Friday, November 17, 2006

Guest Post: Why Mr. Cohen Isn't Funny

This post is a contribution from my brother, Reed, who is currently enrolled in the history Master's program at Clemson University. He will be reading and replying to comments here as well.

Within ten days of opening, Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy "Borat" made nearly 68 million dollars and confirmed the continued vitality of racist humor in the United States. In the movie, Mr. Cohen, misrepresenting himself as an obnoxious Kazakh reporter (this is called "lying"), travels around the United States putting Americans in awkward and uncomfortable social situations. Borat is misogynist. He hates Jews, Uzbeks and gypsies. His Kazakh home village is a picture of backwardness.

Actually, the village Mr. Cohen portrays in his film is not Kazakh. It is Romanian, and nobody there even knew Mr. Cohen until he arrived there purporting to make a documentary about the poor socioeconomic conditions. This is also lying. Mr. Cohen found many people in the village eager to participate in his film about their hardship and struggle. Very few people in the village spoke English, which allowed Mr. Cohen to fairly safely ridicule them. This is cowardice. An oblivious woman becomes Borat's prostitute sister and an elderly amputee becomes a pervert. This is all, apparently, hilarious.

For Mr. Cohen's character to be Kazakh made sense. Very few Kazakhs live in the United States or Great Britain. As a small, obscure minority we can all laugh at Kazakhs without risking the socially awkward possibility of actually encountering them. Nobody's secretary is Kazakh. A Kazakh family doesn't live two doors down the road. Your kid's coach isn't Kazakh.

But according to Mr. Cohen the joke isn't on Kazakhs, it's on Americans. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine, he explains that "The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist..." He chose the country because it was "...it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater." Borat's anti-Semitism is designed to show "...the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it's hatred of African-Americans or of Jews." (Rolling Stone, Nov. 16) So Mr. Cohen is helping us by showing us how ignorant we are.

His defense is flawed and shameful. He deliberately chose a country of which many of us are ignorant. We certainly aren't ignorant of it now. Mr. Cohen's fictional Kazakhstan is backwards and ignorant, near-medieval. The Republic of Kazakhstan, the actual country that borders southern Russia and northwestern China, is a large, strategically important and socially dynamic country. In the movie, Mr. Cohen makes no effort to distinguish between the Republic of Kazakhstan and his bigoted creation. The few Kazakhs who live in the United States are now obliged to constantly explain that no, I do not drink horse urine and no, I do not in fact sleep with my sister and sorry, we actually do treat Kazakh women as human beings. They are angry and insulted, and it's easy to find their articles, letters and essays to this effect on the internet. When the Kazakh government very justifiably expressed anger and indignation at the film, Mr. Cohen, in character as Borat and flanked by Kazakh flags, held a press conference in front of the Kazakh embassy in Washington, DC and further lampooned the country. That Kazakhs are supposed to appreciate this subtle critique of American cultural intolarance is a stretch indeed.

While we're on the topic of intolerance, we need to discuss Borat's anti-Semitism in particular. Mr. Cohen is Jewish and he has family in Israel. He feels that his ethnic background gives him immunity from any serious charges of anti-Semitism. This logic does present a fairly convincing argument. I doubt Mr. Cohen hates Jews. What is not clear is his attitude towards Muslims. Kazakhstan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. While Borat's religious affiliation is unclear, as an ethnic Kazakh he is by default ostensibly a Muslim. America has had a somewhat complex and troubled relationship with the Islamic world as of late. There is a tendency among many Americans to view Muslims as ignorant, oppressive and anti-intellectual. Borat personifies each of these flaws. By presenting no evidence to the contrary, Mr. Cohen reinforces religious stereotypes among Americans and further alienates the Muslim world.

And he's made a ton of money by doing so. The various lawsuits filed against Mr. Cohen and Fox will likely get nowhere, nor should they. The film will continue to show and Americans will continue to laugh. What we are laughing at is not American cultural peculiarities, but a grotesque racial characterization which we believe, which we buy into, far more than we would like to admit. Mr. Cohen has chosen to capitalize on this prejudice. He is a racist and a bigot. That is not funny.

3 comments:

Sonia said...

I saw the film 2 weeks ago, and I did wonder where he really was (american movies almost never shoot film in the land they portray). When 'My big fat Greek wedding' came out, I was in Greece and locals were insulted by they way they were portrayed in hte movie, so am assumed Borat was the same deal.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but Kazak Muslims really are racist and are medieval in their thinking. Their actions only qualify as subhuman. In 2006, when the winter temperatures were below freezing, 13 hindu families were dragged kicking and screaming from their homes by police who had been paid by a local muslim judge. The judge had the homes demolished The community reinforced his decision with the resounding statement that "only Muslims are protected by Muslim law." Sorry but Kazaks are twice as barbaric as they were portrayed in the movie.

Anonymous said...

This article is great,
thank you for this. I believe Sacha baron cohen is a Zionst tool whos aim is to reinforce the opression of muslims worldwide.
Your article is refreshing.