It is important we understand what just happened. While details are vague, the broad strokes are clear. In order to suppress The Interview, a film that mocked the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, someone launched a cyberattack against an American company and then threatened to kill moviegoers. As a result, movie chains balked at screening the film and Sony Pictures cancelled its release.
U.S. intelligence agencies tell us the North Korean government is directly involved, but at this point if they told us the sky is blue we should remain skeptical. Others are convinced it is merely hackers sowing chaos for sheer amusement. Some pundits point out that the threats are serious; North Korea is crazy enough and weak enough to try something desperate. More informed observers argue that the “nuclear madman” shtick is a calibrated strategy with definite limits, and a physical attack is almost impossible.
These details are not especially significant. The few reliable facts are enough: Someone illegally attacked the United States, and the United States immediately yielded.
Granted, the terms of surrender were not punitive. Seth Rogen and James Franco will still get to star in other movies. Sony Pictures may lose some money, $100 million by some estimates. But it is only the subsidiary of a Japanese corporation, not the United States Army. Another film studio cancelled an upcoming thriller starring Steve Carrell because it was going to be set in North Korea, too. All together, this was not the Treaty of Versailles. Nonetheless, it was still a defeat.
This has happened before. In 1939, Charlie Chaplin began to film The Great Dictator to mock Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic views. Before it was even finished the British government prohibited its release in accordance with its policy of appeasement. Hollywood has also been criticized for kowtowing to the Germans in the 1930s. Studios avoided productions that were “detrimental to German prestige” and even allowed Nazi diplomats to vet scripts.
But in those cases we decided to prostrate ourselves. This week, someone else decided for us. Who it was does not matter. It may have been Kim Jong Un, one of his generals, a sympathetic arm of the Chinese army, organized criminals, or a disgruntled teen in his parents’ basement. Regardless, it was not us. This was not our choice. We were bent to someone else’s will. And that matters.
It is easy to shrug at the stakes and say, “It’s a bad comedy, who cares?” If this were a poignant film about a young woman surviving in a North Korean prison camp, we would likely feel differently. If this were a book about a child living and dying in Aleppo, we would not let Islamic State stop it from being printed. If this were a speech about the oil sands, we would not allow Exxon to cancel it. It’s easy to defend art and ideas that are important to us. It is harder to see the value in movies like The Interview. We think we are defending the idea, but in reality we are defending the act of expressing them.
America was created with the notion that free speech is critical to a free society. Other nations, like ours, have agreed. Over two centuries the Western world has built democracies upon the belief being able to write, or paint or film what we want is so important we are even willing to go to war to defend it.
So, as we debate this over the kitchen table, in Congress, or on Twitter, it is important we acknowledge this for what it is. Someone just taught the world a valuable lesson. You can successfully attack the United States and force it to betray its most hallowed founding principles. You just have to know what buttons to push, who to attack, and what to demand. You could even say there is an art to it.