Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The SONY Situation

“Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood
lies the real tinsel.”  Oscar Levant, (1906 - 1972) 

As someone who strongly believes in the importance of free speech and uncensored creative expression, I have of course been extremely interested in and concerned about the “SONY Situation.” This is extremely important because it’s about a whole lot more than a controversial movie. It is a seminal 21st Century dilemma: the first major confluence of new technology, violent and cyber terrorism, the traditional American definition of Democracy, culture clash, Capitalism, electronic news media, and human behavior in the still-developing “new normal.” This is a big subject but I’ll tackle what I can in this post.

I started writing this post at least a week ago, and there have been new developments in the past couple of days. So to summarize the incident that provoked an international mess: SONY, a giant American entertainment company, was grievously cyber attacked by North Korean extremists (and possibly the NK government itself) because it produced a satirical comedy film about the assassination of the real-life, sitting, North Korean president, Kim Jong-un. The news media ill-advisedly but not surprisingly focused on the celebrity gossip revealed by the hack-attack instead of the depth and implications of the attack itself.

Then, SONY and America were threatened with 9/11-scale attacks against movie theaters if the film was released. All of the country’s theater chains united in their refusal to show the film; Sony announced it would not release the film (like they had a choice, once the theaters decided not to show it); and much of the film industry and some politicians, including President Obama, criticized SONY for giving in to threats, because nobody can tell us what kind of movies we can and cannot make, and, America shouldn’t surrender its core freedoms out of fear.

The irony is we already have surrendered some of our core freedoms out of fear. America was rattled to its previously complacent bones by the 9/11 attacks, though we were determined not to let it show. President John Wayne Bush stood on the World Trade Center rubble and literally told the terrorists to “bring it on,” to prove that our national balls, pride, and courage were undefeatably enormous.

But a few weeks later, Congress and the Senate passed the Patriot Act with whiplash speed. It is still in place, giving the government’s numerous intelligence and security agencies unprecedented permission to spy, bug, physically gather, and in other ways obtain private information about individuals, to basically do whatever they deem necessary to whomever they regard as  suspicious in the name of national security.

Some Americans and some organizations objected. In the minority quarters that value privacy and civil rights for individuals, Ben Franklin’s sage quotation: They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety was dusted off and given new exposure. But it didn’t change anything because it turns out that most Americans are willing to exchange “essential liberty” (privacy, free speech, creative expression, etc.) for whatever sense of safety they can secure.

In the last few days, the country and the companies (SONY and the theaters) seem to have decided to macho-man-up again. President Obama asked China to do what they can to keep North Korea in check. It was suggested that North Korea be added to our official “watch” list of nations/organizations most likely to attempt a terrorist attack, though at this moment I don’t know if that’s been done. Some theaters decided to change their corporate minds about showing the film, and SONY, it appears, has changed its mind about releasing it, even if it will be a more limited release than originally planned. For a Christmas Day debut. Merry Christmas. 

Now we come to our national love affair with technology – which is really just our most recent infatuation with a big, shiny, major new toy, a love that knows no bounds and sees no downside until the initial glow wears off, and that process can take quite a while. We embraced the Information Age with the same passion we lavished on the Industrial Revolution.

I’m not saying America or the world would all be better off living like the Amish. I’m just pointing out that we have a history of plunging into the seductive technically new in the present, without regard for its impact on what we value from the past, or anticipating the potential disadvantages of the presently new in the future. This is especially concerning now as we further explore artificial intelligence and robotics in a spirit of childlike wonder.

Through technology, what used to be a great big world has, from the 19th Century on, become a much smaller one. Throw differing religions, cultures, economics and politics into the mix and it becomes quite a muddle. Add poor education, increased poverty, huge gaps in human rights and civil rights, terrorism, war and other forms of armed conflict, environmental change, and population growth, and you have the complex quagmire we call Now.

So, in regard to the “Sony Situation,” I believe that our 18th Century ideas of what Freedom and Democracy allow for were and are rightly challenged, not just by outside anger and danger, but also by a certain measure of contemporary common sense as well. In every discussion of free speech, it is pointed out that while people should have an unfettered right to express their ideas and opinions, they don’t have the right to be irresponsible – such as shouting Fire! Fire! in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire.

I am of the opinion that in this day and age, producing a major motion picture about the assassination of any named, real-life, sitting president of any country – even a bizarre little despot like Kim Jong-un – is the creative equivalent of Fire! Fire!, especially when you consider that totalitarian dictators and the populations they rule have no working concept of humor, let alone satire. And just because one has the right and freedom to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it.

What would the American response be if a foreign country – say France, England or Australia, all of which have thriving film industries, unlike our chief national enemies – made a satirical comedy about the assassination of the named, specific, actual Barack Obama? The President himself, who has a great sense of humor and understands the concept of satire, would probably just roll with the punches as he has with everything that’s been thrown at him. But I doubt Mrs. Obama would appreciate it, nor would the Democratic Party, nor would many Americans who support, even love, the President. We wouldn’t be hearing about free speech and creative freedom in that scenario.

The “SONY Situation” puts the company, the film industry, and the government in the satirically comic position of having to defend a film that shouldn’t have been made in the first place, in the name of free speech, creative freedom, and not allowing other countries to push us around. Why? In no small part because of Capitalism. America’s leading export is entertainment: film, television, music, video games and increasingly stand-up comedy. And for many years now, Hollywood product in all categories has been built on a foundation of graphic violence, drugs and sex.

So when our government tells us that terrorists hate us for our freedom, that is only part of the truth. They also hate us for the nature and content of our popular culture, our military intervention in their countries, and our constant efforts at regime change (what we like to call nation building). We are determined to spread Democracy and Capitalism, two different things that many Americans think are the same.

I know there are critical human rights issues at stake, but it’s not a simple matter to resolve and we tend to make our efforts to fix and change things in a manner that other countries find decidedly objectionable. They think we’re crazy, just as we think they’re crazy. I do think they’re much crazier than we are. However, we have little with which to defend ourselves. Because our other top export is Consumerism – in concept and action. Ours is a youth-&-beauty-obsessed, celebrity-worshiping, materialistic culture. We value money, power, prestige and things more than people. We are the least developed nation among all developed nations when it comes to economic equality, education, health care, and our regard for the poor and elderly.

I think the current defense of The Interview, filled with Constitutional dismay about SONY’s initial response, is misplaced: the right defense for the wrong thing. Where was a similar torrent of outrage when NewSouth Books put a fig leaf on Huckleberry Finn by changing the use of “nigger” to “slave,” even though this is a classic work of fiction that reflects the accurate, actual use of language in its historical place in time? 

Hasn’t the rigidity of political correctness also mindlessly and uncreatively undermined free speech and creative expression? Comedian Lenny Bruce, poet Allen Ginsberg, and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were never given the succor of the First Amendment in their time, even though they richly deserved it. The "SONY Situation" requires a lot of thought and deserves much intelligent discussion – but The Interview is a regrettable launch pad for it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take To Change America?

Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” is playing as I write this because for the last few weeks (and more) that’s what’s happened for a lot us – those of us paying attention, those of us who don’t have the money or the heart to get lost in the Christmas hustle that feels so unimportant and unreal this year. We as a nation have been awash in waves of shame and pride: our own, each others, those of leaders and idols and ordinary people turned into symbols they never wanted to be.

Yesterday’s CIA “Torture Report” was so revolting it actually inspired bipartisan anger and shame in the Senate. We already knew “intensified interrogation techniques” (G-d save us from the danger of euphemisms) had been used after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the governmental zeal to preempt further assaults. But we didn’t how deeply, cruelly “intensified” they were, or for how long they went on, against so many people, and how ineptly and chaotically the process was handled. “This isn’t who we are,” said an aggrieved President Obama about the program approved by his predecessor. But it is. It’s a big part of who we are and have always been, in spirit, from the genocide of the Indians through Slavery, Jim Crow, Vietnam, and the deeply divided country we’ve become.

And from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland (among others), the recent racial conflicts between police and young Black men (and a child) have made it plain that largely White law enforcement still doesn’t know how to cope with Black communities; that the Judicial System is equally broken and ignorant; and that Americans of all ages and colors are still capable of uniting in peaceful, nonviolent protest against the cancer of racism. Dirty waves of shame, cleansing waves of pride.

A lot of people – mostly White – thought the election of President Obama showed that racism was over in America, an idea that would be hilarious if it weren’t so treacherously untrue. I recall the young, rousing, Barack Obama speaking at the 2004 Democratic Convention saying there was no Black America or White America, just One America. I understood how much he wanted that to be so. I too am biracial and when I was still quite young, I believed it was my destiny, my responsibility, to be a communicator and a racial unifier, because I had a foot in both worlds. I never did figure out how to do that and, it turns out, neither has Barack Obama, even though he’s a whole lot smarter than I am and worked a million times harder.

The unfortunate, revealing, truth is Obama’s election fueled a resurgence of rampant, outspoken, unapologetic racism. I’m sure he expected some push-back, but I think even he was taken off-guard by how forceful it’s been. I don’t think he expected it would grind Congress to a halt, or lead a right-slanted Supreme Court to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in the midst of a nationwide Voter Suppression Movement, or that he would be called an illegitimate president who is behaving like a king because he’s done the same kinds of things the White presidents did – mainly, behaving like The President.

As we enter a two-year campaign for the 2016 presidential election (please, shoot me now), the pundits are discussing the Obama Legacy, as if it can be assessed just like any other presidency. His legacy, for the record, is that he kept us out of another Great Depression, re-grew the economy quite impressively with no help from either house of Congress, achieved a first attempt at something resembling national health care insurance even though it’s woefully sloppy and over-detailed, accomplished a bushel of things few people either know about or remember (take a look at the White House website), appointed two progressive women to the Supreme Court, conducted himself with presidential dignity in the face of consistent disrespect, managed to get re-elected and be a two-term president, and to date has avoided assassination, even though, it would appear, the Secret Service doesn’t entirely have his back.

Now the media are asking what he’s going to do about racism in America – especially since he’s worked so hard to be The President, not The Black President, and hasn’t wanted to make White people feel…excluded? ignored? uncared for? The irony here (one of several) is that even though White people hold all the cards, a lot of them always feel short-changed because they think poor people and minorities get all the breaks and benefits. They really believe that! The same way rich people (who, except for a handful of entertainers and athletes, are pretty much exclusively White) think they’re taken advantage of because they’re rich. The mind reels.

I guess we’ll have to [hope and] wait for Hillary Clinton. Maybe she can do something about “race relations,” since paying any attention to women’s issues would clearly be favoritism. Shame and pride, pride and shame, and the increased loss of personal and national innocence as the eternal foibles of reality bubble up. And I don’t even have room left to talk about Bill Cosby.