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Look out, America. Borat's here, spreading controversy in his wake.
In case you're not familiar, "Borat Sagdiyev" is a character played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. "Borat" is supposedly the foremost TV journalist from Kazakhstan, sent here by his country to find out about America.
"Borat" got his start as part of Cohen's HBO series "Da Ali G. Show" in which Cohen, with an absolutely straight face, pays three bizarre characters. In addition to Borat, Cohen plays Ali G., a gold-chain- and-Adidas-wearing British wannabe gangsta rapper of uncertain ethnicity, with probably the weirdest accent ever heard on television. There's also Bruno, the outrageously gay German fashion designer, a guy so far out of the closet that he's out of the house and standing in the driveway.
All three of Cohen's characters share a common thread: They conduct outrageously off-the-wall interviews with people who often don't seem to realize that they're being put on. Ali G's just clueless: He once asked Pat Buchanan about whether Saddam Hussein "ever was able to make dem weapons of mass destruction, or as dey is called, BLTs?"
Another segment had him quizzing a baffled older gentleman about "thousands of Vietnam veterinarians." "Is dere a lot of sick animals in Vietnam?" Ali persisted in asking, as the increasingly exasperated man tried to explain that what he had heard about were Vietnam veterans.
For his part, "Borat" is not only clueless, he's also antisemitic, racist, misogynistic, and generally just a horrible person. The humor, paradoxically, comes from his total innocence in saying really awful things. The relentlessly friendly and outgoing "Borat" doesn't even seem to notice that the smiles on people's faces have suddenly turned frozen.
In one segment, he regaled a nightclub full of baffled cowboys with a "traditional Kazakh folk song" called "Throw the Jew Down the Well." In others, he's told an interviewer from a dating service he was seeking a woman with "plow experience" and led a meeting of Oklahoma City officials in a 10-minute "moment of silence" for the victims of the (fictitious) Tishnik Sheep Massacre.
Obviously, not everyone finds this sort of thing funny. The Kazakh people, for example, seem to have taken umbrage at their portrayal in Cohen's new feature film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." They seem to be a bit perturbed that Cohen, in character as Borat, lists the national hobbies as "disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis."
"I'd kill this impostor on the spot," said Eltai Muptekeyev, a Kazakh interviewed in an Associated Press "man on the street" interview. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the opposition National Social-Democratic Party, assured the AP that "Our way of thinking is mostly European," before asserting "If I see [Cohen] I'll hit him in the face." (And this guy's one of the liberals.)
Yes, nothing's better calculated to dispel the impression that you're a nation of violent, ignorant thugs than statements like that. I hear that the Kazakh deputy foreign minister, Rakhat Aliyev, recently invited Sacha Baron Cohen to come and see what Kazakhstan is really like. "He can discover a lot of things," Aliyez promises. Yeah, I'll bet. Considering Kazakshtan's lousy human rights record, I think the safe money is on Cohen declining the invite.
Also jumping on the anti-Borat bandwagon is a human-rights group in Germany called the European Center for Antiziganism Research. The ECAR, as we'll call them, filed a suit in German courts against Cohen for slander and inciting violence against gypsies, since Borat describes himself in the film as a former "gypsy catcher." I fail to understand how this is a slur against gypsies rather than Kazakhs, but then I have no idea what "Antiziganism" is, so what do I know?
One group that really doesn't seem to get it is the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which has also condemned the Borat movie for antisemitism. It apparently means nothing to them that Cohen, an observant Jew himself, is lampooning antisemites by placing the offensive words into the mouth of this absurd buffoon. "The irony may have been lost on some of the audience," the ADL says.
Well, yeah, maybe some of the stupid ones. But I've never found it particularly useful to base my condemnation of a piece of entertainment around the potential reaction of the stupidest person in the room.
Fortunately, some people aren't total idiots. Aigul Abysheva, a student at Almaty University in Kazakhstan, originally was "disgusted" by Borat's attitude toward women. "But then," she said, "I realized he was making fun of ignorant people, no matter where they come from."
Hallelujah. She gets it.
There's an old saying that "the devil cannot abide to be mocked," and that's exactly what the best satire does. It fights humanity's worst impulses by making those who give in to them look stupid and silly.
No one really wants to be a racist buffoon like Borat. Well, maybe George Allen. (Hey, you knew I had to get in at least one dig before the election).
And if Cohen's Borat act goes way over the top -- well, you kind of have to be over the top if you're doing satire these days. Otherwise, people think you're the real thing.