On Friday, Daniella Greenbaum, a columnist for Business Insider, wrote a column about the recent controversy surrounding the actress Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming role as a transgender man. Some of Twitter’s loudest social justice warriors yelped that a nontransgender actor wasn’t allowed, according to the dogma of the high church of political correctness, to portray a transgender character, and Greenbaum wanted to present the far more reasonable view that an actor’s job is, well, just to act. Pretending to be someone else is literally the job description. It was about as anodyne an argument one could make; a few hours and a few hundred angry tweets later, however, the publication pulled it from print.
The reason, according to a note affixed to the no-longer-available column (you can read it here, courtesy of a different publication), is that the piece did not meet Business Insider‘s editorial standards. Just what those standards may be was confusing to some readers of BI, not an outfit routinely accused of journalistic excellence; to clarify things, the publication’s editor in chief, Nicholas Carlson, issued new guidelines earlier this week, saying that pieces pertaining to “culturally sensitive topics, such as marginalized communities, race, or LGBTQ+ issues,” will be handled with special care by several editors at the publication prior to being approved. “We should be as careful about culturally sensitive pieces as we are legally sensitive pieces,” Carlson wrote, “and this policy reflects that.”
If what we were watching wasn’t the continuing demise of vital American institutions, Carlson’s response would be almost funny. Legally sensitive pieces are legally sensitive because they may run afoul of laws and legal precedents, which are reasonably well defined and adjudicated by a flawed but fair system of courts. Who, pray tell, might judge what makes a story culturally sensitive? The mob on social media? The loudest opportunists trying to seize the spotlight? It’s an invitation to mayhem, and, given the rising anti-Semitic sentiments permeating the radical left these days, also a prelude to further possible bigotry.
But the story has a happy ending. Greenbaum, a fine young writer who was previously at Commentary, took a step and resigned. Even though she’s young, and even though it’s not exactly easy scoring a journalism job these days unless you check all the right ideological boxes, she made her grievances known in a public letter to Carlson. It’s the sort of plain-spoken and fundamentally decent statement that is already making the hordes on Twitter crazy but that should make anyone who is fearful for the future of American journalism proud. Here it is in its entirety. (Some of) the kids are alright.
Can an actor act?
That is the question I wanted to weigh in on when I saw the brouhaha about Scarlett Johansson’s role in the upcoming movie Rub and Tug.
My judgment: Yes. A woman can play a man or a trans man.
And so, in a column we published on Friday, July 6th, I criticized those who suggested that she was doing anything nefarious by taking this job.
Apparently, this radical view—that actors should be free to act—is beyond the pale of acceptable opinion, as just a few hours after it went up, the piece was erased from the site following a campaign against me.
I have some other views that some might consider “controversial.”
I believe, for example, that “safe spaces” are an inane concept that belongs nowhere near our institutions of higher learning.
I believe that people should be admitted to universities on the basis of merit, not depending on the color of their skin.
I believe that Hamas—not Israel—is the worst enemy the Palestinian people have.
I believe that members of the gang MS 13 are animals, and that there’s nothing wrong with saying so.
I believe that accusations of “cultural appropriation” encourage divisions instead of bridging them.
I had hoped to be able to write about these and other issues as a columnist here, and for a while, I did.
I have enjoyed the few months I have worked here and I am really disheartened about what has transpired in the past few days.
I wish I could say I am surprised.
Unfortunately, what happened with my piece—the tarring of a commonsensical view as somehow bigoted or not thought out; the capitulation on the part of those who are supposed to be the adults to the mob—is a pattern happening all over the country within institutions that pride themselves on open-mindedness and liberalism.
Please accept this letter as a formal notification that I am resigning from my position as columnist effective immediately.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.