If the noble experiment of American democracy is to mean anything, it is fidelity to the principle of freedom. It is to champion the idea that all men and women are endowed with certain unalienable rights—free to think our thoughts, speak our minds, associate with whom we want and express our feelings without fear that a tyrant will silence us. Slavery is not only the physical restraining of the body. It is also the imprisonment of the mind—the instinct to quiet one’s thoughts in the face of terror.
This is a degrading and shameful state which no man or woman should be forced to endure.
Yesterday, Americans not only endured it—they enabled it. Anonymous hackers, possibly associated with the North Korean regime, made unspecified threats to conduct a 9/11-style attack on theaters that showed “The Interview,” a feature comedy film which pokes fun at Kim Jong Un. Major theaters announced they would not show the movie and Sony pulled it.
On Christmas weekend, a North Korean tyrant has decided what American teenagers will see on the silver screen. Some sympathize with the theaters. Who can blame them? Why would any business expose their customers to potential terror?
This is wrong, dangerous and shameful.
By giving an artistic veto to a madman, we submit to the mindset of a slave. We are no longer sovereigns of our thoughts, comedy and art. If anything is worth fighting for, it is this.
Where can such blatant capitulation end? Imagine—just imagine!—if Iranian hackers threatened to attack any bookstore selling critical views of Islam or the Supreme Leader. Imagine if hackers from Saudi Arabia said that any TV station in America broadcasting feminists and gays would be attacked? What if the Taliban threatened to attack any readers of websites advocating women’s education.
What would we do? The answer should be self-evident. Evidently it is not.
There is no middle ground in submitting our sacred rights to the whims of foreign tyrants. None. It is all or nothing. Either we believe the First Amendment is worth defending or we do not. Giving in, even the slightest amount to international gangsters, will only invite higher prices and worse consequences.
We must fight back. If anything demonstrates the power of comedy to make dictators quake in their boots, it is the events of the past few days. To stop Americans from laughing at their Dear Leader, North Korean hackers leaked massively damaging private information from Sony. Kim clearly can’t take a joke.
A year and a half ago, I launched Dictator Appreciation Month, otherwise known as Make Fun of a Dictator Month. The premise was simple: satire is devastating against tyrants. That’s why dictators break the hands of Syrian cartoonists like Ali Farazat, shut down Egyptian comedians like Bassem Youssef and jail Azerbaijani pranksters like Emin Milli.
Few things are as powerful as a joke. It simultaneously reveals the absurdity of dictatorship and gives comfort to those languishing under an impossible reality.
Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, once said, “Satire and comedy might be one of the very few antidotes against fear. It liberates your minds. It sets your judgement free. And that is why it is a threat...when you laugh, you cannot be afraid anymore…” Elsewhere, he echoed, “Laughter destroys fear and opens the doors of the imagination. It is the strongest weapon for deconstructing an oppressive system.”
Dictator Appreciation Month was to be held each June. In honor of Kim, I’m moving it up to this January. The North Korean tyrant has proven that if there’s one thing he’s really insecure about, it is comedy. So go out today and make fun of this tyrant.
Draw a cartoon of him. Make a video at his expense. Prank a North Korean diplomat. Let’s create a mobilized, grassroots army of satirists to make sure that a brutal tyrant doesn’t have final say over when, where and how we laugh. A joke won’t topple the regime, but Kim has revealed one of his greatest vulnerabilities.
The actions of North Korea this week should also send a clear message about the danger of this regime. Anyone willing to threaten war over a joke is clearly not playing with a full deck. Giving in to the demands of such a leader will, without question, invite greater aggression and brutality.
Kim can hack Sony but he can't stop the Internet. This movie will spread online. Watch it. Share it. Host evenings at your home to screen it with friends. Project it in parks and on university campuses. Act out its scenes in front of North Korean embassies. Find a way.
This is what Kim fears. This is what freedom means. This is the American way.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a contributor to The Daily Beast. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and Reuters and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg TV and Al Jazeera. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Movements.org is a crowdsourcing platform created by Advancing Human Rights which connects activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help them.