Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist who writes poorly argued, error-laden, irritatingly predictable op-eds for America’s preeminent newspaper. The discrepancy between the prestige of Stephens’s position and the mediocrity of his product has inspired no small amount of outrage and invective on Twitter (where writers much smarter and poorer than Stephens gather to experience a simulacrum of community, civic influence, and professional success). The New York Times columnist has often responded to such invective by writing poorly argued, error-laden, irritatingly predictable op-eds likening the criticism of public figures on Twitter to historical incidents of revolutionary mass murder. This inspires only further anti-Bret invective from the “digital Jacobins.”
Given all this, it was none too surprising that (at least) one Twitter user responded to the news on Monday that the New York Times was suffering from a bedbug infestation by likening Stephens to the morale-sapping insects. “The bedbugs are a metaphor,” David Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, tweeted Monday. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
Some Twitter users sympathized with the spirit of this joke, but none found it especially shareable. Karpf’s effort won him nine likes and zero retweets. The professor returned to his academic duties, presuming he was done contemplating Stephens’s pestlike qualities for the day.
But Stephens had other plans. Somehow, the Times columnist learned of Karpf’s obscure dig. And although one of Stephens’s favorite subjects to write shoddily researched, formulaic op-eds about is the myriad ways the “perpetually enraged” are stifling discomfiting speech, he nevertheless wrote Karpf an email scolding him for his insensitive ad hominem and copied a GWU provost — which is to say, Karpf’s boss — on the missive.
“I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard,” the free-speech lover wrote. “I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face. That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”
Karpf then posted this email to Twitter. This time, his public diss of the columnist attracted many a retweet indeed. Within minutes, the typically anhedonic denizens of left Twitter were convulsing in a paroxysm of delight. A thousand bedbug jokes bloomed. Stephens announced his intention to delete his account. A cathartic Schadenfreude reigned throughout the land.
On Tuesday morning, Stephens, also a paid MSNBC contributor, provided the news network with an analysis of public humiliation.
In my view, the positions Stephens defends in this clip are all reasonable. There is a strong case that Twitter brings out the worst in people. Likening bad columnists to vermin is probably less productive than spotlighting the flaws in their arguments. The fact that “metaphorical bedbug” is among the tamest insults any prominent journalist could hope to face does not negate Stephens’s right to take offense at Karpf’s dig. Thin skin isn’t an ideal trait in an opinion journalist, but it’s not a morally objectionable one. And although the preeningly self-righteous tone of Stephens’s email to Karpf may be irritating, there is something almost touching about the writer’s faith that a few minutes of conversation with his family would dissolve the professor’s enmity.
But Stephens’s sin here was not being a “snowflake”; it was punishing a tame Twitter insult by filing a complaint with the tweeter’s boss. If his sincere purpose were merely to express his hurt at Karpf’s words and invite him to dinner, there would have been no reason to copy the email to the professor’s provost. Rather, Stephens’s clear intention (whether conscious or not) was to earn Karpf some type of reprimand, which is to say, to make the professor spare a thought for his own livelihood before besmirching Stephens’s good name again. Critically, this is not an absurd or delusional threat. In recent years, multiple professors have had their careers disrupted or outright destroyed by controversial social-media postings. At a time of widespread precarity in academic employment, a New York Times columnist can plausibly threaten to destroy a scholar’s livelihood if he or she persists in airing incendiary criticisms.
It shouldn’t be hard for Stephens to understand why people took exception to his email or that any earnest defense of his conduct must include an explanation for his decision to copy Karpf’s provost. After all, the columnist is well aware that calls for employers to police insensitive speech are corrosive to freedom of expression.
Back in March, Media Matters published audio of Fox News host Tucker Carlson describing Iraqis as “primitive monkeys” on a radio show. This intensified a preexisting progressive campaign to cancel Carlson’s program (which has featured segments decrying the Democratic Party’s ongoing attempt to foment a “coup” using migrants as its shock troops, likening immigrants to dirt, and demonizing “Gypsies”).
Stephens bristled at the illiberal mob’s censoriousness. Quoting a National Review article on the brouhaha, he tweeted, “Our nation cannot maintain its culture of free speech if we continue to reward those who seek to destroy careers rather than rebut ideas.”