US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Freedom of Speech?

Are you free to express your opinions? The First Amendment says yes, but 8 US Code § 1324 says no. A case currently before the US Supreme Court, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, will presumably clarify the matter, hopefully in favor of free speech.

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, allegedly cheated her clients by charging them $5,900 to file applications for a permanent residency program she knew they didn’t qualify for.

In 2013, a jury convicted  Sineneng-Smith on three counts of mail fraud and three counts of “encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain.”

Under that US Code provision, “Any person who … encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” can be sentenced to hard time — five years in prison, ten years if it’s for financial gain, life imprisonment or even execution if someone is injured or put in jeopardy of death by that “encouragement.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside Sineneng-Smith’s convictions on those “encouragement” counts, ruling that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court because that’s what federal prosecutors do .  Their case seems to be that we obviously can’t just have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

But we CAN, and SHOULD — in fact, according to the Constitution, MUST — have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to come to the United States in search of work and/or safety to do so, and to stay here for as long as they please, whether the US government likes it or not.

I just broke the law.

And I did so partly for purposes of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” I consider unfettered immigration an economic boon to everyone, myself included.

As the late economist (and apparent scofflaw) Milton Friedman noted, “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

If it doesn’t, I guess you’ll be waiting ten years or so for my next column.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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“We” Should Not Regulate Homeschooling

The desire to control other people’s ideas and behaviors, particularly when they challenge widely-held beliefs and customs, is one of human nature’s most nefarious tendencies. Socrates was sentenced to death for stepping out of line; Galileo almost was. But such extreme examples are outnumbered by the many more common, pernicious acts of trying to control people by limiting their individual freedom and autonomy. Sometimes these acts target individuals who dare to be different, but often they target entire groups who simply live differently. On both the political right and left, efforts to control others emerge in different flavors of limiting freedom—often with “safety” as the rationale. Whether it’s calls for Muslim registries or homeschool registries, fear of freedom is the common denominator.

A recent example of this was an NPR story that aired last week with the headline, “How Should We Regulate Homeschooling?” Short answer: “We” shouldn’t.

Learning Outside of Schools Is Safe

The episode recycled common claims in favor of increased government control of homeschooling, citing rare instances in which a child could be abused or neglected through homeschooling because of a lack of government oversight. Of course, this concern ignores the rampant abuse children experience by school teachers and staff people in government schools across the country.The idea that officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided.

Just last month, for example, two public school teachers in California pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a student, a public school teacher in New Mexico was convicted of sexually assaulting a second grader after already being convicted of sexually assaulting two fourth graders, two public school employees in Virginia were charged with abusing six, nonverbal special needs students, and the San Diego Unified School District in California is being sued because one of its teachers pleaded guilty to repeated sexual abuse and intimidation of a student.

Child abuse is horrific, regardless of where it takes place; but the idea that government officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided. Many parents choose to homeschool because they believe that learning outside of schooling provides a safer, more nurturing, and more academically rigorous educational environment for their children. The top motivator of homeschooling families, according to the most recent data from the US Department of Education, is “concern about the environment of other schools.” Being regulated by the flawed government institution you are fleeing is statism at its worst.

Homeschooling Is Growing

Brian Ray, Ph.D., director of the National Home Education Research Institute, offered strong counterpoints in the otherwise lopsided NPR interview, reminding listeners that homeschooling is a form of private education that should be exempt from government control and offering favorable data on the wellbeing, achievement, and outcomes of homeschooled students.

Homeschooling continues to be a popular option for an increasingly diverse group of families. As its numbers swell to nearly two million US children, the homeschooling population is growing demographically, geographically, socioeconomically, and ideologically heterogeneous. Homeschooling families often reject the standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum frameworks and pedagogy of public schools and instead customize an educational approach that works best for their child and family.

With its expansion from the margins to the mainstream over the past several decades, and the abundance of homeschooling resources and tools now available, modern homeschooling encompasses an array of different educational philosophies and practices, from school-at-home methods to unschooling to hybrid homeschooling. This diversity of philosophy and practice is a feature to be celebrated, not a failing to be regulated.

The collective “we” should not exert control over individual freedom or try to dominate difference. “We” should just leave everyone alone.

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Courage: Use It While You Have It

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

“Gone beyond recall or desire.” What Tolkien’s female Lord of the Rings heroine Eowyn fears most is not death or even the dark lord Sauron – it’s the loss of her desire for adventure.

Tolkien gets at a real, healthy fear here: courage does have an expiration date.

Youth gives us some natural boldness and courage. Testosterone helps. Anger or indignation might give us another temporary boost. Desperation drives us to boldness, as does loyalty and protection of those we love. But all of these motivators to courageous action are finite, though. And ignored often enough, they will start to burn less and less brightly.

I think it’s safe to bet that we all spend a good deal of my time analyzing and wondering about what will happen if we make bold moves (rather than actually making bold moves). Only a couple of times a year – or a decade – do we have the fire in our bellies to actually make the bold moves and damn the consequences.

This is a new decade, and it’s a perfect time to start making the most of the courage we do have, when we have it. Let’s not sit on our boldness. And who knows? We might even get some more out of the deal.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Social Conservatism of Hollywood

[warning: spoilers]

The new Uncut Gems is further evidence for a thesis I’ve long maintained: Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood makes a lot of socially conservative movies.  When you strip away the glamorous actors and cool music, the message is clear: Live a responsible bourgeois life or you will soon be severely punished.

This is most obvious for hard-boiled crime films.  The lead characters in such stories engage in an array of impulsive, brutal, and parasitical behaviors.  Before the movie ends, almost all of the characters have been shot, stabbed, beaten, imprisoned, or ostracized.   Many are dead, often in grotesquely inventive ways.  Howard Ratner, the lead character in Uncut Gems, repeatedly commits fraud and adultery.  He spins a web of lies and makes high-stakes gambles.  In each scene, he acts on his worst impulses.  For every success his duplicity brings, two failures spring.  When he thinks he’s won, another criminal murders him.  Even if Ratner had survived, though, his dishonesty and lechery would have cost him his family.

The same goes for The Godfather saga, Goodfellas (or any Scorsese crime movie), Pulp Fiction (or any Tarantino crime movie), Fargo (or any Coen brothers crime movie), Snatch (or any Cockney crime movie), as well as Scarface, New Jack City, and Boyz n the Hood.  In crime movies, people who engage in criminal behavior suffer, usually at the hands of their fellow criminals.  If they don’t get you, the cops will.

While crime movies focus on men, their female characters also catch hell.  Women who sleep with criminals – usually against their family’s advice – end up pregnant and abandoned, if not beaten or murdered.  Don Corleone treats his wife with old-world gentility, but she still lives to see her eldest son full of lead.  (Michael, her youngest son, has the filial piety to delay the murder of his elder brother until after her death).

The message of all this cinema: Follow the path of bourgeois virtue.  Work hard, keep the peace, abstain from alcohol, have very few sexual partners, and keep your whole family far away from anyone who lives otherwise.  Think about how many fictional characters would have lived longer if they never set foot in a bar.

Is this the message the writers intend to send?  Unlikely.  Instead, they try to create engrossing stories – and end up weaving morality tales.

True, Hollywood could make movies where criminals are “victims of their toxic social environment.”  It could make movies where the people who face retribution are the self-righteous bourgeoisie who “created toxic social environment in the first place.”  (This is arguably the plot of Natural Born Killers, though that’s giving it too much credit).  Such stories, however, would be sorely lacking in emotional truth.  You can’t credibly depict the life of a criminal without showing his choices; and when you see his choices, you see all the ways he could have done otherwise, “toxic social environment” notwithstanding.

Similarly, you could make crime movies that end before the criminals get their comeuppance.  Yet such stories would be dramatically inert.  If a bank robber gets killed on his eighth heist, audiences want to see heists number 1, 2, and 8.  If the bad guy gets it in the end, who cares about his intermediate successes?  Let’s fast forward to the Day of Reckoning.

Does this mean that Hollywood movies actually crime?  I doubt it.  The viewers most in need of lessons in bourgeois virtue are probably too impulsive to reflect on the moral of the story.  They’re captivated instead by the gunplay and machismo.  Yet if you’re paying attention, the moral of these stories remains: Unless your parents are criminals, listen to your parents.

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