It’s been a week since David Karpf first went viral, but he’s hoping his time in the culture war spotlight will soon come to an end. “You can’t really go bigger than calling me a Nazi in the New York Times,” he laughs. “That has to be the last move.”
After posting a little-noticed tweet comparing New York Times columnist Bret Stephens to a metaphorical bedbug, Stephens sent a stern email to Karpf, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, cc’ing the university’s provost. In response, Karpf decided to publicly post screenshots of the exchange, and the internet exploded, taking Stephens to task for overreacting to an innocuous joke. Since then, the columnist has deleted his Twitter account, made rounds on several talk shows to discuss the incident, and included a not-so-subtle jab at Karpf — who is Jewish — in his Friday Times column on Nazi propaganda. In the latest round of this back-and-forth, Karpf answered with an article of his own in Esquire.
While on one level this is a story about a bruised ego and high-stakes rhetorical gamesmanship, Karpf says there is also a valuable lesson concerning climate change. With roots in the climate movement — including a stint on the Sierra Club’s board of directors — Karpf’s teaching often includes lessons learned from his time working on climate issues. And when it comes to Stephens — whose hiring was protested by dozens of climate scientists, and who has notoriously published several factually questionable pieces on climate climate in the Times since his first column — Karpf has a lot to say.
Nexus Media caught up with him this week to chat about why “polite” climate deniers like Stephens are so harmful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What’s this week been like for you?
There’s a lot that has made [my experience] different from what [going viral] is normally like. The only trolls that I’ve gotten have been, like, emeritus professors and baby boomers. They send me emails saying, ‘That was a very offensive word you used, and you should apologize, young man.’ That’s not what going viral in 2019 is like.
Going viral in 2019 — particularly if you’re not a white guy, but really even usually for a white guy — means getting death threats. It means having to worry about getting doxxed. None of that’s been there [for me].
Getting called a Nazi in the New York Times isn’t fun. That was shocking. But besides that, it has been fun in a way that it’s really not supposed to be, and that is, I think, not representative of how this would go for everyone else.
I was trying to explain what happened to my dad. It’s sometimes difficult to explain why Stephens is so problematic, especially to people who aren’t on Twitter. I’ll say things like, ‘He has really dangerous ideas, especially on immigration and climate change.’ And my dad says something like, ‘Oh, he won a Pulitzer, and he’s in the New York Times, and he seems to be advocating the middle ground.’ What’s so bad about having a debate with the other side?
Especially with climate change — what would you say to someone who might say, yeah, he’s annoying, but doesn’t he have a point in all of this?
I would take a very long sigh and possibly a walk around the block before answering that.
So [Stephens’s] first column for the Times was on climate change, and it was sort of climate denial for polite people. He was saying that the issue is that climate scientists are just too sure of themselves, and that’s offensive to us ‘reasonable’ people who are just not sure of the science. So please, I don’t know, be more polite about the potential apocalypse.
David Roberts and a bunch of other people gave that first column the treatment that it deserved, pointing out both where it was factually wrong and where it was stylistically mendacious. Brett Stephens’s niche is being the moderate conservative concern troll for liberal readers.
Why is it so harmful at this point in history to have someone with Stephens’s viewpoints at a place like the Times?
I’m an old climate activist. I was involved in student environmentalism in the 1990s when we knew that climate was a deep threat, and we had no handle on how to deal with it. Back around 10, 15 years ago, I was noticing that we had finally moved beyond the old argument about whether the science was sure or not. We’d moved on to, okay, now that we’ve acknowledged that this is a crisis, let’s talk about what we do about it.
And then I watched it backslide as conservative elites decided, no, no, let’s just muddy the waters. Let’s try to convince people that science itself is partisan. You’re back to an argument about who knows what’s real and what isn’t real. That’s what makes it impossible to have the conversation that we needed to have 10 years ago, and I now fear it’s almost too late to have, which is how to lessen the impact of his impending crisis.
In that context, Stephens’s sort of tut-tutting about, oh, you’re so sure of yourselves, why don’t we wait until it’s even more too late before we do anything — that’s dangerous and irresponsible. When you put that in the hands of somebody who is dressing it up in the language of someone who’s trying to be objective and better than you, it’s obnoxious.
Do you see anything that gives you hope around the national conversation on climate?
The Sunrise Movement gives me a glimmer of hope. But it’s only a glimmer.
It’s been very weird suddenly being in the news for a tweet. People who have read my books and invited me to be on panels — the running joke about me is that if you let me talk long enough, I’m eventually going to depress you enough that you’re gonna want a drink. I’m generally a total downer at parties.
I see what the Sunrise Movement is doing, and I feel like, you know, maybe there’s a five or ten percent chance that this will work. That still means it probably won’t work. But, you know, before that I was thinking there’s, like, a 0.01 percent chance that we have any hope.
What do you hope people take away from this episode?
I hope that people take away an understanding of people who not only have institutional privilege but think that they deserve that institutional privilege — that they come to understand some of those people’s weaknesses.
Bret Stephens’s weakness throughout all of this is that it seems like he genuinely believes that by virtue of his position at the New York Times, people below him shouldn’t be allowed to criticize him. And the entire Internet took a look at this back-and-forth and decided that he was wrong. We’ve gotten to watch for a week as he has been totally unable to handle that tension between his view of himself and his view of what he deserves by virtue of his station, and what everyone else thinks.
If we’re actually going to make any of the changes that need to be made in society, we’re going to need to unsettle a set of people who are so comfortable in their privilege that they are going to weaponize it in order to push against anyone who they think misbehaves.
And, I mean, this fight has been about nothing. It’s hilarious because it’s really about nothing. And it’s nice to finally have a news cycle about nothing.
In my grad classes, I use Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s got some great passages about the power of humor and the power of ridicule. It’s a nice reminder that when you’re going up against comfortable people who are so full of their own institutional privilege, ridicule can still be tremendously effective.
Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her @mollytaft.