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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.

Filed Under: bedbugs, bret stephens, david karpf, godwin's law, professionally offended, streisand effect
Companies: ny times

Reader Comments

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  1. identicon
    ryuugami, 3 Sep 2019 @ 10:19pm

    From that it's clear that Bret literally went to Google books, did a search on "Jews as bedbugs"

    Wow, I did Nazi that coming!

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