Bret Stephens: Calling Me a ‘Bedbug’ Is Just What ‘Totalitarian Regimes’ Did in the Past

Bret Stephens: Calling Me a ‘Bedbug’ Is Just What ‘Totalitarian Regimes’ Did in the Past

New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens has skin so thin, one can almost see through it.

On Monday Stephens threw a tantrum over a mild insult lobbed at him on Twitter, a social media platform where lobbing creative insults, often at the rich and powerful, is one of the perks. Tuesday morning after deactivating his account, he went on MSNBC to defend himself:

What set Stephens off was a response to a report that the headquarters of his paper has a bedbug infestation.

Dr. David Karpf, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, reacted to the report with a very mild (by Twitter standards) joke:

Next thing he knew, this email landed in his inbox:

The email was one thing. But cc’ing the GW provost is a level of petty that one would think is beneath a columnist for the most prestigious paper in America. Here is a man with a contract, a six-figure salary and a regular commentary spot on a cable news network tattling to the boss of someone with much less power and prestige in a small-minded attempt at revenge. All over a joke more mild than probably 95 percent of the criticisms that regularly get tossed at high-profile writers and media figures.

On MSNBC, Stephens tried to make himself sound high-minded, as if he was standing up for the global concept of human dignity:

“I think that kind of rhetoric is dehumanizing and totally unacceptable no matter where it comes from.”

Here we have a grown man thinking it is his responsibility to lecture another grown man about the destructiveness of name-calling, and claiming doing so is some sort of civic-minded function.

“I wrote a personal e-mail, which I think was very civil, saying that I didn’t appreciate it.”

The email is in the tweet above. Readers can determine if they think it is civil or not. They can also determine if they think tattling to the boss is civil, something Stephens tried to defend:

“I also copied his provost on the note. People are upset about this. I want to be clear. I had no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble, but it is the case that 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.”

The second half of that last sentence is completely at odds with the first half. Stephens was upset about how this particular professor interacted with the rest of the world. How is telling Karpf’s boss in any way an effort at doing anything but trying to get him in professional trouble?

“There’s a bad history of being called, being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”

There is a huge difference between a joke intended to signal contempt for a writer’s work and totalitarian regimes referring to entire ethnic groups as insects in order to smooth the way to genocide. Pretending otherwise is a way for Stephens to justify his own thin skinned-response and attempt at bullying a person who is not famous and does not have the bully pulpit of the editorial page of The New York Times to express himself.

The irony here — and perhaps this was part of Karpf’s motivation originally — is that Stephens is notorious for writing columns criticizing college students for being too sensitive and claiming that the left is trying to destroy free speech. He once said in a tweet from his now-deleted account that “the right to offend is the most precious right. Without it, free speech is meaningless.”

The right to offend is precious, unless you insult Bret Stephens. In that case, you should shut up.

Gary Legum

Gary Legum has written about politics and culture for Independent Journal Review, Salon, The Daily Beast, Wonkette, AlterNet and McSweeney's, among others. He currently lives in his native state of Virginia.