When New York Times columnist Bret Stephens had a hissy fit this week over a comment on Twitter, it made me think about the feedback I get myself. Not everyone agrees with what I write. In fact, a good number of my readers vehemently object to my opinions (even when they compliment my writing). Some send the “I don’t share your views but I will defend your right to be wrong” emails, à la Voltaire. Others are much more blunt, along the lines of “You’re as stupid as your doppelgänger Sarah Palin,” which they may be surprised to learn I take as a compliment.
Then there are the more sinister responses, like people who object to my pro-life views and have told me I should be raped and then have to deal with the resulting pregnancy. These people have threatened to do things I will not publish here, but suffice it to say I have contacted the police on a few occasions. But secretly, I get a thrill out of knowing I can annoy people who are capable of such threats. And in the end, I figure that it goes with the territory of being outspoken in a world of boycotters.
That’s why I had to chuckle when I saw Bret Stephens’ reaction to being called a “bedbug” by a disgruntled reader. Dave Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, was reading a comment about how the New York Times newsroom was infected with bedbugs. He tweeted out: “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” He did not tag Stephens in the tweet. It was just an offhanded, not particularly clever piece of snark.
Dave Karpf is not a famous person. Bret Stephens is what passes for a high-profile conservative thinker these days at the Times. By my read, so-called Times conservatives are Never Trumpers who get invited to the cocktail parties held by the progressive writers. They are harmless gnats, not bedbugs.
But Stephens, who used to write for the Wall Street Journal and still retains a bit of that fiscal conservatism in his bloodstream, was upset that someone called him a bedbug. He must have been told about it by someone else who follows Karpf, or spend an inordinate amount of time Googling his own name to see if he’s been mentioned anywhere. When he found out that he’d been compared to an insect, he sent an email to the tweeter inviting him to come over to his house and call him a bug to his face. It was very old fashioned and kind of sweet, offering face-to-face conversation and a meeting with Stephens’ wife and kids.
What was not sweet is that Stephens, who has a very loud and powerful bully pulpit, copied the provost of the university where Karpf taught in an obvious attempt to make trouble. I’m not sure he wanted to get Karpf fired, but he definitely wanted him to be reprimanded for callously throwing out insect slanders.
On one level, I completely agree with Stephens about the noxious nature of social media, especially Twitter. I’ve deactivated my own account twice in the past year and a half, precisely because there is no “irony” font you can use when trying to make a point. In that environment, you either hate people, or love them. That’s not real.
But at another, deeper level, I have to wonder why a person who so willingly puts his own opinions out into the public arena every week would be so thin-skinned when someone makes a snarky comment.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a column by Stephens that tried to connect his upset to the fact that totalitarian regimes dehumanize people by comparing them to insects. It’s a legitimate point.
Here, though, it doesn’t fly (no pun intended). Professor Karpf was doing what my readers do on a regular basis: critique the messenger. The nature of the critique might not have been laudatory, but if the worst thing I got called was “bedbug,” I’d be like Sally Field at the Oscars: “You like me, you really like me.”