-keeping via Likes and Retweets or their equivalents, it becomes like a video game. This video-game aspect to social media forces successful social media messages to get dumbed-down just enough to push into the creamy middle sections of the bell curve, and discourse adjusts to that new reality. I think this played out with the Corona-Panic, but it played out also with some Anti-Panickers like Berenson and not only with the Pro-Panic people, except that in such an environment, Pro-Panic messages by their nature are bound to survive and thrive far better.
The language about “going viral” takes on a new meaning, as if we think of social media as networks of transmission much like viruses, some outcompete others based on some set of selection pressures. This is all a little to reductionist to offer a true answer to our big question (“Why did the Corona-Panic happen?”) but it’s useful to think about. Here I think Berenson’s CoronaPanic-era oeuvre offers something like a primary-source.
It seems it must be social-media influence which leads Berenson to so often uses outright social-media-origin terms but also outright slang of his own coinage and popularized by him on Twitter, without explaining it. “Virus gonna virus” is one. I think it’s far too slangy and unserious a phrasing for a book like this, but especially if not explained. (It’s adapted from Black slang “[name] gonna [name-as-verb]” to mean [named group] always does things like this and it’s inevitable and all I can do is cringe when [named group] does what they always do.)
Berenson’s chosen writing style in this book is also not consistent. Much of the opening is loose and lax in the ways I describe. While many individual chapters are fairly tight (even if I might disagree with some specifics or framing in them, even if they can be subject to that “hit and miss” nature explored above in this review), and they could work as stand-alone magazine articles. But Berenson often falls back on language-forms which fit best in social media, including choice of how to word sentences (not using complete sentences). Not using complete sentences. Like this.
This is all of interest because it applies to our subject of interest, the info-thugs who pushed the Corona-Panic to begin with and promoted it so aggressively. Many of these were frankly sick individuals (and not sick with a flu virus) who teamed up with ideologues and others to form the core of the Pro-Panic coalition, and who appear to have successfully weaponized technology to do their evil deed. Once they got the Panic to break through our normal defenses, they consolidated and enforced their gains also using technology. A key alliance seems to be with what we now call “Big Tech,” which is where Twitter as an actor comes in. It exists within the corona-Panic both s vector for Panic, an incubator for Pro-Panic ideas and memes, and an enforcer of the Pro-Panic line (see above on the brief reference to a long list of persons banned from Twitter for opposing the Panic, including Berenson himself).
One dissident author (Patrick Wood) by early May 2020 began calling the Corona-Panic “technocracy’s global coup d’etat.” Berenson, unfortunately, does not really wade into this kind of discussion in any direct-enough way to make a lasting impression. He is far more concerned with hitting the New York Times.
From many sidebar comments in Pandemia, we et the feeling that Berenson sees social media as a tool, in general an elucidator rather than as a distorter, implying that good ideas will chase out bad ideas. He doesn’t say this, but that’s the implication of much of what else he says, except of course criticizing censorship and bannings of individuals for opposing the Panic (Twitter has done politically targeted bannings for years, and he never spoke up before).
Thematically related to the larger Internetization of discourse of Internetization of knowledge (is something ‘true’ if it is not online? Not to most people now) is this: Pandemia has hundreds of references in the endnotes, filling up fifty-nine pages in very-small print. All of them contain URLs, and the URLs are simply copy-pasted raw. Many of them are to Tweets, but most are to news stories, often in the New York Times or comparable targets he likes to beat up on.
Plopping down full-length URLs is a bad idea because it shows a disrespect towards the reader, being just walls of text useless to anyone who encounters this book in hard (paper) form. No one is going to type out a long URL, which makes these references rather useless, and in due course of time all these links are also guaranteed to become unusable.
The better way is fill-in references with simply descriptive info like we used to do with paper books and allow someone to find them that way. Something like this: (Footnote 125.) “Experts warn Covid could kill 100 million Americans, urge Trump impeachment,” CNN, by Brian Stelter, April 1, 2020.”
But the URLs being in references thing tells us something more. It tells us that Berenson prepared the book simply surfing in and out of news-websites out there.
The best observers of the Corona-Panic phenomenon seem to agree that the Corona-Panic only became possible after a certain threshold of digitization was reached, and was impossible in an ‘analog’ world, or a transitionary world between analog and digital. Only after a degree of full-digitization was achieve could a CoronPanic-like event have occurred. I agree, and am interested in pursuing he idea, but hoped Berenson might have done so, but he didn’t, or did so too lightly and breezily to make no impression.
The questions I would propose are: If the Corona-Panic was only possible with digitization (as we generally all agree), when was the threshold crossed? What were the key factors in terms of social attitudes, habits, or practices in this new interplay of the technological layer on lived-life in a far more profound way than before the threshold was crossed? What were the key factors in purely technological terms that pushed us across the threshold? How might we use these findings to prevent recurrences of CoronaPanic-like events?
It’s ironic that instead of confronting these questions head-on, one of its highest-profile opponents of the Panic entirely arguing using the Internet. This is one reason why holding a physical book can give more value than the equivalent in digital form, because you can easily jump around and get a feel for the book, and if you flip through Pandemia in that way, one thing you see is fifty-nine pages’ worth of a walls of URLs in the endnote section, almost disorienting to look at. This itself feels like a form of meta-data towards which to construct or reinforce our own Corona-Panic theories or general thesis of why the Corona-Panic happened, for it seems to viscerally reinforce the point about the Interentization of discourse.
In a world like that, all answers to all things must be on the Internet, and so when Corona-info gets conveyed over the Internet in some form or other, it it inherently seems plausible or true, enough to cancel-out gut-instinct or real-world experience.
Under the world we’ve come to inhabit in which discourse and knowledge have been Interneticized (I have no proper word for this phenomenon), the technological layer becomes more real than the actual world, those things you can see from a distance, approach, or avoid as needed or desired; those things you can touch and feel and smell and taste; those things of which, when you stand in their presence, you can and do form impressions not reducible to one or more of the five senses; as a poet might say, “to Live!”
I’ve tried to walk through a small rhetorical defense of real-world experience, there. I am not alone in basically having this instinct, but we have to recognize that the Internet and the “technological layer” are more important in most people’s lives now. Clearly they are very important to Alex Berenson, as he makes no secret of in his own narration.
Early in the Panic in which a certain kind of lower-tier Anti-Panicker went in for the idea of an outright hoax because when they showed up at hospitals, they saw nothing unusual, and even signs of very low occupancy. Berenson mentions this in the book as a “brief fad” of people filming empty hospital compounds and posting them online. They were right that hospitals were never “swamped” (as Corona-supervillain Neil Ferguson and his aggressively Pro-Panic info-thugs and Panicker minions demanded that everyone believe in 2020, and which some people still repeat to this day). The few among them who actually believed there never was a virus were wrong to jump to that conclusion. But they were more importantly wrong on a higher level within our current Internet-filtered informational-dispensation: they appealed to observed-reality as evidence rather than Internet-filtered Expertise. Those people who drove by hospitals and filmed scenes of emptiness could easily be mocked by all those sophisticated, CoronaPanic-loyal good people out there. You trust what you see above what you get from the infinite wisdom of Twitter? What a moron!
People might say “Don’t trust what you read online,” but inherently they do exactly that. Wikipedia cannot be wrong. It’s just assumed everything to know is online and easily googleable. This amounts to techno-narcissism. Perhaps in time it will fade somewhat.
To turn in another direction on this big topic of the Internetization of discourse, Berenson also often writes in narration style of his own experiences and thoughts. The book must be at least, say, one-fifth personal memoir. The often-informal style that accompanies such things is also reminiscent of Twitter and the kind of tone which Twitter encourages.
As mentioned earlier, Berenson makes it clear that his fame and success as a Corona-Panic celebrity are due to Twitter. He reveals also a few things from behind the curtain, how he used back-room connections to ensure he stayed unbanned. When Brandon Borrman, his back-room benefactor on the inside at Twitter left the company in mid0June 2021, there soon followed by a series of censorings and short-bans (several in July). They led up to Berenson’s life-ban in late August 2021 for Covid Denial (or whatever).
The subtext, though, is always that even the Anti-Panic side was so often social-media-based.
The apparent aim of Pandemia — staying disciplined and doing long-form reporting for a pop-audience — leads Berenson to consistently over-explain through the first half or more of the book. He explains what “median” means and what the “Federal Reserve” is. This breaks down towards the middle and especially towards the end. But this also coexists with a tendency to under-explain social-media terms, which I think again adds to the pile of evidence on the Internetization of discourse.
It’s telling, for example, that Berenson does not explain what “blue check” means, even declining n occasion to use quotation marks for “blue check,” as if it’s a dictionary-term anyone would know. I think he even capitalizes it at least once. “Blue check” may be may well be recognizable to most readers in 2021-22, but it may not survive the test of time. It only entered usage in the mid-2010s (then still as Twitter-lingo), and became generally recognizable as a term in the sense Berenson uses it only in the late 2010s (the first appearances of phrases like “anti-Trump bluechecks,” “Trump-hating blue checks,” and “left-wing bluechecks” are all in 2019; “left-wing blue checks” [with space] has several in2018; clearly the term as-used by Berenson only emerged very soon before the Corona-Panic, an interesting observation given our quest to find out why the Corona-Panic happened.
But using terms like “blue checks.” What if someone in the future, say one or two or three generations from now, picks up this book looking for answers on the Great Corona-Panic of the early 2020s. Terms well familiar to those who spent hours a day on Twitter but not to others are not a good bet.
Another example is his use of the neologism “casedemic,” without defining it. Maybe the definition of this brand-new term (one highly specific to the Corona-Panic given the Panic’s bold redefinition of the the term/concept “case”), but since his editorial line in much of the book had been to over-define, a simple nod that you are introducing a non-standard word like “casedemic” would be useful.
Berenson and Wittkowski: a study in contrasts among two Corona Anti-Panickers
Here I’d like to briefly turn back to one of the many dogs that didn’t bark in Berenson’s book, which I think follows from the above Internetization-of-discourse commentary. It is Wittkowski versus Berenson. Recall that Knut Wittkowski was one of the earliest Anti-Panic hardliners, who was way too right way too early in the Corona-Panic cycle and got life-banned from most places online despite an extremely impressive academic pedigree, banned for opposing CDC guidelines. Berenson, w began to be active on the Anti-Panic scene at around the same time but survived. Recall also that Berenson does not mention Wittkowski in this book, which is a curious omission.
Knut Wittkowski and Berenson were both occasional guests on right-wing cable news shows in April 2020,though it appears they sought out Wittkowski for the waves he was making in aggressively opposing the Panic, while Berenson more likely kind of talked his way on via established connections, (Berenson was, in fairness, making waves of his own on Twitter; Wittkowski had no social-media accounts).
What if Berenson had been as rapidly and ignominiously banned, as Knut Wittkowski was in April 2020? What if Berenson had been the one completely blotted off the Internet in a coordinated campaign for Covid Denial not Wittkowski?
Berenson stuck around and worked his connections, Wittkowski went on to do a number of lesser interviews on podcasts, some in his native German, but was really under major fire and was even disowned by his former university, and his company came under threat by Pro-Panic mobs riled up by it all. Wittkowski was much less active in 2021 than he had been at the early stages of the Panic in spring 2020. As best I can tell, Wittkowski made no money at all off the Corona-Panic one way or another, and likely on net lost quite a lot due to reputational damage from those Pro-Panic mob attacks and Big Tech’s scarlet-lettering of him. Berenson’s Substack subscriptions bring in good income, as did this book (Pandemia) and a series of short pieces he released for sale (“Unreported Truths”). I don’t know how much Berenson has made from this, but it’s not zero.
And, so, what if instead of the targeted blotting-out of Wittkowski, the same had befallen Berenson in 2020? If Wittkowski had been the one to come out the other end enjoying relative prestige with firm connections to media networks? It’s a world we cannot imagine because Wittkowski and Berenson are such different people. Wittkowski, despite being an actual scientist with thirty years working experience and several PhDs, had no social media accounts, really no connections to any media all, and lacked the personality or experience to smoothly do so. In late March 2020, a handful of local media reached out to Wittkowski to ask about “Covid,” and he naively assumed that telling the cold, hard truth was the best policy.
As we approach the two-year anniversary of the critical month of April 2020 and reflect on the subsequent careers of Wittkowski vs. Berenson, there are differences too numerous to properly make an accounting of, but savvy in use of the Internet and social media stands out.
What a nonfiction book-as-book needs is a book-level thesis. For all the sparkle of some of Pandemia, it often seems unclear if the book has a book-level thesis, a major point, a reason for writing. Many a reader is likely already inclined to like Berenson and appreciate him. I would count myself among them. They like him from seeing his yeoman’s work in fighting the Panic-pushers, in fighting the info-terrorists who delivered to us the Corona-Panic disaster and who enforced it throughout all this time. As such I feel confident in saying they’ll give Berenson a pass on this.
Berenson apparently had no editor. He all but says so in the text, and the relatively large number of typos — one expects none in a book like this — corroborates that. He is therefore his own editor.
A lot of the feel of Pandemia is that of a series of one-off journalistic articles as might appear in a good newspaper or magazine. To make this a truly strong book, a lot more unity and forcefulness of attack would have been needed.
But a book is a book, not a series of journalistic articles. Granted, some books are collections of essays or articles. In those cases, oftentimes authors are separate people not working together but each writing thematically related stand-alone articles which an editor might comment on, loosely bridging them, but the book can be forgiven for not having much of a “through-argument.” In such books, the separate chapters are treated as independent and self-contained. Often, books like that are not very interesting to read, though. Specially interested persons or scholars will tend to pick out one or a few articles of use to them and read those with interest but maybe either skip the rest or at most skim through with less interest. A lot of academic writing ends up published in this form, even today. Pandemia doesn’t announce itself as this kind of book. Pandemia implicitly promises to be the Great (Anti-)Corona-Panic Book but ends up sharing features with that kind of disjointed, academic, separate-author, chapter-based book. Berenson is a better writer than most, but good writing and a good book are not the same thing.
In an alternate universe in which the New York Times were a neutral forum for Pro-Panic vs. Anti-Panic writers, some of these chapters could have appeared in the New York Times Magazine with few alterations, even down to editorial style. This still basically holds even though he weaves in and out of anecdotes from his own life rather much. Most of the chapters could appear in medium-high-brow news-magazines.
Done well, or done right, a book is supposed to offer something unique and to stand the test of time, and therefore should be considered carefully. A long series of reportings tossed together under various chapter headings is on thin ice. And I feel Berenson’s Pandemia frankly comes up lacking on those two fronts (uniqueness, and standing the test of time).
Books are hard to write even in the best of times; good books are so hard as to be rare, which is why people are always looking around for good finds or recommendations, because when a book ‘works,’ it’s worth its metaphorical weight in gold. One thing that can undermine a project is loss of editorial control. In the case of Pandemia, Berenson’s long-form reporting approach, combined with his commitment to a cultivated neutral tone reporting is the wrong call and self-sabotage. These editorial calls (which are Berenson’s own, given that he didn’t have an editor) are not helpful in a book like this, if the entire premise is to attack (recalling the bombast of the book’s title).
As anyone who knows Berenson’s work knows, attacking the Corona-Panic, trying to defeat it and help slay the beast in a way something like DeSantis did in Florida, is what Berenson wants to do, at least judging on his Anti-Panic persona seen on Twitter (and, after his life-ban from Twitter, on Substack which he tends to use just like Twitter).
What happened? Did he “wimp out”?
Berenson is an experienced writer. He is no slouch at writing or reporting. These weaknesses I see are not necessarily oversights or mistakes (in some cases maybe they are). What I think happened is that he got scared off the task before him. He retreated to a safer line of general defense, thinking of his reputation. He would have better served the world by pressing the attack, hard, but he lost the nerve. It was not true on every page or every chapter, but it was true enough as to be discouraging. Even Anti-Panic champions are conceding Corona-Panic premises all over, this is bad. It feels like he imposed an editorial line on himself to the effect of “don’t go too hard on the Panic,” which waters down his entire message.
I speculated above and will do so again here that he was trying to build bridges he’d partly burned to major media people who fell or jumped into the Panic muck, and 18 to 24 months later were still dirty with Panic muck up to the knees, or waist, or in some cases deeper still. Berenson’s political instinct told him to offer these poor people a compromise. This was the wrong call for this book, which should have attacked much harder and undermined itself, but is understandable in this context.
Actually, this is where skilled editors come in. Good books tend to be collaborations of the main author and a number of people along the way. It feels like Berenson made a few wrong choices with hobbling himself to watering down the message.
Another weaknesses is that there is not a single image, table, graph, or even picture in the book, except on the cover (which is a photo the author took himself of a deserted Manhattan street during Peak Panic April 2020). This lack of any kind of visuals or table- or graph-based data summaries especially hurts the narrative in places where he deals with numbers. The deaths of despair chapter comes to mind again. Most people need a helping-hand dealing with numbers, often in visual-aid form, but Berenson provides none.
Why would a book like this, running several hundred pages, have not even one image, graph, table, anything? Laziness? It seems so obvious that some sort of visual or table would help. Is it the reporter’s instinct to hand off the choice of any accompanying images r graphs, if any, and not to worry about it? Generally this is the way these things work. If so, this is another form of weakness which we can group under the label “long-form reporting.”
Finally, I have to add something on the Corona-as-Religion hypothesis which I and others began proposing in mid-2020 and which in 2021 saw increasing acceptance. The mechanism is a religious impulse towards apocalyptic thinking. Berenson never really touches on this kind of theory, the religion-hypothesis. He prefers sniping at sociological explanations and passing political explanations. The .long-established tradition of Get Trump-ism of the 2015-2020 period is low-hanging fruit here.
When I started this writing this review in the closing days of 2021, there is a Strange New Respect thing going on for Trump because he had started to aggressively promote (unnecessary) mass Corona-injections, over which he feuded with his own supporters, many of whom making their own rationally informed decision wanted to decline the injections. Explanations for why the Corona-Panic happened which focus too much on the narrowly political, including the big kahuna that was Trump in the 2015-2020 period, as Berenson seems to want to do, may miss something important. The Corona-Religion hypothesis, and similar sleeves-rolled-up investigations, seem to me much more important in a book like this than a compilation of Twitter-heavy content, amounting to reporting. It’s the way Berenson chose to go with the book and it makes a less effective book for it, in my view.
As so much of Pandemia is a cleaned-up open journal of the author’s experiences during and with the Corona-Panic phenomenon, the narrative quite often bleeds into references to his working life at the New York Times, which ran from 1999 to 2010[?], with some affiliation thereafter and one final article published there in early 2020, just before the Corona-Panic ascent-cycle really started.
Some of the inward focus of Pandemia is interesting and valuable, especially in light of the author’s later conversion to Anti-Panic evangelist. Memoirs are always interesting but seldom fully reliable, because everyone tends to whitewash their own lives.
Reading between some lines in Pandemia, I think that once Berenson saw the Anti-Panic side was definitely correct on the merits, he made a judgment call to go all-in with the Anti-Panickers. It was too tempting, for if he moved fast he could even get a leadership mantle, or the street-cred of being an early embracer of the likely-to-be winning side. The calculation was right, but he did underestimate the Pro-Panic commitment and he didn’t appreciate the Corona-Religion phenomenon at the time it was forming, and has still failed to truly engage with it even when others came around (the Tucker Carlson monologue that elaborated at length on Corona as a New Religion was aired around a week or two after Berenson finished main writing on Pandemia, for what it’s worth).
Instead I think some of these things activated Berenson’s natural contrarian or gadfly attitudes towards reporting, which as I say he tamps down and reverts to the form of magazine-style reporting (equivalent to a politico running a strong, ideological campaign and exciting people over it early in the political season but then diving towards the center when the general election begins).
Given Berenson’s clearly self-conscious role as a thought-leader on the Anti-Panic side as revealed by the inward focus of much of Pandemia, I think we have to almost view Berenson as a kind of political actor and treat some of Pandemia as something like a politician’s memoir. The Corona-Panic was itself a political event in the most important ways, even if at first it seemed to transcend politics, so this seems oddly fitting enough,
Berenson outlines some of the key turning points for him, some of which I summarized or references earlier in this review, and judging by his own comments the period when he became a skeptic before fully embracing the Anti-Panic position extends from March 16 to April 5. In early March he was still on the Pro-Panic side, and had been since sometime in February and by the end of February was urging people to drop what they were doing and get in on the panic before it was too late for them.
In the book he confessed to having bought packs and packs of masks at Wal-Mart. He recounts, at some point as the Panic began to throttle upward, being terribly embarrassed when his off-leash dog ran up to another dog, forcing interaction at close quarters with other early-stage Panicker humans as he had to run over to control his off-leash dog and came into the breathing zone of another person, angry at him for potentially killing him with the virus. It’s all the usual Coronapanicker stuff, and Berenson’s seems to have been an active rather than a passive case of Corona-Panic, until his Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, which came from reading the aggressively and reality-detached, Panic-pushing Imperial College report, March 16, 2020.
Anyway, as for inward focus, Berenson tips off his own thinking by sometimes saying “The Times” to refer to the New York Times. There are other papers with that name, but for someone who thinks like Berenson, The Times means the New York Times. At least once he also uses “The Post” to refer to the Washington Post. This one was a little more surprising. I assumed, upon first reading, that he was talking about the right-wing tabloid New York Post, which has a national profile even if it is definitely excluded from the elite media (and was even censored and suspended by Twitter for a time in election-season 2020). Berenson’s “The Post” did not mean the New York Post, it meant the elite-media and agenda-setting Washington Post, sure enough.
There are clear negatives to being too inwardly focused when your self-declared task is offer a book-length analysis of the Corona-Panic, but there it’s not all bad.
Sidebar comments which Berenson makes in Pandemia about changes he’s observed over the past 22 years at the New York Times may count as part of the inward-focus of his book, but are really of great interest, both in general and specifically within the mystery of why “we” embraced the Corona-Panic.
A glance back at a moment in time: February 2020 and Julie Bosman
On Feb. 25, 2020, I wrote something in response to an early sign the Corona-Panic was brewing. Actually signs it was brewing wee steady ever since it first hit the news on New Year’s Eve 2019, quietly at first, but it was well-advanced by late February.
I didn’t appreciate what was going on yet, and though I certainly could not have predicted just how awful the coming two years would be, in retrospect it does seem I’d identified something. This does relate to Berenson and his role in the Corona-Panic and his book and its themes, so I ask your patience.
The first part is the original quote from Julie Bosman, a New York Times reporter:
From @CDCgov press call: “Disruption to everyday life might be severe,”
My reply (Feb. 25, 2020):
This is one of the problems with Twitter.
Squeezing out tweets which are contextless to incite people. They of course do not check the (usually ungiven) source to see exactly what was said in context. The lazy Twitter followers retweet it, and it takes on a life of its own.
The Twitterization of discourse.
Al “Information Superhighway” Gore must be spinning in his grave.
Analysis of the Corona-Panic gives us a heaping smorgasbord from which to feast upon this concept of “the Twitterization of discourse,” and I think a lot more could be written of it even than what I’ve written in this essay. The final line about Al Gore meant that optimistic 1990s-era visions of what the coming Internet would be, end up looking wrong, and a far-darker vision of what the Internet would be ends up looking more right. This applies to more than just the Corona-Panic, but certainly Corona is a mega-scale example. This is also something I’d noticed throughout the 2010s long before the Corona-Panic came on the scene. I’d never associated it with public health scares before early 2020.
There are several interesting tie-ins with this tweet to Berenson and his book, and I’m going to dig into this Julie Bosman tweet despite it not appearing in his book. The themes all tie in to Berenson and his role in the Corona-Panic affair. Berenson quotes hundreds of tweets of similar kind in Pandemia.
I see three major areas to touch on, using the Julie Bosman tweet as a way to ground the analysis in something firm: (1) the New York Times and its role in the Corona-Panic; (2) Internet-discourse and Internet-ephemerality (or unreality); (3) tracing the timeline or evolution of the Panic. Here we go:
(1) The New York Times as a leading element of the Pro-Panic coalition. The tweet from Julie Bosman, above quoted, is so perfect for present purposes that I present a brief bio: She is born ca.1979; as far as I can tell, is of US-White-Christian origin, has a BA from University of Wisconsin–Madison; is long active with the NYT; and she was recently promoted, now holding the title of the NYT’s “Chicago Bureau Chief.”
The New York Times as a publication disgraced itself during the Corona-Panic. This almost goes without saying. Beating up on this role is clearly one of Alex Berenson’s main motivations in Pandemia. The New York Times shred whatever dignity it had left as anything like a neutral or reporting-oriented outfit , and it already did not have that much, frankly, by 2019. This they did by enthusiastically and aggressively embracing the Corona-Panic and essentially running a PR service for it.
The New York Times‘ power in agenda-setting remains. It was not the only media outlet to do this; Berenson in his book repeatedly says The Atlantic was in his view the very worst offender of them all, almost as if it The Atlantic were funded by some enemy actor which desired to destabilize the United States. Those are my words, not Berenson’s, but that is the level of reality-detachment on the Corona Question for The Atlantic. Thinking about it in the long run, it seems really puzzling, doesn’t it? Why would they do it? We have washed back ashore and confront again the giant question pestering us, Why did the Corona-Panic happen?
One reason Berenson felt compelled to embrace the Corona-skeptic position was when he saw lockstep, almost state-media-like party-line emerge, and at his former employer more than most. Berenson gives enough of a general sketch and parenthetical comments on his own thinking to confirm this.
For much of the time as Peak Panic approached in spring 2020, and for most of the time since, the NYT blurred reporting with opinion, or so Berenson somewhat lamely puts it. The Julie Bosman tweet was pretty far from the most flagrant of what was to come, but it still stands out as Panic-pushing, especially given its time and her position of influence and prestige as a high-ranking “NYTer.” She probably should not have published that at all, and in a Walter Cronkite-style media environment, such Panic-pushing talk would have stayed off the air, never able to “go viral.”
So Berenson said the New York Times blurred opinion and reporting. Berenson again seeming to strive for a neutralist line, not wanting to alienate too many old friends; any allies or fellow-travelers in Big Media; or any general-population, thinking Corona-Persuadables. (Much of the angry core of Pro-Panic hardliners who either used the Panic for some psychological need or saw the Panic as in their interest, will simply never come around until absolutely forced to, and may still cling to it even then; history has to pass them by, and maybe already has, though they have two+ years in the Sun.)
Against Berenson’s politely worded allegation that they had blurred opinion and reporting, I would go a lot further and say instead that the NYT and other influential Panic-pushers blurred opinion, hysteria, unrelated-agenda-pushing, and reporting, in perhaps four comparably sized parts but with ‘reporting’ the least-important element, and with reporting frankly tainted by the other parts. Even if some good info came through, the whole was tainted. This all created one of the main load-bearing supports of the Corona-Panic itself.
Back to Julie Bosman as a character in this saw melodrama that was the Corona-Panic, frozen in time, February 25, 2020. In preparing this review, I glanced over at Julie Bosman’s most recent thirty or so tweets You won’t be surprised to learn that many of them remain CoronaPanic-pushing in content and style. You can check her recent tweets here; other recent topics included:
- the conviction of Kim Potter, a police officer somewhere in Middle America who, under attack by a suspect, accidentally shot him dead and for some reason was charged criminally under the race-panic environment of the time;
- mourning the death of writer Joan Didion at age 87;
- surging demand for antigen tests;
- ‘Covid’ said to be in major surge in Chicago (recall that Julie Bosman was made Chicago Bureau Chief at some point during the Corona-Panic era);
- apparently promoting a theory that the FBI infiltrated left-wing Portland protests of 2020;
- warning that Illinois is under threat of swamped hospitals;
- posting a photo she took at a grocery store in which a stack of “antigen self tests” was sold out, which she insinuates is because of “Omicron”;
- a podcast link called “What to Expect from the Next Phase of the Pandemic,” clearly designed for agenda-setting and featuring a line-up of New York Times all-stars chiming in with what people should “expect.”
I am now wandering away from the Berenson topic but this alley is too interesting to leave unexplored here. To sum it up, though, it appears that Julie Bosman remains a Panic loyalist to the end, near two years later. In her likely info-bubble-environment, she has found no reason to re-evaluate, or maybe has lacked the moral courage to challenge the consensus, or maybe there is some other reason(s) which are essentially irrational (cf. the Corona-Religion hypothesis).
Julie Bosman is a stand-in for the general Pro-Panicker who travels in elite circles, specifically agenda-setting elite media, subject to group-think and other forces that encouraged them to all embrace the Panic.
A brief search shows Julie Bosman retweeted fellow NYTer Alex Berenson a few times in the 2010s, but other than that there is no connection between the two. Rhetorically, though, she is as Berenson’s jousting partner, which makes me wonder, is Berenson’s book for people like Julie Bosman? I’ve speculated above that Berenson deliberately hobbled his own book and toned it down to appeal to people just like this, but when I look at the actual example of a living, breathing, committed CoronaPanic-loyalist like Julie Bosman, I am quite sure she won’t be reading the Berenson book.
Will people like Julie Bosman go to their graves with a basically irrational belief that there was an apocalyptic virus crisis which we barely got through thanks to heroics by Doctor Fauci, mask wearing, lockdowns, those stupid face shields, millions of millions of experimental injections, and the selfless courage by millions who came together to help save the world and our collective soul (Covid Deniers, skeptics, minimizers, a shady cabal of rogue epidemiologists out there, and all the Unvaccinated excluded)?
If future actual major crises come, not artificial ones like the Corona-Panic, people might forget the Corona-Panic and even mock it, even coming around to what the Anti-Panic side has been saying for a long time. Maybe.
Berenson says some polling in 2020 suggests a softline Pro-Panic position was basically the median position. Those softliners were led by a hardline Pro-Panic fanatic element, and of course the many Corona-demagogues in high (and low) places, all vastly overshadowing the Anti-Panic people. Why would panic over a flu virus be the default, polite-opinion consensus? That doesn’t seem natural. It was the product of a long campaign of panic-pushing and agenda-setting in early-mid 2020 by people like Julie Bosman at the New York Times, and thousands or even millions of others, a vast volunteer-auxiliary to promote fear of a flu virus.
This is all very interesting even if it seems repetitive, but still does not quite explain why the Corona-Panic happened, our elusive big question. And we’re also still left with the curious image that Berenson, later banned from polite social-media society for Covid Denial (or whatever) was on Julie Bosman’s side as of February 25, 2020, when she had this breakout, Panic-encouraging tweet which I’ve highlighted.
(2) Internet discourse, ephemerality, and deletions. Julie Bosman later deleted her Panic-pushing tweet of February 25, 2020.
We have plenty of record of the tweet’s existence, as it got such wide circulation and was quoted in full in many other venues. There are traces of it on Reddit and on the Steve Sailer blog and places like that. People quote it exactly, linking to the original tweet, now deleted.
The “blue-checked” Julie Bosman promoted Panic to her tens of thousands of followers, citing unspecified experts, implicitly urging all who would listen to get on the winning side and embrace the Panic. It may have gotten millions of views across all platforms when taken together. It was part of the steady drumbeat from the then-rapidly-growing Pro-Panic coalition, unlikely itself to draw much attention in the grand scheme of the Corona-Panic’s mountain of such things unless someone specifically selects it for deep analysis like I’m doing here. Otherwise it could easily blend into the background-noise of the early Panic.
Julie Bosman’s deletion of her own Panic-pushing tweet of February 25, 2020, seems like an interesting little flag-in-the-sand here.
When did Julie Bosman delete her Panic-pushing tweet? I don’t know.
Why did she delete it? You might guess ‘shame,’ but that turns out to not be the case here. For one thing, there is no indication of shame. As mentioned, Julie Bosman continued loyally pushing the Corona-Panic even as of late 2021. She appears to be a surprisingly uncritical party-liner, surprising because she is supposed to be a journalist, not an activist on behalf of a social cause associated with a flu virus. Like a writer for a state-media organ in a communist regime of old, it wouldn’t even occur to some of these people to start questioning the Panic, unless or until they sense a major, major consensus-shift, as if Doctor Fauci himself took over the airwaves for a day and urged an end to the Panic, that it was all a big mistake, that the Covid Deniers were right all along. There are all kinds of social and psychological reasons acting in concert to block people like Julie Bosman from doing what Berenson somehow did to himself in spring 2020.
In any case, I know for sure that Julie Bosman did not single out this one tweet for deletion, nor any group of tweets for deletion, because she actually deleted her entire Twitter archive on or about September 20, 2020. Her earliest surviving tweets as of this writing (from September 20, 2020) are also Corona stories, including “With Flags, Crosses and Photos, Mourning 200,000 Dead,” which she has the lead credit on.
In one tweet from that day (currently surviving as among her oldest tweets), Bosman says: “I’m extremely grateful to all of the people who spoke to us for this story, in the midst of terrible grief, sharing their experiences of losing family members to the coronavirus.” I would consider this more evidence to add to the pile for Corona as a religious phenomenon, as no such tributes were ever written for, say, drug-overdose or opioid deaths in the 2010s,which surged in the 2020-21 Corona-Panic era due to the (predictable) effects of the lockdowns and social-economic disruptions. The drug-overdose deaths alone are in the same order-of-magnitude as Corona losses in life-years-lost terms. It’s been said before, but none of the Corona-histrionic people so emotional over a rise in flu deaths seems to care about other deaths.
But the deletion of the Julie Bosman tweet point to another phenomenon, something broader and more generally applicable: Deletions, data-loss, and the ephemerality of our techno-narcissistic world.
Twitter is a running theme of the Corona-Panic phenomenon and of Alex Berenson’s role within it. (Actually it’s really the entire Internet discourse-space is the running theme, with Twitter as the firm, pin-it-down mechanism for the broader phenomenon.) Twitter began to delete Berenson’s tweets for Contradicting CDC Guidelines (or whatever), then suspended him for short periods, I think beginning in the latter part of July 2021, then finally life-banned him as a repeat offender and Covid Denier on August 28, 2021, after which he migrated to Substack and has done well there, presumably also pulling in a lot of money from subscriptions.
So this theme of data-loss and ephemerality of all things in the Interneticized discourse-world work on the micro-scale with Berenson’s own life and experience, but also on macro-scale. Another social-media app, Snapchat, takes the macro-scale ephemerality of that which we see on the Internet to a perhaps-logical extreme by making all contents disappear soon after they are sent or viewed. Nothing on Snapchat lasts; everything is deleted soon after viewing or within a certain fixed period even if never viewed. Teenagers put in much effort and time into Snapchat even knowing it will all disappear.
There are ways in which the entire Internet is like Snapchat. The constant flow of information which gets tossed at anyone who is “active online” today, and that is most people, is basically an undistilled form of what Snapchat delivers distilled.
Very little work is required to be active online beginning sometime perhaps in the mid- or late-2010s, though the exact timeline differs by person, habits, or lifestyle (e.g., type of work engaged in). Info-bites tend to get thrown at you all day. This is another sense one gets from reading the Berenson book, Pandemia. The author is good, much of the time, at what he’s doing, but there is a sense of informational-exhaustion, too much of it. Actually, the recently repopularized term “anarcho-tyranny” applies: the constant flow of information is analogous to the anarchic; the targeted bans of dissidents or regime-opponents and targeted content-deletions and deboosting are analogous to the tyrannical. Both are at work.
Berenson claims he has a backup of nearly his entire Twitter archive. Sensing throughout August 2021 that a life-ban was inevitable once his benefactor behind the scenes was gone, he got a full download of his material shortly before the hammer finally came down for the last time, the end of yet another Corona-Denier’s Twitter career. Maybe he did save it, but none of it is now online, none of it is easily accessible to a normal person or searchable.
With so many thousands of major accounts permanently banned, and the attendant loss of publicly available information, this seems to be one of the many problems with the whole Internetization of Discourse phenomenon. Data-loss is surprisingly common. So far, the humble effort here at Hail To You has survived, even if pretty severely restricted now by Big Tech, whose search-engine monopoly power is considerable. They ‘ghost’ many posts here and since late 2017 or early 2018 they deboost everything that appears on these pages. But at least I have not been deleted.
There may be a day when the Twitterization/Internetization of our discourse recedes somewhat. That time doesn’t seem particularly imminent, which is depressing in one sense; we are still in for a dark winter of the soul a while longer in which we might continue to be subject to CoronaPanic-like events. This is why books, physical books most especially, seem so valuable. That which you can hold in your two hands gives you a unique sort of power, for such a possession is not subject to sudden disappearance, its contents not subject to sudden deletion when someone at Big Tech pronounces them guilty of Denial of a Flu Virus or some other inanity as that.
As I’ve already commented on several times in this review, I’m not sure Berenson’s book quite rises to this challenge, though. The principle holds, regardless.
(3) The timing. Dating the phases of the Corona-Panic. I am still on the Julie Bosman tweet. The original tweet was from around morning, US Eastern Standard Time, February 25, 2020 (that judging by the Reddit timestamp, under r/Coronavirus).
That is a useful signpost in the history of the Corona-Panic, the status of what was near the leading edge of elite-media Panic-pushing.
‘Who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘when’ are basic tasks of the reporter, and Berenson does not focus enough of his talents on untangling how the Panic happened, instead choosing to glide along from thing to thing over a year-and-a-half of the Panic ins-and-outs.
But Berenson does give enough of a sketch in Pandemia on his evolution from Oblivious (he says he paid attention to Corona-news starting mid-January 2020, missing its first two weeks or more, the hardcore wilderness conspiracy-theory phase), to Concerned, to already leaning Pro-Panic (by late January 2020), to embracing the Panic (some time in February), to suddenly confronting the data and turning Anti-Panic (starting abruptly in mid-March), to going full-board Anti-Panic (first week of April, especially by sunrise April 6, he had cut ties with Corona-Neutrality and was full-steam ahead to fight the Panic).
Berenson’s transformation was from freelance writer and novelist with a health-reporting background, with a then-recent a book critical of marijuana and the pro-marijuana public health consensus that had emerged by the late 2010s. He was critical of the new consensus for health reasons and dug into medical studies for the book. The marijuana book turned out to have been a good warm-up run for his role in reporting on the Corona-Panic debacle.
And so, as of the last week of February 2020, Berenson leaned Pro-Panic (as he confesses). He gives out some of his tweets from that period in which he warned followers they ought to join him in panicking. He would probably not have been averse to liking or retweeting Julie Bosman’s tweet urging panic if he saw it.
A full accounting of the phases of the Corona-Panic is a task left to someone else, for Berenson does not even try something like this, but parts of his book contain good primary information which could be used for this purpose. The Panic itself was really a series of events which generally always interacted with other things going on, and which created novel political coalitions, the Pro-Panic and the Anti-Panic, which during the critical period almost bore little if any relation to pre-existing political splits. The Pro-Panic coalition emerged first and made bold moves, seizing the high ground and holding it. The Anti-Panic coalition emerged later and much more slowly, failed to appreciate the magnitude of what was going on, and failed to offer a coherent counter-offensive until months into the Corona-Panic. We on the Anti-Panic side were beaten, I’m sorry to say.
In retrospect, even February 25, 2020 — the day of the Julie Bosman tweet, which I am now wrapping up commentary on — was already either a yellow-alert day or maybe even a red-alert day already, which might well have necessitated a full-bore Anti-Panic counter-offensive if we were to have crushed the Panic in its infancy and avoided this whole thing. It would have required something impossible, a radicalized Anti-Panic force boldly willing to use the full force of the state, with preemptive strikes appearing to ban lockdowns; a wave of targeted terminations of key figures likely to push the Panic like Fauci and Birx and their equivalents in European countries and any of their minions out there loyal to them; getting the FBI to questionably-legally harass major Panic-pushing ringleaders like Eric Fingle-Dingle to keep them off-guard and unable to push Panic effectively (lawfare).
These would have been risky moves, in many cases in ethical grey zones, but done right they could have worked. Short of things like this, the Corona-Panic kind of feels inevitable. Am I wrong on this? When is the latest date at which a major Anti-Panic counter-offensive could have worked?
The entire Corona-Panic was something like a mass-delusion, a highly destructive mass delusion which has done damage almost incalculable. A full accounting of the damage will be more possible in five, ten, twenty years time. I am also curious what it will look like in a century’s time.
The big question with which I opened this review was “Why did the Corona-Panic happen?” I have repeatedly come back to the question. I think my biggest disappointment with the Berenson book is he fails to propose an answer to that question. He is aware of it, and makes some passing references to it, but always just glides past it, as if it’s someone else’s problem.
Berenson does not slam down hard enough on the fundamental delusions and mega-errors of the Corona-Panic, at least not consistently enough.
For a general-population reader primed to take a default or passively Pro-Panic position, many of the criticisms of the Corona-Panic which Berenson gets around to bringing up, well, probably look like taking potshots. At times it is as if the author is just a “Covid contrarian” (as the Tucker Carlson producer named his segments), and that his entire Corona-skepticism is an expression thereof. There is no way around this, it’s a weakness of the book, and is borne of his lack of willingness to go for the kill, and really destroy the Corona-Panic.
I think the book project had a fatal flaw all along in the lack of strong editor empowered to guide the project. If only a weak, disempowered editor was involved, as seems the case, it let Berenson stay too bogged down in his own thinking and hang-ups, also to some extent too swept up in his own sudden star-turn which came from openly and publicly opposing the Corona-Panic, that monster with feet of clay. His various hang-ups led him to present a cleaned-up compilation in part of his own Twitter corpus, filled in with memories of his stardom as a media-presentable and well-plugged-in Corona Anti-Panic superstar.
The negative side of being inwardly focused is that he does not mention some of the major figures associated with the Anti-Panic side, undercutting the completeness of his own effort. Unless they were on Twitter and specifically interacted with him, he hardly mentions them. He omits many.
The single best way to improve this book would have been to put on the rubber boots, wade in, and look to hack off a good percentage of the content which got too inwardly focused or bogged down in the weeds of Twitter or the New York Times with play-by-play narration of events that happened after the Panic had already broken through, and replace it with some strong approaches to the big question of why the Corona-Panic happened, and some clean-up with times he hedges too much or concedes important points by implication to the Pro-Panic side.
Some other ideas for this book that occur to me: embrace the memoir aspect here more fully and add a full, small-font-size appendix of all his tweets during the Corona-Panic period. At thirty tweets per page and several thousand tweets, that’s 100 or 150 pages of tweets. At least it puts them in public record and makes an easy reference. If the book ended up being rather like a memoir in parts, why not embrace it and make one’s own output a primary source?
I’ve argued in this review that a long-form book like this must give us something new, a through-argument, or a general thesis, to justify itself. At some point in Pandemia, I realized the book may not have one. If it does have one, it’s not immediately clear. Despite shining in parts this is a serious problem which should have been hammered out during the creation process, but for some reason was not. Just being critical of mainstream news-reporting or bringing up a few of the more reality-detached Panickers’ words up eighteen months later, or recapitulating one’s own CoronaPanic-era Twitter career, is “not an argument,” as the philosopher Stefan Molyneux would say (there another man life-banned from social media, both Twitter and Youtube; Molyneux was also a fairly consistent Anti-Panicker).
Although Pandemia is not the book I wanted it to be, there are many good things about this book and with some of the weaknesses with Pandemia in mind, I hope someone is out there who will write the great Corona-Panic book, unafraid to go for the rhetorical kill, and which finally answers our question of why the Corona-Panic happened.