When modern states dictate what movies get made

I was thinking about the recent events surrounding the so-so movie, The Interview.  To review, hackers infiltrated Sony’s computer systems in response to the impending release of the Seth Rogen comedy about a fictional assassination of Kim Jong Un.  It has been widely believed that the hackers work for the North Korean government, although as of this writing the North Koreans have denied this.

There are two things that need to be said about these events that really help put things in perspective.  The first is that there is already a spoof about a killing of a North Korean Supreme Leader that was widely released in the movies.  Team America: World Police, released in 2004, is a far more funny, obscene, and effective satire than The Interview.  In this movie, Kim Jong Il is not only killed, but is reincarnated as an alien cockroach.  No attempt was made to interfere with the movie’s release in the U.S.** – although, according to the Wikipedia article, the North Korean government attempted to have the movie banned the in Czech Republic.

**One could say, however, that the MPAA did effectively censor parts of the movie out by issuing an initial NC-17 rating.

The second thing is that there is a long, ugly precedent of a foreign power interfering with the release of a movie.  The movie, which unfortunately did not get made for fifty years – and even then, was a castrated version of the intended feature that almost no one saw – was to be based on a novel called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel.  The history of this book and its subject matter invoked the ire of a major world power that is the gold standard of censorship by a foreign power that holds to this day.

Basically, Forty Days is based on a real-life incident that happened in Turkey during WWI.  During 1915, the Turkish government conducted a campaign of deportation of Armenian villagers to the Syrian desert (then under Ottoman control).  The novel provides a fictionalized account of an act of resistance to one of the deportation orders.  About 5,000 villagers took refuge on a mountain, Musa Dagh, to fend off Ottoman Turkish forces who had arrived to carry out the deportation.  After 53 days (not 40), the villagers were rescued by Allied warships.

Forty Days, first published in Germany in 1933 (in an act of brutal irony), served as an inspiration to Jewish ghetto inhabitants in  Białystok and Vilna.  More importantly, it gave much-needed publicity to the then-neglected treatment of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during WWI, a treatment that inspired Raphael Lemkin to introduce the word “genocide” into the English language.  Turkey, however, holds to this day that no such genocide ever took place.

Release of Forty Days inspired intense interest in a film version.  MGM studios secured the rights, and pre-production work started in 1934.  The government of Turkey immediately registered protests and ordered its Ambassador to stop the film from being made.  Although attempts were made at mollifying the Turkish government, nothing short of outright cancellation would stop the protests.  Although angry studio executives swore that no foreign country could stop their work, some classic anti-Semitic threats did the trick, according to a book Musa Dagh by Edward Minasian.  (The United States government was little help and in fact likely helped make sure the movie would not get made, according to Minasian.)

To this day, the only movie based on the book was made in 1982, nearly 50 years after MGM began pre-production.  I certainly never heard of it, and it looks like a small production that few people saw and has been since forgotten.  Subsequent attempts to release a film have come to naught because of protests.  Given the understandably strong desire of a powerful government to suppress an important piece of history, I doubt it ever will.

The New Republic’s alleged racism…and mine

So, The New Republic apparently died on December 5.  The news has affected maybe 73 non-journalist people, and one of them was me.  I didn’t see it coming, even though the magazine has effectively served as my portal to the outside world for the past 11 years.

The news has served up quite a lot of debate within…OK, let’s face it: the news of the demise of TNR spawned in effect a huge circle jerk.  Really, outside the circle, there were more interesting things going on, like the weather, the local traffic, and the baseball winter meetings.  But inside…whoa!  Such emotion from those who got their start at the magazine!  Such vitriol from those who didn’t!  The recounting of the misadventures that took place behind the scenes is somewhat entertaining.

 

One point brought up repeatedly by those inclined to celebrate the demise of TNR was its alleged racism.  Doubtless, TNR‘s owner and editor-in-chief for 37 years, Martin Peretz, had his dark side which he unfortunately expressed in his pages.  But his cartoonish buffoonery in the alleged service of Zionism, painful as it was to read, is not what keeps me up at night.  Rather, it is the insidious reality of the highly educated workplace of today, one similar to that in which I work.

Ta-Nahisi Coates of The Atlantic wrote what I think is the most eloquent explanation of TNR‘s alleged racism.  Essentially, Coates argues that TNR harmed African Americans simply by having no AfrAm voice on its staff.

Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the “Whites Only” sign remained. I’ve been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz’s racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well. Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR’s staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR’s influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.

Andrew Sullivan, Coates’ former colleague at The Atlantic and a former editor at TNR, defended TNR and himself equally eloquently.

Did we fail to find and nurture and promote African-American staffers? We did – along with almost every other magazine and newspaper at the time. I regret this. I tried – but obviously not hard enough. I’m no believer in affirmative action, but I’m a deep believer in the importance of differing life experiences to inform a magazine’s coverage of the world. And I tried mightily hard to find young black writers to contribute to the magazine. Did we fail because we were racists? I’ll leave that up to others to judge. But did we try to include black writers and intellectuals in the magazine’s discourse? Of course we did.

It is this debate that has made me sit up and take notice because it really isn’t about TNR.  No, it is about a lot of us, me included.  It is about why I rarely encounter an African American at work.  It is about why I live in a town that, for all of its lovely diversity, sports hardly an African American kid in its vaunted schools.   It is about why I don’t often see an African American at all.  Now I am forced to look in the mirror, naked and stripped of my fantastic liberal sensibilities, at the life I really live.  It is the world in which TNR has existed, the world that has captivated me because it has been my world.

Like the journalists at TNR, I work among talented, highly educated people.  These people tend to come from suburban school systems, major in subjects in which AfrAm participation is still considered notable, and then go onto highly coveted positions in firms/organizations in which – surprise surprise – there are few AfrAms in any such coveted positions.  I personally saw the same thing at the tech companies and patent boutiques in which I have worked.

Does this mean that the companies I worked for, or the town I live in, are fundamentally racist?  Certainly not in intent.  Every company I have seen from the inside has been committed to do all possible to acquire a diverse staff.  My children are educated in a system that excoriates racism; my 13-year-old daughter herself likes to expound on the racists among us, as if she could never be one of those.

Unfortunately, as I must teach my daughter, the excoriation of racism is make-believe.  We clearly understand that racism is an evil.  But it is not an evil of the other, i.e., Southern Man, but is an evil inside all of us.  When I moved back to Massachusetts 10 years ago, I could have moved my family anywhere where my home equity could take us.  I could have moved us into downtown Worcester, which would have been convenient for the Conservative synagogue and other amenities.  I could have moved us back to my hometown of Brockton, where I have a lot of friends.  I could have moved to any place with real diversity and AfrAm neighbors, and cheap.  But I chose, for the sake of the good schools that I and every parent covet, to move to our lovely town here in Northborough at a much higher financial cost.  I did not do so to avoid AfrAms.  But apparently, the good schools are singularly unavailable to AfrAms.

And that is the diagnosis here: there is an undercurrent of racism deep in our society that few of us wish to face.  Believe me, I don’t really want to.  But how else to explain TNR and my own life?  TNR does not deserve Coates’ singular, brutal prose, even if he dislikes some of its content.  He may as well devote a column attacking every group or department I have worked in.  Coates is correct, however, to set his sights on the big picture, as he surely has done over the past year.  I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusion, but I find it hard to argue with his facts.

I used to believe that I didn’t have a racist bone in my body.  But that’s a lie, a dangerous one at that.  I live in a society with people like me that do not want to be racist, but unfortunately are too concerned with the banalities of everyday life to wonder why most of my friends, coworkers, and magazine editors look like me.

A final note: when I say that TNR is dead, it’s not really dead.  It has an owner, a CEO, and an Editor that are trying to pull the enterprise together after, well, most everyone quit suddenly.  In yet another attempt to explain themselves, the new Editor fired a shot across the bow, a cheap one at that, basically acceding to the racism charges leveled at the pre-December 5 TNR by its enemies.

As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republicthe launching of new voices and expertsthose new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.

This is the language of desperation.  Yes of course, hire writers who reflect the world around us.  But don’t think for a minute that the people before you didn’t try their best.  The problem is much deeper than you say.  Oh, and I will not be renewing my subscription.