Many readers of the New York Times were astonished by Bret Stephens’ Aug. 30 column, which warned that Nazi-style propaganda was on the march because he couldn’t handle being called a bedbug in a joke on Twitter. But Stephens was simply carrying on a now-familiar tradition in the opinion section: spending hundreds of words in the country’s most prominent newspaper to complain that someone was mean to the writer online. Facing the leveling effects of the internet—and especially Twitter—where anyone can make fun of anyone else, the credentialed columnists of the Times have consistently lost their sense of proportion, turning their attention away from a criminal presidency or impending ecological collapse to use their platforms to try to accomplish what normal people would do with a “lol” or the mute button. Here is a brief history of that practice under editorial page editor James Bennet, who took over the section in May 2016.
The Column: How Twitter Pornified Politics
The Alleged Topic: Twitter is like porn in that it allows people to give in to their most base impulses, free of consequence. Bret Stephens, as a thoughtful man of refined intellect, wants no part in such a crass pit of voyeurism, abuse, and collapsed context. This is why Bret Stephens would like to announce his permanent retirement from Twitter.
The Actual Topic: Twitter is like porn in that it makes Bret Stephens feel bad for reasons he seems unwilling or unable to articulate.
Months before publishing this column, Stephens had written a different column (his very first column!) calling established climate science into question, and was rewarded with a solid stream of criticism and mockery. Evidently, his real problem with Twitter was not that it lets people unleash their ill-considered words to the public instantaneously, but that some of those rude words were about him. We know this because he provided a total of two (2) examples to back up his thesis of Twitter as a corrosive force in society. The first was the oft-cited case of Justine Sacco, whose ill-advised tweet turned into a national frenzy that ended with her losing her job. The second was a random person @-ing Bret Stephens with something gross.
Despite promising in the column that he was leaving the site forever, Stephens would remain on Twitter for 26 more months.
Highlight: There was a lot of windup to Bret Stephens ultimately just telling everyone that he’s taking his ball and going home, but those who stuck with it were rewarded with this (emphasis added):
After I took this job, one wag on Twitter wrote that he hoped I’d be “Danny Pearl-ed.” He must have found it funny. My 11-year-old son didn’t.
Why was Bret Stephens making his son read rude tweets about Bret Stephens?
The Column: An Abomination. A Monster. That’s Me?
The Alleged Topic: Twitter and social media and our Polarized Era has flattened the discourse and made it too toxic. It’s also made us too quick to judge and less willing to see nuance and shouldn’t we consider that there’s a person on the other end of our words? Treat others as you would like to be treated, etc.
The Actual Topic: This could have passed for a standard culture-complaint column, one we’ve read hundreds of times from any one of the Times’ fatigued columnists. The thing that made Bruni’s piece special was what he said had prompted it:
It used to be that when someone called me an abomination, I was in the presence of a homophobe.
But a recent opinion column in Texas State University’s main newspaper damned me for a different reason. I’m abominable because I’m white.
The column wasn’t aimed at me personally but at my kind, and the Hispanic student who wrote it began by saying that “of all the white people” he had ever encountered, there were a dozen or so who rose to the level of “decent.”
Frank Bruni went online, saw a column from a college student that was rude to white people, generally speaking, and decided to feel personally victimized and attacked. So personally victimized and attacked that this column—a column from, again, a single college student—warranted a rebuttal in a major national publication.
But what college newspaper would have published a column by a white student telling his black peers that they’re a wretched lot?
What if, Frank Bruni asked, the circumstances and context had been completely different from what they actually were? What then?
The Column: Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web
The Alleged Topic: There’s an underground group—possibly even a movement—of professors, YouTubers, podcasters, and intellectuals who vary in ideology but share one common bond: Their thoughts are too provocative for the gatekeepers of the mainstream media to tolerate. While the safe-space snowflakes are covering their ears, people like Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin are engaging in the sort of rational civil debate that’s become all too rare. Who will be courageous enough to confront the public with such brave heterodoxies as “Not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing”? The Intellectual Dark Web, that’s who.
The Actual Topic: To understand why Weiss actually wrote this longform opinion piece about opinions in the first place, one had to scroll all the way down near the very the end, where one could find this paragraph:
Am I a member of this movement? A few months ago, someone suggested on Twitter that I should join this club I’d never heard of. I looked into it. Like many in this group, I am a classical liberal who has run afoul of the left, often for voicing my convictions and sometimes simply by accident. This has won me praise from libertarians and conservatives. And having been attacked by the left, I know I run the risk of focusing inordinately on its excesses—and providing succor to some people whom I deeply oppose.
“A few months” before this statement piece, complete with its truly phenomenal photo shoot, was when Bari Weiss ended up in a little Twitter dust-up after tweeting “Immigrants: they get the job done” about American figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who is not an immigrant. A few days later, I reported on the internal discomfort at the Times over the tweet and her response to the criticism. Later that night, Bari faved this:
Bari Weiss was inspired to report and write a giant declarative trend piece, in which she portrayed a group of wildly popular conservative media figures as the silenced and downtrodden great thinkers of our day, because she wrote a bad tweet and people got mad.
Highlight: While I can’t include one here, I really can’t overemphasize how much everyone needs to see these photos.
The Column: Now Twitter Edits the New Yorker
The Alleged Topic: New Yorker editor David Remnick has capitulated to Twitter mobs that hysterically denounced him and his magazine for inviting Steve Bannon, a famous political figure, to his “festival of ideas.” And, by doing so, Remnick “has strengthened the belief that vulnerable institutions can be hounded into submitting to the irascible (and unappeasable) demands of social media mobs.”
The Actual Topic: People on Twitter and elsewhere call for the firing of Bret Stephens constantly. Their reasons are varied (he consistently misrepresents facts, his ideas are unoriginal and often incorrect, he’s an incoherent thinker and plodding stylist), but it all impinges on Stephens’ belief that people are obligated to respect what he has to say.
The root of Stephens’ concern is a little more complicated than a simple desire to keep his job. Again, paragraphs and paragraphs down, after pointing out that one of Remnick’s own employees spoke out against the invitation, Stephens described the real terror:
Not long ago, a public challenge such as [Kathryn] Schulz’s would have been a firing offense. But the gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers.
Whatever happened, Stephens wondered, to respecting your betters at the risk of professional ruin? After all, he spent his entire life flattering those in power and accumulating the credentials of a powerful person himself. How dare others not acknowledge his position?
“Today, The New Yorker announced that, as part of our annual festival, I would conduct an interview with Bannon,” Remnick wrote, in a manner reminiscent of a hostage letter.
What exactly does Bret Stephens think a hostage letter is?
The Column: Dear Millennials: The Feeling Is Mutual
The Alleged Topic: Joe Biden was right to say that younger generations today are too sensitive. Why are they always trying to get someone fired ? Also, on a completely different note, after protesters grabbed and shoved Charles Murray and his faculty host at Middlebury College in 2017, “not one of the students who joined the mob at Middlebury was expelled” (the Times coverage of the incident, at the time, had noted that the scuffling protesters “may have come from off campus”). No wonder no one has any regard for authority anymore! It’s time to start inflicting some swift, harsh punishments on the youth lest they keep doing the same to us.
The Actual Topic: This particular column, as one of Stephens’ more glaringly self-pitying entries, was pretty open about what it’s doing. Or at least, the efforts to conceal his personal gripes were minimal.
About a third of the way down, after talking about the millennial tendency toward “histrionic self-pity and moral self-righteousness,” Stephens added, “Gawker spawn and HuffPo twerps: This especially means you.” People with more healthy relationships to news and media might have briefly puzzled over this line before moving on and never thinking of it again. But I could safely assume he was likely responding to this from Splinter (by, full disclosure, a friend of mine) and also to this from HuffPost (by, full disclosure, me). So yes, Stephens was indeed saying millennials and Gen Z are overemotional, intolerant crybabies who are desperately in need of some tough love. But he was also saying that it’s especially important for the powers that be to stand up to those crybabies who are mean, specifically and as always, to Bret Stephens.
Also, [Joe Biden] refused to beg forgiveness last month for being a tad too touchy-kissy. Maybe he should keep his hands in his pockets, but at least it means he isn’t prepared to capitulate to the icy codes of personal decorum written by people who don’t know the difference between exuberant human warmth and unwarranted sexual advances.
To which one can only say: Keep it up, Joe!
The Column: Robespierre’s America
The Alleged Topic: We live under a modern-day Reign of Terror working to suppress the free exchange of ideas, and there’s no telling who will fall victim to the digital Jacobins next. It could be you!
The Actual Topic: Bret Stephens was very upset about being criticized for writing a racist column. Immediately preceding this one, Stephens had written a piece ostensibly from the point of a view of “ordinary voters,” as he would later explain on Twitter. It included lines like this:
They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off.
In other words, Stephens was attempting to launder racist views through the voice of a vague, imagined group (that also happened to sound a lot like Stephens’ own voice), and people called him out on it.
The only other examples Stephens really had to support his argument that we are living in a new age of thought tyranny were, once more, the case of Justine Sacco (which occurred in 2013) and that of Andy Ngo, who had just gotten beaten up by anti-fascist counterprotesters in Portland (though he’s not quite the simple reporter Stephens makes him out to be). These were mostly just padding to his larger point, though, which is to lament the fact that you can’t be racist in public without people getting mad at you anymore.
I was walking through an airport terminal trying to catch a connecting flight last Saturday when I spotted a writer I had never met but whose work I admire. He greeted me with a look of fatherly concern: “Sorry about what’s happening to you on Twitter.”
A perfect opening anecdote that definitely, absolutely happened and should not be questioned by any means.
The Column: Spare Me the Purity Racket
The Alleged Topic: It’s the French Revolution again, although the revolutionaries are also Puritans. Trump is going to get reelected because progressives on Twitter are too rude to their allies. Also, the disappointing Mueller hearing was only even held because of clamoring, rabid progressives, and that, too, will ultimately be a boon for Republicans. And finally, it’s about how Hillary lost because she talked about Trump’s flaws too much.
The Actual Topic: Everyone is being way too mean to Maureen Dowd and to Maureen Dowd’s friends, the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader. And how dare you call them the elite.
The impetus for this column was, what else, but a tweet. Specifically, this since-deleted tweet:
The tweet was immediately met with mocking and derision, in part because the Mueller hearing had concluded just hours earlier and also because Dowd had published a fawning column on Pelosi just a few weeks prior. That column was heavily criticized too. Dowd, however, seemed largely unconcerned with the substance of the criticism, noting in her follow-up that “the HuffPost huffed that we were Dreaded Elites because we were eating chocolates and—horror of horrors—the speaker had on some good pumps.”
The HuffPost response was really focused on Pelosi’s tactical movement away from the left side of her caucus, but the part about the shoes was the part that really referenced Dowd. Add the injustice of being called out for the gushiness of her Pelosi interview with the injustice of being called out for palling around with the powerful people you’re meant to cover, and it was all just too much for Dowd. This column was, essentially, about how all the progressives and leftists who insist on operating under the guise of morality and justice are phonies. What it is they’re trying to gain is never fully articulated, but the gist seemed to be along the lines of Maureen Dowd’s demise. So stop overreacting, or something.
Yo, proletariat: If the Democratic Party is going to be against chocolate, high heels, parties and fun, you’ve lost me. And I’ve got some bad news for you about 2020.
The world is on fire, you say? Be nice to me or this kerosene is going absolutely everywhere.
The Column: World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter
The Alleged Topic: In a void, the article could have been about how society at large is engaging in the same practices and patterns that allowed Nazi Germany to flourish. Just as the Nazis took advantage of radio to reach the people directly, on a mass scale and unadulterated by a third-party messenger, so, too, does Twitter, uh, allow people to get very mad. A more precise analogy might have been to connect radio to Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, specifically, but it wasn’t the use of this new power by the powerful that Stephens was worried about; it was how many people might use it: “Radio then, like Twitter today, was the technology of the id; a channel that could concentrate political fury at a time when there was plenty to go around.”
Also, speaking of people getting very mad, did you know Nazi Germany made a concerted effort to get lots of people very mad at entire groups of people, like the Jews? One of the ways they did this was by using dehumanizing language, such as referring to Jews as insects or even “bedbugs.” You may have heard Trump using that same sort of language today in reference to immigrants. Just some random food for thought from your good pal, Bret.
The Actual Topic: Though Stephens never mentions the incident by name, most anyone who’d been online in the previous week, or who had visited one of any number of online publications (including this very one), knew that this otherwise bizarre entry in the Bret Stephens catalog is entirely about the Bedbug Incident, when, on the night of Aug. 26, Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University in D.C., made an offhand joke about Bret Stephens after hearing about the New York Times’ bedbug problem.
The short version of the saga is that Bret, apparently searching Twitter for his own name, came across the tweet and decided to use this opportunity to intimidate the professor over email while tattling on him to multiple bosses. Karpf then publicized Stephens’ deeply embarrassing email in which he asks the professor to call him a “bedbug” in front of his wife and children, resulting in enough mockery for Stephens to finally delete his Twitter account altogether. Never once did Stephens give any indication that his issue with the comment was that he considered Karpf—also Jewish—to be gearing up for a second Holocaust. That argument appears to have been constructed after the fact, as a Google Books link that was included in the original column would seem to indicate:
All of which is to say, this particular column is about Bret Stephens desperately trying to validate his preposterously thin skin by using the pages of the New York Times to compare a formerly unknown Jewish professor to Joseph Goebbels. God bless him.
Highlight: Technically this was not part of the actual piece, but let’s take this moment to revisit Bret’s astounding email.