Bret Stephens’s Racist “Olfactory Element”

Images from Alumni Weekend at the University of Chicago June 7, 2014. (Photo by Jason Smith)

by Eli Clifton

Yesterday, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens attempted to denounce Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s refusal to shake hands with an Israeli opponent after losing his judo match at the Rio Olympics. Shehaby’s conduct violated both the rules of judo and went “against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic values,” according to the International Olympic Committee. But Stephens decided to use the incident to engage in a textbook definition of racism, crudely referring to the “disease of the Arab mind” and tweeting that his column was about “ubiquitous Arab antisemitism.”

Stephens lashed out against critics, including myself, on Twitter, saying that his reference to the “disease of the Arab mind” was “a figure of speech, not biology.” He further claimed that his observations about “ubiquitous Arab antisemitism” was equivalent to observing “ubiquitous racism in the antebellum South,” “ubiquitous misogyny in Saudi Arabia,” or “ubiquitous stupidity at the Nation,” an apparent jab at the magazine where I occasionally contribute and/or The Nation Institute where I am a fellow.

Stephens had good reason to be upset. The Oxford Dictionaries define racism as:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Stephens’s defense that his generalization about the “Arab mind” is a “figure of speech, not biology,” doesn’t hold much water either.

Many figures of speech can be racist in their origins or meanings. Although he no doubt believes that his words weren’t racist, it’s hard to think of a single ethnic group where the formulation “[ethnic group][derogatory generalization]” would be considered anything but overt racism.

Stephens clearly doesn’t accept the dictionary definition of racism, but it turns out he has developed his own standard for sniffing out bigotry and intolerance.

In 2006, then-Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) stated that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [on Capitol Hill].” In 2007, Hagel said that he regretted referring to the “Jewish lobby” and “should have said, ‘pro-Israel lobby.’”

But in 2012, when Hagel was a front-runner to be the next secretary of defense, Stephens authored a column dredging up the remarks for which Hagel had already apologized and declared:

Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” the odor is especially ripe.

Stephens believes there’s no odor of racism in his column or his opinions about Arabs. But when reading a column that discusses the “disease of the Arab mind,” it’s worth asking whether the author is emitting his own racist odor.

Photo of Bret Stephens by Jason Smith.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.


One Comment

  1. American footballer, Hope Solo, calls the Swedish team ‘cowards’ after a quarterfinal loss.

    – The world media denounces Solo and her individual actions and doesn’t make any wholesale claims about American arrogance.

    Irish boxer, Michael Conlan, loses a bout then goes on a swearing rant on live television and sticks his middle finger out at judges.

    – The media sympathizes with Conlan and bemoans match-fixing by the Russians.

    Egyptian judoka refuses to shake hands with an Israeli competitor.

    – Media rushes to assumptions on why he did it (even though El Shebaly never gave a reason) and begins blaming the incident on symptomatic anti-semitism from not only Egyptians but all Arabs.

    This is pretty much the textbook definition of bigotry. When you use the actions of a single person to brand a whole group of people as something negative, you’ve just committed textbook bigotry. Nuance is only afforded to white people it seems.

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