â€œEvery joke is a tiny revolution,â€ said Orwell, which helps explain why the belated release of The Interview is a big dealâ€"not world-historical, certainly, but worth celebrating nonetheless.
Sony Pictures canceled distribution of the film after hackers who had stolen troves of Sony files threatened terrorist attacks if it were released. The movie mocks North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and authorities have fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the hack. Five major theater chains elected not to show the film, and Sony used that as a pretext to cancel its release altogether.
Reaction was bracing. George Clooney and other entertainment giants, along with millions of less famous Americans, voiced outrage. President Obama criticized the decision. Suggestions about other ways to distribute the movie blossomed. Then independent chains and art-house movie theaters stepped up and said they wanted to show the flick. Which means that it will probably end up getting distributed just as broadly as if North Korea had not tried to stifle it in the first place. Perhaps even more so.
The episode may turn out to be a useful learning experience. It gave Americans a whiff, albeit a very faint one, of what life under totalitarian rule is like: Dare to say something the Maximum Leader doesnâ€™t like, and suddenly you, your family and your friends are all facing the possibility of a hideous death.
Americans donâ€™t like being told what they can and cannot sayâ€"what they can and cannot hear. Freedom of speech appears in the First Amendment, rather than (say) the Eighth, for a reason. The reaction to the threat over The Interview showed that Americans still hold freedom of speech quite dear, and are not about to abandon their most cherished principles because of an unsubstantiated threat from someone who takes offense.
That is a pleasant change from the trend of the past few years, which has seen a rising tide of censorship, particularly on college campuses. Many universities maintain blatantly unconstitutional speech codes that not only confine demonstrations and the like to small (and often isolated) â€œfree speech zones.â€ They often enforce a nearly totalitarian culture of political correctness in which any deviation from ideological orthodoxyâ€"such as, say, questioning the merits of affirmative action or voicing moral objections to homosexualityâ€"is treated not as a minority viewpoint to be protected, but as a treasonous act of barbarity that must be punished.
Nor is that attitude confined to the campus. Just look at what happened to Brandon Eich, the Mozilla CEO who was forced out for having once supported a ballot measure prohibiting gay marriage. Conservatives sometimes cite such episodes to claim the moral high ground on free expression, but many of them have their own sacred cows too: Donâ€™t forget what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they questioned George W. Bush at the start of the Iraq War. Or just ask a conservative how he feels about laws against flag-burning.
And while Hollywood likes to think of itself as edgy and unrestrained, it has its own sacred cows. As former Tonight Show head writer Raymond Siller and others have noted, late-night comics have trod lightly around President Obama, especially during the early years of his tenure. Part of that is partisan, but more is probably owing to a fear of being seen as hostile to the first black president.
That fear has abated somewhat. But the typical Hollywood foil is still far more apt to be a conservative Christian CEO than a Hispanic lesbian. Some targets are simply more acceptable than othersâ€"or safer, anyhow. Indeed, the makers of The Interview might have thought, at least on some level, that it was better to mock Kim Jong Un than, oh, Islamic fanaticsâ€"who already have killed one filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, for questioning their dogmas. Itâ€™s also worth asking if Hollywoodâ€™s defense of free expression would have been as robust if the plot of The Interview had revolved around, say, blowing up an abortion clinic.
Still, itâ€™s good to see the entertainment industry sticking up for itself, and for free speech, in any circumstance. Because doing so reminds everyone that free speech is not a principle that can be turned on and off according to the viewpoint of the speaker. It applies to everybody, or to nobody at all. Take your pick.
Finally, thereâ€™s a deliciously capitalist coda to the saga of The Interview, a film about one of the last communist dictatorships. Because of the controversy surrounding the film, the theaters that did show it raked in money hand over fist. Those that were too afraid to do so lost a lot of business. In the free market, standing up for freedom often has its rewards.