The Slatest

Bret Stephens Backs Out of Bedbug Debate

It started with a tweet and ended with a whimper.

Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

New York Times opinion columnist and man who thinks it’s deeply important to engage in open debate Bret Stephens has backed out of an upcoming scheduled event at George Washington University, where he was set to discuss civil discourse online with professor Dave Karpf. The discussion would have put a bow on a highly public back-and-forth Stephens instigated a month and a half ago, but at the last minute, Stephens insisted that the event be closed to the public. When Karpf disagreed, Stephens pulled out entirely.

First, a little refresher on the events that preceded this latest development: In August, in response to the news that the New York Times had discovered evidence of bedbugs in its New York office (a problem that continues to plague the Times to this day), Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs, tweeted an offhand joke comparing the obstinate pests to opinion columnist Bret Stephens.

What followed was a perfectly absurd series of events in which Stephens emailed Karpf, cc’d the school’s provost, and, among other items, invited Karpf to travel to Stephens’ home so that he might call him a “bedbug” in the presence of Stephens’ children. Karpf then posted the email on Twitter, resulting in near-universal mocking of Stephens, a relatively extensive media tour for Karpf, and finally, a column from Stephens in which he attempted to draw a line between his incredibly light mocking and the slaughter of the Jews during the Holocaust.

In the middle of all this, and prior to him using the pages of the New York Times to indirectly call a Jewish professor who had the audacity to poke fun at a public figure a Nazi, Stephens had accepted an invitation from the school to have a moderated discussion with Karpf “about civil discourse in the digital age.” This invitation was also posted on Twitter by the official GWU account.

At the time, Stephens told the Washington Post, “I’ve accepted [the invitation], and we will find a date in the fall.” Stephens and Karpf did indeed find a date in the fall, agreeing in September that the event would take place at GWU on Oct. 28. But with those plans in place, a mere two days before invitations were supposed to go out, Karpf says, Stephens suddenly raised a number of concerns with the event’s organizers.

Karpf said that he was only able to speak with me about Stephens’ main concern and the apparent deal-breaker. “The thing that I can share is that he had decided that he was only willing to come if we made it not a public event,” Karpf told me over the phone. “Students could be in the room, but he didn’t want to allow this story to continue anymore. They talked with him, and what it came down to was, the only way he’d do the event is if the public wasn’t allowed to see it. I said, ‘I think that’s really unreasonable.’ They came back to him and said, ‘Karpf thinks that’s unreasonable.’ And he said, ‘OK, we’re not doing it.’ ”

It’s a curious move from Stephens, who’s often championed the need for engaging in discourse with those with whom we disagree. In one of his columns (titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement“), Stephens decried what he sees as a modern desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations:

So here’s where we stand: Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet we in the United States are raising a younger generation who have never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement, and who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person—or even allowing someone else to listen. The results are evident in the parlous state of our universities, and the frayed edges of our democracies.

Karpf, for his part, said that if Stephens had never written the column comparing Karpf to Nazi propaganda ministers, he might have relented. “If he’d just said, ‘You know I’ve been teased a lot about this because of that one email that I sent you—I’m willing to talk with you, but I don’t want it to be public,’ then I probably would have been OK with that,” Karpf explained. “But if you’re going to go full Godwin against me in the New York Times, I don’t think you then get to say, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s all off the record from here on out.’ That’s just creating a safe space for him so that he could talk about how the Bretbug affair felt for him, but not in a way that anyone would be able to cover. It didn’t seem reasonable or appropriate to me.”

GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs does occasionally hold private, off-the-record events, but according to Karpf, “it’s not like we were bringing in a diplomat who was going to tell us secrets about what it’s like to be a diplomat. This is a New York Times columnist who writes two columns a week for the New York Times. If a broader public wants to hear what he says there, then I think they get to hear it.”

So is there anything Karpf wishes he could have said to Stephens, now that he’ll no longer have the chance?

“I am curious what mistakes he thinks he made,” Karpf told me. “Because there’s one version of this event where he’s the hero, I’m the villain, and the mistake he made was allowing the Twitter mob to do what Twitter mobs do. There, he’s still the righteous defender of civility who was wronged. But then there’s another version of the event, which was echoed by basically the entire internet, in which he—the New York Times columnist who routinely says that college students are snowflakes and that the liberal mob takes itself too seriously—went searching for criticism, then tried to flex on a random criticizer. And when it blew up in his face, he completely melted down.

“I’m curious whether, having had a month to reflect, he thinks he behaved badly or just behaved unstrategically. My hunch is that he thinks he only behaved unstrategically, but that’s also uncharitable of me. Like, if this had blown up in my face, then a month later, I hope I would have learned something about myself. I don’t know if he did or not, and now I guess we’ll never find out.”

When I reached out to Stephens for comment, he pointed me to the director of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs, writing over email, “Frank Sesno, copied on this note, can provide you with accurate information.” Sesno then followed up, writing, “We were unable to come to terms on the format of the event, which is why it is not taking place. There was a series of conversations and we never publicly announced the event because, as I say, we could not come to mutually acceptable terms on the format.”