I have to admit I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo until it became the epicenter for the worst terrorist attack on French soil in two decades. It would be like the offices of Cracked or Mad had been raided here in the States, though Charlie Hebdo was certainly far more openly political and leftist than those safely zany lampoons of pop culture. But even if the comparison is imprecise, to see such a publication attacked by violent zealots, leaving its best and brightest minds bleeding out on fresh newsprint, is a kind of directly censorious assault that leaves the mind reeling.

It was censorship of the most direct kind, practiced since Mark Antony had Cicero’s severed head and hands displayed in the Forum, and like all such acts it was designed to breed censorship of the most indirect kind. Self-censorship is the ultimate goal, to get the satirist to give up attacking a sacred cow before they even begin.

Now here’s the thing. People have already begun responding with hashtags and solidarity to the barbarism, which is always welcome and a good sign. But ultimately it won’t be the person on the street or even the government that decides how much self-censorship will come from this assault. It’ll be the lawyers.

It’s all well and good to loudly proclaim the virtues of free speech in the face of terrorism designed to intimidate people into self-censorship. But what of the next generation of satirists and cartoonists, the magazines and rags that are struggling or yet to be born? What happens to them then they try to incorporate, to get insurance?

I can see it now: an insurance underwriter denying a satirical publication coverage after they refuse to self-censor. A staff lawyer preemptively putting the kibosh on a potentially inflammatory issue for liability reasons. Remember just a few short weeks ago, when The Interview was pulled from theaters? “Liability” was the fig leaf there, too.

And it’s not just a fig leaf for a satirist or cartoonist. Imagine if you, uninsured and unprotected, publish something that gets someone on your staff–or, hell, even an innocent person elsewhere–hurt or killed. In today’s climate, that’s a huge liability and you could find yourself on the hook for expenses that no modest income could cover.

That’s my big worry out of all of this. Not just that there will be self-censorship, but that it will be perversely driven not from ideology or fear but simple liability and actuarial charts. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that, whether through the use of new media or decentralized distribution, such prosaic issues aren’t enough to kneecap people’s speech and especially their humor. After all, such wasn’t the terrorists’ intent–they aren’t that smart. A suppressed bullet and car bomb are all the subtlety they know.

I hope that we won’t allow mundanity and prosaic interests to do to us what naked fear cannot, but I’m afraid I’m just too cynical to believe it will be so.

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You’s think that, given a title like the one above, that I’d be ranting against Hollywood’s lack of innovation, its crass celebrity culture, its smug sense of self-satisfaction, or any one of the numerous sins the industry has committed in the 100 years of its existence.

You’d be wrong. I come before you today to rant about something very different: Hollywood’s double standard when it comes to censorship and activism.

One of the major points that industry professionals have emphasized is the ability of their movies to make social points and advance worthy causes, addressing racism, classism, other -isms, and oppression at home and abroad. And it’s true that movies have done that…up to a point. But it’s only recently that the line in the sand has become clear.

Remember in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviets were the go-to bad guys? Films weren’t afraid to point out the brutal nature and horrific human rights abuses committed by the communists. And yet, in films today, you never see the few contemporary communist regimes–with one exception as we shall see–portrayed as the rights-abusing boogeymen that they often are. Why is that?

The answer is simple: money. The old Soviet bloc, and other states that espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a future utopia that would never be (as opposed to the fascists, who espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a past utopia that never was)…they never screened American films, or did so only rarely. There was no money to be lost by pointing out horrific crimes, because there was no chance of Hollywood movies unspooling officially behind the iron curtain.

That’s all changed. In a move that can only be described as Machiavellian brilliance, nasty regimes have opened up their markets to Hollywood films with strict central control. You can make your millions from a movie-hungry foreign audience…but only if the powers-that-be say so. This creates a powerful economic incentive not to piss off a given country, like China, by calling attention to any social points or worthy causes. Thus instead you have craven sucking up to the selfsame governments where once there might have been criticism, like the scenes added to Iron Man 3 or the evil, inept Americans as a contrast to the heroic, competent Chinese government in Transfourmers: The One With Swords and Dinosaurs.

Perhaps a worse example has just been dumped on our laps, though: The Interview. For a long time, North Korea has been one of the few acceptable movie bogeymen, with its abuses and excesses and brutality always on glittering display, because the Hermit Kingdom, like the Soviets of old, allowed no American movies outside of the Kim family’s private theater and there was therefore no chance of alienating a revenue-paying audience. Only the Nazis, discredited and repudiated and dead to history, were more reliable villains throughout the 2000s and 2010s–hell, several movies and video games (like the remake of Red Dawn and the first-person shooters Homefront) were reworked at a late date to swap out Chinese villains for North Korean ones in defiance of all logic. North Korea was “safe.”

But that’s all changed. The Interview apparently touched a deep nerve with the North Koreans, portraying as it does the attempted assassination of King Jong-Un. So the Koreans retained a group of hackers to sabotage Sony, the producer and distributor of the film. Releasing internal documents, emails, and even a few completed films…all this hurt the filmmakers where it hurt most, in the wallet. Realizing that they were in the same position to lose money through hackery, theater chains have begun pulling the movie entirely. They’re billing it a “safety” issue, but it’s really a monetary one–North Korea has proven, at least for now, its ability to cost Hollywood money, and no one wants to pay that price for their principles.

So, in an even more craven move than crudely editing Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing into Iron Man 3 to suck up to China, the fear of revenue loss has essentially allowed the world’s most brutal dictator veto power to censor media critical of him. People are dying under jackboots in the Hermit Kingdom as they have been since 1945, but rather than let even a relatively mild “Springtime for Kim Jong-Un” satire unspool safely, Hollywood would prefer to quietly go back to making money.

I’m sorry. That’s craven, it’s crass, and it sets a dreadful precedent for everyone who doesn’t like their portrayal in free media: if you cost people enough money either by denying them revenue or hacking it away, they’ll meekly let you go about your business. That, in my mind, is the biggest reason to seek out and see The Interview if you can find anyone brave enough to distribute it: to send the message to those selfsame craven, crass bean counters that there are bigger things at stake than their damn bottom line. A thousand reboots, a thousand thousand remakes, a thousand thousand thousand vanilla rom-coms before handing the veto stamp to those who deserve the harshest, glitziest spotlight the industry has shone upon them.

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