09 March 2018 | Armando Iannucci | New York Times
The Russian minister of culture has banned my new movie, “The Death of Stalin.” He said its satire was part of a Western plot to destabilize the country. Now the Russian presidential election is looming, and we all know how vehemently Vladimir Putin despises the idea of anyone interfering in the elections of a foreign power; so onto the blacklist my movie went, and no one in Russia is officially allowed to see it.
The last thing I expected was hearty congratulations, but that’s what I got from many film industry insiders. Bouquets of tweets and emails arrived telling me what smart publicity this was and how great this would look on our posters; the Russians had given us a marketing campaign no money could buy.
I had to tell these same insiders that publicity is effective only if it leads more people to buy the product you’re selling, and since my product was banned, then it could not, by definition, be bought.
It’s roughly how the marketing director of napalm must feel: He or she can dream up the most imaginative posters, but it won’t make the product more readily available in the shops.
More important, though, this act of censorship gave me no joy; the overwhelming emotion has been one of sad disappointment that in the world of instant communication, and the anarchic dissemination of information, people still think it’s O.K. to ban stuff they don’t like. That they should ban a film making fun of repression is wonderfully ironic, I know, but I still don’t get any kick out of it.
And of course, Russians’ famed dexterity in negotiating cybersecurity means that enough of them know how to get the movie online and free. (Someone tweeted me a photo of himself watching it on a laptop in Red Square, right under Mr. Putin’s office window: I admired his chutzpah, but since he was downloading illegally, I also immediately reported him to the authorities.)
There’s something rather mid-20th century about censorship. Then again, that’s no surprise, since international politics is going through a retro phase — the Chinese Communist Party leader granting himself leadership for life, the Russian president announcing he has developed a nuclear superweapon, right-wing parties assuming power in Europe by comparing immigrants to vermin, spies-on-the-run getting poisoned in London. Like ghosts from the past, these old tropes now haunt the present.
It’s pretty easy, then, to find more of them wherever we look. For example, we can make the leap from a pointless piece of censorship in Russia to Donald Trump’s clumsy attempts to shut down his opponents in the United States.
State censorship criminalizes a point of view. It defines someone’s opinion as against the law. So when Mr. Trump tweets that CNN and NBC are “Enemies of the People,” he’s casting what he doesn’t like as illegal. This is someone, remember, whose defining campaign mantra was “Lock her up!”
But Mr. Trump is only doing to excess what politicians have been trying subtly to get away with for years. When Sarah Palin traveled to red states on the 2008 Republican ticket and called them “Real America,” she was implying that anyone from anywhere else was un-American. Hillary Clinton labeling her opponents a “basket of deplorables” just continued that tradition.
I’d argue that what Mr. Trump is doing is less a throwback to the autocrats of the mid-20th century than a very modern consequence of how most of us operate now. If Mr. Trump is brazenly trying to delegitimize criticism, it’s because he’s addicted to social media, the 21st-century weapon that gives users every opportunity to block, unfollow and report anything that makes us uncomfortable.
While it’s good to be able to tackle verbal abuse and messages of hate, I do worry that social media also encourages us to disengage from any argument that doesn’t chime neatly with our own.
Why agonize over how you’re going to respond to an attack when you can just click that attack away? More and more of us default to blocking those who disagree with us. Rather than test our opinions by debating them, we would rather “no-platform” our opponents into not turning up. If we’ve become more militant about our own beliefs, it may be because we’ve barred anyone else from challenging them. We’re like ironclad soldiers who still refuse to enter a battle zone because it’s not a safe space.
That’s why I feel so sad. In a real democracy, many opinions can exist in harmony. If we don’t allow for other opinions, then little by little we grow resistant to democracy.
I’ve always felt there’s nothing wrong in feeling offended. If our views are strong, they should be able to take a joke or withstand a counterargument. If anything, meeting a challenge can strengthen them.
And those opinions need to be very strong indeed: After all, one day a real dictator may come knocking at the door, and how then shall we be ready?