The Bret Stephens Bedbugs Saga Backfired Gloriously

The New York Times columnist offers a mind-numbing example of intellectual dishonesty

Bret Stephens appears on Meet the Press.
Bret Stephens appears on ‘.’ Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC NewsWire/Getty

TThis isn’t the first time the New York Times’ cavalcade of columnist trolls have inspired a public scandal stretching far beyond the realm of believability. If Bari Weiss already mastered the art of baiting faux concern by constantly espousing Islamophobic views in a paper of record, Bret Stephens was the kid in class who always tried too hard; though their term papers lacked originality or substance, they still somehow ended up being valedictorian.

The saga began this week with David Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, who joked on Twitter about bedbugs infesting the New York Times newsroom. “The bedbugs are a metaphor,” he posted on Monday. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” Only a vanity search can explain how Stephens stumbled on the comment; he then emailed Karpf’s boss to complain. Not only did Stephens stoke conflict — unprovoked — he tried to put Karpf’s career in jeopardy. He even invited Karpf to visit his family, somehow thinking that would dispel any grievances he may have about his writing.

Of course, given his reputation, just about everyone had expected Stephens would come out with an op-ed in the New York Times that basically plays the role of an elaborate subtweet. The column eventually came out, but one likely couldn’t have imagined the problematic dimensions through which Stephens would posit his criticism of Karpf nor the general irresponsibility of his central point.

What Stephens managed to accomplish in the span of a few days is, with all brutal honesty, nothing short of mind-numbing.

Stephens’ op-ed, titled “World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter,” takes a remarkable leap to suggest that his ostracizing on the public scale is tantamount to the dehumanization efforts conducted against Jews in the 1930s through the 1940s, eroding every last bit of empathy for them, until the unspeakable eventually happened. The theory here is: If you continue to systematically scold Jewish writers — regardless of their ideology — you are inherently anti-Semitic and empowering the very worst in pre-World War II anti-Semitic sentiment.

The problem, though, is that Stephens worked backward from his conclusion. He presumed that being called a “bedbug” had a history steeped in anti-Semitism. Then, in order to prove that, he did the least amount of due diligence by citing an unreviewed book on Google Books — which for all we know, Stephens hadn’t even read. He even forgot to delete the search history showing how he found the quote, which remained in the link embedded in his story, so readers could see the origins of his rationale.

As it turns out, Stephens searched out “Jews as bedbugs.” That, first of all, is arguably more anti-Semitic than Karpf calling Stephens a bedbug. Stephens assumed there was a dark history of Jews being referred to as bedbugs, and in his haste to punch back, he didn’t bother to carefully research the association. The book Stephens referenced was actually talking about a literal infestation of bedbugs in Warsaw at the time, not Jews being proverbial ones. Using the (ongoing) suffering of Jews for millennia as a means to rebuke being personally victimized is frankly pathetic, and it speaks to a dysfunctional state within the New York Times’ editorial ranks that has long-exited uncomfortable territory.

This is not the first time a New York Times columnist has been involved in a controversy of this magnitude. However, Stephens’ case stands out in highlighting a pattern among the Times’ editors to leave the powers of the papers’ columnists unchecked. Bari Weiss had done her fair bit of pearl-clutching, notoriously assuming Muslims are inherently bigoted with a special mention of Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar — an Islamophobic trope that does not warrant a response. But what Stephens managed to accomplish in the span of a few days is, with all brutal honesty, nothing short of mind-numbing.

It’s a perfect confluence of white-privilege-meets-male-ego that even I frankly thought was impossible. And yet, whenever you think a little too highly of the New York Times — especially given the amount of goodwill the 1619 Project had recently graced them with — they’re always going to knock back the bar down so low that most writers’ deepest insecurities about their ability to pen a convincing op-ed immediately disappear. Even in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a better way to turn Bret Stephens from occasionally annoying to symptomatic of journalistic rot. This, perhaps, is the only time Stephens’ creativity has bested his aspirations of grandeur.

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