“Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown,” urged a 2021 article. And so Goldberg’s Atlantic has. An astonishingly large number of stories in both the print and online versions of the magazine now focus on the irrational feelings of a very particular and privileged class of people—elite, left-of-center, educated people who ironically believe themselves too sophisticated to be emotionally manipulated like the unwashed Fox-viewing masses they abhor.
Pieces like Ian Bogost’s essay “I’m Starting to Give Up on Post-Pandemic Life” typify the Atlantic’s panic porn—the titillating personal account of a distorted negative emotional experience described lubriciously with no observable larger social purpose. “Even if this strain is less bad than it might have been,” he writes of the Omicron variant, “only dumb luck will have made it so. That’s neither victory nor a sign that the emergency is over.” He then spirals into despair: “The coronavirus was once ‘novel’ because it was new. Now it feels both ancient and eternal. Having endured the emergence of two major strains even since the rollout of vaccines, a difficult thought is planted in my head: What if the pandemic never ends?”
This Eeyore-meets-Nietzsche tone now dominates much of the magazine’s coverage. Alexis Madrigal, the founder of its tracking project, offered a similar example of irrational meltdown in a piece about getting a breakthrough case of COVID at the end of 2021. After attending a wedding, Madrigal was consumed by the idea that he would get sick even though he initially tested negative. He described his response: “I did an intense Peloton workout and it felt fine, though maybe my legs were a little slow. I wasn’t eager to test again; a negative PCR test seemed good enough. But my wife heard me cough—one of only maybe 20 coughs throughout my whole sickness—and said, ‘Couldn’t you take another antigen test?’”