Bret Stephens Tried to Teach Me How the World Works Because I Called Him Remarkably Dumb

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It is not unreasonable for people to get mad at rude emails from strangers. Some people process them differently than others. What prompted me to send one to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens in May of 2018 was that I thought his column on the Gaza border protests, in which Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians and injured roughly 2,700 others, was drive-by dogshit, and that he should give his salary to Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi. So, I wrote as much, from my non-work email account:

Subject: Do the right thing

Samer Kalaf

May 16, 2018, 6:22 PM

to Bret

Give your salary to Ahed Tamimi and move to a remote cabin with no internet access so that no one has to ever read your drive-by dogshit again.

Thanks,

That did not get a response, but I wasn’t looking for one. Both parties went on with their lives.

This past Thursday night, I sent Stephens another email. This time around I was not as clear up front as to why I thought he was a poor fit and waste of salary at the New York Times:

Subject: You are remarkably dumb

Samer Kalaf

Thu, Feb 28, 10:07 PM

to Bret

Again, give your salary to Ahed Tamimi.

The general but unspoken rule with baseball umpires is that a player or manager, displeased with a call, can criticize the official’s decisions and/or judgment as shitty or stupid, but if that player or manager says they are shitty or stupid, that argument will end with an ejection. Stephens appears to adhere to a similar system. Calling his work dogshit was within bounds, but the tamer insult of saying he was remarkably dumb was worth a retort.

Stephens, Bret

Feb 28, 2019, 10:12 PM

to me

And you are?

Samer Kalaf

Thu, Feb 28, 10:24 PM

to Bret

A person who knows whatever you’re getting paid could go to someone, anyone, who isn’t this clueless on a day-to-day basis. Did you get around to learning what climate change is so you won’t fuck up the next time you write about it?

Stephens, Bret

Feb 28, 2019, 10:33 PM

to me

Have a great night and a nice life.

All best,

Bret Stephens

For clarity, my reference to climate change was because Stephens used his first column at the Times to challenge the legitimacy of climate science—one of many topics he knows very little about—and required a correction for the only sentence in it that contained any actual research. Anyway, I didn’t reply and I thought that was the end of it. About 50 minutes later, I received the following email. I found it to be an illuminating look at what Stephens values in life:

Subject: Dear Samer

Stephens, Bret

Thu, Feb 28, 11:22 PM

to me

Dear Samer,

I typed your email address into Google and quickly found out who you are:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/samer-kalaf-3b612836

You may not like what I have to say next, but trust me, it will serve you in good stead in your career and in your life. Please read and reflect.

First, don’t write rude emails to anyone, least of all complete strangers. If your mother or father saw them, I’m sure they would be embarrassed on your account. It would reflect badly on their parenting, and I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Kalaf deserve better.

Second, life is long and full of unexpected turns. Imagine, for instance, that one day you are up for a big journalism award. Imagine, next, that someone you’ve insulted sits on the prize committee. Or suppose you apply for a dream job at a major publication, and your CV gets passed around. It’s fine to make unnecessary friends, but extremely unwise to make unnecessary enemies.

Third, don’t presume that people whose views you don’t like are “dumb.” I see that you have a journalism degree from the University of New Hampshire and have written for Deadspin and Hustler magazine. These are worthy accomplishments. They are not so worthy, however, as to entitle you to call anyone dumb.

Fourth, life goes better when you try to see the best in people and engage them in an inquiring and positive spirit. Cynicism is for losers, and so is snark. Since you took the trouble to find my email, you had a good opportunity to start a dialogue with me about any subject of your choosing, including climate change or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, you performed the digital equivalent of sticking your penis out of your trousers. This is very sad, and embarrassing, because (for now) you have so little to show intellectually or professionally speaking.

Fifth, with the grace of God, you will one day be a middle-aged man with a successful career and a contented family life. Try your best to treat everyone with kindness, including young men with much to learn in life.

Best wishes,

Bret Stephens

Op-ed Columnist, Associate Editor

The New York Times

PS — I’m a national judge of the Livingston Award and have chaired two Pulitzer juries, but don’t worry: I’m ethical. If your name ever came before me, I’d recuse myself.

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This was my response:

Samer Kalaf

Fri, March 1, 12:55 AM

to Bret

Amazing. Is that the most reporting you’ve done this year?

I chose to email you so that there would be a direct message, with no interference or distraction from the Twitter mob which you bemoan. Flattening why I think you’re dumb to a view I “don’t like” would not do your body of work justice. You preach about seeing the best in people and not jumping to conclusions, and yet you’ll take no hesitation to call Palestinians blood-thirsty psychos, or write about the “disease of the Arab mind.” (Typical, you’re thinking at this point. these quotes have been thrown in my face many times before. I’m sure they have. That doesn’t make them any less racist.) If you’d like to know what in particular inspired me to reach out, though, it was your contrived connection between Bernie Sanders and Benito Mussolini, combined with your lack of motivation to do the lightest of research before you shared it with the world. Ahed Tamimi wouldn’t have been so sloppy with the same tools at your disposal, which is why I suggested her as a replacement.

https://twitter.com/BretStephensNYT/status/1098592177867739136

Your advice is smug and patronizing. My Arab parents would also find you clueless if they knew who you were. It’s nice to get a peek at how the sausage is made when it comes to judging awards, though, so I appreciate that. I’d rather live with the consequences of angering someone who fetishizes his accolades and status than live with the guilt of beating the drum for the Iraq War.

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This was his response:

Stephens, Bret

Fri, March 1, 1:00 AM

to me

Dear Samer,

My advice is wise and well-meant. I really do wish you the best of luck. You’ll need it.

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I stand by my original remark and do hope New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet gets in touch with Ahed Tamimi to gauge her interest.

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