Get a Grip, Bret Stephens
Writing an opinion column can be a painful experience, especially once the job is done. Take a few minutes to scroll through the comments section below any article and you’ll quickly understand what I’m talking about. Trolls, critics, and hacks spare no opportunity to insult you, belittle you, even threaten you with a painful death. It’s an unwritten rule that 90 percent of comments are negative and even vicious.
Bret Stephens, a bestselling author and long-time columnist, presumably understands this better than most. He’s been in the journalism business for decades, having scribed for the Jerusalem Post and the Wall Street Journal, and now comfortably ensconced at the New York Times. He’s been a public figure for years, pontificating on cable TV and offering his so-called wisdom on matters of state (that “wisdom” includes recommending the sinking of Iran’s navy in the Persian Gulf and adding more nuclear weapons to the thousands the United States already possesses). A lot of it is nonsense, but it’s a free country—Stephens is entitled to voice his opinion, however silly those opinions are.
What Stephens isn’t entitled to is subservience from the masses. Just because he has a perch at the New York Times doesn’t mean he is above reproach. People are allowed to disagree with what he says and writes, as I have on countless occasions. And while he may not like it, readers are also permitted to casually poke fun at him, as George Washington University professor Dave Karpf recently did when he jokingly referred to Stephens as a “bedbug.”
Stephens is a public figure. He could have done what most public figures do every day: ignore the noise and press on with life. He could have defended himself by writing a personal email to Karpf (and only to Karpf) to express how hurt he might have been over the tweet. He could have done a simple retweet of the professor’s original missive and engaged in some good old-fashioned snark.
He didn’t do any of that. Instead he chose to send Karpf an email and copy in Karpf’s boss, the provost at George Washington University. Stephens explained on MSNBC the following morning that he had no intention of getting the professor fired, but the fact that the provost was included in the exchange makes a mockery of that argument. While nobody truly knows what Bret Stephens intended except Bret Stephens, it’s reasonable to conclude that he was attempting to leverage his celebrity to punish somebody for a stupid joke—a move that reeks of elitism and desperation.
Normally, Twitter tirades like this die out after 24 hours. By then, everyone has moved on to another outrage, a reflection of how toxic Twitter is to civil discourse. Stephens is right that social media can be a “sewer,” where adult professionals quickly turn into petulant children heaving rhetorical punches at one another. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of those punches. Regrettably, I’ve also done some punching myself.
But you take your licks and move on. Life is too important to worry about what a random person says about you. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point—and frankly sometimes I still need to work on it. I remember several years ago on Thanksgiving Day when I woke up to an anonymous voicemail from a private number calling me a “fuck*ng moron” for something I’d written and for hours feeling anger and sadness. But eventually, writers build up defenses to these kinds of attacks. Today, if I open an email filled with righteous indignation, I laugh it off as part of the job and wear it as a badge of honor. For those who are syndicated or at least have high name recognition, learning to adapt is essential.
The good public figure knows when to fight back and defend his reputation. But he also knows when to let an insignificant attempt at humor pass into the wind. Bret Stephens needs to learn these skills and grow a thicker skin. Otherwise, he should let a more professional columnist take his place at America’s newspaper of record.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.