Bret Stephens, Mosquitos, and the Fantasies of Freedom

Bret Stephens, a 45-year-old white man who is currently a New York Times columnist, was recently called a “bedbug” by a faculty member at the George Washington University.  His bizarre reaction to this stimulus: to write both the George Washington University Provost and the Director of its School of Media and Public Affairs, to invite the GWU professor to his house to insult him, personally, in front of his wife and child, and to complain on national television that “there’s a there’s a bad history of being called uh of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”

As others have observed, this “bad history” (double entendre no doubt unintentional) goes back to 2013, in Stephens’ column for the Wall Street Journal. He was then not quite 40. There, in a column someone titled “The Boring Palestinians,” he wrote:

Only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this four-million-year-old mosquito?

Outrageous and pathetic, and, had Stephens stuck to the Wall Street Journal, the column would have remained undiscovered and unread. But as the Times saw fit to translate him to a higher post, I’m going to briefly point out the antisemitic roots of Stephens’ analogy, and then suggest, just as briefly, a few points about the problem of freedom, which I’m considering for my book-in-progress, The Irrational Animal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s chapter on “Race” in his 1856 English Traits argues that the particularly mixed nature of the English, comprising Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic blood, creates in them a freedom of character that has suited them for mastery of the world; what Emerson sees as particularly American, he implies, derives from just this mixture. It’s a telling moment in this history of racism: Emerson isn’t arguing for racial purity, but rather for something more foundational to the dream of racial purity, namely, the dream of natural superiority, and the freedom of culture and self-invention that comes with it.

By way of contrast, Emerson observes, predictably enough: “Race in the negro is of appalling importance”; “the Arabs of to-day are the Arabs of Pharaoh”; and “Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments.”

One race is free: free of compulsion, free of history, and, paradoxically enough, free of racial instincts. The others are constrained to be what they are, forever: trapped in amber.

Medieval European Christian thinkers would generally not have said such things about “Negroes” or “Arabs” (and I use generally advisedly: of course they did, sometimes, but not as often, or with the same political effects, as a nineteenth-century European Christian). They would have said such things about Jews, often. The classic treatment is Jeremy Cohen’s Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999), published when Bret Stephens was 26, by which point he was already working as assistant features editor at the Wall Street Journal. To read Cohen’s book in its entirety is to realize that medieval Christian intellectuals often portrayed Jews as unchanging, sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience to their Law, incapable of true thought. They were intellectual peasants, and peasants were, essentially, beasts. Twelfth-century Christian scholars, in speaking to Rabbis, as they sometimes did, imagined they were speaking directly to the “Old Testament.” One might imagine the same, mutatis mutandis, of scientists able to extract the DNA from the mosquito frozen in amber.

The trick is not, however, to insist that Palestinians are free political actors, and that Jews are rational too, like Christians, although I do recognize the occasional local political utility of such claims. The trick is to push back against the underlying claim of freedom. Stephens’ insistence that the Palestinians are mosquitos frozen in amber — and his implicit claim that Israeli Jews, in their attachment to the Holy Land, are somehow exercising their rational will — relies on an unexamined certainty that certain kinds of people have freedom, and that others do not. It relies on what were already outmoded ideas by the time young Stephens was doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in the early to mid 1990s: for ideology can’t be escaped; the claim to “reason” is never anything more solid than a self-justifying fantasy; and nothing is more delusional than the man who sees himself as free of the weight of history’s incubus, speaking truths that no one else dares to voice. Such a man is, in essence, a bedbug dreaming of being a human. Like us all, I suppose.