Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 21: The former New York Times reporter, spy novelist, and, oddly, reefer madness fearmongering author Alex Berenson has been at the vanguard of the “open the country back up” movement. He has spent the last two months accusing governments of overreacting to the pandemic and accusing public health authorities of lying about how many people are sick and how many are dying and of what. He has claimed, constantly, that measures backed by infectious disease experts such as social distancing and closing businesses is authoritarianism. His act has, naturally, been popular on far right wing websites and Fox News. He and his movement can only be described as COVID-19 Trutherism.
Like a lot of truthers and conspiracy theorists, Berenson claims to be the bearer of real truths and accuses others of being the real adherents to conspiracy theories. His act is a tired and familiar one to anyone who has ever spent any time observing charlatans.
When queried he dodges. When presented with medical and public health expertise he accuses you of “appeals to authority.” When making his own case he relies on the authority of quacks and fellow charlatans. As he is doing all of this he is citing what he considers to be low death and infection rates which are a product of social distancing and the shutting down of the public sphere as proof that social distancing and the shutting down of the public sphere was unnecessary. As he engages in this cute, cynical game he has built an increasingly large following consisting of the sorts of people who are enamored with both cute, cynical games and easy answers.
That following is nothing short of a cult. I found this out today when I mocked a Berenson tweet in which he compared the pandemic — which has killed over 46,000 people in the country thus far — to a list of mildly disappointing news stories such as Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record and saying we’ll look back at this and wonder why we cared so much.
My mocking led to Berenson himself responding and saying “I won’t tell him that ~3 million Americans die a year if you don’t.” After that scores of his followers came out of the woodwork to, basically, tell me that people die all the time so this is not a big deal:
A lot of those people die in car wrecks, yet we still have speed limits and seatbelt laws. A lot of people die from contaminated food yet we still have an FDA. A lot of people get shot in the head, yet we still consider murder illegal. The “hey, people die, it makes no sense to do the things necessary to stop it” crowd are a little quieter about those things. Probably because that stuff doesn’t impact their personal happiness or their pocketbook as much.
I’ve been online long enough now to know not to engage with people like this with any seriousness. I know that asking them to support their own assertions will simply be an invitation to be flooded with junk science. I know that confronting them with facts from reliable sources that counter their assertions will do nothing to change their minds. In fact, it will actually escalate their commitment to their erroneous cause. The brain of a cult member cannot process the amount of sunk costs they have devoted to nonsense and it will do whatever it can to protect itself from the harsh realization that they have been sold a bill of goods. Even when, eventually and inevitably, Berenson disgraces himself and his little movement, his adherents will not repudiate their views. They will simply say that Berenson himself was a flawed messenger and delve further into madness. Maybe even one of them will become its new intellectual leader. Maybe it’ll be the COVID-19 truther with whom I was already familiar in the world of sports media.
I also know that to the extent Berenson and any of his adherents try to offer an actual cogent basis for their beliefs, that basis will boils down to “X number of lives is a quite reasonable price to pay for me not to be inconvenienced,” and I’m not really ready to hear that said so plainly.
I further know that that there are people who are not members of that cult who will silently nod along with that for now but, soon, when they see that someone else with that ignorant and destructive view is proudly shouting it, will emerge from silence as well. It happened in 2016 when all manner of horrible views which we previously considered inappropriate in polite discourse were mainstreamed because alt-right and far right media figures gave them voice, at which point Donald Trump ran with them. It will happen again now, with this.
Indeed, someone has picked up Berenson’s ball and is running with it already:
— Todd J. Gillman (@toddgillman) April 21, 2020
Some are being slightly less blunt about it, but only slightly:
#COVIDー19 The data showed that 9 of 10 patients had an underlying medical condition, including:
—Chronic lung disease: 34.6%
—Cardiovascular disease: 27.8%
—Obesity: 48.3% https://t.co/YjabN89Bwc
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) April 21, 2020
Waving away the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people because they happened to have some extremely common co-morbidity factors is heartless idiocy. These were not people at death’s door. Many people with these conditions are the people you see at work or pass on the street each day. These people did not just coincidentally up-and-die in the last month because of some underlying condition. They were killed by a highly infectious virus for which we have no effective treatment let alone a cure. Most of them would have lived much, much longer lives. To use their hypertension or diabetes as some justification for their deaths — as a reason why it’s not necessary to continue to protect people as best we can and to, instead, go back to where we were in early March — is abjectly horrifying. That it’s coming from a United States Senator makes it even more horrifying.
Today was the day with most COVID-19 deaths in the United States yet. Over 2,500. That’s almost as many who died on 9/11. What a day to be confronted with all of this nihilism and callousness.
Yesterday Ohio announced that school would remain closed for the rest of the year. No one in this house was particularly surprised by that. School here ends the day after Memorial Day, so there’s just a month left. There’d be no point in rushing them back at this point. Carlo and Anna have regular assignments and, from what I can tell anyway, a pretty OK rhythm with online school, such as it is. Anna is worried about her AP Physics and European History tests. Carlo was irked that Model UN was scrapped. Otherwise they’re rolling with it pretty well.
Tonight at dinner I asked them what they’re working on. In English Anna has been reading “A Tale of Two Cities.” She says “it was only a bit of London and then TONS of Paris. More like ‘a tale of one city.’ Charles Dickens was dropping clickbait with that title.”
In European History she has to do an essay on World War I. I’ve probably read and studied more about World War I than anything apart from the law. Probably even more than political philosophy, which was my college major. It’s a topic I never tire of revisiting, even if it’s a horrific topic. Probably because it’s such a horrific topic. Some old dads read a lot about World War II because it’s a great story of triumph. I read a lot about World War I because it never ceases to be a reminder of how wrong we are capable of going as a people and how short our memories and how fleeting and Pyrrhic our victories can be.
We talked about her essay:
Anna: I have to write a World War I essay.
Me: You should do it on the poets like Owen and Sassoon.
Me: I’m guessing you read them?
Anna: Yeah, “Dulce et decorum est“ like a million times.
Me: Owen shoulda put “spoiler alert” on that.
Anna: *dies laughing*
There’s so much that makes me almost want to cry right now that I have to find some way to laugh. Even if it’s in the face of horror.
The structure is breaking down to some extent, though. They don’t have much if any face time requirements. Class lectures via Zoom or whatever are optional. It’s all about turning in the work, and they do that, but the work has been tailing off. Carlo told me that in the first couple of weeks of all of this he’d get multiple assignments from each teacher and it took up a lot of time. Now it’s an assignment or two a week from each class and they’re not exactly taxing. They’re not being challenged like they would be in person, but each of them had a pretty intense year, academically speaking, before things shut down so I don’t think mailing in the last couple of months is the end of the world.
Daily structure is breaking down too. We’ve told the kids they need to be up by 9am during the week to at least attempt to approach the day with some semblance of normalcy, but it’s becoming harder to enforce. Anna is an early riser but Carlo isn’t. He’s up all night playing games or dicking around online and it’s a struggle to wake him up. I’m torn between my desire to follow through and my increasing feeling that it’s sort of pointless. I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that my job is basically the same as it’s always been, I’d probably be staying up all night too.
Tonight, just before I went up to bed he asked me if he could order a pizza. My first thought was “no.” But then I thought “eh, what the hell?” and I let him. Which means that he’s going to be up late. And which means he’ll be a pain in the ass tomorrow morning. I probably shouldn’t have let him, but I can’t really muster the authority to say no. It’s a supremely fucked up time. Leaning into the fucked-upness of it all doesn’t seem like the worst thing. He’ll have people telling him to stick to a regimen for the rest of his life.
And it’s not like I didn’t see more crazy today than a kid wanting a pizza at 11pm on a Tuesday.