The Slatest

Let’s Read New NYT Columnist Bret Stephens’ No Good, Very Bad Vox Interview

The New York Times building is seen on October 1, 2014 in New York City.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Vox published an interview with the New York Times’ newest op-ed page hire, Bret Stephens. His views and previous writings on race, climate change, campus rape, and the Arab world, among other topics, have attracted criticism since the new job was announced. It is possible Stephens hoped this interview would quell that criticism. It will not.

Here is Stephens’ exchange on campus rape:

Jeff Stein: You wrote, “If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation — Congo on the quad — why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school?” My question to you is: Isn’t it necessary for women to attend these coeducational schools for their economic and educational advancement? Isn’t it possible that’s why they’d be there even if there’s a higher risk of sexual assault?

Bret Stephens: Of course it is. But if sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places. Because that is in fact — or, that would be, in fact, the risk of being violently sexually assaulted. I am not for one second denying the reality of campus rape, or sexual assault, or behavior of the sort you saw from that swimmer at Stanford — that’s inexcusable and should be punished. I’m taking issue with the claim that there is an epidemic based on statistics that, when looked at carefully, seem to have a very slim basis in reality. So what you’re transforming is horrendous, deplorable incidents into an epidemic — and that’s not altogether supported by reliable data. That’s the point I was making. I write my columns pretty carefully. I wrote about 550 columns for the Wall Street Journal, so I don’t know if I can stand behind every last jot and tittle of what I wrote.

Leave aside, if you can, Stephen’s use of Africa as shorthand for sexual predation. His approach to the question here is exactly the same as his treatment of the issue in the original column—he argues that the actual statistics marshalled by sexual assault advocates obviously aren’t to be trusted. But Stephen’s vague suppositions about the matter, unsupported by a single provided datum, should be. “If it were a true statistic, it would probably create a very different environment,” he goes on to guess. “My sister went to Mount Holyoke. I don’t think single-sex education has been thriving in recent years, but there would be more of a movement to single-sex education if in fact this epidemic were as epidemic as that statistic suggests.” This is the purest kind of speculation. What we know, firmly, is that over the past few decades, a range of surveys—at the individual institutional level and of students more broadly—have consistently suggested between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4 women experience sexual violence at college. He then compares concern over campus rape to concern about American hunger and asks us to trust his guts over the statistics collected by the Department of Agriculture:

Another example I took issue with is the idea that one in seven Americans are hungry. That’s not true. It’s not. It’s a problem because it’s not true. Does this mean there aren’t hungry Americans? No. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about hunger in America? No. But when you have a campaign you see on subway billboards and elsewhere saying one in seven Americans is hungry, that’s false.

Those statistics did find that 14 percent of American households, representing 48 million or 1 out of 7 Americans, were unhealthily “food insecure” for at least part of the year in 2014. (That number has since dropped to 12.7 percent of households.)

On climate change:

A guy I know just had a baby and he’s a big global warming, climate change activist. If he thinks in 20 years we’ll be heading toward unsustainable climates and there will be tens of millions of people being displaced, presumably including himself, at the most apocalyptic level, then presumably he wouldn’t be having children.

It is true, of course, that sea levels in 20 years may not reach the ankles of the Straw Colossus that Stephens has erected here. Estimates of where, how dramatically, and how quickly we can expect climate change to yield mass displacement crises vary considerably. What is beyond dispute is a) that climate change is real and driven by human activity, b) that people are already being displaced, and c) that displacement is likely to continue. Stephens would do well to examine the reporting of his new employer on the islands of Kiribati, for instance, where the encroachment of higher tides has moved the government to purchase 6,000 acres in nearby Fiji to which locals will inevitably have to relocate once their homes are finally claimed by the ocean. Or, alternatively, he might check out another Times piece from last year on the first American climate refugees already being resettled in Louisiana. He’d do well to examine anything on the subject, really, beyond the behavior of “a guy” he knows.

On the anti-Semitism Stephens once called “the disease of the Arab mind”:

It just struck me as a very tendentious reading of the column. I am by not any means indicting a whole race. The word mind itself — do you know that you don’t have a mind? It is a figure of speech, right? So I was using it as a figure of speech — which, by the way, I can find Arab authors talking about “the pathologies of the Arab mind.” The whole thing struck me as a made-up controversy, which in an attempt to indict me as a racist — which I most certainly am not — wound up eliding and evading the rather important subject I was trying to address, which is the extraordinarily prevalent anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world.

One can discuss anti-Semitism in the Middle East without suggesting that the Arab people are pathologically bigoted, as the phrase “the disease of the Arab mind” implies. Stephens chose not to and has been criticized for it. His response here is to whine and, impressively, set himself up for a new and entirely unrelated faux pas…

On Black Lives Matter:

Stephens: If you had the levels of racism present today in Maryland as you have anti-Semitism prevalent today in, shall we say, Jordan, you certainly as a young journalist would be mindful of it.

Stein: Well, to that point, you’ve also said the arguments of Black Lives Matter are part of the liberal imagination.

Stephens: I think Black Lives Matter has some really thuggish elements in it. Look — at the risk of being incredibly politically incorrect, but I guess that’s my job — I think that all lives matter. Not least black lives.

Here, as always, “all lives matter” is deployed as a devastating rebuke to the argument that black people alone matter—a notion that Black Lives Matter has never advanced. An examination of what the black “thugs” of BLM have actually published and said would clear things up for Stephens. He is instead preoccupied with the “Ferguson effect”:

… I agree with FBI Director James Comey that there’s been something of a “Ferguson effect” — in which the dramatic increase in murders is connected with a culture of [resistance to police].

Comey’s comments last May were immediately challenged by the police-hating social justice warriors of the national Fraternal Order of Police. “He ought to stick to what he knows,” executive director James O. Pasco Jr. told the Times. Here’s what criminologists do know: In 2015 there was a spike in the homicide rate of about 11 percent. Half of that spike was the product of increases in just seven cities. Crime rates are largely, and in fact typically, driven by factors beyond the prevalence of police brutality protests. It is not clear to researchers that Ferguson had anything to do with 2015’s numbers or that the spike reflects a new upward trend. It is clear that homicides nationwide remain lower than than they have been in decades and that homicides were flat or declining in 75 major cities in 2015.

It is also clear both to academics and the reporters of the New York Times that there are stark and obvious racial disparities in American policing and the American criminal justice system writ large. Stephens disagrees.

Stein: Do you think there’s a persistent problem with systemic racial policing of black communities in American police departments?

Stephens: Let’s think about what we mean by “systemic.” Do I think police chiefs, many of which are African-American or Hispanic, wake up and say, “Let’s systemically oppress African-American communities?” No, I don’t. Are there instances in which that happens? I’m sure there are.

But anecdote is not data.

The relevance of Stephens’ sister at Mount Holyoke and the child-rearing climate activist has been erased with all the speed of one of the smaller Marshall Islands. More:

… You also have an issue where a lot of criminality tragically occurs in African-American communities. And police go to where criminality occurs.

We’ve come full circle. Statistics on the prevalence of campus rape, reporting on the impact of climate change, studies demonstrating that black people are disproportionately subjected to police violence at rates that do not mesh with the rates of crime in heavily policed communities—none of these bear as much credibility or relevance to any of the subjects in question as Stephens’ own pristine intuition.

In fairness, Stephens here has not necessarily acquitted himself poorly by the current standards of the New York Times’ op-ed page. Broad extrapolations from personal anecdata have been Tom Friedman’s meal ticket for nearly a quarter-century and the Times would simply not be the same without Brooks’ nervous updates on the pique of the blacks. This is precisely what irks critics the most about Stephens’ hire—that now, in the midst of sweeping ideological upheaval at both ends of the political spectrum, in the wake of a paradigm shattering election, and in the face of lively competition from a growing online commentariat—the Times has decided to take on more of what it already has in abundance: warmed over, right of center conventional wisdom. It will certainly get that in Stephens, along with some of his baggage: an infelicity with facts and—as far as commentary on nonwhites seems to go—words.