Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

11.27.2006

Borat and the Limits of Free Expression

By Dave A
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I took some time to do what millions of Americans did, other than shop, and went to see Borat, the parody film about the television reporter from Kazakhstan who visits America. Rather than bore you with a long run-up, I'll cut right to the chase: I, and my date, left about 40 minutes into the film (and it was a unanimous decision). I found insufficient redeeming social value to justify my time investment.

Now, for those of you who think I'm stodgy, I would disagree. I often think of myself as too base in my sense of humor. I loved American Pie (my favorite line being..."oh, Stiffler's Mom") and I can't get enough of the pop-culture disaster that is the first few episodes of each season's American Idol. Part of my brain is, admittedly, still stuck on the male sophomoric humor that finds value in bathroom jokes. Also, to the extent it lends credibility to this argument, I love sports and don't think it important to see all (any?) of the films that have been nominated by for Academy Awards. It would seem that despite being 38 years old, I should find some value in Borat. Instead, I found it to be obnoxious, offensive and hurtful in a way that didn't even remotely justify the small amount of the humor I found in the first 40 minutes.

My chief objection lies with the underlying principal of making fun of people in a hurtful and disrespectful way. I understand the need to catch some participants unaware (the older man at the rodeo talking about terrorists and mustaches was priceless) so they would be honest but too often it was done in a cheap way to get a laugh at someone's expense (the dinner party and the bed & breakfast come to mind). I'll embrace humor when it isn't at someone's expense but when it is, I find it hurtful and unworthy of my attention. If one can excuse that behavior, then we could move on to the scene of the running of the Jew and the killing of the Jew egg. I understand that it was done to parody people who think that way but I think there is a world of difference between that message and the many messages Mel Brooks shared with us in Blazing Saddles. Brooks was able to identify racist / sexist sentiment but he didn't do it cheaply, he didn't leave a humorless wake of offensiveness and incivility when he made his point. People laughed but they laughed at the silliness of the underlying sentiment and how it was presented, not just the absurd presentation.

The title of this blog suggests that perhaps Borat goes too far and isn't entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Well, that was a set up. However stodgy you think I might be, my last proof to you that I'm not is that I do think the First Amendment protects this nonsense, though I hope that common sense and taste will encourage self censorship. I wish I had my $30 back and hadn't rewarded the producers and been counted among those who have seen it.

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


First Amendment journalism initiative


The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at



Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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