Friday, December 19, 2014

Free Speech, Hate Speech, and "The Interview"

For the last few days, there has been a lot of media hubbub about the hacking of the SONY Film corporation by agents either in or from North Korea or acting on its behalf who have objected to the release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco film, The Interview, a comedy which depicts the assassination of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jung-un, by two bumbling journalists guided by America's [paramilitary intelligence service, the CIA. Today it was announced that the film, which was scheduled to open on Xmas Day, will not be released in the immediate future, and possibly not ever, owing to fears about what further actions, such as terrorist attacks, might be visited upon SONY and American theaters were the film to be shown. The general reaction in the American media has been to denounce North Korea for daring to threaten American freedom of expression and SONY for its cowardly surrender to North Korean threats.

There is much that I find lacking in this collective and apparently unanimous response among my countrymen. Few have paused to ask whether it was ever a wise idea, let alone a tasteful choice, for American filmmakers to craft a major studio Hollywood comedy around the theme of US assassination of foreign leaders, considering that America has, through its CIA as well as other means, overthrown and/or assassinated quite a few foreign leaders over the last century, not to mention the numerous times we have unleashed our military force on other countries,or imposed embargoes and sanctions that caused economic devastation and massive hardships among the population of countries on the receiving end of our policies. I don't think the citizens of the countries which have been through these events are clamoring for a Hollywood laugh fest about something that has actually happened to them. Such a film is a grim reminder both about the many times that the USA, despite its often-trumpeted role as "leader of the free world" and a champion of "freedom and democracy," has violated international law and human rights to impose its will on other countries, and about America's jaw-dropping lack of historical memory and self-awareness and chronic incapacity for moral self-reflection.

The wisdom of making a film which so merrily speculates about killing the leader of North Korea is particularly questionable considering that the USA and many other nations have a very tense and unfunny relationship with this country. North Korea is a traumatized,isolated and impoverished yet highly militarized country whose people are suffering and starving while the government devotes the greater part of the nation's resources to equipping and maintaining a huge army capable of invading South Korea and causing massive carnage and desolation at the drop of a hat. In recent years, North Korea has engaged in such actions as shooting missiles that killed people living on small islands off the Korean coast, and test-fired missiles that came dangerously close to Japan, causing massive fear and anxiety in Japan and raising the specter of war. Provoking such a dangerous, unstable country is not funny. It is reckless and stupid, morally bankrupt and simply disgusting when you consider that it is all being done for the benefit of Hollywood egos and profits. There is a long-standing, common-sense notion that freedom of speech should not extent to crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater, for fear of causing a panic and bodily harm. Same principle here, and on a much larger scale, you Hollywood narcissists!

There is also a long tradition of engaging in political satire that comments on actual persons and situations while not naming them directly. When Charlie Chaplin made "The Great Dictator" mocking Hitler and the Nazis' anti-Semitism, he did not use the name of Hitler for the character obviously modeled on the Nazi Fuhrer. When the film "All the King's Men" was made about the American governor Huey Long, Long's name was not used. One reason for all of this indirection is to avoid lawsuits and legal conflicts, as well as an artistic impulse to make the situation more universal and less bound to specific times and places by placing the persons and events on a fictional pedestal for us to contemplate. There also is, or at least used to be, a sense of respect and decency that restrained the makers of mass market entertainments from creating films or other such spectacles that would appear to endorse assassination or murder of public figures. Those who defend Seth Rogen and SONY want us to think that is now perfectly fine to entertain the public through fictionalized killings of actual public figures.

Yet there is a definite double standard here. When American films or TV shows dramatize or satirize American Presidents and politics, from "The West Wing" through "Scandal," they usually create fictitious Presidents and politicians to function as stand-ins for actual Presidents and politicians. Please show me an actual American film or television program that shows us the killing of a living American President. More to the point, I don't think Americans would find it quite so amusing if, say, a film maker in some country that America has a tense, unfunny relationship with, like Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan made a film or viral video that offered the same scenario as "The Interview" applied to America, with two foreign journalists coming to America and assassinating presidents Bush or Obama. I think you would see a massive outcry, accusations of "terrorism," investigations by committees in Congress, and some even calling for economic sanctions or military strikes against that country.

There is also somewhat of a bullying dynamic here. It is hard to imagine anyone making a film about killing the top leaders of "major" countries such as the UK, Germany or China (David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping). That is because these countries are respected in the United States and no one wants to get on their bad side, particularly China, since it is now seeming like the world's next superpower both economically and militarily. Even the film "Borat," which made fun of Kazakhstan in a quite disrespectful and vicious manner that was either brilliant or boorish, depending on your point of view, did not go so far as to suggest it would be yuk-yuk funny to kill the leader of the country. North Korea, being one of the world's most poor and unfortunate countries, a status that our decades-long embargo and sanctions have contributed to considerably, is a country that people find easy to make fun of and mock even to the point of laughing about killing its leaders. The strong beating up on the weak. Is that really such a novel idea? Is that comic brilliance, or just a very old, very sad and sick joke?

America, and Hollywood, please look in the mirror, and not just into the camera or at your profit margin. "The Interview" is not a wonderful example of free speech. It is hate speech, an incitement to violence that caters to our worst impulses and threatens to pour unnecessary accelerant on an international situation that is already smouldering. The film deserves to be suppressed. There are better ways to make funny films and political satire, and I hope Seth Rogen and his associates will work on them.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...