you should worry about soft censorship more than North Korea

North Korea is an invaluable nation for America’s cultural and political industries. A genuinely brutal dictatorship with a genuinely crackpot dictator, the site of almost unthinkable human rights abuses which can be used to distract our broken, destructive nation from its brokenness and destruction. Like all good Big Bads, North Korea’s capabilities shift back and forth depending on the particular rhetorical need. So the country is a pathetic backwater run by a pack of incompetent clowns, whose rockets splash down harmlessly and hilariously into the Pacific… up until it becomes ideologically convenient for the country to represent an existential threat to all of us, a violent and powerful military dictatorship bent on nuclear power and in possession of a vast army. North Korea is by turns pathetic and terrifying, as befits the given need of a given gasbag. Like I said: it’s an invaluable nation for those who professionally beat the drum.

You will notice that the recent outrage over the (outrageous) hacking and threats against Sony Pictures has a rare cross-ideological and partisan unity to it. I was skeptical of the idea that North Korea was behind it at first, and I continue to think there’s some shoe left to drop; saying “we know the North Koreans did it because the US government says they did” is pretty weak tea, given how regularly and unashamedly this  government lies to its people. But sure: I wouldn’t put it past them. Like I say, it’s a horrific regime, with genuine instability at the top. Anyway, we’ve got ourselves a moment of unusual unanimity. You could throw some cold water on it all; despite the incredible evil of the North Korean regime, it’s a pure, non-ideological and objective fact that since the Korean war, the United States has caused vastly more devastation and loss of innocent life than the regime in NK. More to the point, there’s t he simple fact that these rituals are always at least partially about ignoring our own problems, using other country’s problems as a way to avoid talking about our own. “LOL Russia, how’s the ruble doing” is what a failed society says when it wants to ignore that it has imprisoned, harassed, and murdered generations of its most vulnerable racial groups, tortured and sexually assaulted its enemies and some who were mistaken for its enemies, done nothing to meaningfully address a massive ecological catastrophe that its own scientists are warning about, subjects its people to mass surveillance, spent $2.5 trillion combined on two failed recent wars, and developed an economy that functions as a machine for putting more and more money in the hands of the tiny few. 

For the moment, I’d prefer to focus a little more closely on the issue of movie theaters and studios censoring films out of fear of the regime. Like most people, I find this both chilling and absurd; North Korea has no more ability to cause great violence in the United States than your average terrorist group, which means that it  could inflict an emotional and human toll but on a very limited scale. The dominant lesson of post-9/11 terrorism is that it’s really hard to actually cause widespread damage via terrorism. What’s especially weird about all this is that North Korea threatens things all the time, but nobody pays attention or cares, because they have neither the ability to pull off most of what they threaten nor the intention of actually going through with it. So while the bad behavior here is certainly the fault of North Korea (and/or whoever else is behind it), there’s plenty of shame for those companies, too. But everybody’s unified: North Korea’s regime is bad. Hacking is bad. Blackmail is bad. Terrorist threats are bad. As Fred Durst would say, we are all in aggreance.

What I wonder is why people aren’t a little more put off by a form of censorship that is more insidious, and will likely affect far more movies in the long run: the soft censorship of appealing to the Chinese government in order to reap the Chinese box office. There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax. That’s where you  can see genuine self-censorship coming in. And while I imagine that this whole thing will blow over before long, without a great deal of long-term damage, I think the urge to play in China -and for the Chinese government —  will only grow over time.

There is a recent movie that features North Korea as an enemy: the remake of Red Dawn. That movie, however, was originally scripted and shot with a Chinese enemy. Only in post-production was the enemy changed to North Korea. Why? Certainly not for the plot; the notion that North Korea is equipped to invade the United States is even more absurd than the notion, as in the original, that the USSR was so equipped in the 1980s. And not because of the fear of terrorism. Instead, it was the soft censorship of the profit motive. Fear of offending China was effective at changing a central plot point of that movie, and received a fraction of the discussion.

Why aren’t we seeing similar fretting about the soft censorship of Chinese dollars? Because there’s no simplistic morality play where America and its values are the victims, of course. Because there’s no way in which that story appeals to a simple narrative of American superiority. Rather, it asks us to self-implicate, and to consider the inherent censoriousness of the profit motive. That’s a complex set of issues, and it doesn’t leave us smelling like a rose, and it might lead us into an uncomfortable discussion. So it doesn’t get discussed.