Bedbug Privilege: Bret Stephens Uses His NY Times Column To Suggest Jokingly Comparing Him To A Bedbug Is Prelude To Ethnic Genocide

from the are-bedbugs-snowflakes? dept

It’s one thing to trigger a massive Streisand Effect. It’s another to keep on making it worse. Bret Stephens is entering new territory here. Last week, we wrote about his bedbug freakout, in which he misread a tweet that basically no one had seen or read, and tried to use his high and mighty position as a “NY Times Columnist” to get a professor fired, by angrily emailing that professor and cc’ing university provost. As you’ll recall, the professor, David Karpf of George Washington University, had simply cracked a mild joke in response to someone at the NY Times tweeting that there were bedbugs in the NY Times offices: “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

Now, let’s pause for a second, to note that Stephens appears to have misread this tweet. It is not calling him a bedbug. It’s saying that “bedbug is a metaphor for Bret Stephens.” In other words, he’s joking that other NY Times staffers want to get rid of Stephens, but are having trouble doing so.

Stephens dug himself a deeper hole the next morning by going on MSNBC and trying to defend his nonsense — saying he wasn’t trying to get Karpf fired, but just wanted his bosses to be aware of how professors at the school acted. That’s nonsense and everyone knows it’s nonsense. You don’t angrily email someone’s boss and complain about them hoping for no response whatsoever. Stephens is insulting everyone’s intelligence with such a claim. Stephens also claimed that he took such offense to being called a bedbug (remember, he wasn’t being called a bedbug) because it was associated with how “totalitarian regimes” act in dehumanizing people. Again, no one believes this. No one read Karpf’s joke of a tweet and thought, “man, it’s time to send Stephens to the ovens.”

Either way, Stephens had a whole week to calm down, and to recognize he totally and completely overreacted. He could even it as a growing moment. Perhaps recognize that many of his columns about how easily people take offense, and how people need thicker skin, were kinda hypocritical, given his own reaction to a very mild criticism. But, nope. Stephens apparently thinks himself too important, and is way too cocky and overly sure of himself, to let such a grave insult pass him by. He seems to think he was really, really onto something with that comparison to totalitarian regimes. And, he’s an important NY Times columnist — so it must be time to write a full column about how the Nazis called Jews bedbugs. He just… needed to find the right quote and be too technologically illiterate to recognize that when you link to Google books, after doing a search it retains your search terms.

So, Stephens writes one of his high and mighty NY Times opinion pieces about Nazis “and the Ingredients of Slaughter.” He doesn’t mention Karpf or his own little laughable freakout. He just subtly (I’m sure, he must have thought) drops in a reference to Germans referring to bedbugs. And didn’t realize that he’d left the search terms viewable to all.

And here’s an even bigger image showing how the search was left in the URL so that it shows up whenever anyone clicked through:

From that it’s clear that Bret literally went to Google books, did a search on “Jews as bedbugs,” found a random dissertation that had the following line in it:

?The bedbugs are on fire. The Germans are doing a great job.?

This gets even more troubling if one were to read the actual paper that Stephens links to. In Stephens’ column, he refers to this quote as coming from “a Polish anti-semite.” Yet, in the actual book, it just says “one man.” And, even worse, the book itself appears to note that a scholar believes the reference to bedbugs was to be taken literally, as they were dealing with an infestation of bedbugs — and not as a reference to Jews.

Incredibly — and literally unbelievably — the NY Times jumped in to defend Stephens and claim that editors added that link:

First of all, what? This makes no sense at all. Or, as Cody Johnston rightly points out, if the NY Times editors were trying to find the right Google Books link to use, why did they do a search for “Jews as bedbugs,” rather than the literal quote that Stephens included in his piece? Second, if it actually was the editors who added that link, that actually makes the whole thing worse, because it suggests that editors reviewed the column and decided, “you know what this needs? That much more evidence that Stephens and the NY Times are all in on using our position of power to stomp out a pesky professor on Twitter who made a mild joke at our expense.”

All of this looks really, really bad. And, of course, it looks worse and worse, the more you look at it. As others have noted, Stephens seems to specialize in “telling snowflakes to harden up” and to stop being so easily offended. Indeed, just months ago, he mocked people “who specialize in being offended.”

But, again, it gets worse. Karpf initially responded to the latest NYTimes-level subtweet, with a bit of shock:

But then, he correctly noted just how fucked up this whole thing really is:

Indeed, Karpf spent a couple days after all of this happened running circles around Stephens in talking to the media and explaining why Stephens actions are really, really messed up. In the op-ed piece he did for the LA Times, he properly notes that, despite Stephens’ laughable claims that he just wanted “civility,” it’s obvious that Stephens’ actions were never about civility:

This was never about civility; it was about power. Bret Stephens cc?d my provost because he wanted to impose a social penalty on me for making jokes about him online. That isn?t a call for polite, civil, rational discourse. It?s an exercise of power. He wanted me and my employer to realize that I had offended an important voice at the paper of record. When powerful people demand civility from those with less power, what they are really saying is that they expect obedience from their lessers.

This NY Times’ piece (which was written after Karpf wrote that line) is a pretty big piece of evidence there. Stephens thinks he’s important. He has a Pulitzer Prize. He’s a columnist at the NY Times. He is trying to abuse that position of power to pretend a mild insult directed at him is the equivalent of Hitler. This is a mixture of both the Streisand Effect and Godwin’s Law… with a bit of Charles Carreon’s inability to stop digging thrown in for spice.

Over in Esquire, Karpf further noted just what an example this all is of Stephens abusing his position of power:

Bret Stephens is above me in the status hierarchy. He knows this. I know this. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and has a regular op-ed column in the New York Times. I am just some professor. I?ve written two books, but unless you are professionally involved with digital politics, you probably have never heard of me.


But what was most striking to me was that he had gone to the effort to CC the provost. Including the Provost clarifies the intent of the message. It means he was not reaching out in an earnest attempt to promote online civil discourse. It means he was trying to send a message that he stands above me in the status hierarchy, and that people like me are not supposed to write mean jokes about people like him online. It was an exercise in wielding power?using the imprimatur of The New York Times to ward off speech that he finds distasteful.

Again, Karpf wrote this before Stephens then used the literal pages of the NY Times to imply that Karpf was the equivalent of a Nazi cheering on the death of Jews.

Karpf points out that, while he’s relatively immune from Stephens abuse of power, others are not so fortunate, and not so privileged:

But here?s what still bothers me as this strange episode recedes from the news cycle: Bret Stephens seems to think that his social status should render him immune from criticism from people like me. I think that the rewards of his social status come with an understanding that lesser-known people will say mean things about him online.

Stephens reached out to me in the mistaken belief that I would feel ashamed. He reached out believing my university would chastise me for provoking the ire of a writer at The New York Times. That?s an abuse of his social station. It cost me nothing, but it is an abuse of his power that would carry a real penalty for a younger or less privileged academic. The Times should expect more of its writers. Stephens should expect more of himself.

Indeed, back in the LA Times piece, Karpf lays it out even more clearly:

Part of why this story has gone viral is that it is about so little. The daily news is terrible. The Amazon rainforest is burning, the president retweets white nationalists, the economy looks like it is heading for a recession? By contrast, Bret Stephens, the author of ?Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,? couldn?t handle the slightest discomfort when he saw speech about himself online. The stakes are low here, while they are terrifyingly high elsewhere. But it?s worth keeping in mind that these viral media stories are usually much worse for everyone involved. I am a tenured white male professor. I have taken remarkably little online abuse as a result of this episode. If Stephens had directed his message to one of my female colleagues, they would have faced much more online vitriol. I?ve had zero death threats. Many women with a public platform receive a death threat with their daily morning coffee. This particular episode was pretty low-stakes, but we still have a lot of work to do here.

Now that Stephens has taken things to another level by taking what was a mild joke at his behest and turning it into comparing the joker to the freaking Nazis, Karpf has again handled things much, much better. His latest piece in Esquire after Stephens’ column is also really good at digging in to the heart of what happened here:

Twitter jokes from obscure academics are not where the armed violence targeting synagogues is coming from. He ought to read Sarah Jeong?s recent piece, ?When the Internet Chases You From Your Home.? It takes an extraordinarily incurious mind to believe, in 2019, that the most vulnerable populations online are moderate Republicans like himself, given what women and people of color who dare to participate in public discourse routinely face.

The greatest irony is how easily this whole episode could have been avoided, or at least prematurely brought to a close. This should have been a goofy one-day story about barely anything at all. On Tuesday morning, Stephens could have simply said ?I had a bad night. I shouldn?t have sent that email. I didn?t think the guy would post it to social media. That was embarrassing for me. I apologize, let?s move on.? That would have been the end of things. Barring that, he could have laid low for a week. He could have written a column about anything other than the ?Bretbug? dustup. As a professor of strategic political communication, I could have told him that the only way for him to stop losing here is to stop playing.

Instead, Stephens used the largest weapon at his disposal?his New York Times column?to imply that the Jewish professor who mildly teased him online was the equivalent of a Nazi propagandist. (Godwin?s Law, by the way, is meant to describe internet discussion forums, not published columns in the paper of record.)

Oh. And, of course you know it gets worse. Considering that the entire crux of Stephens’ column was to suggest that comparing people to insects is setting the stage for genocide, you had to know that people were going to point out that Stephens himself has (you already saw this one coming a million miles away, right?) compared people to insects. Specifically, in a 2013 WSJ column, Stephens compared Palestinians to mosquitoes.

And then even worse. As others quickly discovered, back in 2004, Stephens compared the Palestinians to weeds.

Now, you could argue that in that column, he says he means it metaphorically, but then I’d just need to remind you that the bedbug tweet was also explicitly metaphorical.

So, if you’re following along at home, Stephens — who insists that people are way too easily offended these days, and complains how the kids these days need to suck it up and not get so damn offended — got ridiculously offended after he misread a very mild joke where his name was a punchline. A joke, I should remind you, that almost no one saw. He then took it upon himself to email the joker, and cc his boss — whining about the lack of civility in a passive aggressive manner that seemed obviously designed to use his status to punish the professor. When that whole thing completely blew up in his face, rather than recognizing how all this went wrong, Stephens doubled down, concocted a ludicrous backstory about how Nazis called people bedbugs (which he had to search for to find just one example that doesn’t even show that they did) and put it into a nonsense NY Times opinion piece whose only real job is to suggest that calling him a bedbug (which Karpf didn’t actually do) was a prelude to ethnic genocide… all while forgetting that he, himself, had called Palestinians mosquitos and weeds.

One would hope this ends here. But I fear that it will not.

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Comments on “Bedbug Privilege: Bret Stephens Uses His NY Times Column To Suggest Jokingly Comparing Him To A Bedbug Is Prelude To Ethnic Genocide”

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And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider by echoing!

You’re going round on what you state is a NON-story? What you, 13 and totally un-self-aware? You’re wasting your supposedly professional time on THIS? — Sheesh.

Hey. Meant to mention last time you ran with this nothing, that if even the "prestigious" (among liberals and other idiots) NYT has an effective zombie — as you put it:

someone the NY Times seems to employ to write really dumb opinion pieces that get people angry with how dumb they are.

then it’s likely that little old Techdirt has its own astro-turfing, as evidenced if anyone checks history of even a FEW accounts here and sees the HUGE gaps.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


The fact that you’re more upset/annoyed/angry/feeling some other negative emotion about Techdirt reporting on this story than you are about Bret Stephens near-literally comparing his being insulted to the actual goddamn Holocaust says a lot about you, Blue Balls.

Then again, you often say a lot about you, whether you intend to or not. Funny how that works.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider by echoi

Techdirt has its own astro-turfing, as evidenced if anyone checks history of even a FEW accounts here and sees the HUGE gaps

Yes, fake astroturfing accounts are famous for being years old and rarely posting. That’s how astroturfing works. Hallmarks of the strategy. Mmm-hmm.

Matthew Cline (profile) says:

Re: Re: And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider by e

So, I’m not agreeing with him, but as to why he’s always going on about large posting gaps and astroturfing:

according to him, astroturfers do NOT create their own accounts. While they could create accounts with throw-away email accounts while using proxies in order to cover their tracks, they only have to slip up once to leave evidence pointing back to them. So instead they bribe sites like this for the login info to abandoned accounts and use those abandoned accounts to do their astroturfing. That way if there’s ever an investigation the site owners can just claim that abandoned accounts were taken over by hackers, and there’s no evidence pointing back to the astroturfer.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider

"So instead they bribe sites like this for the login info to abandoned accounts and use those abandoned accounts to do their astroturfing"

Which makes zero sense really, since the database admin for any site can just fake some old posts any time they want.

"That way if there’s ever an investigation the site owners can just claim that abandoned accounts were taken over by hackers, and there’s no evidence pointing back to the astroturfer."

Which also makes zero sense since going to those sorts of lengths would surely involve doing something illegal. These posts he’s so obsessed with aren’t even stating anything unreasonable or untruthful, they’re just saying stuff he doesn’t like.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider by echoi

About the sentence:

"You’re going round on what you state is a NON-story?"

Could you please provide a quote for this claim you made: "what you state is a NON-story?" Where was that stated? Please show. (YOU MADE IT UP.)

I searched the piece for "non", and found "nonsense" but not "non-story". What IS in the Techdirt article is the frequent use of the term: "It gets worse", which is indicative of a story with a trivial genesis, but of growing importance.

As a matter of opinion, this IS an interesting story – VERY interesting. It also is low-stakes, as Karpf wrote. It can be both. This story has the interesting elements of:

  • thin skin
  • hypocrisy
  • lying
  • abuse of a position of power
  • sloppy work
  • NYT editors complicit in abuse of power
  • digging a deeper hole
  • Godwin’s Law
  • Streisand Effect

…all of these subjects that are regularly part of Techdirt, and even to a term created by Masnick.

This story is totally in Techdirt’s wheelhouse. No question why it is here. The only question here is about you: If you are not interested and don’t care, why did you read it, then subsequently comment on it?

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: And yet you manage couple orders magnitude stupider by echoi

First, no one has said that Stephens was an instance of astroturfing or a “zombie”. Whatever his faults, Stephens appears to believe most of what he says, maybe. At least, I have no reason to believe his statements are a result of him being paid to say those specific things per se. And since he has been referred to as an NYT columnist by many, I assume he writes for them at least semi-regularly. As such, there is no similarity between this story and your allegations of astroturfing here based on sizable gaps between comments by some individuals here.

Second, why do you keep bringing these so-called “zombies” up, anyway, often with little-to-no justification? It is evidence of nothing suspicious, it often has no relation to the topic at hand, you’re beating a dead horse at this point, and no one who isn’t already convinced by your argument is going to change their mind after the hundredth time you try.

Finally, and more importantly, this isn’t a non-story as a whole. It’s true that the initial tweet and the background behind it was a non-story. However, Stevens’s reaction to that tweet, along with some subsequent developments, have made the whole thing newsworthy. Had Stevens simply ignored the tweet, there’d be no story here. Even if he’d done nothing more than complain a little about it solely to the professor who wrote it, there wouldn’t be much of note about this. However, he did react—poorly, I might add—and this reaction also led to massive backlash against him, and that makes it a story.

What’s more, this would’ve still died down in less than a week if Stevens had either apologized or ignored the whole thing afterwards (and it was dying down). However, he just couldn’t let it go. As a result, the story became relevant again.

So, what could have been a non-story became newsworthy because one guy just couldn’t stop digging.

Anonymous Coward says:

What should happen: Everybody finally realizes that this whole thing was dumb and just lets it go. My guess on what will happen:

  1. Karpf continues to make Stephens and the NYT look stupid for escalating the issue.

  2. The NYT figures that out and does what it can to distance itself from the dumpster fire it helped to set. Stephens gets fired.

  3. Stephens sues Karpf for getting him fired, based on some trumped up charge – defamation, maybe hate speech. NYT might also be named as a defendant because why not. Maybe Charles Harder will represent him.
Bloof (profile) says:

He’s right you know, history is littered with totalitarian regimes that began with obscure college professors saying mean things about newspaper opinion writers.

It’s like the famed poem says:

‘First they said mean things about the opinion columnists, and I did not speak out because I don’t have the NYT to use as a platform for my personal grievances…’

Anonymous Coward says:

Just one doubt

Karpf made a lot of very good points in his response, all of them more logical than Stephens, and unlike Stephens’ remarks, they imply that they were written calmly and thoughtfully instead of in a heated rage.

I just disagree with one part. I don’t think Karpf’s age, gender, or ethnicity makes much of a difference as to whether or not he’d get any death threats over this.

His remark is simply not offensive enough, even to a bigoted moron, nor is its target important enough to defend so fiercely, even to a bigoted moron. Why, even Bret Stephens only wrote him an angry email, not a death threat!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Are you suggesting Bret Stephens is inept at using modern technology? That his methods are outdated? That he is a relic from a bygone era? That he is not a modern man, but an inferior predecessor?

What horrific racism! Your superiors will be receiving a strongly-worded parchment about your conduct in their next Pony Express delivery.

That One Guy (profile) says:

No really, keep digging

As if his gross hypocrisy and micron-thin skin wasn’t apparent enough he went full Godwin only to have that backfire spectacularly on him as well(in two ways at that) when people did a little digging and found out that he himself had done the very thing he was claiming was a stepping stone towards genocide.

It is well past time for the NYT to realize that backing him or even keeping him on staff is merely dragging them through the mud along with him, and for them to give him the boot until he can grow up and stop being such a hypocritical, tantrum throwing child. Continuing to keep him on staff and allowing him to just dig that hole even deeper is just showing the world just how utterly pathetic the standards they have at the NYT, both in what they will allow and what they are willing to print.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: No really, keep digging

It is well past time for the NYT to realize that backing him or even keeping him on staff is merely dragging them through the mud along with him, and for them to give him the boot until he can grow up and stop being such a hypocritical, tantrum throwing child. Continuing to keep him on staff and allowing him to just dig that hole even deeper is just showing the world just how utterly pathetic the standards they have at the NYT, both in what they will allow and what they are willing to print.

They’re slow learners.

It’s quite a racket the conservative pundits have going: scream that the New York Times is biased against conservatives so that the NYT, for the sake of "balance", populates its editorial section with the likes of Stephens, Haberman, and Brooks, and its news section with people like Weisman (recently demoted for racially-tinged suggestions that RashidaTlaib and Ilhan Omar aren’t real midwesterners and John Lewis isn’t a real Southerner because they’re too…urban — but not actually fired).

It’d be great to see Stephens out on his ass, but this is a systemic problem with the paper and its philosophy — and, dare I say, the naivete and gullibility of its management. I don’t expect Stephens’s replacement would be any better than he is. I was naive enough to believe that the paper’s ousting of Judith Miller meant it was turning a corner and would be more careful about succumbing to false both-sides "balance" in the future. That didn’t happen, and I don’t expect it will any time soon.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: No really, keep digging

Better still (and I know this will never happen) they should just kill the Opinion section entirely, along with many other major newspapers.

It’s not a useful function for them anymore. It serves no purpose. As many have pointed out, they’ve laid off a lot of copy editors and fact checkers but they are still paying the hefty salaries of celebrity columnists.

Quality primary reporting is something the NYT can still be great at – and something they are poised to do better than newer operations in many ways (or were before they started gutting their apparatus). Opinion and editorial is not – it means nothing to have it in the New York Times. There’s more insight in blogs and twitter megathreads than ten issues of the NYT op-ed section combined.

All it does is say: "you have to take everything these people say seriously, and discuss it at length, even if it’s dumb fluff you’d ignore or briefly mock then forget about anywhere else, because it’s got our banner at the top, so now it’s important and citation-worthy and it ‘matters’. And we are totally certain that all these people will have a new opinion worthy of that vaunted status every single week – so certain that we will commit to publishing and promoting those opinions in advance."

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: No really, keep digging

"they are still paying the hefty salaries of celebrity columnists"

That is indeed the issue, but the problem is convincing the relevant people that those people are not bringing in more people than are put off. The entire problem with the industry is that the bean counter don’t see the value in real reporting as much as they do gossip and such.

As soon as it can be shown that these columnists are not benefitting the bottom line, they will be gone. The question is how do we do that (and, sadly, is that even true or is the sad state of things that celebrity trolls and familiar idiots actually make them money?)

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: No really, keep digging

That’s a question people have been trying to answer for decades.

There was a flap a few weeks ago; the NYT printed an article with the headline "Trump urges unity vs. racism", and there were calls for people to cancel their subscriptions.

The NYT’s response was, in a nutshell, "Look, it was a bad headline, but aren’t people overreacting a little bit to one bad headline?" Which is disingenuous horseshit. It’s not about one bad headline. It’s not about the New York Times distorting reality to avoid criticizing a Republican once. It’s about the New York Times distorting reality to avoid criticizing Republicans constantly, for decades. It’s about long-simmering frustration over debacles like Judith Miller’s reporting during the runup to the Iraq War; it’s about the Times being easily manipulated by accusations of liberal bias into prizing a View from Nowhere over telling the truth.

But the more people criticize them for that, the more they seem to dig their heels in. When people cancel their subscriptions, the editors respond by changing one headline or demoting one racist. Getting them to acknowledge a systemic problem with the nature of their reporting? Good luck with that. Getting them to acknowledge that their entire editorial section is a raging garbage fire? That may be even harder.

Rocky says:

Re: The deepest hole.

Well, that means he can’t even dig straight.

If he happens to live in New York and he managed to dig a hole straight down he would end up in Oceania, south-east of Australia (which is NY antipode).

Of course, that means he first will get roasted and then flushed when he breaks through to the ocean floor in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s kind of a fitting consequence when you can’t stop digging, both figuratively and literally.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Internet law bingo

So we’ve got the Streisand effect, the Carreon effect, and Godwin’s law (or a corollary) all at play here. Any other internet laws at play here? I don’t think Poe’s law works here, and I don’t see how it could eventually do so, but maybe someone else has any ideas? This guy could end up with “internet Moron Bingo”!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: All credibility lost

Eh, I mean I can kinda see where you’re coming from but the fact that he’s acting like a world-class hypocrite now doesn’t change the fact that he might have written some good stuff in the past that was actually worthy of an award/recognition.

Just because someone’s a contemptible ass, either in general or during a certain time period, that’s no guarantee that they are completely bereft of all talent or ability that might be noteworthy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: popcorn time

There are two solutions.

Either you learn how to pop corn using a pot and oil, or you bite the bullet and get a full-sized carnival-style corn popper.

The former option costs much less, so you’re not out-of-pocket so much when this particular story goes away.

However, as there’s always going to be another popcorn story like this, I recommend making the investment and going for the full-sized popping machine.

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