Sony Could Learn an Important Lesson From Salman Rushdie.

It is a sad day…

Apparently, North Korean cyber-hacker terrorists have inspired Sony Pictures to self-censor the release of the upcoming movie, “The Interview,” due to threats of violence and the leaks of proprietary Sony emails and movies.  At the risk of oversimplification, Sony Pictures caved in to the threats and demands of cyber-terrorists. As there are few issues that I am more passionate about than freedom of speech and artistic expression, this situation troubles me.

We are living in a day and age when a person or group being “offended” about something said or written by another person creates an implicit social necessity for the offender to cease and desist their expression.  Such a social ethic will ultimately work against the society which embraces it. When a person’s words or art can be stuffed and silenced by the offended, there is no longer a reason to think about, debate over, and educate one’s self regarding the issue at hand. A lack of such intellectual, ethical, and/or dogmatic tension in a society causes its culture to atrophy like an unused muscle.

Over recent decades, there have been several fails and wins as it pertains to the censorship of a work of literature, art, or the creator himself (or herself.) One of the best examples of a fail of many in media and governments to support free expression and publishing was the scandal over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper, “Jyllands-Posten,” in 2005. For more information on that situation, see the video (including worthy polemics by Christopher Hitchens) directly below:

One of the greatest wins that has occurred in modern history regarding the refusal to self-censor was in the case of Salman Rushdie and his book, “The Satanic Verses.” The book not only drew fire from a portion of the Islamic community worldwide, but a real and direct Fatwa death sentence for Rushdie via the former leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, the book continued to be published and Salman Rushdie, under threat of assassination, lived nine years under police protection. Through much struggle, the would-be censors did not win and free expression ruled the day. See the news clip below from 1990 regarding the Fatwa:

As Sony has acquiesced to the cyber-terrorists’ demands not to release, “The Interview,” a dangerous precedent has been set that takes the practical reality of free expression back decades. As long as some nation or group is willing to make threats, a major film company can be brought to its knees. Some have said that this really isn’t a big deal and at the end of the day, it’s just a movie. I beg to disagree. If we are willing to give up our voice, our freedom of expression, our art, or our literature due to the whims of tyrants, seen or unseen, what WOULD be worth fighting for? If we, in this country, would not tolerate censorship of our free expression from within, then damn censorship from without.

I can understand the apprehension that Sony executives are feeling. I am sure they are fearful to buck this North Korean tiger. But, we are behind you Sony, as well as the writers, directors, producers, and actors in the movie. Don’t let these cyber-terrorists pull your card. Release the film. We will come see it, threats or no threats. We are Americans and free expression is our business. This is not just about the film any more. It is about something much bigger…

“So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness.” – Ronald Dworkin

Why I’m More Happy Than Sad Thinking About Robin Williams Today

robin williams (My favorite picture of Mr. Williams)

In complete transparency, I must admit, I had not specifically thought of Robin Williams in some time prior to last night. I came home after taking my teenage sons out to a late dinner and jumped on Facebook to see all the posts about Mr. Williams’ death and suspected suicide. There are so many fake celebrity death stories that I do not believe them at first anymore as a general rule. I wait until I see the story on several credible news outlets before accepting any celebrity’s death as having actually happened. Morgan Freeman has died too many times for me to do otherwise.

So, when I saw that Robin had really died and apparently committed suicide, I was very saddened about the news and remain so at this moment. I then started considering when the last time I had thought about him was. I concluded that it was a little over a month ago when I watched, “The Final Cut,” with my family. That is one of my favorites out of his many films. I suppose if I had to pic a “Top 5” in order, they would be: 1. Dead Poets Society 2. One Hour Photo 3. The Final Cut 4. World’s Greatest Dad 5. (Damn, this is a hard one because there are twenty movies that rival for this spot as I force myself to choose) Awakenings.

When I consider Robin’s death today, I take no thought for being perceived as on any bandwagon for talking about him just because he died. It is only human for us to consider the lives of people after they have died more than when they were alive. The sudden punctuation at the end of their life’s sentence provokes us to thoughts of the brevity of life and the utter value of what we leave behind as our legacy. We then reflect on the now deceased person’s legacy as well and their impact on us.

I will only speak of his death in brief. The word at the moment is that he committed suicide due to a life-long battle with alcoholism and depression. Whether he took his own life is his business. Since I have not suffered the grip of depression in my own life personally, I cannot speak on depression with any authority and would only be talking out of my ass. I have no personal experience to offer. I am grateful for that and say it with humility. I have deep empathy for my friends who deal with depression and hope to be of some service to them. Had I dealt with the difficulties Robin had, I would likely not have dealt with them as well as he did nor for as long. I may well have given into the despair and killed myself way before the age of 63 for all I know. If he did in fact take his life, I regret that being the case and wish it would not have been. Though, my wishes do no actual good in retrograde. For any readers dealing with depression presently, I can only say that you are inherently valuable and please seek help from those who love you or capable professionals who care. If you need to talk to someone and are in the U.S., PLEASE call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

That said, my present sadness over Robin’s death is overshadowed by an overwhelming joy and personal thankfulness when contemplating his life. Not only was he an amazing, rare, capable, insightful, and staggeringly talented actor, a man who gave his whole self to his art, a man who cheered up our service men and women abroad, a husband to several women, and father to several children; he had a specific and direct impact on me personally.

I am a poet and a writer. From the time I was a child, I wrote. When I was in high school, I had one teacher who I felt “got me.” He was my literature teacher, Mr. Wilson. As part of our literature class one semester, Mr. Wilson had us all watch, “Dead Poets Society,” over several class periods. I was hypnotized by the story and the characters. Robin Williams’ character as the amazing teacher spoke right to me as though he was in the room before my own school desk. The challenges, insights, and inspiration of Robin’s character in that movie, an extension of his own self, impacted me in an irreversible way as a teenager and young writer. The ripples of that impact are still rolling through me in untold ways. They are part of who I am as a writer and a human today and cannot be understated.

Robin Williams made more people laugh, cry, and think deeply than I can ever hope to in my lifetime I believe. Yet, his path was his and mine is mine. I can only stand in awe of who he was and the incredibly vast and deep body of work he left behind. That is why I am infinitely more happy than sad today when contemplating him. Whether he died yesterday or twenty years from now, like every other human being, death was imminent for him. But, what he did with his life across the years was not destiny. Robin lived in an effectual way and left it all on the table. He chose to open a vain and bleed for us via the amazing characters he played over the decades. He left us in tears of laughter through his unique stand-up comedy. He did not just write a verse with his life, he wrote volumes. I happily behold them, thank Robin for his impact on me and this world, while admiring him as much as I could any actor, comedian, or artist. If he did take his life, I do not condemn him for it. He dealt with struggles that I have not. I cherish him for how he lived his life up to that point. I hope myself to write a verse worth reading with my own life and will take the weighty question of teacher, John Keating, in, “Dead Poets Society,” to heart… “What will your verse be?”