People Against the American Way

We have only begun to digest the full implication of the assault on Sony pictures.   Assuming it indeed was perpetrated by North Korea, (and evidence is building that it may have been, at least partly, an inside job) in order to block a movie it does not like, the hack, and the extortion of a private corporation is an assault on the very idea of civil society that we Americans cherish. 

We Americans have come to take civil society for granted.   We have been lucky, for so long, to have an extensive area of life that our government has no right to censor, and, in principle, no right to direct, that we take it as given in our lives.  We easily forget that this private sphere, perhaps we should call it a non-governmental public sphere, is historically unusual and perhaps even conceptually problematic.  This zone of freedom is “private” in that government has no right to influence our activities there.  Government has no right to tell us who or what to worship or not to worship, what to read or watch, or what to eat or drink or, even how we spend our time on a day-to-day basis.  A few years ago a major docu-drama depicted the murder of President Bush, and the government did nothing to block its release.  Hence we Americans take it as a given that we have the right to criticize and to mock our Presidents, Senators, Mayors, Police Chiefs, etc

This free fire zone, so to speak, is fundamental to what makes us American.  In that sense, the very existence of that “private” sphere is “public.” It is part of what makes us who we are as a people.  Having such liberty has a very strong influence on what it means to be an American.   Moreover, it shapes our understanding of other cultures.  Understanding what it means to live in a nation where one is not free to speak one’s mind is very difficult for Americans. Similarly, foreigners have a hard time understanding that America’s government has no right to block publications it does not like.  I have previously noted that Chinese analyses almost certainly, and correctly, connect the openness of the internet, as it usually operates, to the American way of life (link no longer available).

Only in a free regime is such openness tolerated or, even, tolerable.  We Americans may think that our government has nothing to do with the congeries of bloggers and the like on the web. But, in fact, there is something very American about the medium.  It’s an informational wild west more than an information super highway.  The superhighways were government planned and built.  By contrast, the Wild West was an area under the formal jurisdiction of the U.S. government and with a certain degree of basic rules laid down by the powers that be, and Marshalls enforcing the law, but which also featured tremendous opportunities for good and for mischief.

That being the case, it is worth contemplating what it means when a foreign nation seeks to block a movie it does not like.   (Similarly, when  Secretary of State Clinton promised to go after the film maker who inspired September 11 protests in Egypt, and, she claimed at the time, also inspired the attacks in Libya, she crossed a line.  The right of Americans to argue about which, if any, religion is true is fundamental.  And when all citizens are free to engage in such arguments, the results will often be crude).  A government, a nation, or a people that seek to block an American film, book, or newspaper is taking direct aim at the freedoms that we as Americans hold dear.  It is assaulting the American way of life, and the regime to which our ancestors dedicated their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

To allow another nation to censor our movies is to suggest that the scope of the First Amendment is open for international discussion.   The question is not whether movies like The Interview take some liberties in its depiction of a foreign head of state.  They do.  And the issue is not whether movies like The Interview can be unduly vulgar.  They certainly are.  The question is whether a foreign nation will be allowed to blackmail a Non-governmental organization.   The question is whether we as a nation still are willing to defend our way of life when it is attacked, and smart enough to recognize such attacks when they take place.  We may find, ultimately, that the attack on Sony was not a North Korean job.  We may, nevertheless, “war game” the situation, and think through its implications and contemplate what would be the proper response to such threats.