As it turns out, Goldberg had to explain the concept of subtweets to Mattis. Those of us who participate in the Ideas Industry, however, are all too familiar with them. Which brings me to the matter of New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens.
To bring readers up to speed: Last week, Stephens apparently name-searched himself on Twitter and found an obscure tweet from a George Washington University political scientist. David Karpf made an unfunny joke at Stephens’s expense, suggesting that he was one of the bedbugs causing problems at the Times building. At the time Stephens found Karpf, it had not been retweeted once. As my Washington Post colleagues Tim Elfrink and Morgan Krakow reported, Stephens then dispatched an angry email to Karpf, saying, “I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard.” He took care to copy the message to Karpf’s provost, and contacted the director of Karpf’s program as well.
Karpf tweeted out Stephens’s email, and the collective Twitterati judgment of Stephens was, shall we say, severe. He was pilloried from all corners. His next-day defense of his actions on MSNBC — in which he argued that being compared to an insect was the act of totalitarians — made things worse. Even the few allies of Stephens could not really defend his actions in this matter. The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari devoted a column to defending Stephens’s good character but even he was plain about this particular episode, saying: “There is no point trying to defend Stephens’ action on the merits. It would have been one thing, perhaps, to berate the prof privately — but to drag in his university boss can’t but appear hypocritical, coming from a scribe who has devoted hundreds of column inches to denouncing the so-called cancel culture and censorious campus progressives.”
Stephens responded by quitting Twitter. Then he wrote a column last Friday that one could say was a massive subtweet of the entire situation. Accompanied by a picture of Nazi propagandist-in-chief Joseph Goebbels, Stephens argued that the politics of the current moment echoes that of 80 years ago, “plus three crucial factors: new forms of mass communication, the rhetoric of dehumanization and the politics of absolute good versus absolute evil.” And then he went there:
Radio then, like Twitter today, was the technology of the id; a channel that could concentrate political fury at a time when there was plenty to go around....The political mind-set that turned human beings into categories, classes and races also turned them into rodents, insects and garbage. “Anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing,” Heinrich Himmler would claim in 1943. “Getting rid of lice is not a matter of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness.” Watching Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto burn that year, a Polish anti-Semite was overheard saying: “The bedbugs are on fire. The Germans are doing a great job.”Today, the rhetoric of infestation is back.
As historian Daniel Bessner put it, “Well, he did it. Bret Stephens compared his being called a bedbug on Twitter to the genocide of 6 million Jews.”
It is not hard to find the empirical flaws in Stephens’s subtweet. Nor is it hard to find intellectual postmortems from other commentators about Stephens’s fragile psyche. My Post colleague Hannah Knowles reported that even Sean Spicer pretty much called him a snowflake. I, too, have had previous intellectual exchanges with Stephens, and based on our public and private conversations, it is safe to say that he can carry grudges for even the mildest of jabs.
There are many parts of this story I still cannot get over, however. It is amazing how Stephens managed to trigger Godwin’s Law almost immediately, and then doubled down on it with his subtweet of an essay. It is extraordinary that Stephens blasted Karpf for a tacky insult without having ever met him — and then raised the ante by analogizing someone he had never met in person to, you know, Joseph Goebbels.
The part that is truly enraging, however, is Stephens’s complete abrogation of intellectual responsibility. The Golden Rule of the marketplace of ideas — and social media, for that matter — is to try to never punch downward. As the possessor of a sweet gig at the New York Times, Stephens should be aiming his fire at those more powerful than him, not subtweeting an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. The only inference that one can draw from this and other episodes is that Stephens wants the intellectual cachet and power that comes with his current title — but none of the responsibility.
In one of his best columns, David Brooks warned that “the tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity.” In response, I warned in “The Ideas Industry” that “there is a worse fate, however: to gain attention and be completely unaware of one’s flaws.” It seems rather clear which fate Stephens now faces.
The more that Bret Stephens retreats from the intellectual fray, the more likely it is that he will be able to deny his mediocrity and mendacity. It might allow him to live a placid life. The New York Times, and the marketplace of ideas, will be poorer for his choice.