As luck would have it, New York Times columnist and man who has recently beclowned himself Bret Stephens was slated to be on MSNBC on Tuesday morning, a day or so after he had an utter meltdown because a college professor named David Karpf made a mild and little-seen joke on Twitter calling him a “bed bug.” After the professor’s follow-up tweets went viral, Stephens—on national television, in front of a nation and under the benevolent gaze of God Almighty—attempted to play through it, an action that was somehow even more embarrassing than his emailing a college professor and cc’ing the guy’s boss about being a meanie.
“I’m gonna careful with my words because I know they’re going to be examined,” Stephens said. “I think Twitter bring out the worst in its users... Yesterday, a college professor at George Washington University described me as a bed bug or a metaphorical bed bug in the context of the New York Times having a bed bug problem in our building. And I think that kind of rhetoric is dehumanizing and totally unacceptable no matter where it comes from.”
Stephens did not, at this point, correctly characterize “rhetoric” to mean “a joke some guy made that I saw, not because he tagged me, but because I obsessively search my own name on Twitter as part of a form of collective madness that has overtaken New York Times op-ed columnists en masse, seizing them with the conviction that ‘incivility’ and ‘people making jokes about me on Twitter’ is somehow an urgent problem and one worth writing about more or less constantly, at the expense of the complex set of moral emergencies overtaking the country.” He went on to say:
So I wrote him a personal email. I didn’t go to Twitter. I wrote him a personal email, which I think was very civil, saying that I didn’t appreciate it, that I would welcome him to come to my home in New York, meet with my family and see if he would call me a bed bug to my face. Because a lot of things people say on social media aren’t the things they’re really prepared to say in one-on-one interactions.
What Stephens underestimated, as would later be made clear by the mass delight that descended on Twitter after Karpf shared the email, was how many people would love to come to his house and call him a bed bug.
Stephens added that he was, of course, not trying to get a guy in trouble with his boss by cc’ing his boss:
I also copied his provost on the note. People are upset about this. I want to be clear, I had no intention to get him in any kind of professional trouble. But it is the case at the New York Times and other institutions that people should be aware, managers should be aware, of the way in which their people, their professors or journalists, interact with the rest of the world. And that’s certainly the case with me at the New York Times. My editors are always aware of what I’m saying and I’ve sometimes been called to account, and rightly so.
It’s worth noting here that none of Stephens’s managers “called him to account,” as far as we know, for being a climate change contrarian, a position he took in his first column there ever, and one which should’ve identified him as a crank of such staggering proportions that maybe the paper should’ve rethought this whole thing. Or maybe someone could’ve given him a stern talking-to when he accused Woody Allen’s adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow of “smearing” the director by repeatedly alleging that he sexually abused her when she was seven years old, and repeating that allegation during the MeToo movement. They didn’t! And now we’re here, with Stephens defending his god-given right to speak to the manager.
He continued, somehow:
He [Karpf] then posted my email on Twitter, so people are free to go and see what I had to say. All I would say is that using dehumanizing rhetoric like ‘bed bugs’ or analogizing people to insects is always wrong. We can do better. We should be the people on social media that we are in real life.
When the MSNBC host reasonably asked if being called a bed bug was “the worst thing you’ve ever been called on social media,” Bret had — God help me — more to say:
There is a bad history of being analogized to insects that goes back to totalitarian regimes in the past. I wrote this guy a personal note. Now it’s out there for everyone to see.
The baffling, ludicrous, utterly unserious claim that a guy joshing you on Twitter is anything close to “totalitarian regimes” is absolutely insane, but it’s also a good indicator of where, precisely, Stephens is operating from: a sense that any personal slight to him, no matter how small, is nothing less than a national emergency and a worrying indicator of The Times in Which We Live. And he’s not the only person at the Times who feels that way, or even, somehow, the only Times staffer who’s recently emailed someone’s employers trying desperately but underhandedly to get them in trouble. Former deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was demoted after repeated tweets that tiptoed right over the line of cluelessness into outright racism, and for then emailing the writer Roxane Gay as well as her publisher and her assistant demanding an apology when she commented on his actions.
There’s not really any accounting for the fact that so many of the New York Times columnists are so feverishly obsessed with people teasing them, or, in the case of Stephens and Bari Weiss, rudeness on college campuses. Except one possibility: that even more than they want to write about any of the real issues plaguing this rapidly unraveling, violent, and unjust country, they want to police speech that might draw attention to what utter intellectual frauds they are—relying on perceived superiority to maintain the truly privileged and comfortable position that they know, deep down, they’re not working hard enough to deserve.
A bed bug, it’s worth noting, has only the “stunted nubs of rudimentary wings,” as one expert tome puts it, because they’ve evolved “the simplest eating strategy an animal can have, which is to sit and wait for food to arrive.” Kind of like obsessively name-searching on Twitter, hoping someone is talking about you, so that you don’t have to fill a column with anything real.
Stephens announced Tuesday morning that he’d deactivate his Twitter, and quickly did so, after offering a half-apology, not to Karpf, but to “anyone I’ve ever hurt.” A bed bug to the last.
Update, 2:50 p.m.
George Washington University Provost Forrest Maltzman has responded by politely owning Bret right to hell, reminding the noted academic freedom lover that Dr. Karpf has every right to express thoughts about bed bugs on Twitter. Maltzman also invited Stephens to come to campus to speak about “civil discourse in the digital age,” which, while extremely funny, sounds worryingly like something the columnist would actually accept in the service of squeezing out another aggrieved 800 words.
Additional reporting by pest expert Rich Juzwiak.