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Sometimes the best response is no response

I don’t quite get New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ fit over a reader likening him to an unpleasant insect.

In this file photo, a bed bug is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Being likened to a bed bug, writes Gene Lyons, is no reason for a columnist to throw a fit.

Anybody who writes opinion columns needs to grow a thick skin.

As a native of New Jersey, aka “The Insult State,” I come by mine naturally. Personal invective there is an art form. If being called bad names made you cry, you couldn’t drive to the grocery store without your mommy.

So I don’t quite get New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ well-publicized hissy fit over a reader likening him to an unpleasant insect. (Although as a frequent recipient of personal abuse and threats from people who find my opinions upsetting, I do understand the impulse.)

But jeez, what a crybaby.

For those of you with actual lives, here’s what happened. An article appeared in the Times about a bedbug infestation in the paper’s New York newsroom — nasty little brutes that feed on human blood. A George Washington University political scientist named David Karpf made a lame joke on Twitter to the effect that Stephens must be the source of the problem.

Ha ha ha! The prof’s classes must be a real Laff Riot.

Approximately eight people noticed it. Alas, one was Stephens. He must scan the internet for mentions of his name. As a conservative writing for the Times, you’d think professorial indignation was old news to him — even a source of satisfaction.

Maybe not as satisfying as the time a Russian online troll whom I’d exposed wrote “Trump should s— in your traitorous mouth.” Or the admirer of the fair “Melonia” (sic) who trashed “the fat flat saggy out of shape classless woman … you are stuck with.”

Um, no.

Nor even as unintentionally revealing as the rugged outdoorsman who opined that “You wouldn’t last a week on your own in the woods. You are a weak little man in spirit and I would not ever have you as a friend. You would run rather than fight at the slightest scare. Trump is a blow hard but at least by God he is not a p---y. Go eat some quiche.”

Actually, I’m a bit larger than our president, don’t wear a corset and haven’t spent my life hiding behind bodyguards.

Anyway, this stuff comes with the territory. It’s part of the job. The Russians I called “Boris and Natasha” pretended to have operatives digging up damaging information on me in rural Arkansas — at a long-defunct greasy spoon I’d never visited at the opposite end of the county.

Not the brightest bulbs on Vladimir’s chandelier, that pair.

Unmonitored internet comment lines can be even worse. Anonymous fakers retail utterly fantastic accounts of one’s life to gullible strangers. But actually, no, I’ve never met Jeffrey Epstein nor done drugs with Bill Clinton’s brother. Never met him either. But thanks for asking.

I’ve been called a “racist motherf---” so many times I’ve lost count.

Another time, a guy kept calling in death threats from a pay phone outside a liquor store. The cops tell you that the ones who call never show. Easy for them to say. Even so, in 25 years, I’ve never once been confronted in person. Threatening columnists is just something morons do for entertainment.

But back to the Curious Incident of Bret Stephens and the Bad Joke. Offended by Karpf’s insectile metaphor, the Times columnist went ballistic. He dispatched a brisk email, sending copies to Karpf’s department head and the university provost.

“I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard,” he wrote. He challenged Karpf to meet his family and call him a bedbug to his face.

I’ve certainly sent some pungent responses myself. When it comes to hurling insults, I’ve got a strong throwing arm. Editors have suggested that I should be ashamed of myself. Sometimes I am.

But bring somebody’s employer into it? Never.

You dish it out, you’ve got to learn to take it.

Professor Karpf, of course, was exultant. Predictably, his superiors endorsed his academic freedom. He boasted that since he has tenure, Stephens can’t hurt him.

Doubling down, Stephens then publicly announced that he was quitting Twitter. OK, fine. It’s a time-suck to begin with. Next he wrote a full-length column implicitly analogizing the professor to Nazi propagandists Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler.

“The political mind-set that turned human beings into categories, classes and races,” he wrote, “also turned them into rodents, insects and garbage.”

True, the “blood-sucking Jew” is a staple of white supremacist jargon. However, both men are Jewish. No sensible person believes Karpf meant to invoke the Holocaust. This whole absurd melodrama resembles an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“As a professor of strategic political communication,” Karpf wrote, “I could have told him that the only way for him to stop losing here is to stop playing.”

Stephens would be well-advised to let his antagonist have the last word.

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