Rules Are for Schmucks: Hitting Censorship Where It Hurts

Everybody talks about censorship, but nobody does anything about it. Maybe they should.

I haven’t watched the movie Noah. Nor am I going to watch it—nothing I’ve done warrants that kind of punishment. I’m rather fond, though, of having the ability to decide for myself whether I want to watch it or not, which is a choice 246 million Indonesians, 182 million Pakistanis, and 29 million Malaysians don’t have because their governments have chosen to censor it. Even though the Noah myth features prominently in the Koran, something about the film rubs Muslim God experts the wrong way, so they have prevailed upon their obsequious governments to protect their subjects’ delicate psyches from the damage that viewing this film might cause.

Noah won’t be shown in Saudi Arabia, either. Not because the censors have specifically prohibited it but because the God experts there are so paranoid, no movie theatres are allowed in the entire country. When it comes to unapproved ideas, better safe than sorry!

Noah is far from the only recent victim of Muslim censorship. In Tunisia, birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring, a television station was fined for showing Persepolis, an animated film about the troubles of an Iranian girl dealing with her own country’s thought police. Pakistan shut down all of Facebook for two weeks when a single user suggested that people should draw pictures of the prophet Muhammad. God experts in Afghanistan, where 1,800 Americans have died defending “freedom,” blocked all of YouTube because of one posted video deemed to be anti-Islamic.

Muslims are the current censorship champions, but they are not alone in the field. The Last Temptation of Christ remains banned in the Philippines, Singapore, and South Africa. Mike Myers’ Hindu satire The Love Guru was banned in India.

“Too bad,” you may be thinking, “but there’s really nothing we can do about it.” I’m not so sure about that. If the United States were truly serious about the importance of free expression, there’s quite a bit we could do.

Like most countries, the United States has a legal structure in place to enforce some modicum of fairness in international trade. If a country discriminates unfairly against our exports, or tries to destroy our manufacturing capacity by dumping products in our market at subsidized prices, then we will retaliate against them.

For example, for many years we were embroiled with the European Union in a dispute over exports of U.S. beef. European countries said they didn’t want our beef because some of it contained hormones they didn’t like; we said that was just a smokescreen, that there was nothing wrong with the hormones, and they were simply trying to protect their own farmers. Ultimately, we threatened to impose steep tariffs on a number of products we import from Europe unless they backed down. That credible threat led to a break in the logjam in 2009, and Europe now accepts our beef.

Two years ago China was found guilty of “dumping” solar panels in the U.S. market, i.e., selling them below cost in an effort to drive our domestic manufacturers out of business. So, the Department of Commerce slapped a punitive tariff on them. In February, Turkey and several other countries were preliminarily found guilty of dumping steel pipe used in U.S. oil production; penalties may be imposed on them this summer.

Strictly from a dollars and cents standpoint, foreign religious censorship of U.S. entertainment matters. Noah alone had a production budget of $125 million; when hundreds of millions of potential customers are cut off from viewing it–that hurts. Facebook and YouTube make their money from advertising; when advertisers see the number of potential viewers slashed, they won’t pay as much. When Saudi Arabia forbids the showing of any U.S. films–that has to cost American film companies millions in potential revenues.

Yet dollars and cents are the smallest part of the story. The diffusion of information and ideas is the surest possible method of promoting peace, scientific advancement, and cultural enrichment for everyone on the planet. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from theatre-free Saudi Arabia, a place where only one way of thinking is permitted. Does that help to explain how they could view innocent Americans as demons who deserve to be killed? If they had been brought up watching Curly Sue and the Muppets, might they possibly have turned out to be a tad less bloodthirsty?

Indonesia sells us shoes. Malaysia sells us electronics. Saudi Arabia sells us oil. So how about a little retaliatory tariff on these items, which we’ll be delighted to remove once they start letting their people decide what American movies they want to watch? That would get their governments’ attention, without a doubt.

There is a school of thought that says there should never be any trade retaliation at all; that if Turkey or China want to sell us products cheaply, that’s good for U.S. consumers; that putting tariffs on products we buy from Europe to protect our ranchers would have been bad for those same consumers; and that the positive effect on U.S. consumers is more important overall than the negative effects on U.S. producers. I can understand that intellectually, and maybe even agree with it. What I cannot agree with, though, is the unwritten rule that religious-based restrictions on American products are automatically beyond question. With all respect to the U.S. producers of steel pipe, solar cells, and beef, our entertainment products are more strategically important than theirs are, because our entertainment products broaden people’s minds.

Don’t hold your breath, though, waiting for U.S. politicians to show this kind of backbone in standing up to God experts of any stripe. So instead of watching Noah, perhaps Indonesians can watch re-runs of Barack Obama gushing over “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”

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