Matthew Rozsa believes North Korea’s threat to Sony challenges the very essence of our democratic freedoms.
Is it too much to expect Americans who expect to profit from the First Amendment to stand up for its underlying ethos?
Of course, due emphasis must be placed on the phrase “underlying ethos” in the aforementioned sentence. Although the First Amendment prevents the American government from “abridging the freedom of speech” of its citizens, that proscription does not apply to the governments of other countries—as North Korea’s recent success in bullying Sony into pulling The Interview from theaters has made unmistakably clear. Indeed, Sony is itself a Japanese company, albeit one that has earned billions of dollars from American audiences and no doubt hopes to make billions more in the future. Nevertheless, from a strictly legal standpoint, this is not a First Amendment issue (the diplomatic ramifications are proving much thornier).
Then again, like the Second Amendment, the literal meaning of the First Amendment matters less than the deeper social ideals it theoretically embodies. “Speech enjoys a special privilege in these cultural contexts,” writes Heejung S. Kim of the American Psychological Association, “and the freedom of speech is one of the most important rights of individuals in the U.S.” As President Dwight Eisenhower put it in a letter to an Army veteran, “in a democracy debate is the breath of life” precisely because freedom of speech forces ordinary citizens to face uncomfortable ideas and complex realities. George Washington captured this sentiment perfectly with a dramatic flourish eight years before the First Amendment was officially adopted: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
In short, even Americans who don’t engage in any form of artistic expression profit from the ethos of the First Amendment—as consumers of entertainment content, as commenters on Internet message boards about the specific cultural products they happen to cherish, sometimes as direct or indirect employees of the numerous industries based in producing movies, television shows, music, books, etc. Consequently, when the North Korean hackers succeeded in stifling the free speech of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Evan Goldberg, Dan Sterling, and the other creators of The Interview, they weren’t simply engaging in a nasty little bit of geopolitical sabotage. They were demonstrating that the thug tactics practiced by Kim Jong Un’s regime can, in a direct confrontation with our own government, successfully squash the freedoms ostensibly fortified in the American social contract. What’s more, as their message to Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton made clear, this message applies not merely to Rogen et al., but to every American man, woman, and child:
The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places [showing The Interview] at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Make no mistake about it: Our character as Americans is being directly challenged, and if this news story ultimately ends with The Interview never receiving its intended wide theatrical release (which now appears to be the case), we will have failed our test.
The closest equivalent to this kind of cinematic censorship in our cultural history to North Korea’s coercion pales in comparison. From 1930 through the 1960s, a series of moral and political guidelines known as the Hollywood Production Code was enforced by major motion picture studios as a way of protecting American morality and preventing subversive (i.e., Communist) influence. Although the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (which later became the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) had no legal authority, its monopolistic control over mainstream theatrical distribution allowed them to effectively censor any movie that didn’t abide by the Code’s standards. At its nadir, the mentality that spawned the Code merged with the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s to culminate in the infamous blacklisting of members of the film industry on suspicion of Communist sympathies.
While the peril to civil liberties posed by the Hollywood Production Code’s assault on artistic freedom should not be minimized, it differed from North Korea’s actions in one fundamental respect—namely, when it suppressed expression, the motive was to protect the American public from either corrosive moral influences (e.g., sexuality, profanity, gore, general depravity) or perceived threats to national security (again, usually Communists). By contrast, the code implicitly enforced by ceding to North Korean threats is based on nothing more than abject cowardice. To put it another way: In the past, the self-censorship sprang from a neurotic overprotectiveness toward the quality of America’s national character. Today a movie is being banned because the studio executives are too afraid to stand up for themselves.
What lesson should we learn from this debacle?
Guidance can be found in two sources. We can start with the last American film to wound the ego of an unambiguously evil dictator as brazenly as The Interview—Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Despite rankling the easily offended (and sometimes covertly pro-Nazi) sensibilities of much of its 1940 audience, it became a huge financial and critical hit at the time. Best known today for its scenes involving Chaplin’s parody of Adolf Hitler having pratfalls with a giant globe, it ended with a memorable monologue that included the following insight:
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within man’—not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! …. Then—in the name of democracy—let us use that power—let us all unite … Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world—to do away with national barriers—to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Seventy years later, another type of evil was confronted by two very different comedians. Through their popular long-running animated sitcom South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone attempted to parody Muslim extremism by including representations of Mohammed (which are banned in Islam) in a controversial episode simply titled “South Park 201.” Faced with threats of violence by radical Muslims, Parker and Stone responded by putting an ironic “moral” in the mouths of their protagonists—one that, ironically, became considerably less humorous when Comedy Central censored it in capitulation to terrorist threats.
Here is what it said:
Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that terrorizing people works… All you need to do is instill fear and be willing to hurt people and you can get whatever you want. The only true power is violence.
While it remains to be seen whether The Interview is in the same qualitative class as The Great Dictator and South Park, the simple fact that American cinema can produce such brilliant satire and social commentary—be it the aching idealism of a British transplant like Chaplin or the cutting cynicism of two Colorado Generation X-ers like Parker and Stone—is just one more reason for Americans to find some way, any way, to take a stand against North Korea’s attacks on the creators of The Interview.
You know, in case the First Amendment wasn’t enough.
Note: As of the time of publication, another film production company, New Regency, appears to be scrapping an untitled thriller set in North Korea directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Steve Carell. And this just in—Paramount is apparently canceling the screenings of Team America that were supposed to replace The Interview.