Opinion

Why are so many Americans okay with corporations bowing to Chinese censorship?

Censorship is bad — except when it gets in the way of profits

If the American people actually believed that censorship was bad, they would throw away their iPhones, stop buying shampoo on Amazon, and quit going to the movies.

Why is it not a cause for concern that the world's wealthiest corporations are cooperating with the Chinese government, employing their considerable technological resources to prevent Chinese citizens from circumventing firewalls or accessing private networks designed to restrict access to information and opinions of which the authorities disapprove? Why do only nerd parodists on YouTube complain about the absurd lengths to which film producers go to appease Chinese censors — doing everything from removing same-sex kissing scenes and other sequences considered vulgar or too violent to inserting brand-new characters to appease nationalist sentiment? Why is the pursuit of obscene levels of profit and record-breaking box office numbers a sufficient justification for these pathetic — and, in cinematic terms, banal — concessions?

The answer is simple: We don't really think censorship is wrong. Or rather, we vaguely think censorship is wrong — except when it gets in the way of profits.

Anyone who went to high school in this country is familiar with what I think of as the standard textbook history of the United States. It is an impoverished, mostly uninteresting narrative that begins with some kind of bridge in Alaska and ends with the Cold War, a thing that we won. It has many gaps — not much seems to happen between the War of 1812 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates or between the Civil War and the Depression. Huge lumbering abstractions abound: the Gilded Age, Tariff Reform.

One of the most dreadful of these looming specters is censorship, a bad thing that involved a senator named McCarthy who was somehow also a member of a committee in the House of Representatives. At some point or another, between the time when people said "I Like Ike" and Vietnam, censorship mostly went away. But before it did there was something evil called a blacklist that was maintained by Hollywood. People on the blacklist were good because they stood up for free speech in defiance of censorship. Being okay with the blacklist was so bad that if you appeared before the evil House committee that ran it from Washington it was a very good thing decades later for people to protest your receiving an award and for people in the audience to be rude to you and not applaud.

In other words, the fact that a handful of mediocre screenwriters did not get to make lots of money working in the movie business is obviously much more important and interesting than the intricacies of the very real decades-long struggle for world dominance between the United States and her liberal democratic allies and the Soviet Union.

I mention all this because this valorization of a few insignificant characters is one of the only salient facts that millions of Americans know about the conduct of the Cold War at its height. The badness of censorship is an unquestioned article of faith. The idea that obscenity should not be permitted on our screens is as ludicrous as, well, the idea that there is even such a thing as obscenity. Bold pro-freedom of expression warriors renew their commitments every year with annual cost-free exercises in moral preening like Banned Books Week. The notion that somewhere some parent might take issue with one of her children reading a book with sexual themes is a crisis, a kind of secular blasphemy that demands excommunication. There is no room for prudential judgement here: Thinking that some things might be bad is the only thing that it is not okay to think.

Meanwhile, tech CEOs explain away their acquiescence with blanket censorship in countries where they depend upon cheap labor in order to make world-historic profits. Hollywood pretends that absolute creative freedom is a quasi-sacred right — except when it isn't and it's totally worth interfering with an artist's vision in order to placate censors with absurd fears — like movies with ghosts in them — and get more cash at the box office.

And we let them. Why? Because most Americans think censorship is bad — as long as we don't need it to make money.

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