If American millennials – defined as born between 1982 and 2004 – have a political hero, it’s certainly not Barack Obama, Rand Paul, or any other institutional politician like that. It’s Edward Snowden. He’s unpopular in some twentysomething quarters, but the majority of young adults appreciate how he pulled the veil from intrusive and illegal surveillance operations by governments. Snowden’s 2013 revelations (were they only 18 months ago?) bolster a narrative that has existed at least since Facebook overtook Myspace: internet-enabled transparency will save America. Tweet it all, let God sort it out.
You can’t blame millennials for feeling this way. In this century – unlike the 80s and 90s – an uncresting cavalcade of corrupt chieftains were revealed to have desecrated just about every longstanding American institution. The NSA, the CIA, the FBI before 9/11, the Oval Office after 9/11, Wall Street banks, the Catholic Church…they’ve proved they can’t be trusted to operate in secret, haven’t they? The pro-transparency narrative suggests a teleological ending for almost all secrecy; outside of a few nuclear facilities, what does the 1% have to hide? Leak the emails, open the spreadsheets, expose the formulas…Wikileaks has to be preferable to WackedElites, right? All things considered, which 1%-ers should we trust? Perhaps a few who work in Silicon Valley, perhaps a few in Hollywood…that’s about it.
If American millennials have a screen-content hero, it’s certainly not Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or any such geezer. They may not even have such a hero, considering video games and Spotify lists and other modern distractions, but if they do like any stars, they probably enjoy Will Ferrell and his funnyordie.com site and people from the Judd Apatow universe, which includes Lena Dunham, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, and yeah, of course, Seth Rogen and James Franco. There’s something wonderfully self-deprecating about people like this; like Jon Stewart (but unlike a lot of other talent), they seem a bit embarrassed by their success and even their style; they know that you know all this fame and posing is a lot of hooey. In an era where society’s 1% look like criminals and thugs, the Rogens and Francos look like the kind of 1% that we might still aspire to be. Their narrative of success is as pleasant as their films’ narratives – mostly about how awkward it is to be young these days.
To use a bit of Silicon Valley-ese, this was the week these two narratives were “disrupted,” when a cyber-attack managed to prevent the release of a major Hollywood film. In a way, the timing was perfect, at the halfway point of the decade, and just after everyone’s Year in Review had come out. What a perfect time for everyone’s comeuppance! Here’s Generation Snowden, thinking we can just keep peeling privacy back, shrugging at #gamergate (i.e. some gamers using free speech to threaten feminist game critics), shrugging at the #fappening (i.e. the online nude photo dump of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton), shrugging at the leaked Sony emails…and then the shrugging stopped. Here’s Generation Rogen, which shares a lot of overlap with Generation Snowden, loving South Park, Knocked Up, Superbad, Stepbrothers, Bridesmaids, This is the End, Anchorman, Neighbors, and look out, here comes the next round of (as some call them) Bros With Heart doing something goofy…and then the massive advertising campaign stopped. As Franco says in the trailer (which Sony has now wiped offline) when the CIA asks him to kill Kim Jong-un, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?!”
Lots of people have already discussed many ironies, hypocrisies, and other features of this story, so let me stick to my point. The sound you’re hearing from people under 30 right now is the sound of mass millennial confusion, for the first time in more than ten years. It’s true that some of them, like some older people, are ready to pivot to war, to shout “Remember the Alamo!” (Namely the Alamo Drafthouse in Dallas, a theater that reacted to Sony’s yanking of The Interview by programming Team America: World Police, only to see Paramount yank that away, too.) Anyone who wants to go to war over the Sony Hack spent this last week one of two ways: 1) “100 dead children in Peshawar? Let’s go to war! A Muslim extremist killed two hostages in Sydney? Let’s go to war! Sony cancelled The Interview? Let’s go to war!” or 2) “100 dead children in Peshawar? Meh. A Muslim extremist killed two hostages in Sydney? Meh. Sony cancelled The Interview? Let’s go to war!” Either one is faintly ridiculous, and millennials well know that, so for now, they’re not exactly enlisting in the service. Most of Generation Snowden-Rogen, including most of its veterans, are sick of war, and would have laughed at how “sick” The Interview was only if it showed war as sick.
So far, millennials have reacted to Sony pulling The Interview with blustering, blubbering reddit threads and endless suggestions to put the movie on VOD (video on demand). Tom Petty once sang that corporations “want to see how much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free,” and the millennial solution is always to turn that on its head: post online what used to be protected. This was the first week that the Snowdenesque pro-transparency narrative ran into real problems. This was the first week that cyber-terrorism really worked, because it used technology and our pro-transparency impulses to pit us against ourselves. Does anyone think that any studio is going to cancel a movie if you tweet a note tomorrow that says “9/11 will happen if this movie comes out!”? Of course not. Sony’s abandonment of The Interview was the result of weeks of most citizens shrugging off malicious, criminal doxing (making public the private information of at least 12,000 Sony employees and their spouses and kids) and a threat of worse to come if the movie wasn’t cancelled. Today, George Clooney said that people turned against Sony chief Amy Pascal when a few mildly racist emails were revealed by hackers. The worst part is that North Korea treated the media like Hans Gruber in Die Hard treated the FBI; he knew that if he lobbed a ball over the net, they’d work to smash it and wind up doing his terror-work for him. 13 years after 9/11, an entire country was played like saps over a period of weeks…not unlike some less comedic Hollywood movies.
Actually, we’re lucky this first very successful state-sponsored cyber-attack was against a corporation that merely makes movies, and not against one that produces, say, life-saving pharmaceuticals. That’s lucky because our government is obviously taking steps to make sure no such attack ever happens again. We’ll see, but it certainly seems unlikely that in the future, a drip-drip-drip of corporate emails will eventually culminate in a 9/11-invoking threat…we’ve now seen that movie. Nothing millennials hate more than more of the same.
There is symbolism in the fact that this international incident happened because of a comedy movie, the last genre where Hollywood tries to be original (because good original comedies make a lot of money), as well as the genre uniquely jeopardized by ubiquitous technology, at least according to Chris Rock, who feels he can’t hone a stand-up act anymore and is instead in theaters with a film that can only be helped by the missing Interview. What symbolism? Clooney’s interview makes clear that this incident strikes at the heart of free expression – what we can say and not say. Clooney’s interview does not make clear that, other than the military, free expression is the final redoubt of America’s international strength. Manufacturing jobs are vanishing faster than polar glaciers. We barely make any money exporting food, cars, clothes, goods, or energy. However, as millennials know, Silicon Valley and Hollywood remain the envy of the world, and that would have been impossible without the ideas that became Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, and all the rest. In other words, we’re a caged tiger, and free expression is our little baby cub. North Korea’s actions won’t be abided. Something’s going to happen. But for the first time in quite some time, the standard millennial narratives can’t predict what that something is going to be. We should all be happy we’re about to learn something.