On April 12, the New York Times’s vaunted editorial page got a new addition. Bret Stephens, formerly a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, will join Ross Douthat and David Brooks among the stable of in-house conservatives at the Gray Lady.
It’s a decision that infuriated many of the paper’s liberal readers. Stephens may be a vocal critic of Donald Trump, but his views are firmly right-wing. In an interview on Sunday, his first since joining the Times, Stephens defended his view that fears of climate change are overblown, his argument that the campus rape epidemic is an “imaginary enemy,” and his belief that Black Lives Matter is sending the wrong message.
“Look, at the risk of being incredibly politically incorrect, but I guess that’s my job — I think that all lives matter,” Stephens said. “Not least black lives.”
The Times’s editorial page is a bit like the Supreme Court: Its opinions set the framework for the national debate, and its members tend to stay there for decades. So Stephens’s beliefs are about to have a big impact on the national discourse — even as his new employer sells newspapers by marketing itself as a leading vanguard of the anti-Trump resistance.
A transcript of my interview with Stephens, edited only for length and clarity, follows. We spoke on Sunday after he delivered an address to the Jewish National Fund at a synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland.
Why Stephens is skeptical of the “college rape epidemic”
You wrote one column for the Wall Street Journal about the imaginary enemies of the liberal mind, and one of the ones you named was the “campus rape epidemic” —
Focus on the word “epidemic.”
You wrote, “If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation — Congo on the quad — why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school?”
My question to you is: Isn’t it necessary for women to attend these coeducational schools for their economic and educational advancement? Isn’t it possible that’s why they’d be there even if there’s a higher risk of sexual assault?
Of course it is.
But if sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places. Because that is in fact — or, that would be, in fact, the risk of being violently sexually assaulted.
I am not for one second denying the reality of campus rape, or sexual assault, or behavior of the sort you saw from that swimmer at Stanford — that’s inexcusable and should be punished.
I’m taking issue with the claim that there is an epidemic based on statistics that, when looked at carefully, seem to have a very slim basis in reality. So what you’re transforming is horrendous, deplorable incidents into an epidemic — and that’s not altogether supported by reliable data.
That’s the point I was making. I write my columns pretty carefully. I wrote about 550 columns for the Wall Street Journal, so I don’t know if I can stand behind every last jot and tittle of what I wrote.
Another example I took issue with is the idea that one in seven Americans are hungry. That’s not true. It’s not. It’s a problem because it’s not true.
Does this mean there aren’t hungry Americans? No. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about hunger in America? No. But when you have a campaign you see on subway billboards and elsewhere saying one in seven Americans is hungry, that’s false.
That seems a little removed from the question I had, which was: Aren’t women’s incentives to go to college not predicated only the risk of sexual assault, and that to suggest otherwise—
Right, they should go to institutions of higher learning. But I guess my point is this: The statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted on college campuses is a highly dubious statistic.
If it were a true statistic, it would probably create a very different environment. My sister went to Mount Holyoke. I don’t think single-sex education has been thriving in recent years, but there would be more of a movement to single-sex education if in fact this epidemic were as epidemic as that statistic suggests.
You spoke in your speech this morning about Israel. Don’t Jews continue to live in Israel — despite the daily danger of a violent terrorist attack — precisely because of higher ideals and aspirations that call them there?
Yes, but what I would say is, first of all, that one in five Jews isn’t being murdered. One in, I don’t know, let’s say one-in-200,000 Israelis actually runs a real risk of being a victim [of a terrorist attack].
I’m not making an argument against taking every single measure to prevent sexual assault on campus. What I am saying is that there [is] a collection of statistics which are essentially alarmist and statistically not well-founded in facts. That’s my point. It’s not to say you shouldn’t go to campus. ...
I think there’s a dishonesty in these statistics, because you’re picking a misleading figure — you’re choosing, for instance, to characterize all unwanted touching as sexual assault, which clearly it isn’t. There are a variety of gradations between an unwanted kiss and a rape.
You say, “This is the statistic: One in five women face sexual assault on college campuses,” and it gains currency. If that were true, I’d suspect intelligent women would say, “I’m not going to put myself in anything like this risk.”
Stephens: I am not a climate denier
This seems to be similar to what you’ve said on climate change — that there’s a set of what you think are dubious statistics leading to “alarmist rhetoric.”
A guy I know just had a baby and he’s a big global warming, climate change activist. If he thinks in 20 years we’ll be heading toward unsustainable climates and there will be tens of millions of people being displaced, presumably including himself, at the most apocalyptic level, then presumably he wouldn’t be having children.
It contradicts the belief that we are heading ineluctably for an apocalyptic environmental future. Since 1880 — and I’d have to look it up — but according to the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], we’ve had about 1.7 degrees of rising temperatures.
The best scientific evidence suggests temperatures are rising, and the best scientific evidence suggests man-made anthropogenic carbon emissions have some substantial thing to do with that.
However, does that mean the trend will continue forever? We don’t know. Does this mean we will reach the upper bounds of what climate scientists fear? We aren’t sure. There are uncertainties in all of this.
If I say, “Hey, there are uncertainties about forecasting the future,” that ought to be — in any other context — a statement of common sense. But now if you say there are uncertainties, you are akin to what’s called “a denier.”
I think that term is incredibly ugly, because it almost explicitly connects doubts about the severity of climate change — not the reality of it — to doubts about the existence of the Holocaust.
If that’s your starting premise, does that mean you think there’s a great danger in overreacting to the danger it poses?
Well, yes. The best argument made on behalf of climate mitigation strategies is even if there’s a small chance your house catches fire, you take out insurance. That’s perfectly sensible. And you can make a perfectly sensible argument that even if we’re not 100 percent sure we’re facing a catastrophic climate future, we should take out a host of insurance policies to mitigate carbon emissions.
But then the intelligent question is: “How much are you paying for insurance?”
Are you saying we’re currently paying too much?
I’m saying that’s a question we ought to be raising. By the way, there are a whole host of environmental problems. We have limited resources. I am simply making statements of fact.
One environmental problem is malnutrition due to lack of micronutrients in the developing world. We have to devote some sets of resources to that. But if you’re going to say our pot as the wealthy world for dealing with environmental crises is $1 trillion a year, how much should go to climate mitigation strategies as opposed to providing micronutrients or dealing with malaria or HIV/AIDS?
And then you have to start making choices. You can’t just say, “Everything is connected to the climate; therefore the only way of dealing with it is devoting all of our resources to it.”
So let’s get away from the hypotheticals. Within the American government as it currently exists, are we spending enough on climate mitigation? I don’t think anyone in the environmental movement would argue that the entire federal bureaucracy should be devoted exclusively to this problem. Sounds like a straw man.
But here, I guess, is a question: When you have a dire prognosis about what might happen, you then take steps that you then come to regret. My wife is German, so I know something about German energy policy. About 15 years ago, Germany opted to have an energy revolution where 30 percent of their energy needs would be met by wind and solar — most climate scientists would say, “That’s a great policy; they’re really leading the way.”
But it turned out that, in Germany, the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And, even in Germany, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. However, you need power all of the time; because you’re spending tremendous amounts on wind and solar subsidies, you need an alternative base-line.
I’m just giving you an example. What is their solution to having a base supply? Coal. So now Germany is dirtier in terms of carbon emissions than it was at the beginning of this.
I feel like some of the statements that have been made about the comments I have made are almost willful misreading things I have written. God forbid I should ever suggest rape and sexual assault are not serious subjects. I grew up in Mexico City; I know what it’s like to grow up in a filthy, polluted air space.
I’m saying let’s be careful with our terms, and genuinely truthful, and not necessarily alarmist. When we offer misleading statements in service of what appears to be a higher virtue, or higher goal, we run the risk of making very bad policy choices.
“The disease of the Arab mind”
That’s what the column said. The column was about the refusal of an Egyptian judoka during last summer’s Olympics to shake the hand of an Israeli athlete.
Couldn’t that have been due to his anti-Israel animus rather than anti-Semitism?
I used it as an occasion to talk about anti-Semitism in the Arab world. By any measure, the Arab world is the most anti-Semitic part in the world. If you want to talk about denialism, the failure of many people — including, I’m afraid, many of those in my profession — to point out the ubiquity of anti-Semitism in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, you name it, both state-sponsored and private, is a real form of denialism.
You’ve had a history of relentless anti-Semitism — which I call a disease because the peoples it has hurt the most aren’t the victims of anti-Semitism but the perpetrators of anti-Semitism.
The Arab world expelled about 900,000 Jews after 1948. I would argue the countries that suffered the most from that expulsion were Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and so on — not only because they were deprived of a valuable human resource, but [because] they were deprived of the very idea of diversity, ethnic and religious.
Max Fisher, a new colleague of yours at the New York Times [and former Vox editor], wrote to you on Twitter, “I guess we’ll have to disagree as to whether it’s acceptable or correct to call an entire racial group ‘pathologically diseased.’”
If I said “the pathologies of the German mind in the 1930s,” would that mean I meant to indict every single German? No.
It just struck me as a very tendentious reading of the column. I am by not any means indicting a whole race. The word mind itself — do you know that you don’t have a mind? It is a figure of speech, right? So I was using it as a figure of speech — which, by the way, I can find Arab authors talking about “the pathologies of the Arab mind.”
The whole thing struck me as a made-up controversy, which in an attempt to indict me as a racist — which I most certainly am not — wound up eliding and evading the rather important subject I was trying to address, which is the extraordinarily prevalent anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world.
That’s a pity. If I could have gone back and said some other word, maybe — but I don’t think, unless you are actively and willfully trying to twist what I said into something I didn’t mean, that you can read that as in any sense a racist comment or not a fair comment to appear in a major publication.
Nine out of 10 of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world, according to various surveys, are Arab countries. That’s a problem. How often have I read this story in major news media? Or heard, as you suggested, that it’s not anti-Semitism but anti-Israelism? Or some other excuse for it?
If you had the levels of racism present today in Maryland as you have anti-Semitism prevalent today in, shall we say, Jordan, you certainly as a young journalist would be mindful of it.
Well, to that point, you’ve also said the arguments of Black Lives Matter are part of the liberal imagination.
I think Black Lives Matter has some really thuggish elements in it. Look — at the risk of being incredibly politically incorrect, but I guess that’s my job — I think that all lives matter. Not least black lives.
I think there is a bullying quality present in, for instance, efforts to kick speakers off of campuses at Middlebury and Claremont McKenna.
I think there are instances of problematic policing. But I would agree with [Manhattan Institute scholar] Heather Mac Donald that the police are vital to the preservation of black lives, and I agree with FBI Director James Comey that there’s been something of a “Ferguson effect” — in which the dramatic increase in murders is connected with a culture of [resistance to police].
Do you think there’s a persistent problem with systemic racial policing of black communities in American police departments?
Let’s think about what we mean by “systemic.” Do I think police chiefs, many of which are African-American or Hispanic, wake up and say, “Let’s systemically oppress African-American communities?” No, I don’t. Are there instances in which that happens? I’m sure there are.
But anecdote is not data. And that’s an issue. And you also have an issue where a lot of criminality tragically occurs in African-American communities. And police go to where criminality occurs.