Illustration by Jared Jewell
“Do you know what’s even more destructive than a nuclear bomb?” Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) asks Dave Skylark (James Franco) as they bond over their disapproving fathers in The Interview. “Words.” It’s meant to be funny (much is meant to be funny in The Interview—the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg movie that the real Kim Jong-un, in his attempt to suppress it, has made famous), but he has a serious point. Words, cartoons and movies do seem to be getting people in big trouble.
In recent incidents like North Korea’s cyberattack of Sony and the terrorists’ massacre of the staff at Charlie Hebdo, we’re witnessing not just the perennial duel between the pen and the sword, but a sickening globalized duel between people who can’t take a joke and people who can’t do anything but joke.
Nobody cares to be mocked or to have deeply held commitments mocked. People of good will wish that viciously racist humor would disappear from the face of the earth. Kim Jong-un feels the same about a movie where Seth Rogen and James Franco blow him up to the soundtrack of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Fanatical terrorists feel the same about Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons depicting Islam and Mohammed.
But the mental world inhabited by Kim Jong-un and radical islamic terrorists is very different from ours. I’ve heard it said that we’d have a similar reaction to North Korea’s if they made a movie about the assassination of Obama. That’s absurd. Sure, most Americans would find such a movie offensive (my guess is that others would get a naughty kick out of it), but we wouldn’t launch an attack to shut it down.
Our worldview is almost the total opposite of the fanatic’s: It’s a given that we make fun of our leaders. Not only do our comedians mock them, our presidential vetting process requires appearances on Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live. Our highest leaders have to prove that they can take a joke.
Don’t expect Kim Jong-un, a good old-fashioned evil dictator, to spoof himself on The Daily Show anytime soon. I’m sure he laughs a lot, just not at himself. The problem with him is the stupid desire to control what people say and think—in other words, to control when and at what people laugh.
The reason that terrorists kill cartoonists has little to do with sincere religious belief: People of genuine conviction, religious or otherwise, aren’t bothered by those who mock or disagree with them. If real believers deem a criticism valid, they amend their ways. If the criticism or mockery is wrong-headed, they ignore it. As the Koran itself says, “Let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice.” The substance of the terrorists’ version of Islam is little more than sour grapes about living in a raucous secular world.
Since the Charlie Hebdo killings, it’s been de rigueur to adopt the motto, “Je suis Charlie.” A dutiful commitment to free speech has also led many Americans to sit through a bumbling, take-nothing-seriously bromance of Seth Rogen and James Franco. I’m glad to see solidarity with the slain cartoonists and commitment to free speech. But are we really Charlie? More horrifyingly yet, are we James Franco?
I’ve been thinking about the horror of living in two different worlds—one where nothing’s mocked, the other where everything’s a dumb joke. Thank God we don’t live under the rule of Kim Jong-un or ISIS, but I don’t particularly want The Interview to epitomize a free society, even though I firmly believe a free society should tolerate crass, stupid movies.
It was a combination of curiosity and duty that got me to watch The Interview and peruse back issues of Charlie Hebdo. The French cartoonists at their best—not always, or even often—are gloriously raunchy and bitingly satirical. The Interview at its best scrapes in somewhere below Pineapple Express and This Is the End. Its minor satirical ambitions get lost in a wash of unfunny jokes and an irritatingly over-the-top ending.
We are Charlie. We are even James Franco. But we are a lot more. As I was enduring The Interview, after shelling out $4.99 to download it, I kept thinking that surely there’s a better way of exercising freedom than by helping a big corporation recuperate its losses.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. His new book is The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.