Almost Marx: Some thoughts on Bret Stephens joining The New York Times

Not being a reader of The Wall Street Journal, I wanted to become acquainted with Mr. Stephen’s career in journalism. Mr. Stephens has been hired by the New York Times as its newest columnist, who makes this declaration to his readers that might be considered a statement of Mr. Stephens’ ‘journalistic principals’ :

“What a columnist owes his readers isn’t a bid for their constant agreement. It’s independent judgment. Opinion journalism is still journalism, not agitprop. The elision of that distinction and the rise of malevolent propaganda outfits such as Breitbart News is one of the most baleful trends of modern life. Serious columnists must resist it.”

(Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/introducing-our-new-columnist.html)

An internet search led me to this 2006 interview by Brain Lamb of  Mr. Stephens on C-SPAN, I have provided a link to a transcript of the interview :

https://www.c-span.org/video/transcript/?id=8039

Video of the Stephens interview:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?194550-1/qa-bret-stephens

Some telling quotes from Brian Lamb’s 2006 interview of Mr. Stephens. Mr. Stephens believes his life has been dominated by ‘ total serendipity’.

LAMB: Give me four or five things that the Journal editorial board stands for?

STEPHENS: Well, I can – I’ll only give you two of them, free men and free markets, or I should say free people and free markets. The sense is we support democracy, human rights, the human rights agenda, the democratization agenda, and we believe that capitalism, free markets, the free movement of labor, services, capital, goods are good for the world. And those are the things that we advocate.

I think we sometimes surprise people who have a stereotype view of what the Wall Street Journal is about by being, for instance, a very pro-immigration paper for opposing the construction of this wall along the southern border, for being supporters of – for being supporters of NAFTA and other free trade agreements.

On Pope Benedict’s Islam Speech:

STEPHENS: Well, I basically liked the speech in the sense that it’s a very subtle, meticulously drafted, in some ways kind of cunning speech that went well beyond the headline criticism of not Islam necessarily but a element, a streak within Islam which is jihadist, which is violent, which finds too many expressions today, to talk about broader issues of the correspondence, the relationship of faith and reason.And he – I’m not a Catholic so I’m certainly no theologian – but he makes the argument that the New Testament really is a syncretic product, the product of a kind of broad conversation that took place between Athens and Jerusalem in the – before Christ and then in the early parts of this anno – you know, of this era. And that central to the Christian idea are John’s words “In the beginning there was the Word.” The word he uses is logos which means reason or argument. And that connects faith-based or faith-centric beliefs views of the world with the kind of rational but really what he means to say is philosophic traditions of Athens which were curious about the world, which believed in syncretic methodologies which (INAUDIBLE) questions.

 

And this means that the West or as Benedict is saying, the West really sustains itself in this kind of critical and constructive dialectic between belief and reason. This is what makes the West what it is in its best sense, on the one hand sort of tolerant pluralistic but also morally grounded.

 

Now when that equate – when that relationship is sundered, when there’s a sense that faith has nothing to do with reason or reason has nothing to do with faith Benedict would argue you run into really very serious problems. And his critique extends not just to an Islam which he interprets as having theological elements which sunder that connection but also trends within Catholicism, within Christianity and within modern secular enlightenment sort of thinking that do pretty much the same.

 

So what he ends up arriving at, I mean I’m really doing it no justice, people really should read the speech – but what he ends up arriving at is the saying that in order to have a really critical cultural dialog, particularly for a West – for the West – with Islam, you have to understand that faith and reason really do have to be able to have some kind of conversation. There really have to be some baseline beliefs that make that conversation possible.

 

And I think that was – that was really quite interesting and really well worth saying. And it’s a pity that it got almost entirely missed in the hysteria and controversy and I would say laziness on the part of many journalists who just wanted to say, OK, here the Pope has gone off the deep end again and we have another kind of Danish cartoon situation. I think the Pope was doing something really subtle and important and it deserved people’s attention.

 

On Stephens intellectual mentor Leon Kass:

STEPHENS: That was – that was long after I’d studied with him. He’s a medical doctor and Ph.D. I think in biochemistry and has always had an interest in medical ethics, bioethics.

 

But when I was at the University of Chicago I knew him as my professor who taught me Genesis, Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics, Plato’s Meno, Descartes, (INAUDIBLE), and I did my undergraduate thesis for him on two speeches, fairly obscure speeches by Abraham Lincoln on the relationship between democracy and technology, which is an issue that profoundly interests him. So it was a – it was a good marriage, so to speak, between the two of us.

 

Leon had a – was a contributor to Commentary and movie editor. And I had written kind of on a lark when I was a sophomore in college just as a thought exercise a book review. I had read a book on anthropology and I thought this is a really good book and I thought I wonder what it would like to actually write a review of it and sort of model it on reviews that I was reading in magazines. And I really did this for my own sake.

 

And I showed it to my father and he said, “Oh, this great. You should – you should submit it to Commentary.” And I did when I was – I must have been 19 years old. And they published it. They edited it but they published it and that was amazing.

 

And then I also had a summer internship at the London Times when I was in college. But my real journalism career, I mean if I can go back before then, began in boarding school
STEPHENS: That was – that was long after I’d studied with him. He’s a medical doctor and Ph.D. I think in biochemistry and has always had an interest in medical ethics, bioethics.
But when I was at the University of Chicago I knew him as my professor who taught me Genesis, Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics, Plato’s Meno, Descartes, (INAUDIBLE), and I did my undergraduate thesis for him on two speeches, fairly obscure speeches by Abraham Lincoln on the relationship between democracy and technology, which is an issue that profoundly interests him. So it was a – it was a good marriage, so to speak, between the two of us.
Leon had a – was a contributor to Commentary and movie editor. And I had written kind of on a lark when I was a sophomore in college just as a thought exercise a book review. I had read a book on anthropology and I thought this is a really good book and I thought I wonder what it would like to actually write a review of it and sort of model it on reviews that I was reading in magazines. And I really did this for my own sake.
And I showed it to my father and he said, “Oh, this great. You should – you should submit it to Commentary.” And I did when I was – I must have been 19 years old. And they published it. They edited it but they published it and that was amazing.
And then I also had a summer internship at the London Times when I was in college. But my real journalism career, I mean if I can go back before then, began in boarding school
On the War in Iraq:
STEPHENS: I think – first of all, I think that there was a sincerely belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And I think that if you sort of look at what people were saying before, the evidence that was available to everyone, the fact that President Clinton had acted against – in 1998 had launched missile strikes at Iraq against what he thought was a – were – was a WMD capability. I think there was first of all the sincerely conviction that Saddam had these things.
Second of all there was the belief that he was just the kind of guy who would – who would use them.
Thirdly, I do think that the democracy agenda really did start to become much more relevant in the days after September 11th when you said, you know, you have – you have here conditions which create a culture and whether Saddam Hussein was or was not – and, you know, apparently he was not actually connected to the bin Laden or the planners of this attack – he was, in a sense, part of, you know, a kind of element, symbol of this culture in which they swam and someone needed to take a very big swing at that.
And also, I think that there was – there was this point too, which is important today – Saddam had essentially been flouting the U.N. for a dozen years. He had been evading sanctions, the sanctions – the notion that you could have maintained a sanctions regime indefinitely I don’t think is plausible. And he was a kind of symbol of a certain kind of Arab radicalism which fed into the larger malfunction or dysfunction of the – of the Arab and Islamic world and to make an object lesson of him was not a useless exercise.
It would have – I wonder what, for instance, someone like John Kerry would be saying if Saddam Hussein were still in power. I bet he’d be saying, you know, this president – well I mean I don’t want to put words in Mr. Kerry’s mouth but I bet someone out there, some current critic of the war would be saying this president has allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in place while he brutalizes his people, almost certainly works on weapons of mass destruction programs, and plots against his neighbors.
I think, you know, if I can boil it all down to one point, the weapon of mass destruction in Iraq was Saddam Hussein. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Kurds. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Iranians, when it came – when it came to the Kuwaitis. He was a weapon of mass destruction when it came to the Palestinians, remember he used to fund Palestinian suicide bombers. He helped make the Middle East a deeply dysfunctional and unstable place and getting rid of him was important.
Now talking about what happened after the war is a different – is really a different subject, whether it could have been handled differently. Those are all legitimate criticisms. But the original decision to go to war I think was right.
Lamb asks Mr. Stephens his choice as ‘number one’ U.S. president. Lincoln is his choice. Mr. Stephens then opines, at the end of his Lincoln considerations, what seems a belief in the prevalence of  the intellectual/political poison of ‘Academic Relativism’, that leads, in Mr. Stephens view, to crimes like female circumcision as being the direct result of that ‘Relativism’ :
STEPHENS: Well, I mean for all the obvious reasons, schoolbook reasons, save the Union, emancipated the slaves, but I think it’s fought the Civil War, chose to fight the Civil War which is something that I think is relevant today because Douglas wouldn’t have fought the Civil War. Buchanan wasn’t going to fight the Civil War.
It’s more than that. Lincoln, of all our presidents, was in a sense a genuine – had a genuinely philosophic cast of mind. And you see that in all of his speeches beginning at a very early age when he was in his, I think late 20s or 30s he gave a speech to the Lyceum, a kind of school in Illinois. And you imagine – have to imagine sort of early 19th Century dusty hinterlands Illinois, you know, very far from the metropolises of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, even farther from London, or Paris, or Rome. But he gives a speech which is a reflection and sort of a – it’s a reflection on political psychology. And the essence of it – and I’m really, again, I do it no justice – but the essence of it is the generation of America’s founders found their psychological satisfaction in building something, in creating a republic. What would their sons find, their children, find their psychological satisfaction in? Well, perhaps in destroying things.
So the political problem becomes how do you maintain through the generations people who will find their deepest sort of their deepest political and psychological satisfactions in maintaining institutions rather than creating ones of their own. And that’s a really serious political and philosophical problem and it’s one that really is something that goes back to other thinkers before Lincoln.
And it’s incredible to see Lincoln talking about these issues in the 18 – I guess this would have been the 1830s, late 1830s, maybe early 1840s – and then developing as the crisis of the house divided unfolds all the way up to the Civil War. And people cite Lincoln, they’ll cite the Gettysburg Address, or the second inaugural address, or passages the better angles of our nature from the first inaugural, as evidence of Lincoln’s rhetorical mastery and the kind of poetic sense that infuses his prose.
But what is less appreciated, I think, is a kind of philosophical mastery of the issues, of questions like, you know, is the statement all men are created equal something that was an artifact of its time and of that generation or did it have – was it permanently true, and could it survive and be defended when there were huge economic interests that defended slavery as well as a kind of creeping cultural relativism that said well, it’s OK if, you know, not all people are really created equal and blacks are different, they’re inferior, you know, the philosophical defense of the south that you get from John Calhoun all the way on to – all the way on to I guess Robert E. Lee and Alexander Stephens and the rest of the Confederacy.
You know and that issue in a sense is really alive today. I mean because if you’re going to – you know there is a – there is a sense very prevalent in the academy that cultures are relative and things which we find abhorrent, practices that we find abhorrent, are OK if they’re practiced by other cultures with other value systems.
You know now that cultural relativism tends to break down when you actually get into the nitty-gritty of what nasty practices other cultures engage in. You know, female circumcision, are you OK with that, you know? The kind of rape culture in Pakistan, are you really OK with that or is that just a kind of what Pakistanis can do? Burning widows in – at least in 19th Century India, are you really OK with that?
When you actually sort of I think press people who speak about cultural relativism on the specifics they tend to get a little queasy. But it’s still out there. It’s still a part of our daily conversations.
And you sort of look at what Lincoln was dealing with – different subjects but really the same conversation.
Then this question from Lamb about Mr. Stephens editorship at The Jerusalem Post.
( Refer to the video for any missing portions or mistakes from this transcript). This answer also includes Stephens comments on his coverage of the Intifada.
LAMB: At what age did you become editor of the Jerusalem Post?
STEPHENS: When I was 28.
LAMB: Why did you do that and how long were you there?
STEPHENS: I was there for a little under three years. I – before that I had been in Europe working for the Wall Street Journal Europe out of Brussels. And kind of – again, I keep using the word serendipity – kind of serendipitously an editor of mine asked me to fill in for a colleague and start doing some of our editorial coverage on Israel-Palestine. And in the summer of 2000 after the breakdown of the Camp David talks but before the beginning of the Intifada Arafat was moving the idea of unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state. This is all ancient history but at the time it was – it was the topic.
So I – so my editor said well listen, can you go out there and really do a story about the Palestinians and what kind of state they would get, not territorially so much as politically and socially, if, in fact, Arafat declared one. So that was really my first time in Israel as a reporter. And I spent most of my time in, you know, Gaza, and Ramallah, and Hebron, talking to Palestinians really at kind of all the levels, you know, entrepreneurs, leaders of Hamas, political figures, political figures, you know, you sort of name it.
And I wrote a piece that really stressed the point that there was a kind of real dysfunction at the heart of Palestinian society and government that was being largely neglected by the focus on the peace process and the question of borders and land. And the piece – essentially the drift of the piece is this was not going anywhere good, that there was enormous internal violence within Palestinian society and that was probably going to flip out.
And that piece appeared I think on the 20th of September 2000 and a little more than a week later the Intifada began.
Now I kind of – I take pride in that particular article because even three days before the Intifada began I think no one was predicting that it would start or certainly that it would last as long as it did.
Anyway, after the Intifada began I started really going out to the area pretty frequently and so my total surprise was called up by the publisher of the Jerusalem Post, whom I’d never met and …
Lamb asks Stephens about U.S. politics of 2006:
LAMB: Why?
STEPHENS: Because I think that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid cut very unattractive political figures. I know neither of them so again, this impression is a surface one. But you get the sense when you’re listening to Pelosi that she – that she’s dreading the follow-up question because she doesn’t know. There is a kind of shrillness about her style of politics as well as – as well as Harry Reid’s’ and also a bit of a hollowness.
I remember some months ago now Pelosi came out with this contract for America’s security. So you know you take a look at this document and it’s kind of – it’s pablum, it’s, you know, increase benefits for veterans, and check ports, and everything you’ve sort of heard endlessly on cable TV and on talk shows. And it doesn’t come across as particularly informed and particularly serious.
And I do think the Democrats have to do a better job of getting seriously aboard the war on terror and saying – and my colleague Peg Munin (ph) said this very well. She said, “This is how we’re going to do it better.”
And you hear that occasionally from Democrats but what you really hear, I mean the kind of broad meta message is we’re going to get out of Iraq, and we’re going to sort of – it’s going to be a kind of come-home-America moment. And I think that’s not a good message for the Democrats to have.
You know I did one column on a book called “With All our Might” which is a compilation of essays put together by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. And Will is a card-carrying new Democrat, part of the movement that really helped create the Clintonism, if you will. And one of the points that he makes in our book – in his book is that, you know, our honor and our interests as Americans say that we have to stick it out in Iraq, we have to make this succeed, we can’t retreat in a moment of defeat and humiliation and ignominy because the consequences will be really very serious. And it’s a good thing to hear Democrats like Marshall say just that. I think that message has to get across more broadly.
One thing that I am heartened by is what seems to be Joe Lieberman’s strength in Connecticut. It displays a kind of I think healthy instinct among voters. But you want Democrats just like Joe Lieberman, certainly critics of the administration, certainly, you know, true to their Democratic values on social and economic policy, but who at least are willing to be a bit bipartisan beyond the water’s edge on the great issues of the day and to be the kind of Arthur Vandenberg’s – Vanderberg’s of their – of their era.
You know the Republicans during the Truman administration who said we’re not going to retreat into isolationism, we’re not going to do what we did after the First World War, we are going to participate in Harry Truman’s cold war, we’re going to participate in containment, we are going to support the institutions, the broad structures that carried America through the Cold War. And there has to be that kind of basis of bipartisan consensus and people who really walk the walk like Lieberman I think in order to succeed in the war on – in the war on terror.
I mean this book by Marshall that I mentioned, I could read it and I could say I disagree with this, I disagree with this, and this guy’s wrong, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but at least the basic spirit of it, the gist of it I think was absolutely right and absolutely important for the country and for the Democratic Party.
What conclusion can the reader draw from this interview with Mr. Stephens ? His puerile, indeed trivializing, comments/rationalizations about the Iraq War: ‘the weapon of mass destruction in Iraq was Saddam Hussein’ makes him the perfect compliment to the roster of New York Times pundits: Brooks, Friedman, Douthat and AEI President Arthur C. Brooks.
It seems patently obvious, from the cumulative evidence offered by Stephens himself, in this interview,  that Stephens is a Corporatist and a staunch Neo-Conservative ideologue. Who looked to rabid Zionist Joe Lieberman as the politician of promise in 2006: call it a function of Mr. Stephens’ advanced political/ideological proclivities. Recall that William F. Buckley Jr. sponsored Democrat Lieberman, as the answer to the corrosive Republican Liberalism of Lowell Weicker? 
Weicker’s tense relations with establishment Republicans may have roots in receiving strong support from President Nixon in his 1970 Senate bid, support repaid in the eyes of his critics by a vehement attack on the White House while serving on the Watergate Committee. Later, his relations with the Bush family soured, and Prescott Bush Jr. (the brother of the then Vice President) made a short-lived bid against Weicker to gain the 1982 Republican Senate nomination.[8] Finally, conservative animus spilled into overt support for Joe Lieberman in 1988, both from national sources such as National Review (publisher William F. Buckley Jr., and his brother, former New York Senator James Buckley, both endorsed and campaigned for Lieberman in 1988), but more importantly, from rank-and-file Connecticut Republicans irate with Weicker’s effort to make the local party more liberal and prevent the nomination of conservatives to state office, and the poor showing of Weicker-backed candidates in the 1986 elections. Weicker was defeated in the 1988 election by less than 1 percent of the vote, owing in large part to defections by Republicans to Lieberman.[citation needed]
On the question of the career and thought of Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Leon Kass, otherwise known as ‘the presidents philosopher’, referring to George W. Bush, see this Wikipedia entry:  
Almost Marx

 

 

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer.
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