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“The Year In Fear”: From Ebola To Street Violence To Comrade Kim

There a lot of things about the Sony Pictures hack attack and the resulting cancellation of the Seth Rogen-James Franco movie “The Interview” that don’t make sense. It isn’t just that the entire episode feels fictional; it feels like a stretch as a fictional episode. Some upstart satirical novelist fresh out of the Iowa Writers Workshop writes a book in which the dictator of North Korea, the nation where every day is Throwback Thursday, forces a multinational media corporation to kill a Hollywood comedy built around a couple of snarky, self-referential stars. Two versions of meta-reality collide: the delusional gaze of dead-end Leninism meets the smug smirk of dumbed-down postmodernism, and the world explodes. Oh, come on. Couldn’t happen.

But it fed our fear. It fed our love of fear. We are a nation addicted to fear. We seek it out wherever we can find it, and we cling to it. When it doesn’t exist, we invent it. We manipulate it for cynical purposes, to sell bad products and push bad ideologies. How much have you heard about Ebola and ISIS since the Republicans won their glorious victory in the midterm elections? We invoke it soberly, on both the right and the left, as a warning from the heavens urging us to repent of sin and choose the path of righteousness. If a Bible-thumping preacher inveighing against gays and Muslims taps into our love affair with fear, so does every left-wing warning of eco-catastrophe, from Rachel Carson to Al Gore and beyond.

Not all fears are equally unreasonable, to be sure. But if we can never agree about exactly what to fear, we are unanimous in embracing fear itself, and we line up to suckle poisonous milk from its brain-freezing breast. Fear is a powerful and dreadful thing, a toxic and odorless gas that permeates all thought and all substance. It conquers reason and love. It makes us shriveled and small-minded. A society ruled by fear stumbles along from crisis to crisis, guided by no clear principles and riven by contradictory impulses. It chooses leaders who feed the fear and leaders who promise to banish it (often the same people). In the name of conquering fear, it ends by giving up everything that is not fear. Constitutional freedoms, the ideals of democracy, civil rights and even the sanctity of the human individual, perhaps the greatest innovation of capitalism – all are subjugated to the Ministry of Fear.

Here’s the detail in the Sony/”Interview” snafu I keep getting stuck on: Apparently sane and normal people had to pretend, if only as a term of art or a legal fiction, that there was something to be afraid of here. We had to “assess the risk” that the incoherent threat made by Kim Jong-un or whoever-the-hell against people who went to see “The Interview” in movie theaters, represented actual danger in the real world. (The more I reread the backward syntax and throttled grammar of that message – “Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment” – the more it sounds like the work of some cackling, bearded anarchist in Brooklyn.) I don’t mean the microscopic, act-of-God danger that can never be eliminated: A plane might crash into my house before I finish writing this column, or whatever. We had to sit around like an entire nation of TV pundits pulling on our chins and consider the possibility that the North Koreans were actually going to blow up a suburban movie theater in Syracuse or San Antonio.

Well, no, it probably won’t happen (said the sane and reasonable people, and their lawyers), but there was a threat. A “threat”! It’s not worth the “risk.” Just imagine the carnage in the food court, and the horror at Sunglass Hut, if the Shoppes at Fox Run Estates became the target of a North Korean nuke attack. We can’t be too safe. Well, here’s the thing: You can be too safe, and in a certain sense Americans are too safe. At least, we are too cosseted from life in the real world, too securely packaged in the polyvinyl peanuts of our consumer lifestyle, too oblivious to real dangers and too fixated on imaginary ones. Can I tell you for certain that no one would have gotten murdered for watching “The Interview”? No. But I can tell you that those moviegoers were far more likely to die in car accidents on the way to the mall, and that the fear of that vanishingly small possibility is more destructive than the possibility itself.

You could say that every year since 2001 has been a year of fear in America, but 2014 feels special in this regard. There were enemies both foreign and domestic to fear; there were numinous psychological terrors and dreadful real-world events. It was a year of racialized fear and sexualized fear, a year when citizens felt under attack by law enforcement and the intelligence bureaucracies, and vice versa. We were instructed to fear a deadly new plague and a murderous new Islamic cult, both presented as the potential end of civilization and requiring the further renunciation of democracy and due process. To end the year by abandoning a stupid movie in terror of a cartoon dictator from an impoverished and isolated country 6,000 miles away was entirely too fitting.

If there’s one thing we know about Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s that he genuinely felt afraid. Now, the reasons why Wilson felt afraid of an unarmed black man, and believed he had no alternative but to use lethal force, belong to a long and pathological skein of hatred and fear stretching deep into American history. I understand why many people wanted to see Wilson prosecuted, along with the other perceived rogue cops of 2014. But Wilson did not invent the climate of fear that makes black men and boys appear threatening to authority figures whether or not they are armed, and whether or not they are doing anything illegal or confrontational. He was soaked in that fear, like a piece of human litmus paper, and was too weak to resist it.

It might be tempting to conclude that the cases of Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the other unarmed African-American males killed by cops this year were isolated instances that got blown out of proportion, rather than evidence of a larger pattern. But the fear-driven and intensely racialized response to those killings suggests otherwise. In the zero-sum game of American racial politics, a distressingly large number of white people interpret any criticism of the police, and any discussion about enduring racial prejudice or white privilege, as an all-out assault. Like everybody else of any color who has tried to write about this issue, I’ve been barraged all year long by correspondents eager to discuss the purported epidemic of black-on-white violence ignored by the media, Barack Obama’s impending “final solution” to the white problem, or the coming alliance between ISIS agents and urban black radicals aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government from within. (I heard about that one, from a self-styled terrorism expert, just last week.)

I’m not suggesting that most white Americans manifest that kind of extreme paranoia. But it isn’t as rare as those of us in liberal coastal cities would like to believe, and even the crude data of public opinion polls suggest that the climate of fear that enabled Darren Wilson is widespread in white America. Like so many other things about our perishing republic, this is paradoxical. Amid all this psychic distress, it’s easy to overlook the objective facts: Violent crime is at or near a 50-year low in this country, and by some measures an all-time low. The overt racial discord and confrontation of the 1960s and ‘70s is largely absent from American life (or at least it was, until very recently). A black man with a foreign-sounding name has twice been elected president, by comfortable margins.

If white Americans – who are and remain a uniquely wealthy, privileged and protected group as a whole — choose to view themselves through a prism of fear, invoking the same rhetoric of victimology they often claim to despise in others, they are not alone. We saw a similar defensive reaction among men during the hashtag war that erupted after the Santa Barbara shootings last spring, as if the #YesAllWomen consciousness-raising moment, which could have provoked thoughtful reflection, had been a call for a feminist police state and universal castration. Instead we learned that #NotAllMen are violent creeps. Well, congratulations.

Both of these fear-driven reactions are mimicked again, and repeatedly, on the national scale. Americans seem determined to process the trauma of 9/11 – which at this point feels like the cherished and nourished trauma of 9/11 – by convincing ourselves that we’re not actually a blundering imperial superpower but an embattled underdog, about to be overrun from outside and eaten away from within by a legion of comic-book supervillains. I’m aware this is nothing new. This current of xenophobia and panic, the terror that our shining city on a hill will be corrupted by savages and pagans, goes back at least as far as the Salem witch trials. With the delusion known as American exceptionalism comes the delusion of persecution. Remember the scene in “Fahrenheit 911” when Michael Moore gets people in the Michigan backwoods to explain why their county is a likely target for Islamic terrorists? They hate us for our freedom!

After the Edward Snowden revelations, and after the Brown and Garner grand jury decisions, many of us have found new reasons to fear the state apparatus, whether in its covert form or its paramilitary street-level domestic operatives. As I said earlier, not all fear is unreasonable, and those fears may find both positive and negative modes of expression. I will never know the vulnerable feeling of being an African-American potentially subject to street harassment, arbitrary arrest or summary execution by police. What is most noteworthy about the widespread and generally peaceful demonstrations in response to the Brown and Garner cases, in fact, is that they represent not the triumph of fear but a triumph over fear. The anguish, grief and fear of black people and other citizens have been translated into social action – into people on the street together, which is the most powerful antidote to fear.

Executives at Sony could perhaps have summoned the possibility of social action – if they lived in some alternate universe where they believed in something beyond corporate ass-covering. Since they don’t, they ditched a film they never believed in, in response to a fear they didn’t really feel, because the lawyers told them to. A profile in courage that sums up the year in fear just a little too well.


By: Andrew O’Hehir, Salon, December 20, 2014

December 25, 2014 Posted by | Fear, Police Brutality, Sony Pictures | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stand Up, The Show Must Go On”: Freedom Of Expression Is Worth Fighting For

It has been a deeply troubling week for defenders of freedom of expression. After a hacking attack that the FBI has now officially connected to the government of North Korea, and subsequent threats by the hackers, theater chains refused to show the comedy The Interview and Sony eventually pulled it from distribution.

The question here is not about the wisdom of making the movie, or whether perceived quality determines its merits of being defended. As actor George Clooney has recently said,

With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this.

The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to decide what they want to say, read, write, watch and listen to without interference from the government. Government officials do not always honor that principle and that is why organizations like ours that advocate for First Amendment values are a necessary bulwark to free expression in the arts as well as politics.

But censorship by government officials and agencies is not the only threat to freedom of expression. Back in 1998, the Manhattan Theatre Club initially cancelled its planned production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi when it received bomb threats. After an outcry by proponents of free expression, and with security precautions in place, the play eventually opened. People offended by the play’s content were, of course, free to protest, and they did. But so were free expression advocates, and we marched as well. In the end, the show went on.

For The Interview, it appears for the moment, the show will not go on. It’s hard to know exactly what motivated the theater chains that cancelled the show — fear of making themselves the next hacking target, legitimate worries about the potential for violence and/or legal liability in the case of violence. The end result is that we have now allowed the government of North Korea to dictate content.

That is, to state the obvious, not an acceptable state of affairs. Judd Apatow, one of the first to speak out, tweeted earlier this week, “I am not going to let a terrorist threat shut down freedom of speech. I am going to The Interview.” I think the vast majority of Americans, whatever their political persuasion, can applaud that spirit, and embrace Clooney’s insistence, “We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all f*cking people.”

This isn’t about pointing fingers at theater owners or Sony. This week’s events are an extreme example of the complicated questions free expression advocates around the world are facing as private corporations control more and more of the world’s access to information and communications — whether it’s corporate control of internet service providers, search engines and social media channels, or efforts by regulators in some countries to require search engines like Google to censor the content they make available. These aren’t traditional free expression questions, but they are ones that we must face.

It’s time for a renewed national commitment to and celebration of the fundamental value of free expression. It is time to dedicate the intellectual and financial resources necessary to safeguard our online infrastructure. And maybe more importantly, it is time to assert a shared national will to stand up to those who would limit our freedom expression, whether they are corporate executives, government censors or foreign dictators who will happily export their political repression to our shores if we allow them to do so.


By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 19, 2014

December 20, 2014 Posted by | 1st Amendment, Free Speech, North Korea | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“There’s Bound To Be A Next Time”: The Sony Leak Unearthed Juicy Gossip, But The Blackmailers Must Not Win

My heart sinks, to be honest, at the prospect of having to watch The Interview. Judging from the trailers, it’s the kind of crass, juvenile slapstick that’s barely worth a bucket of popcorn and a babysitter – although we can scratch the babysitter, since the only way ever to watch this comedy may  be at home now that the embattled Sony Pictures has cancelled its cinema release. If only someone had mounted a repressive cyber-attack over an unflattering portrayal of North Korean politics in something that’s actually funny, like 2004’s Team America World Police.

But just as everyone felt obliged to order Spycatcher from Australia after the Thatcher government banned its publication, we’ll all feel obliged to watch this film should it ever emerge from what’s left of Sony HQ. The hacking of the company apparently in retaliation for this fictional account of a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader is pure political censorship, a chilling of free speech that threatens far better films and books and journalism. It cannot be allowed to succeed.

The attack on Sony seemed rather harmlessly entertaining at first, when it was all about squirming senior executives being forced to explain leaks about Jennifer Lawrence earning less than her male co-stars, or to grovel over racially charged private jokes dumped in the public domain. Even the mooted involvement of the North Korean government didn’t feel threatening when the studio was being held to ransom by little more than bitchy gossip about Angelina Jolie. Perhaps we’re all too used to watching hackers open up secretive worlds (even if at times they have done so cavalierly, and – in the past – with potentially fatal consequences) to see this for what it really was, namely an attempt to shut debate down.

Or perhaps the reaction was a slow burner because, despite leading a regime described by Amnesty International as “in a category of its own” for torture and repression, Kim Jong-un is so often inexplicably treated in the west as a sort of semi-comical cartoon baddie, a bit like a Bond villain. The oddest thing about this whole saga is that had the British government slashed the BBC’s licence fee in retaliation for a show satirising George Osborne, the response would probably have been angrier and more immediate.

But we should have realised long before cinemas started to receive threats evoking the memory of 9/11 that this wasn’t funny. Even if the White House declined on Thursday to blame the North Korean government directly, the attack on Sony has more in common with the furore over Danish cartoons of the prophet than with mischievous data raids on tax-dodging corporates. Sony has been not just embarrassed but crippled by an attack on its IT infrastructure that exposes the surprising fragility of our digitised world: the ease with which the plug can be pulled.

And while making films isn’t exactly life and death stuff, no secretary should go unpaid at Christmas because someone shut down the computerised payroll in homage to a thin-skinned dictator. No legitimate business deserves to be crippled for offending a totalitarian regime, and no government can be allowed to exercise a veto over the way it is portrayed around the world, whether what we’re talking about is a hissy fit over a comedy or China blocking Google.

If the North Korean government really is behind this attack, in the short term it’s arguably scored its own goal. Sony says it has no current plans to release the film on DVD or streaming services, perhaps because of fears that any distributor could become a hacking target, but it’s hard to believe it won’t eventually emerge somehow.

If nothing else, social media is alive with jibes at Kim Jong-un’s expense, and more people will surely now watch the trailers than would have seen the film in cinemas – just as tabloid outrage over the BBC serialising Hilary Mantel’s book on murdering Margaret Thatcher (talking of fictional assassinations) will probably only remind more people to tune into A Book at Bedtime. All arts censorship really does, whether it’s prosecuting Penguin Books over Lady Chatterley’s Lover or plastering parental advisory stickers on rap CDs, is make the object more exciting.

But in the longer term, there’s cause for concern. What major Hollywood studio is raring to make a film about North Korea now? Will a TV network or publisher think twice about commissioning something on the regime? And how should any platform respond to something like this in the future?

Sony has been criticised for caving in rather than simply collaborating with those independent cinemas still willing to show the film (most of the big chains pulled out after warnings, apparently from the hackers, that the “world will be full of fear” if they screened it). There was, we’re told, no credible intelligence of a terrorist plot. But the studio has a responsibility to cinema staff and cinemagoers that makes this a little more complicated than the robust “publish and be damned” attitude you might get from a paper. Would you risk people dying, however tiny the risk, just to see a half-baked Seth Rogen vehicle?

And to criticise Sony is arguably to gloss over big questions for those media organisations that gleefully published the leaked emails, and thus became awkwardly complicit in a blackmail exercise seemingly conducted on behalf of a prolific abuser of human rights.

Whenever they’re confronted with a juicy leak, journalists need to ask themselves the cui bono question: to whose benefit? And the answer is often pretty unedifying – a spurned lover, a disgruntled MP passed over for promotion, someone wanting cash. That doesn’t mean you don’t publish private information if there is a public interest, as there arguably was in some of this material. If you don’t want to be publicly embarrassed about paying women less than men, maybe don’t pay them less, rather than begging for our sympathy when you’re caught at it.

But when all that’s being revealed is that George Clooney hates getting bad reviews – well, this is the territory of bears and woods and a lack of outdoor toilet facilities, and tougher questions ought to be asked before republishing it, even if the stuff is already everywhere online. We need to think this through before the next time, because there’s bound to be a next time, if only on the grounds that what happened to Sony has given every other repressive regime – or organisation, or culture – on the planet a glimpse of the possible. And that’s not funny.


By: Gaby Hinsliff, The Guardian, December 18, 2014

December 19, 2014 Posted by | Entertainment Industry, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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