Vox: Watching ‘The Interview’ Helps North Korea

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

In what may be the silliest argument for not seeing The Interview, Vox’s Max Fisher argues that seeing it actually helps Kim Jong-Un.

In case you’ve somehow missed the sequence of events leading up to this, The Interview is the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy about a pair of celebrity journalists recruited by the CIA to kill North Korea’s leader. After Sony was hacked last month, allegedly by North Korea, the hackers eventually threatened 9/11 style attacks on film-goers if the film was released in theaters. Last week, after the threat went public, major theater chains buckled and refused to show the film. Then Sony canceled the release completely.

Many Americans did not like the idea of letting Nork hackers (Again, that’s the official word.) determine what they could watch. And so a kind of pro-American backlash started, and Sony got on board and agreed to release the film in some independent theaters and online. That was all apparently too much for Vox’s Max Fisher. He argues at length that those who see the film are actually helping Kim Jong-Un:

This supposed act of defiance against Kim Jong Un actually helps North Korea, by buying into their disingenuous propaganda about the movie, as well as by aiding Kim in his mission to look more important than he is and to gin up conflict between his country and the US. The supposed celebration of free speech is a tremendous favor to the regime that is by far the worst human rights abuser on earth.

Fisher is apparently so eager to bash anyone who might be feeling a pro-American sentiment that he does not bother to think this through. From the point in time where the hackers made threats against America, there were only two basic options.

Option one, which theater chains and Sony initially took, was to back down and let the hackers have their way. This is what is sometimes referred to as the heckler’s veto. It’s allowing someone’s threat to determine what is permissible. Obviously, that’s not how we do things in the United States, and it was also a really bad precedent to set. If North Korea could censor a U.S. feature film, why shouldn’t other rogue nations or violent groups follow its lead and attempt to censor media they don’t like?

Option two was for Americans and Sony to buck up and make it clear that we do not respond to threats by cowering. And that’s what Sony, some independent theaters, and many individuals eventually decided to do. That’s the option Fisher is now saying helps North Korea. But the question he should be asking, the one asked by all the people who wanted to see the film, is which option was the least bad? And the answer to that question, obviously, is that letting the hackers win was much worse than denying them a successful censorship victory.

In fact, even President Obama, whom I argued dithered when he should have been leading, eventually came around to that same conclusion. In a speech given days after Sony pulled the film, Obama said that Sony had “made a mistake” in bowing to pressure. Sony quickly reversed course (while claiming they had never backed down in the first place). That may have been a little bit of rear-covering on Sony’s part, but the point is that almost everyone involved eventually agreed one of the available options was better than the other. And again, that better one is the one Vox’s Max Fisher now says is helping North Korea.

Fisher’s real problem is that the film was made at all. He’s arguing it was ill-begotten, that it’s very premise elevates a failed state to the level of threat to the U.S. And seen as a critique of the premise, he may have a point (though I would argue he is still wrong). But the point he’s making would need to be taken up with James Franco and Seth Rogen–a year ago (or whenever they dreamed this up)–not with the people refusing to be bullied out of seeing the movie once it was already a finished film being advertised on TV.

Fisher makes another argument in the piece, which also goes nowhere fast:

The real reason that North Korea hacked Sony (or, if it did not hack Sony, the reason it has strongly implied it was responsible) is not because Kim Jong Un felt insulted by The Interview, which depicts his assassination. The real reason is that North Korea wants — needs — to find regular excuses to gin up conflict between it and the United States. And the massive cyberattack is just the latest in a long line of such look-at-me attacks on South Korea and the US, stretching back decades.

It’s true that U.S.-bashing is a regular feature of North Korean propaganda. Earlier this year the country put out a video envisioning a nuclear strike on the White House. But whether they really believe this or just want us to believe they believe it doesn’t ultimately matter. What is new this time around is the genuinely damaging hack, which our government says was carried out by North Korea or people working at its behest. That attack was real and required a real response.

Granted, the best possible response from the public would have been to ignore it as we ignored all the previous North Korean threats. But that became impossible after the initial retreat by Sony and theater chains (and the shameful cowardice of all but a few in Hollywood itself). Once it was impossible for Americans to go about their business, the best remaining option, as even President Obama eventually acknowledged, was to reject the censorship of the film. Those who took that course did the right thing, and Vox is wrong-headed to suggest the effort to deny North Korea a victory actually gave them one.