“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”
Those words were coined by a Polish rabbi named Menachem Mendel of Kotz in the middle of the 19th century. Surely they have never been more urgently needed than in the United States in 2019.
Just the other day, for instance, the venerable Boston Globe published an online op-ed by Luke O’Neil, a freelance columnist, expressing his rather pointed thoughts about the recently-sacked homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. Its throat-clearing opening line: “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.” (Kristol, you’ll recall, was a leading cheerleader for the Iraq War.)
The rest of the column continued in the same vein, castigating Nielsen for her complicity in President Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border, and advocating for a general shunning of Nielsen from polite society, up to and including doing unsavory things to her food whenever she turns up at a fancy restaurant.
Following a small uproar among its readers, the Globe subsequently re-wrote parts of O’Neil’s piece—cutting out the word “pissing,” among other things—before ultimately removing it from its webpages entirely. (It never appeared in print in any form.) All that currently remains of the thing is an editor’s note explaining that the column “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards,” adding, rather gratuitously, “O’Neil is not on staff.”
Locally, much has been said and written about the Globe’s (lack of) judgment in ever believing an op-ed about poisoning a public official’s dinner—however cheeky—was fit to publish in the first place. For all of its obvious liberal biases, the Globe opinion page is a fundamentally grown-up, establishmentarian space, suggesting this episode was a bizarre, one-off aberration and nothing more.
The deeper question, however, is what brings an uncommonly thoughtful and clever writer to put such infantile thoughts to paper in the first place.
And I’m not just talking about Luke O’Neil.
Let’s not delude ourselves: Ever since Secretary Nielsen was hounded from a Mexican restaurant last summer in response to her department’s repugnant immigration policies, every liberal in America has had a moment of silent contemplation about what he or she would do or say to Nielsen given the chance. That’s to say nothing of her former boss, the president, and innumerable other members of this wretched administration.
Indeed, plumb the deepest, darkest thoughts of your average politically-aware American consumer, and you’re bound to emerge so covered in sludge that you may spend the rest of your life trying to wash it off.
This is why we differentiate thoughts from actions—morally and legally—and why the concept of “thought crime” is so inherently problematic. Outside of the confessional, no one truly cares what goes on inside your own head so long as it remains there, and most of us have the good sense to understand which thoughts are worth expressing and which are not.
Except when we don’t, and in the age of Trump—with a major assist from social media platforms whose names I needn’t mention—an increasing number of us don’t.
Because it is now possible for any of us to instantaneously broadcast our basest and most uninformed impressions on any subject to the entire world, we have collectively decided—however implicitly—that there needn’t be any filter between one’s mind and one’s keyboard, and that no opinion is more or less valid than any other. In the Twitterverse, “Let’s expand health insurance coverage” and “Let’s defecate in Kirstjen Nielsen’s salad” carry equal intellectual weight.
As a free speech near-absolutist, I can’t deny the perverse appeal in having no meaningful restrictions to what one can say in the public square. With political correctness exploding like a cannonball from America’s ideological extremes, it’s heartening to know that reports of the death of the First Amendment have been greatly exaggerated, indeed.
Or it would be—until, say, a newly-elected congresswoman from Minnesota tells a group of supporters, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” and suddenly discretion seems very much the better part of valor.
Among the many truisms that life under the Trump regime has clarified is the fact that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done. And the same is true—or ought to be—about how each of us expresses ourselves to the wider world.
I don’t mean to sound like a total prude. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a column in mid-November 2016 calling the newly-elected president “a selfish, narcissistic, vindictive prick,” and who tried to cheer my readers up the day after the election by noting that Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.
With two-and-a-half years of hindsight, I’m not sure I should’ve written either of those things, not to mention a few other snide clauses and ironic asides here and there ever since. They weren’t necessary to make my larger points, and like the opening quip in Luke O’Neil’s Globe column, their rank immaturity and meanness only served to cheapen whatever it was I was trying to say.
As someone who claims to be a writer, I try to choose my words carefully and with at least a small degree of charity. With great power—in this case, the power of words—comes great responsibility. And that includes leaving Kirstjen Nielsen’s salmon alone.