Bret Stephens and Civil Discourse
Of the many names that New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has been called in his career, it was “bedbug” that seems to have had the most profound impact.
After “evidence of bedbugs” was found in a room at the New York Times headquarters, David Karpf, a George Washington University (GWU) professor, tweeted, “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” This comment deeply offended Stephens, who decried “the rhetoric of infestation” in an op-ed a few days later and described how it was reminiscent of the dehumanizing form of anti-Semitism seen leading up to World War II. He decided to delete his Twitter account, calling the social media site “a sewer,” and challenged Karpf in an email to meet his family and call him a bedbug personally.
Among the many questions that arise from this conflict, ranging from the nature of anti-Semitism to the drawbacks of modern technology, I believe the most prescient question concerns Stephens’s own hypocrisy. Throughout his career, Stephens has embraced the role of a thinker who stands up for free speech even when it may be unpopular and who challenges others to embrace discomfort in political environments.
But Stephens’s actions in this instance seem to contradict these tenets—and this contradiction comes at an unfortunate time. In this era of divisiveness that leads many to shun entire segments of the political spectrum, thoughtful contrarian viewpoints are crucial for the continued health of American democracy. By stimulating productive civil discourse, diverse viewpoints promote more nuanced conversation that will allow individuals to better understand one another.
Just days before his death in June 2018, prominent conservative thinker Charles Krauthammer wrote an appreciative “note to readers.” Though I had not read his columns religiously, this final piece really stuck with me. In it, Krauthammer expressed his profound faith in robust civil discourse: “I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.”
Krauthammer, a standout in the line of conservative intellectual tradition that now includes Stephens, revered many of Ronald Reagan’s policies and was a vocal proponent of the Iraq War. But even as he held these firm viewpoints, Krauthammer never wavered from his emphasis on the importance of “conversations,” both in his columns and in his actions.
In January 2009, Krauthammer and several other conservative writers met with Barack Obama days before his first inauguration, despite being some of Obama’s biggest critics. I admire both Obama and the conservative columnists for this decision—choosing to respectfully meet and learn from one another.
And now in a period of even more political division, we are met with a paradox: we can only resist this national disunity by engaging in these types of conversations more, not less.
Steven Brill, a lecturer in English, Creative Writing and Journalism at Yale, offered his ideas in an interview with The Politic for how to work through this paradox. Brill believes that truly informed citizens in America shouldn’t be afraid to hear other viewpoints. He suggested that it might be beneficial for liberals to watch a few minutes of Sean Hannity every night, and that conservatives could learn from hearing Rachel Maddow’s opinions.
“The danger of the internet or cable television even, where everything is pitched or targeted at a certain audience, is…you’re in an echo chamber. You’re just hearing stuff you want to hear,” Brill said. For the palpable anger that is dividing the United States to dissipate, we must combat this partisan rancor—on a national level, and on a personal one, as Brill suggested.
And this movement toward unity will require our collective effort.
I remember a night a few weeks before the 2016 election when my parents came home after going out for dinner with family friends of ours. I heard them discussing how disappointed they were that their friends were planning to vote for the candidate they did not support.
Since that night, my parents have not socialized and have hardly spoken with those friends. Even though their values had previously aligned on so many issues, both my parents and their former friends had stopped looking for common ground.
This inaction only perpetuates the divisiveness we feel toward our political “opponents” today. It may be difficult, but we must combat this phenomenon through respectful, honest dialogue.
This brings me back to Bret Stephens. After Krauthammer released his final column, many politicians and journalists wrote tributes to him, including Stephens. In it, Stephens explained, “Whether you agreed with him or not, Charles’s column taught…. To read Charles was to be invited into a running conversation about the meaning, foundations and aims of politics in the grand sense.”
Stephens even coined a term in Krauthammer’s honor. He defined a “krauthammer” as “(1) as the strongest possible counterargument to your opinion; (2) a person of deep substance and complete integrity.”
This is where Stephens’s hypocrisy lies. Though he technically did invite Karpf to meet him, it was not a legitimate attempt to start a conversation, to teach or to learn. A leading conservative intellectual, a man who considers himself a champion of free speech and who values public dialogue as much as anyone, harshly overreacts to another man who could have been more sensitive, but likely thought he was making an innocent joke. It is unfortunately emblematic of our times.
Fortunately, there are reminders in our society of the necessity for civil discourse, on both a national level and a personal one. Forrest Maltzman, the GWU provost, seemed to be the most judicious actor in this situation. He did not rush to judgment against either side, and he rather cordially offered Stephens the opportunity to “speak about civil discourse in the digital age” at GWU.
Maltzman’s choice to not overreact—like Stephens did and like other university officials may have under similar circumstances—is commendable, and his decision to let this be a learning experience, an opportunity for discussion and dialogue, is exactly what our country needs.
To his credit, Stephens did accept the invitation to hold the discussion in the fall. But he still must do much more to truly live up to his definition of a “krauthammer”—and to be an example of how we, as individuals, can embrace civil discourse to help our country come together.