Free speech in America may be a constitutional right but self-censorship is an American congenital habit. From government officials to corporation executives, from filmmakers to the media, it happens at great frequency and intervals.
Sony Pictures, threatened by North Korea, is currently in hot water for canceling The Interview, (as of this writing it is to be partially released via independent theaters for Christmas) a comedy about an assassination plot against North Korea's leader, Kim Jung Un, but it is not the first film company to pull a flick out of fear. The Quiet American, a movie produced by Miramax, starring Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine, directed by Phillip Noyce, ended up on the shelf for a year and a half after 9/11 because of the public mood at the time.
Based on Graham Green's book of the same title, it's a movie that prophesied how America's naiveté would lead to misadventures and tragedy in Vietnam. The Quiet American, ironically, had the distinction of premiering in Vietnam, a country that routinely arrests bloggers, writers and journalists, long before it was shown in American theaters, and only then in limited theaters.
Seth Rogen and James Franco in The Interview
Government officials and world institutions are even worse when it comes to self-censorship. On Feb 5, 2003, before then Secretary of State, Colin Powell in his infamous WMD speech at the United Nations in New York, U.N. officials rushed to cover up the giant tapestry version of Pablo Picasso's anti-war mural "Guernica." Powell held up a little vial and told the world that, had that vial really contained WMD, it could kill tens of thousands. He managed to convince the already paranoid public that US invasion Iraq is a must. A somber artwork showing men, women, children and animals killed and maimed by falling bombs therefore wouldn't exactly be appropriate as backdrop since it evoked the very vision of the horror that was to come.
On Feb. 12, 2003, a week later, a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a poetry reading scheduled at the Bush White House was canceled for fear that invited poets might read works by the likes of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes - all known to have anti war sentiments. So it would seem poetry and art are the first to be muffled when a nation decides to go on its warpath.
Which is why it is disappointing when those who are in the business of making movies play possum to fear or threat. The Quiet American was an important book and film, and had it been shown right after 9/11 it might have served as an important warning of the tragedy that was about to be unleashed in Iraq.
For often it is in our cultural spheres that America redeems itself. Those who hated the USA, too, are also secretly enchanted and seduced by America.
Kim Jong-un may think the US is an evil empire but he is otherwise a rapid basketball fan, and a big fan of Dennis Rodman to boot. His father, Kim Jong-il was reportedly the owner of 20,000 videos and DVDs and especially loved James Bond movies, Friday the 13th series, actress Elizabeth Taylor and, was yes, a fan of the king himself--Elvis Presley. Saddam Hussein loved the Godfather and The day of the Jackal. And Fidel Castro? Well, as a young man he dreamt of becoming a famous baseball pitcher.
James Franco and Seth Rogen may think they were clowning around in The Interview, but the North Korean leader, for one, doesn't underestimate the power of an American comedy that seeks to ridicule his image. His reign profoundly depends on censorship and on the continual myth making of Dear Leader. But at a time where more and more North Koreans are defying arrest and secretly watching bootlegged foreign films and TV shows, a comedy that ridiculed their leader doesn't bode well for his regime's longevity. In a sense, North Korea is more threatened by Hollywood than Hollywood is threatened by North Korea.
Despite sometimes showing the backbones of a jellyfish, Hollywood has traditionally serve both as important skeptic and critic of the rich and powerful, be they heads of states or chairman of corporations. Too bad that it takes a North Korean dictator to remind us of its power and magic. But such magic can only work if we all find the courage to keep the dark curtain from falling on the proverbial Guernica.
Indeed, at a time when security and surveillance threaten privacy and other civil liberties, when wars and assassination are waged abroad in the name of security and democracy, art should be loud and challenging, skewering and ridiculing the powerful as much as possible, and not be muffled, silenced and hushed.
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.