Bret Stephens, the Gray Lady, and ‘The Great Awokening’

A spike in the level of outrage on Twitter is by no means a rare event. Regular users are accustomed to glancing over at the “Trending” tab to see who or what has raised people’s hackles that particular day. However, it is not so common for a spike of outrage to be generated by something published in America’s newspaper of record, still less that one should prompt the editors of said newspaper to issue a major correction and an “editor’s note.”

Many will recall that Twitter went into meltdown on June 3, after the New York Times published a bellicose op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) titled “Send In the Troops.” But this is not what I have in mind. The event to which I’m referring took place at the end of last year, and although it is but one squall in a vast and tempestuous sea of online indignation, I believe it offers some valuable insights into cultural trends in the English-speaking world.

The kerfuffle began when Bret Stephens—whose journalistic career, even before the event in question, had not been completely divorced from controversy—published a column titled “The Secrets of Jewish Genius.” In the column, Stephens argued that the reason Jews have made such outsized scientific and cultural contributions is not that they are smarter than other groups, but rather that they have benefited—over the course of their history—from certain beliefs, practices and traditions. These would include being asked “not only to observe and obey but also to discuss and disagree” and understanding that “everything that is intangible—knowledge most of all—is potentially everlasting.” In fact, the column’s original subheading was “It’s not about having high I.Q.s.” (Stephens even went so far as to say “what makes Jews special is that they aren’t,” suggesting that explanatory coherence was not his primary concern.)

Despite clearing and repeatedly stating his disagreement with the hypothesis that exceptional Jewish achievement owes to high average IQ, however, Stephens made the mistake of “uncritically” citing an academic paper which had advanced that hypothesis. (Where certain beliefs are concerned, it is not enough simply to disagree. You must, to quote Galileo’s recantation, “abjure, curse and detest” those beliefs.) As a matter of fact, the terrain Stephens had entered was even more treacherous than that. The paper he cited not only attributed exceptional Jewish achievement to high average IQ, but also argued that Jews—or more specifically, Ashkenazi Jews—have been evolutionarily selected to have high IQs. (It claimed, in other words, that their high average IQ is genetic.) And if that weren’t enough, one of the paper’s authors has been accused of racism. 

Once Stephens’s article had been tweeted out by the New York Times opinion page account, it didn’t take long for the “ratio” to ensue. 

As it stands, the original tweet has 5,200 comments and only 2,300 likes. Some of the most popular replies include one with 5,100 likes asserting that Stephens’s reasoning “relies on the discredited pseudoscience of eugenics,” and another with 2,000 likes describing the column as “horrifyingly racist and unscientific.” 

Unfortunately for Stephens, this was just the start. A tweet by one of his colleagues that eventually garnered more than 28,000 likes stated, “Speaking as both an Ashkenazi Jew and a NYT contributor, I don’t think eugenicists should be op-ed columnists.” (The tweet has since been deleted.) And a tweet sent by a journalist with over 1 million followers noted that it would be “remiss not to comment on [sic] deep awfulness of the Bret Stephens column.” (There were, of course, hundreds of other tweets excoriating Stephens, and calling for him to be fired.) 

In a particularly absurd turn, the Guardian soon published an article with the headline, “New York Times columnist accused of eugenics over piece on Jewish intelligence” (emphasis added). The opening sentence of this article read, “The rightwing New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has sparked furious controversy online for a column praising Ashkenazi Jews for their scientific accomplishments, which critics say amounts to embracing eugenics.” (I suppose that if “critics” say something, it must be worth reporting.) The article’s author apparently didn’t feel the need to question whether it might be unreasonable to equate “praising Ashkenazi Jews for their scientific accomplishments” with “embracing eugenics.” The two are, after all, completely different things.

By afternoon the next day, a correction had been issued, and a contrite “Editor’s Note” had been attached to Stephens’s column. Referring to the academic paper he had cited, the note declared, “After publication, Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views.” 

Despite the fact that Stephens had already expressed disagreement with one of the paper’s main contentions, the editor’s note insisted that “Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views,” and went on to say that “it was a mistake to cite it uncritically.” All sentences referring to the paper had been purged from the column, and the statement, “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s” had been replaced with the much vaguer, “Aside from perennial nature-or-nurture questions.” Naturally, the tweet from the New York Times opinion’s account informing readers about the correction was, again, subjected to a hefty ratio (4,200 comments versus 1,500 likes). It noted that Bret Stephens’s column “has been edited to remove a reference to a paper widely disputed as advancing a racist hypothesis.” 

For some people, however, these concerted attempts at appeasement were insufficient. Forbes soon published an article with the headline, “Don’t Be Fooled By the NY Times Correction, Bret Stephens’ Column Is Still Racist.” The author observed that “the remaining article is still racist to the core,” even though deleting the citation to the putatively racist paper “might create an illusion of removing the racism.” Another unsympathetic follow-up piece, titled “The Secrets of Bret Stephens’ Racism” was published in Jewish Boston. And yet another, titled “The Secrets of NYT Racism,” was published in Fair Observer. One of the more frequent complaints among those dissatisfied with the editorial response was that Stephens’ original column had stated, in reference to the claim that Ashkenazi Jews score higher on IQ tests, that “it’s true,” and he had not explicitly denied that their advantage could be genetic (which was the argument of the controversial paper he had cited).  

Not all the follow-up articles were quite so scathing, however. In a broadly sympathetic piece titled “Why New York Times Readers Love to Hate Bret Stephens,” the psychologist Pamela Paresky invoked the concept of moral pollution to explain why Stephens’ ill-fated decision to cite the controversial paper had proved so invidious. She noted that 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.” 

And in a fairly neutral piece over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias noted that “if you accept the validity of modern IQ metrics at all . . . then Ashkenazi Jews having moderately higher average IQs is probably a fully adequate explanation for winning so many Nobel Prizes.” Some months later, Pamela Paresky, Jonathan Haidt, Nadine Strossen, and Steven Pinker wrote an article for Politico that heavily criticized the Times’ handling of the incident.

In summary, Bret Stephens wrote a column arguing that Jews’ outsized intellectual accomplishments are explained not by their high IQ scores but by a suite of cultural habits passed down through history. There was then a monumental backlash in which prominent journalists and other commentators called for him to be fired, while denouncing him as a “racist” and a “eugenicist.”  Why did Stephens’ column provoke such an incandescent reaction? And what broader lessons can be drawn from the incident? I will attempt to answer these questions in the remainder of the essay.  

The first reason why Stephens’ column provoked so much anger is quite straightforward, namely that Stephens has acquired many detractors over a career spent courting controversy, and they saw it as an excellent opportunity to sling some mud at him. (One might add that his timing could have been better—the column was published just three days after Christmas.)

The second and more interesting reason is that he picked the wrong side in what journalist Steve Sailer has called “the war on noticing.” Although Stephens ultimately rejected the hypothesis that exceptional Jewish achievement owes to high average IQ, he did notice that Jews have made a disproportionate number of important contributions, and he did—at least momentarily—entertain the possibility that high average IQ might provide an explanation. In doing so, Stephens fell afoul of what Bo Winegard has called “cosmic egalitarianism,” namely the belief that “all demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits.”

The third and most obvious reason, of course, is that he cited a paper co-authored by someone who has been accused of racism. And as Pamela Paresky pointed out, he thereby incriminated himself via the process of moral pollution. 

Given that many people deem any contravention of cosmic egalitarianism to be out-and-out racism, you can see why Stephens ended up getting called “racist” (or “horrifyingly racist” as one commentator put it). But where did the charge that he was a “eugenicist” come from? After all, neither his column nor the controversial paper he cited mentioned eugenics, and one might assume that in order to be labelled a “eugenicist” you would actually have to have said something about it. 

So far as I can tell, there were three main routes by which Stephens’ detractors reached the conclusion that he was a “eugenicist.” The first is that, in some people’s eyes, there is a straightforward logical path from discussing the average IQ scores of different groups to believing that some of those groups are inferior and shouldn’t be allowed to breed. The second is that the original name of the journal in which the controversial paper appeared was The Eugenics Review. The third is that the author who has been accused of racism has also been accused of supporting eugenics. (And why wouldn’t you assume that someone who cites a paper holds all the views that have been attributed to one of the authors of that paper?)

The first major lesson, then, is that the apportionment of guilt-by-association is alive and well among the readership of America’s newspaper of record. (If you write an article that cites a paper that was published in a journal whose original name had the word “eugenics” in it, then you are a “eugenicist.”) Not only that, but the editors of America’s newspaper of record are keen to show that they, too, recognize guilt-by-association as a valid mode of reasoning. 

The second major lesson is that denunciations based on guilt-by-association, or at least those meted out by New York Times readers, are selective and inconsistent. A Theory of Justice by the egalitarian philosopher John Rawls is the second-most cited Anglophone philosophy book published since World War II. Unsurprisingly, given its immense influence and avowedly liberal message, the book is still frequently mentioned in the pages of the New York Times. The fact is, however, that Rawls expresses support for eugenics in Section 17 of the book—writing, “society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects.” Yet there has been no backlash against that book being cited “uncritically.” 

The Descent of Man is the second major work by Charles Darwin, which introduced his now widely accepted theory of sexual selection. Again, the book is still frequently mentioned in the pages of the Times, mainly in relation to topics such as religion and sexual attraction. Yet in Chapter 7 Darwin refers to “the races of man,” and notes that their “mental characteristics” are “very distinct.” Despite this, there have been no campaigns to have uncritical citations of his book excised from the newspaper. Interestingly, in a 2009 letter to the editor, one reader criticized an earlier Times article which had stated, wrongly in his view, that the one thing “you could not read into Darwin’s writings was racism.” The reader even quoted the passage from which the three snippets above were taken. However, the authors of subsequent articles citing The Descent of Man have not felt the need to include a ritual denouncement of this or other passages from Darwin’s book. Nor have readers admonished them for not doing so.

Such an apparent double standard may come down to nothing more than historical amnesia. It can be a full-time job just keeping track of all the people who cite racists and eugenicists uncritically in their work, so one might expect a few of them to slip through the net. An alternative explanation would be that the exigencies of imputing guilt-by-association are altogether more complicated. It is possible that one may only reasonably call someone a “eugenicist” once several conditions have been fulfilled: the suspected individual applied the concept of averaging to IQ test score data, he cited a paper published in a journal whose original name contained an incriminating word, and he cited a paper co-authored by someone to whom despicable views have been attributed. 

The third major lesson is that coverage of academic papers threatening cosmic egalitarianism seems to have shifted somewhat over the last 15 years. 

The paper Stephens cited—the one that had New York Times readers up in arms—received a much less frosty reception when it was first published in 2005. It was reviewed not only in the Gray Lady herself, but also in the Economist, New Republic and later in Commentary, as well as several other outlets. (The Times’ write-up was penned by their former science correspondent Nicholas Wade, who has since been defenestrated for writing a book about human evolution and the concept of race.)

While all of these articles recognized that the paper’s argument was far from proven, none described it as a “racist hypothesis” (the phrase used by the New York Times Opinion’s Twitter account), and none—so far as I’m aware—was greeted with furious denunciations from apoplectic readers. It is also worth noting that the very same hypothesis was mentioned by the acclaimed anthropologist Jared Diamond in a 1994 article that appeared in the journal Nature

Why the different reception then, as opposed to now? The most obvious culprit is social media. (Twitter, after all, wasn’t founded until 2006.) Another consideration is that most of the statements that led the controversial paper’s author to be accused of racism were made after, rather than before, 2005. But there might be slightly more to it than that. 

Indeed, the whole incident can be seen as part of a wider cultural trend that has emerged in the English-speaking world over the past ten years. This trend, which has become known as “The Great Awokening,” is characterized by hypersensitivity to any speech that could be seen as harmful to the interests of certain demographic groups or that could be seen as detrimental to the goal of reducing disparities between these and other groups. Individuals who are found to have uttered or written such speech may be subject to what one commentator has described as “torrential verbal abuse.” The abuse tends to increase in proportion to factors such as the position of the perpetrator in multi-dimensional demographic-privilege space, the prominence of his or her “platform,” and the number of times “IQ” or “psychometric intelligence” is mentioned. In the Stephens case, his political views weighed heavily against him, he was writing in an outlet that a large number of people actually read, and he said “it’s true” that members of a particular ethnic group tend to score high on IQ tests. 

His odds, in other words, weren’t good.

One metric that has been used to chart the emergence of “The Great Awokening” is the frequency of mentions of “woke” terminology in U.S. news media. As the researchers David Rozado and Zach Goldberg have shown, the frequency with which terms such as “racist,” “white privilege,” “people of color,” and “social justice” are used in liberal media outlets has increased dramatically since the early 2010s. And the New York Times is no exception. In fact, it appears to be one of the trailblazers, along with the Washington Post and NPR. The Times’ “awokening” over the last 10 years might help to explain why the editors decided, following a storm of outrage on Twitter, to expunge a paper that its science correspondent had made the subject of a full-length article back in 2005.

The Bret Stephens affair may seem trivial. It was over in a matter of days, and the material costs to those involved were fairly low. (Stephens kept his job, and the Times—to my knowledge—did not suffer any major loss of readership.) But it offers a powerful illustration of just how much public discourse has changed in the era of social media and “The Great Awokening.” An individual wrote a column about exceptional Jewish achievement which argued, “It’s not about having high IQs.” For this, he stood accused of being a “racist” and a “eugenicist.” What’s more, the editors of America’s leading national newspaper conceded that guilt-by-association is a valid way of criticizing one’s opponents. I will conclude with a small piece of advice for anyone preparing a submission to the New York Times: do perform a thorough background check on each and every person you intend to cite.

About Noah Carl

Noah Carl is a former Research Fellow at University of Cambridge.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

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