Month: August 2018

The Truth, Lies, and Extremes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Stunning “Who is America?”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, “Who is America?” has been almost enough to shake me from my devout political moderatism.  As someone already worried that society’s critical thinking skills are dwindling, I was still shocked by the illogic of the politicians interviewed, especially those on the political right.  As someone who believes that we are not forthright and measured enough when championing certain political causes, I was still stunned by the deception, displayed by both those interviewed and Cohen himself.  The combined effect was almost enough to allow me to embrace the very thing the show ultimately condemns — angry, hateful extremism and the stereotyping of others.

After watching four episodes, I cannot endorse all of Cohen’s tactics, but I am glad someone out there (but only one person) is successfully using them.  Some of the tactics likely do not expose real truths that outweigh the exploitative nature of lying to interview subjects, but instead reveal an all-too-human deference to authority.  Other tactics of Cohen’s seem to expose something true, and truly grotesque.  In this blog, I explain the differences between several of Cohen’s tactics, and how these differences affect my conclusions about the show.  Also, do watch the show for yourself, and let’s have a conversation about it (or, if nothing else, watch this rap battle).  This blog contains some spoilers.

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3D Printable Guns as Free Speech?

Yesterday, a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order preventing Defense Distributed, an organization championing open source code to make guns available to the public, from publishing its blueprints for printing plastic, working 3D guns.  Defense Distributed had posted the code several days earlier, prior to its stated August 1 release, but the code was removed immediately following the restraining order’s issue.  The temporary restraining order was issued after eight states and the District of Columbia sued the State Department for reversing course and settling with Defense Distributed after prohibiting the distribution of the Computer Aided Design files as a violation of gun export laws.

In an initial lawsuit, the federal government wished to block Defense Distributed from posting its open source code.  The State Department had opposed a temporary restraining order sought by Defense Distributed against enforcement of gun export laws.  A federal district court and the Fifth Circuit agreed and refused to issue Defense Distributed the restraining order, thereby temporarily blocking the posting of code by Defense Distributed until a resolution at trial.  However, in what several states and D.C. deem a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Tenth Amendment, the federal government recently settled and permitted the posting of Computer Aided Design files.

Leaving aside the questions of whether the government’s reversal of position unconstitutionally infringes upon state police powers or is arbitrary and capricious or ultra vires, Defense Distributed’s underlying First Amendment claim exposes some uncomfortable and conflicting truths about the First Amendment.  Speech can lead to harm but is not itself physically harmful.  This very attenuation between speech and harm is what gives speech its special protection.  Arguments that speech leads to harm (such as in cases of violent song lyrics or incendiary political views) are generally rejected by courts hearing First Amendment challenges.  If speech can be regulated because it ultimately causes harm, very little speech would be protected.  However, if the government has a compelling interest in regulating speech and a law is narrowly tailored to serve that interest, courts will (rarely) allow a government regulation of speech in order to prevent harm.  This mixture of necessarily principled protection of even harmful speech with harms balancing in extreme cases makes this particular scenario, involving open source gun code, a hard, unpredictable, and important test case.

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