Free speech advocate Bret Stephens emailed David Karpfs boss to complain about bedbug joke and then quit Twitter after being widely mocked
Bret Stephens would like a word with your manager. Or possibly a good fumigator.
The New York Times columnist, who portrays himself as a defender of free speech, was at the center of a social media meltdown on Monday which ended up with Stephens deleting his Twitter account and, once again, bemoaning the lack of civility of his critics.
It began with a story about an apparent bedbug infestation at the New York Times building. Riffing on the newspaper’s predicament, David Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, poked fun at Stephens on Twitter on Monday evening. The post received nine likes and zero retweets.
What followed was as close to the perfect Streisand effect as one could imagine. Stephens, who was not tagged in the original post, emailed Karpf, and copied in the provost of the university, in an apparent attempt to get Karpf in trouble.
And then it went viral.
Karpf shared news of the scolding on Twitter, in a post that has now been retweeted 7,500 times and liked 48,500 (and counting).
After much prodding, Karpf shared the contents of Stephens’ email.
Stephens wrote: “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. I would welcome the opportunity for you to come to my home, meet my wife and kids, talk to us for a few minutes, and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face. That would take some genuine courage and intellectual integrity on your part.”
Karpf 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.”
On Tuesday, Stephens went on MSNBC to condemn Karpf’s joke as “dehumanizing and totally unacceptable”. He said he had “no intention of getting [Karpf] into any type of professional trouble” but said “institutions, managers should be aware of the way their people interact with the rest of the world”.
Stephens also said there was a “bad history” of “being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes”.
Back-channel emails have become a burgeoning genre for New York Times employees, echoing a similar exchange between the recently demoted editor Jonathan Weisman and the writer Roxane Gay. Weisman angrily emailed Gay, her assistant, and Gay’s publisher to demand an apology after she criticized on Twitter Weisman’s critique of a congressional candidate of color.
Stephens had previously scolded on email the Deadspin writer Samer Kalaf, who had called Stephens’ column on Gaza border protests last year “drive-by dogshit”.
Stephens has been frequently lambasted since joining the Times from the Wall Street Journal in 2017. His many bad takes include climate scepticism, a 2016 WSJ column in which he used the phrase “disease of the Arab mind”, and his regular hobbyhorses, which essentially amount to slight variations on three topics:
• People on Twitter are mean to me.
• Kids on campus these days are the real ideological fascists.
• Democrats should work harder to become Republicans to convince Republicans like me to vote for them.
By Tuesday morning, Stephens was a top-trending topic on Twitter, with hundreds taking the opportunity to poke fun at his snitching – and his puerile invitation to come meet his family and insult him to his face. Stephens’ Wikipedia page has since been edited to read “Bret Bedbug Stephens”.
Karpf, the GWU professor, told Splinter: “I assume the thing that set him off here is that I’m a white guy with a PhD, and I think it offends his sensibility that fellow upper-standing white guys are saying mean things about him. I guess there’s some power structure he thinks I violated.”
On Tuesday, Stephens announced he was leaving Twitter. “Time to do what I long ago promised to do. Twitter is a sewer. It brings out the worst in humanity. I sincerely apologize for any part I’ve played in making it worse, and to anyone I’ve ever hurt. Thanks to all my followers, but I’m deactivating this account.”
Previously Stephens had penned a column about how bad Twitter was for the soul. He wrote in 2017: “This is the column in which I formally forswear Twitter for good.”
Read more: www.theguardian.com