As with so many things in this day and time, the real issue here isn't the question.
It's the next question.
Editor's note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
At the time, Adolf Hitler was consolidating his hold over Europe; the full monstrousness of Nazi atrocities were still to be revealed, and the United States was not yet at war with his regime.
But the film had been controversial from the start. Two years earlier, German officials raised questions about it and the secretary of the British Board of Film Censors wrote to his American counterpart saying it could violate a rule against depicting a living person on screen without his consent.
Of course, "Dictator" went on to become Charlie Chaplin's biggest commercial success, and is today regularly listed among the greatest films in Hollywood history.
One wonders what would have become of "The Great Dictator" today, given Sony's decision Wednesday to respond to threats from anonymous hackers by yanking the raunchy North Korea satire "The Interview" with Seth Rogen and James Franco from theatrical release.
Granted, it's unlikely that "The Interview" is in the same league as Chaplin's magnum opus -- given that the film's comedy rests on subtle, nuanced plot elements such as Rogen being forced to hide objects in his anus, I'm not even sure it's playing the same sport. And Sony was compelled to pull the film after being subjected to debilitating leaks that have cost it hundreds of millions in lost time and business, and confronted with a new set of cyberterrorist intimidations that included a promise of "9/11-style violence" -- threats that ultimately led a half-dozen of the biggest theater chains in the United States to announce that they would refuse to show "The Interview" if Sony chose to distribute it.
Sony's surrender is more than just a humiliating black eye for one of the world's largest entertainment companies -- more, even, than the first notes of a dirge for the studio and its beleaguered leadership. It opens a new and insidious chapter in artistic censorship that raises the question of whether any work that lampoons or derides a powerful public figure or institution can now be made in today's entertainment industry.
Art (and for this argument's purposes, let's include "The Interview" in the category of "art") has always been deeply intertwined with politics.
Many of the greatest works in history would never have been created without the patronage of powerful world leaders and institutions, from kings and queens to religious faiths to merchant princelings.
And of course, the flipside of the coin of patronage has always been repression: the Iconoclastic Controversy of Byzantine emperor Leo III; Hitler's purging of "degenerate" art; Mao's Cultural Revolution; more recently, the death threats and vandalizations that have accompanied displays of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photo of a crucifix immersed in urine; the fatwa that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for writing his literary fantasy "The Satanic Verses"; the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making the documentary "Submission," which questioned the treatment of women under Islam; and the controversies over the cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and on Comedy Central's "South Park."
Sony has given saboteurs a virtual veto over its productions, and Hollywood seems likely to follow suit.
America's recent midterm elections were affected by the question of art's intersection with politics: The Benghazi riots that served as the backdrop for a militant assault that killed several U.S. diplomatic officials, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were initially claimed to have been part of a global series of protests after the Internet release of an amateurish anti-Islam film called "Innocence of Muslims."
What Sony's capitulation shows, however, is that in our postmodern era, shutting down the arts no longer requires jackbooted soldiers, raging mobs -- or even manifest physical danger. It doesn't matter if North Korea was originally behind the Sony hack; even if it was, it's certainly unlikely that the vague threats to public safety in the more recent warnings could ever have been carried out.
But after Sony's decision, the mere threat of attack by shadowy digital forces may now be enough to forestall interest in depicting "controversial" public figures -- or subjects. And this chill won't be limited to political leaders. After all, any institution or individual can buy a black-hat hacker's time; a single individual with enough time and skills can wreak unprecedented havoc on a multibillion-dollar company, and some of the most brilliant inhabitants of the digital dark side do their dirty deeds for nothing but the promise of "lulz."
So the question remains: Could "The Great Dictator" be made today? Could "Team America: World Police"? What about HBO's forthcoming documentary on Scientology, "Going Clear"? The repercussions from Sony's junking of "The Interview" are already being seen: Fox Studios and New Regency were working on a Steve Carell thriller set in North Korea that was ready to begin shooting in March. On Wednesday, they quietly killed the project.
Sony could have stood its ground and decided to release the film, even if only in a single theater. It could have chosen to distribute it globally via on-demand streaming, and probably would have made hundreds of millions from curiosity-seekers and those who want to send a message against censorship.
It might have even chosen to fight fire with fire, broadly releasing the film to pirate sites and illicit-sharing platforms as an upraised middle finger to those who tried to suppress it -- the money has already been spent on it, after all, and an act of bravura of that caliber might even have brought Sony a patina of cool.
Instead, the dominoes will continue to fall. Sony has given saboteurs a virtual veto over its productions, and Hollywood seems likely to follow suit. In short, at least in this battle, the terrorists have won.
Voices crying out from Hollywood and the other assorted pins on the map that designate the stomping grounds of the artistic, creative community are naturally, and expectedly, doing their crying out in the key of "C" for censorship. Joining in the cacophony, of course, are the more liberal members of the body politic and, for that matter, those listed in the phone book under "zealous and immediate advocates, without hesitation or pause, of the freedom of _______(whatever freedom or freedoms apply here)".
And for those of us who resist, at least and, often, resent any attempts to be held hostage in any way at any time for any reason are, also, if not ready to put on our "I Can't Breathe If I'm Not Free" T-shirts just yet, not all that happy that the decision has been made to bail on this movie.
Here's some thoughts, though.
First, young Mr. Yang's point about Chaplin's movie is, on surface, cogent, if not compelling.
But it's also out of context.
And out of step with the times in which we live.
The "hue and cry" about Charlie's lampooning of Hitler undoubtedly raised the hackles of the dreaded Nazi menace if, for no other reason, the last thing that despotic types seem to possess is anything resembling a sense of humor, let alone a sense of self deprecation.
In 1940, though, chances were pretty slim to none that Germany, or even small bands of fanatical members of the Nazi Party and/or any devoted splinter group, would go so far as to take over a couple of airliners and fly them into Buckingham Palace just because Charlie Chaplin pissed them off.
The world, in those days, was, in its own way, just as bat shit crazy as it is today.
The key phrase there, though, is "in its own way."
War, then, brutal and bloody as it was, was still fought within certain parameters of etiquette and/or expectation.
The term "civilized warfare", oxymoronic or not, was still pretty much the leash which, at the very least, assured us a little control over the dogs of war.
War doesn't work that way any more.
Hitler was, beyond any reasonable doubt, a wack job despot of unprecedented proportions.
Yet, a despot who, for all of his wack, pretty much colored inside the lines when it came to your textbook variety attempt to conquer the world.
And, yes, this includes the Holocaust that, while clearly and undeniably horrific, was still, as a premise, nothing more or less than the defeat and destruction of a perceived enemy during wartime.
Even if that perceived enemy was defeated and destroyed hundreds, even thousands, at a time rather than dozens or hundreds on this or that field of battle.
Hitler was a wack job.
But those zany Kim Jong boys make Hitler look like a guy trying to invade your personal space by becoming the fourth person to wedge themselves onto a park bench obviously made for only three.
Do I think that if what happened in 1940 was happening today Hitler would see to it that hundreds or thousands of innocent people were killed in retaliation for the astonishingly no big deal act of poking a little fun at him?
I really don't, no.
Do I think that The Un and Only would react similarly?
Bet the farm, baby.
Or pagoda, as the case may be.
And while I totally get, understand, dig and, while we're at it, endorse and agree with the philosophy that proclaims we will not "negotiate with terrorists", this is one of those situations that requires a little more consideration and a little more conversation.
We're not negotiating here.
We're faced with, if not the actual threat then certainly the very real possibility of, the threat that a lot of innocent people could be hurt here.
And while it is in the nature of things that sometimes, in fact, often, we have to risk life and limb to stand up to wack job despots and, in our best Jean Luc Picard voices, offer that "the line must be drawn...here...and no farther", there is, in this particular situation, a question that, at least to these ears, keeps rising up and above all the other questions being screamed out as passions rise and tempers flare and flags start a wavin'.
Do we really want to draw that line and say "fuck you, hit us with your best shot" over an asinine movie that, had none of this brouhaha brewed in the first place, probably would have ended up out of theatres and onto DVD before the ball drops in Times Square?
And if the answer to that question is "hell, yes, we sure do", then I think there's a next question that follows immediately.
What shall we say to the parents, wives, husbands, kids, et al of any one who dies should any of the threats of retaliation prove to be realized?
That your dad died so that we could take that last island and finally defeat the enemy of democracy?
That your daughter was blown up so that we could take back that government building that the enemy thought they had hijacked from us?
That your husband is dead so thousands of innocent lives were spared, his dying preventing that plane from getting to the Capitol Building?
Or that your loved one is gone so that perhaps up to a few thousand bored movie goers could have a cheap laugh or two at a couple of bozos clowning around in a film that makes "Bad Grandpa" look like "Citizen Kane"?
"The Great Dictator" was a film Charlie Chaplin offered as a biting, satirical, but cautionary tale of an evil that we needed to know about and, ultimately, do something about.
"The Interview" is a cheap, transparent and, most very likely, juvenile means of filling theatre seats and selling ten dollar popcorn to those who think Seth Rogan is Laurence Olivier and Family Guy is Masterpiece Theatre.
And even if it turns out to be the comedy classic of the ages, one thing is rock solid sure.
It's nothing to die for.