Censor This?

Censor This?

The bogus moral outrage over The Interview.


I had meant to end the year discussing the uncanny beauty of drone photography and the lost vision of utopia, but that will have to wait. Given its remit, this column could scarcely neglect the kerfuffle over The Interview and, almost as important, over freedom itself.

The story as of this writing: Seth Rogen, who has grown wealthy indeed as the earthly representative for Judd Apatow’s trillion-dollar synthesis of the buddy movie and the rom-com, concocts a comedy wherein he and James Franco are bumbling newsdudes who score an interview with North Korean head of state Kim Jong-un. Tasked by the CIA to assassinate him, the duo are rather simply parties to his death, in a manner that analysts have suggested is comedic in a technical sense but not funny. In late November, Sony Pictures, the film’s owner, is hacked by a group known as Guardians of Peace. The usual corporate information appears online. News organizations circulate shocking reports that Sony execs are venal, racist and in bed with the CIA, just like the movie.

Some people argue the breached data should not be disseminated. This is unintelligible as anything other than self-interest or slavish devotion to the sanctity of corporations. In truth, the only good argument against would be a risk of fatal boredom. But the story gets interesting: the hack might source from North Korea. North Korea denies it, though it does aver that the movie seems like kind of a dick move.

On December 16, the Guardians release further information, along with a threat to levy attacks on cinemas that open the film as scheduled on Christmas Day. Three of the nation’s largest chains immediately cave; Sony follows, adding that it has no plans to release the film in any fashion. This causes all manner of moral outrage over what is repeatedly called “censorship.” The idea that a despotic, pseudo-communist micropower or its minions or someone else entirely might set Team America’s cultural agenda is taken to be a threat to freedom.

But then: a last-second reversal. Led by a few independent venues that courageously refuse to kneel before the wrath of foreign powers–slash–peace guardians, the release is back on. Some propose that the whole thing has been a publicity scam, but then publicity turns out to be a mere subdivision of liberty itself. In the words of Seth Rogen, “The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn’t give up! The Interview will be shown at theaters willing to play it on Xmas day!” This tweet is 139 characters long, which surely explains why Rogen—producer, co-director, writer and lead—omitted mention of how many points he’s getting on the box office.

It would behoove the bereaved lovers of free expression to look up the word “censorship,” which is a legal concept requiring, as a general rule, official examination and state suppression. For-profit enterprises voluntarily withdrawing material, whether or not under duress: not so much. If this were censorship, we should be greatly concerned about the far more repressive episode following 9/11 when Clear Channel “suggested” deleting some 165 songs from radio playlists out of concern for public sensibilities. Where was the outrage on behalf of the Bangles, whose freedom along with that of an entire nation was surely abridged by the soft ban of—never has a simile been so terrifying—“Walk Like an Egyptian”? This is not even to mention the five-month delay of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage, among other such corrosions of our national character.

In general, people recognized those as cynical calculations on the part of corporations not wishing to accrue ill will through seeming insensitivity: commercial ventures, in short, making commercial decisions. They are, moreover, legally necessitated to do so should they have investors. This is no less true of Sony et al. at present. The confusion between this and freedom is likely a sign of dim-wittedness, and each time it is proffered as a political much less an ethical claim, a part of me becomes just a skosh more sympathetic to North Korea.

It is impossible, nonetheless, to reduce this confusion to individual foolishness. It is, after all, an expression of national pathology: the Citizens United model of liberty, wherein we endow abstract corporate power, as if it were human, with rights, desires and dreams. It is a kind of therapy for the subjects of capitalism, with Ayn Rand presiding: its goal is to harmonize our dullest fetishes with our highest values. The Interview affair is a great breakthrough in this regard, rendering identical the perfectly amoral compulsions of the market with virtue writ large, so that the unvexed selling of shit to people turns out to be the same as liberty. What a profound relief such a revelation must be—like sinking into a hot tub the precise temperature of your soul, forever.

It’s rubbish though. Freedom being escape from necessity, capital is its opposite. I love the Bangles, but corporations buy and sell people and things for one reason: they exist only in those acts. Amoral and rapacious, they are guarantors of necessity and keepers of unfreedom, however much relief lies in believing otherwise. Indeed, such belief is the closest this affair gets to comedy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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