The Unbearable Fragility of Bret Stephens

The New York Times columnist cites ‘free speech’ when marginalized people are targeted, but bemoans a ‘lack of civility’ when he’s the one under the microscope

TThe New York Times columnist Bret Stephens quit Twitter today, two years after promising to do so, when his attempt to endanger a man’s job over a joke went viral.

It started when George Washington University professor David Karpf cracked a joke about the infestation of bedbugs in the New York Times building, tweeting, “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” The columnist responded by emailing Karpf and CC’ing his provost — challenging the professor to say the same “to my face.”

Karpf, who noted that the tweet had no retweets and fewer than 10 likes when Stephens sent his email, told the Washington Post, “He not only thinks I should be ashamed of what I wrote, he thinks that I should also get in trouble for it. That’s an abuse of his power.”

It’s also rank hypocrisy. When writer Kevin Williamson was taken to task (and later fired from his job at the Atlantic) for saying women who have abortions should be executed by hanging, Stephens called the outrage a “censorious furor,” writing that “critics show bad faith when they treat an angry tweet or a flippant turn of phrase as proof of moral incorrigibility.”

Are we to believe that arguing for the murder of a quarter of the female population is “flippant,” but calling Stephens a bedbug is an offense worthy of censure?

This is someone who mocked sexual assault survivors for wanting a break room with counselors during a debate on rape culture, a writer who questioned the “moral proportion” of firing sexual harassers. Is targeting a professor’s job for a barely seen quip morally proportional? Are high-profile columnists more deserving of a “safe space?”

Stephens had a similar blowup last month when he bemoaned critiques of a column that many felt was racist. And he’s not the only man at the Times to try to force apologies. Earlier this month, the paper demoted Washington editor Jonathan Weisman after he sent emails to feminist writer Roxane Gay, as well as her assistant and publisher, demanding an “enormous apology” for criticizing one of his tweets.

There’s something Trumpian at play here — the men who rail against “snowflakes” are also the ones fuming over the barest drizzle of criticism.

Why, in a time when the most marginalized people in the country are under attack, are powerful white men adopting a stance of victimization? The short answer is that they believe themselves exceptions to their own rules.

Stephens, for example, said on MSNBC today that “being analogized to insects goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes,” yet compared Palestinians to “mosquitos” in the Wall Street Journal in 2013. There’s something Trumpian at play here — the men who rail against “snowflakes” are also the ones fuming over the lightest flurry of criticism.

In part this is standard backlash. Those who have held unquestioned power for so long aren’t comfortable with a changeup in dynamics. But it’s also something more telling — proof that Stephens’ ire was never about “political correctness,” but the belief that some people are above critique.

After all, there’s a reason men like Stephens claim “free speech” when the marginalized people are targeted, but decry a “lack of civility” when it’s powerful white men under the microscope.

The real snowflakes aren’t rape survivors who request trigger warnings or students who’d like that we use their correct pronouns — they’re people with power who can’t abide even the slightest criticism without using their influence to demand consequences.

The fact that Stephens’ email went viral — and was subject to deserved mockery — might lead some to believe that there’s a sea change ahead. There’s some truth there; the culture is shifting. But on Tuesday afternoon, the provost at George Washington University who Stephens CC’d in his email invited the columnist to campus to speak about “civil discourse in the digital age.” What better reminder could there be that when powerful white men behave badly, there’s not often punishment ahead — but reward.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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