“We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong Un, of all fucking people.” —George Clooney
It was a complete coincidence that while Sony Pictures and theater operators across the country were cratering under the ostensibly idle threats of faceless (if not entirely toothless) cyberhackers—leading to understandable and justified laments of how we’ve “let the terrorists win”—I was reading about the blackmail and extortion of one of our Founding Fathers.
Fine by me. With no clear way to advance this conversation forward any more than it’s already been advanced—and having paid too close attention to the story for a couple years now—I’m more than willing to take a step back.
Alexander Hamilton had been a bad boy. While Secretary of the Treasury during the presidency of George Washington, he had succumbed to the seductions of Maria Reynolds, a woman 13 years his junior. Poor Maria had arrived at his door with a sob story. Her husband James, she said, had abandoned her and she needed funds to return to her family in New York; surely Hamilton, the man in charge of the nation’s money, could spare some carriage fare for her. And he could; he gave her 30 bucks. Yet according to Hamilton, “it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” If you know what I mean.
For three years, the cash in his wallet wasn’t the only thing Hamilton gave her.
For his part, husband James knew all along; historians generally agree he was in on it. Together, armed with love letters Hamilton had sent Maria, husband James and honeypot Maria blackmailed Hamilton for over a thousand dollars, all told.
Sound familiar? Hamilton had a big secret. His tormentors had the emails to prove it. They terrorized him with threats to go public. And as a member of the president’s cabinet, and the keeper of the nation’s treasury, Hamilton knew what kind of real damage any public spectacle could do. So Hamilton caved. He had already let his reputation sour—and his country down—so he paid up.
It’s an imperfect parallel, but an informative one. And it sets the pick for the question we’re asking ourselves this week: what’s more American— short-term concessions that keep ourselves, and our secrets, safe? Or bold stands that may not preserve our security today or tomorrow, but keep our principles safely intact? To borrow from another Founding Father—I’m looking at you, The Anthology of Ben Franklin Quotations—if we give up liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, do we deserve either? And are we going to be told we can't see something "by Kim Jong Un, of all fucking people"?
What did Hamilton do? Did he participate in his own extortion and cancel his plans for a big Christmas premiere? For a time, yeah, he did. But not forever.
Five years later, fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson arranged the publication of the sordid details of Hamilton’s sex scandal. He intended to embarrass his then rival. (It was one of Jefferson’s more ignoble acts —just imagine if Hamilton had emailed Amy Pascal about Thomas Jefferson’s proclivity for black actors.) This time, however, Hamilton didn’t take it lying down. (He had, after all, already learned just how much trouble that could get him into—rim shot.)
No, he printed his own tell-all, saucily entitled Observations on Certain Documents, which proved once and for all and for everybody that the only thing he was unquestionably guilty of—besides loving his country and his countrywomen too much—was a little late 18th-century adultery. In other words, Hamilton did with his own secrets what Judd Apatow, Chris Rock, Jimmy Kimmel, and others have suggested someone do with Sony’s movie: just put it out there. Release it. Somehow.
Sony cancelled a movie. Sony hasn’t cancelled the First Amendment. As Americans, we still have a right to air both our dirty laundry and our R-Rated films. The better question is, do we have an obligation? Jacob Weisberg thinks we do. Jimmy Kimmel and Chris Rock apparently agree. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly is considering the issue—stay tuned.
On Friday President Obama had advice for Sony executives themselves, had they only “spoken to [him] first. I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.’” After a holding pattern of paying off extortionists, Alexander Hamilton ultimately made his decision—and ultimately tried to set the right pattern—two centuries ago.