Bedbugs & Broomsticks
You’re forgiven — hell, blessed — if you don’t know of Bret Stephens, or all the chatter about him this week. God knows there’s plenty of real shit going down, and Bret Stephens is the least of our troubles, no more consequential than, well, an insect.
But he is, for that reason, a welcome distraction, a moment of comic relief as the world unravels. We’d rather have a standup than a string quartet on the Titanic.
So, let us begin. Bret Stephens is a conservative columnist for the New York Times, late of the Wall Street Journal. This week, it was learned that the Times building is suffering an infestation. On Twitter, one of the groundlings posted this remark:
“The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
As lines go, well, clearly the guy isn’t a professional. Maybe the waiter at the Algonquin. And the democracy of comedy exacted its justice: Nine likes, no retweets. Twitter is like that: If you’re not in it for the pleasure of the craft, you have no business being there.
And there the line would have remained, inert, lifeless, okay but not much, had it not gotten back to Bret Stephens.
Which is where the real fun begins.
The tweet only mentioned Bret Stephens by name. It was not a response to a Stephens tweet. It did not include Stephens’s Twitter handle. There is no automatic means by which the tweet would have come to his attention.
You had to look for it.
Which Bret Stephens did.
Or someone pointed it out to him, as he insists. We’re not sure which plays better: a Times columnist so vain he spends hours googling himself, or an acquaintance so enamored to take on the task for him. Either way, it takes some work finding a bedbug in a haystack.
Let us pause here to consider the technology. Bret Stephens has a Twitter account. The proper response to a mild insult — should you wish to even bother — is to show up in response: “I’m Bret Stephens, and you know nothing of my work!”
Needless to say, Bret Stephens is no Marshall McLuhan.
Instead, Bret Stephens doxxes the guy.
Looks him up. Finds his supervisor. Finds his supervisor’s supervisor.
And emails them all.
The guy is David Karpf, a tenured media professor at George Washington University. Stephens invites Karpf to visit his home, meet the wife and kids, and call him a bedbug to his face.
He cc’s the provost for good measure.
And Karpf tweets the email. Monday night. Five days later, that one has 40,000 likes. The Democracy of Comedy has spoken.
But wait! There’s more! The last time Bret Stephens got roasted on Twitter — yes, this is a recurring event — he published a Times column comparing his critics to the French Revolution. Specifically, the Terror. Specifically, Robespierre.
With some Orwell for good measure: “I felt like I had been cast in the role of Emmanuel Goldstein in some digital version of Orwell’s ‘Two Minutes Hate’.”
Which makes an interesting comparison. Robespierre and Big Brother sat in power. They used the authority of the State to crush their enemies. Twitter may be the Democracy of Comedy, it may be a digital mob out there, but the violence is limited to tallies of likes and retweets. Close your computer, put down your phone, and it goes away.
Unless some asshole emails you and cc’s your provost from his account at America’s newspaper of record. That’s what we used to call a power move.
And so it was only a matter of time before Bret Stephens would put his overwrought rhetorical factory to work on this one.
Four days, to be precise: “World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter”.
In summary: Calling a Times columnist a bedbug on Twitter is no different than Himmler calling Jews lice.
See, an unknown GWU professor is Himmler. A New York Times columnist is a powerless Jew packed in a train to an extermination camp.
There is so much to say about this, and people have been saying it all week. We’ve been inclined to go French about it ourself, contemplating how Karpf committed the crime of lèse-majesté against the ruling class. Or, short of that, violating Stephens’s amour-propre.
But really, we’ve been thinking of Brett Kavanaugh.
We’ve been thinking of the tendency of powerful, coddled white men to become histrionic when criticized for their words and deeds. To lash out when not receiving the respect they feel owed. To proclaim themselves victims — history’s victims, if necessary — when the worst they suffer is the ridicule of those beneath their station.
And then, be rewarded for their behavior.
Bret Stephens remains a New York Times columnist. Brett Kavanaugh remains a Supreme Court justice. It is the rest of us who bear the punishment.