The Interview: When other weapons fail, send in the media

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Sony and the big U.S. theatre chains have pulled The Interview -- about James Franco and Seth Rogen being tasked by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un -- from release. It got taken out instead of Kim. Forget the victory of Cuba over U.S. policy after 67 years or the crisis of the ruble. Alan Dershowitz says, "North Korea has declared war on our first amendment." Direr still: "It's an attack on Christmas." Jeffrey Toobin, in the more restrained, liberal role on CNN alongside Dershowitz, says "It's even more serious." Who started this anyway?

In 1979 the Iran hostage crisis sent the U.S. into a cataleptic state over being abused and dissed by some cheesy non superpower (as opposed to the USSR/Russia). A program called America Held Hostage ran on ABC-TV for the 444 nights of the crisis, then became Nightline, which still exists. It was the first full gasp of American trauma over the menace of Islamic terror. President Jimmy Carter ordered a military raid to free the hostages but their helicopters were disabled by sand en route. The trauma magnified. What did they do then?

Edward Said, the elegant Columbia prof, literary critic and Palestinian advocate, wrote a book called Covering Iran. His proposition was: when military, political and economic weapons failed, the U.S. sent in the media. He tallied the masses of western reporters (freely allowed into Iran by its evil government) and how they overwhelmed criticism of the U.S. by dominating the coverage. Iranians themselves were swept up and felt weirdly coerced by ugly images of themselves. This was supplemented by a flood of Hollywood movies on Muslim terrorists that ran everywhere. There's a sense -- and it's only one piece of the puzzle -- in which the 9/11 bombers were playing roles they'd already seen themselves cast in through many Hollywood films and U.S. news reports.

The Interview represents the latest skirmish on the media front of these conflicts. The arcane North Korean regime has held out against all forms of direct coercion and now they have their own Bomb. So what does the West do? They go into media mode; they send in The Movies. How did the Muslim/Arab world eventually counter the media assault? Not by censorship or indignation but by creating Al Jazeera, their own version of Nightline, and now the largest and probably best journalistic operation in the world. North Korea can't best The Interview with a counter-film, you don't just drum up a Hollywood. So they go the digital media route, they hack Sony, and release humiliating emails of execs slagging Angelina Jolie and implying Barack Obama only likes "black" flix. It's somewhat impressive, given their limited resources and obscure worldview.

(I'm not granting they did it alone. Others may have been involved. The U.S. only claims that North Korea's government was "centrally involved" in the hack, not responsible. The emails also show that Sony consulted with the State Department over ways the film could help destabilize the Kim regime. It's not all paranoia over there. Note too that the hack is completely separate from the thuggish threat to murder moviegoers, which has nothing sophisticatedly "cultural" about it. It's straight wannabe terrorism.)

There was a serious UN-led effort to level the media playing field in the 1970-80s, under the name of New World Information Order. One Canadian rep was Marshall McLuhan though he died and was replaced. He deserved to live to see this month's instalment. The U.S. firmly opposed the initiative -- it didn't want a cultural version of the North Korean or Pakistani Bomb -- and it died away.

The movie, by the way, looks hilarious in trailers. But I tend to feel chastened by picturing parents who are Korean, Muslim, etc. whose kids see side-splitting images of their group being ridiculed, then killed. Mockery is often best turned on one's own. It'd be great to see Rogen and Franco as the Koch brothers though you may have to wait awhile. The real counterpunch would be a North Korean comedy on the Koch (or Bush) brothers but that's some time off too. Still it's an appealingly utopian thought. Instead of hitting the other side with drones or economic blackmail, you settle things through duelling movies.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Tim Reckmann/flickr

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