Bret Stephens wrote a racist column. He got very angry about people saying so—angry enough to write a second column denouncing the reaction to the first column, in a characteristically Bret Stephensian combination of laziness and resentment. “As the retweets piled up into the thousands, I felt like I had been cast in the role of Emmanuel Goldstein in some digital version of Orwell’s ‘Two Minutes Hate,'” he wrote, in the second column, published online by the New York Times on the Fourth of July.
In case Big Brother wasn’t a strong enough reference point, Stephens also wrote that people who read his original column as racist are “Jacobins,” running wild in a world in which “corporate and academic America has capitulated to Woke culture.” These out-of-control progressives, he wrote, “would embrace violence if circumstances allowed.”
Who knows? Maybe the left will start locking undesirables in freezing cold cages and denying them medical care. Once you start demonizing people, anything is possible.
Stephens felt personally demonized because, in his estimation, people had willfully misread what he wrote in the first column. Reacting to the Democratic presidential candidates’ performances in the first pair of debates, he had written this:
They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.
Complaining about rule-breaking, Spanish-speaking non-citizens, at a time when people trying to migrate from Latin America are dying in our government-run prison camps, might have seemed offensive to some readers. But what many of Stephens’ critics missed was that this was not supposed to be Bret Stephens expressing his own personal feelings about Spanish speakers (or holders of college debts), but what he believed “ordinary people” would think about the debates, and about a Democratic Party “that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.”
This was why Stephens, in his follow-up column, described the reaction as “preposterous” and (recycling his own tweet) “shameful if it weren’t so stupid.” But what Bret Stephens, in turn, missed, and kept on missing, and will insist on keeping on missing, was that nevertheless, taken on his own terms, his column was racist. True, it was also so badly written that a lot of readers failed to recognize the precise racist rhetorical device with which Stephens was expressing his racist politics, but the rhetorical device and the politics were both racist.
The device he used was probably the most effective and widespread form of racist argument in American politics. It is the same one his colleague Ross Douthat employed to argue that Democrats should compromise with white nationalists about excluding immigrants, or that David Frum used in the Atlantic to argue that unless we adopt ethnofascist policies, the ethnofascists will win, or that Mark Lilla got himself a book deal out of by warning that “identity politics” had driven voters (meaning: white-identified voters) to Trump. It is the argument that, while the writers themselves are of course not racist, they have a duty to warn antiracists that the people—Stephens’ “ordinary people”—are fed up with antiracism, and that further antiracist words or action will rouse their wrath.
It is unkind but crucial to note here that none of these people, who speak so confidently about the feelings of the silent majority of ordinary folks, have the slightest connection to anything any person would recognize as Regular America. They are the most effete of the effete, nurtured and trained in elite institutions, who’ve spent their lives pitching their arguments to the pundit class. In that work, in the service of right-wing politics, they have learned that invoking the will and the resentments of the masses is a good way to bully people on their left.
So Bret Stephens—a globetrotting silver-spoon baby, who has never even had to learn to write in a way that would convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with him—warned the Democratic presidential field that speaking Spanish “makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country.” As he tweeted between the first and second columns, Stephens himself speaks Spanish. He thought this was a rebuttal to his critics, unfairly accusing him of xenophobia when he was in fact a model citizen of the world.
All it really did was confirm his cynicism: “They speak Spanish. We don’t.” Both the “they” and the “we” were false, the elite anti-elitist’s attempt to avoid responsibility for who he is and what he believes. If you imagine what racists would want, and you argue that other people need to be sensitive to those desires, you’re arguing for racism.