It’s not everyday that a major American journalism institution picks up a partisan neocon to write opinion articles for them but it’s 2017, Donald Trump is president and nothing matters. The New York Times recently decided to embrace the nihilistic apathy that has engulfed American media and hire Bret Stephens to vomit contrarian takes onto their op-ed section every few days.
So it comes as a surprise to absolutely no one when on April 28th, 2017 Stephens’ first column went live and it proved to be a masterwork in disinformation and partisan propaganda. The piece was titled “Climate of Complete Certainty” and if you’re thinking “Oh, perhaps he’ll reinforce the importance of climate science and its recent findings?” you didn’t bother to Google “Bret Stephens” back when we first introduced you to him.
In this jaunty little 745 word (even we write articles with more actual information) ramble Stephens opens by retelling some of the anecdotal information about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign from the recent book “Shattered“. He does make it a point to refer to Clinton’s campaign as a “train wreck” because a good neocon never misses a chance to shit on the Clinton family. His stated reason for including the lifted anecdote is to illustrate how reliance upon the certainty of data and evidence can result in disastrous results and blind people to more obvious and apparent truths.
What Stephens doesn’t mention is that the book he’s conveniently plucking this tale from doesn’t agree with his core point and while it’s reasonable to say that the Clinton campaign did rely too much on Mook’s preference for models it’s hardly the primary reason they lost.
Yet Stephens did not begin this piece simply to drag up recent history and beat a dead campaign. He’s also about to perform some acrobatic stunts which he queues up with the following:
“With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to climate change.”
-Bret Stephens on pivots
No, Bret. We are not with you so far. What does campaign data and behavior analytics have to do with climate science? Nothing, that’s what. However Bret’s not interested in allowing something like “a reasonable argument or connection” stop him from swinging for the fences.
From here the column dives into a series of paragraphs that attempt to cast doubt on the scientific community’s certainty around the impacts of climate change, warn against driving public opinion and policy around climate change, and claims that the public has a right to be skeptical of an “overweening scientism”.
The insidious nature of Bret’s column though is that he routinely presents these claims in the Fox News style of being a moderating voice that’s simply raising reasonable inquiry. Stephens repeatedly takes time to note that he’s not denying climate change (he is) he’s just trying to help frame it better and examine all sides (he isn’t). These types of arguments are the default strategy around disinformation and distrust toward authorities.
By creating an atmosphere that acknowledges multiple sides (even when fictional) around an issue it makes it easy to permanently slow or stop progress on that issue by validating false doubts and holding them up as equal to true evidence.
Bret’s utterly transparent about this in the column’s final few paragraphs with some particularly telling lines:
“Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”
Here we see Bret attempting to degrade climate change policy by attaching negative assumptions to it like “abrupt” and “expensive” and then swing that into “ideological intentions” which has previously not been mentioned or the point of this piece. He then gives the conservative dog whistle a good blow by invoking the left’s “moral superiority” while also citing “deplorables” – a uniquely Donald Trump identifier.
The second to last paragraph may be even more damning as it’s where Bret really lays his neocon toolkit on the table.
“None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”
There is such an overwhelming amount of pandering and political machinery at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. Stephens begins by qualifying his statements by saying that he doesn’t outright deny climate change. He then positions himself freshly as a defender of “ordinary citizens” and their right to be “skeptical” of science. Finally, Bret concludes with an ominous but vague warning about “human wreckage” as a result of “scientific errors”.
This is shamelessly attempting to create distrust and fear in the world’s scientific community and encourage a populist type appeal to the wisdom of “ordinary citizens” where none exists. It’s laced with false virtue and vague threats that trend eerily back to the Trump campaign’s preferred speaking patterns. The strategy is simple: address people who don’t know any better; tell them not to trust experts or authorities; encourage their worst suspicions; validate a fictional viewpoint that ensures no common ground can be met. Bret Stephens has clearly studied and perfected this technique and it’s on full display in his introductory column.
The real question though is why his Breitbart style column is now rotting on the New York Times.