Why New York Times Readers Love to Hate Bret Stephens

What the columnist writes is not what his detractors read.

Posted Dec 29, 2019

Pamela Paresky
Bret Stephens
Source: Pamela Paresky

“How is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of one percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?” New York Times opinion journalist Bret Stephens ponders in his column about the book Genius & Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht.

His answer: “It's not about having higher I.Q.s.” It’s about habits of mind. 

Nonetheless, he was accused of promoting eugenics. Why? In citing data about Jewish intellectual achievement and IQ, Stephens linked to a paper written by three anthropologists, one of whom, as it turns out, has been accused of being a racist. And anything written by an author tagged as a racist is seen as morally polluted.

Moral pollution operates in much the same way as physical contamination: Not only is the polluted author’s work contaminated, anyone who cites that author’s work becomes morally polluted, too. Moral pollution is the underlying mechanism of guilt by association.

There are problems with the idea that writers should only cite morally pure thinkers. Under this theory, we would be unable to refer to any number of important figures, including Aristotle, Heidegger, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King. Furthermore, requiring moral purity of scientists presents particular obstacles to knowledge because if science can be morally polluted, we may be left ignorant about any area of inquiry that is researched by someone seen as morally suspect. 

Of course we would prefer that scientists were all decent human beings. But being a good person is not a prerequisite for factual accuracy. Life would be so much simpler if bad people were always wrong and good people were always right. But that’s not the way things work. 

With no factual inaccuracies to counter, one journalist took issue with the column’s “deep awfulness.” A former journalist renewed her objection to Stephens’s columns as “stupid and immoral” and insisted that the Pulitzer prize-winner is only in print “because he’s a white guy.” Someone else complained that the stereotype of Jewish intelligence “has been weaponized to harm Jews.”

It would, of course, be legitimate to take issue with any of the arguments Stephens makes in his column. Instead of grappling with his actual opinions, however, the backlash against the conservative columnist is comprised of guilt by association and an astonishing degree of misrepresentation, including claims that he believes precisely the opposite of what he wrote.

It may be that detractors’ desire to drag Stephens is so strong that they genuinely cannot process what he writes. For example, one hit piece referred to Stephens — who not only consistently criticizes President Trump, but is pro-immigration, advocates for welcoming refugees, and favors not merely gun control but a repeal of the Second Amendment — as “ultra-conservative.”

When faced with cognitive dissonance, everyone sometimes uses motivated reasoning. When something doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, we can selectively attend to those things that confirm our biases and discount or truly not perceive the things that disconfirm them. It isn't intentional and we don't know it's happening. This phenomenon is not unique to those on the political left. Many who thought President Clinton should have been removed from office for his impeachable offense are outraged that President Trump was subjected to impeachment for what is arguably a more serious transgression. 

It is possible that motivated reasoning is the driving force behind people referring to Stephens as a “climate change denier” despite his acknowledgment that the “warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.” And it is possible that this phenomenon is driving the latest effort to “cancel” the columnist — this time calling him a “eugenicist” who believes in “racial superiority” despite his explicit assertion of the opposite. 

“What makes Jews special is that they aren’t,” he contends in his allegedly eugenicist column. Stephens views the Jewish focus on education as a consequence of roughly two millennia of exile and persecution. An omnipresent and palpable history of never being completely accepted or entirely assured of safety creates an understanding that “everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible — knowledge most of all — is potentially everlasting.” 

Perhaps selective perception is the reason David Klion of Jewish Currents, a left-leaning publication, tweeted what seemed to be intended as a rebuttal but was consistent with Stephens's thesis. “It’s fair to say that Jews are better-educated than the typical American on avg,” Klion wrote. “There are straightforward sociological explanations for this that don’t depend on race science.”

But Stephens himself wrote that it’s not about IQ, that the discussion of intelligence “obscures more than it illuminates,” and that his “explanations for Jewish brilliance aren’t necessarily definitive. Nor are they exclusive to the Jews.” Anyone can (and many others do) develop the habits of mind necessary “to discuss and disagree,” to “question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd.” And when they are functioning as they should, American universities are where this can happen. “At its best, the American university can still be a place of relentless intellectual challenge rather than ideological conformity and social groupthink.” 

Too often, however, the university fails to live up to that promise. And that doesn’t bode well for Jews or other minorities who depend on freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. Nor does it serve students who should be learning the habits of mind necessary for liberal democracy to flourish and for a diverse population to thrive within it. 

“If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls,” Stephens darkly presaged, “it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.”

While the internet was losing its mind over a column about Jewish resilience, five Jews celebrating Chanukah were being brutally attacked by an antisemite with a machete. This was the tenth attack in seven days on Jewish people in New York. 

“At its best,” Stephens wrote in his column, “the West can honor the principle of racial, religious, and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity … The West, however, is not at its best.”

Neither are Bret Stephens’s critics. ♦

Update: In an editorial note at the top of the column in question, unnamed editors of the New York Times say that they "removed reference to the study from the column" because "after publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views." They acknowledge that "Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views," but they claim that "it was a mistake to cite it uncritically." They also removed all references to IQ.

Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.