Who should rule the ‘Republic of Imagination’?

In the first recorded plea for freedom of expression, the playwright Euripides argued in 460 B.C. that free men deserve to speak freely. It was then, as now, a controversial statement; not everyone agrees that such freedom is in the best interest of the public. Plays about anything? Wouldn’t it be better to showcase stories that support society’s moral codes and political goals? Anything else could be . . . dangerous.

Censorship has shadowed art like a self-righteous bully ever since, ready to cover up or crack down on unsuitable material. The trouble is, of course – who decides what’s suitable?

Typically, each government decides for its own citizens. That’s why you can’t watch Pirates of the Caribbean in China; it’s been banned for an unflattering depiction of Chinese people. Zoolander was barred from Malaysia for showing sweatshops full of impoverished Malaysians. Indonesia didn’t allow the movie Noah to be released in its predominantly Muslim country for “religious reasons.” And The Da Vinci Code was banned on the largely Christian Solomon Islands for its critique of the Catholic Church.

In each of these cases, governments were concerned about exposing a certain stereotype or storyline within their own borders. Late last year, however, a dictatorship in one small country tried to enforce what people halfway across the world could watch.

Satire scare
On November 24, every computer at Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City, California seized up; the image of a creepy red skull and long skeletal fingers filled black screens behind the words “Hacked by #GOP.” All Sony phones, computers and email accounts were frozen for days as the terrorist group calling itself GOP – Guardians of Peace – started making demands.

Mid-December, the online hackers threatened Sony with 9/11-style bombings unless the movie premiere of The Interview was cancelled. The satire shows the (successful) attempt of two Americans to assassinate North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Jong-un. Fearing liability, Sony Pictures did first cancel the movie’s release but then reversed the decision and released it in select theatres and online. 

Every year, North Korea is near the top of the Most Censored Countries in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It has no independent journalists, and every radio and TV is locked to government-specific frequencies. A UN report released last winter revealed the extreme political repression that ordinary North Koreans suffer, including “deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions and torture.” The government also enforces complete veneration of Kim Jong-un, not only within its physical borders but in what activist Azar Nafisi would call the “Republic of Imagination.”   

Inside every story
Salman Rushdie describes that realm as the Story Sea. He wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories for his son while in hiding, life endangered for authoring The Satanic Verses. Yet Haroun is a lively, comedic fable. The title character is the son of a famous storyteller named Rashid. When Rashid loses his wife and then his voice, Haroun sets off like Gulliver to strange lands in search of the Story Sea that Rashid claims is the source of his gift.

Haroun and his father discover that the Sea is being poisoned by the Prince of Silence – the tyrant Khattam-Shud, whose name means “completely finished.” His followers do not speak, making their dark and soundless country a fictional North Korea: “a place of shadows, of books that wear padlocks and tongues torn out.”

“But why do you hate stories so much?” Haroun asks when he finally meets the despot. “Stories are fun.”

“The world, however, is not for Fun. . . . The world is for Controlling,” Khattam-Shud says. “Inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.”

Kim Jong-un, like Khattam-Shud, strives for ultimate control – not only of airwaves and textbooks but of imagination. According to him, anything else would be . . . dangerous.

But freedom of speech has to include every kind of expression, even stereotypes or storylines that may be insulting. Even, to quote some early reviews, the “childish toilet humour” and “buffoonery” of The Interview.

Speaking up
For too many people around the world, the live drama between Sony and the #GOP is not a news story but painful reality. Malala Yousafzai experienced this type of oppression. Her childhood in Pakistan’s beautiful Swat Valley was marred by the Taliban’s escalating tyranny as fanatical followers of mullah Fazlullah abolished Western CDs, DVDs and radio stations, then books, Bollywood movies, girls’ schools and independent thought. Despite the danger of speaking out against a regime that killed people every day for far less, teenage Malala advocated for the education of girls. (See page 13 for a column on this topic.) In 2012, she was shot in the face and evacuated to England for multiple surgeries.

Today Malala is still a Taliban target, unable to return to Pakistan. She remains committed to making education a basic human right for both sexes. She seems uncowed and remarkably optimistic – already a strong character herself in our global imagination.

“If one man can destroy everything,” she says, “why can’t one girl change it?”

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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