What it’s like to rewatch Sacha Baron Cohen’s breakout movie during the Trump presidency.
By INKOO KANG
JULY 17, 2018 8:13 PM
… In his breakout film, released during the waning years of the George W. Bush presidency—that far-ago era when the GOP establishment proposed a bill with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—Baron Cohen revealed that unvarnished strains of racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny remain alive and well in America. …
But in 2018, Borat is mostly hard to watch for punching down as much as it punches up. The movie rips into America’s rose-tinted visions of itself, but it’s also premised on the idea that there are “shithole countries” that primarily exist to bolster our own sense of national and cultural superiority. Twelve years later, we have higher standards for what counts as politically useful comedy. Borat no longer makes the cut.
The feature does remain a clever bit of vengeance. Baron Cohen, a Jewish Brit, makes a grotesquerie out of anti-Semitism while reminding viewers that it continues to thrive all over the world. (His anti-Semitic “Kazakh” speaks no actual Kazakh in the film; most of the character’s native-language dialogue is in Hebrew.) But Borat indulged our xenophobia, too. …
What we’re really asked to laugh at, though, is a “shithole country.” With Borat, Baron Cohen reclaimed for “First Worlders” the “right” to mock foreigners from developing nations. Only with the Borat accent are the phrases “my wife!” and “very nice!” punchlines we all remember a dozen years later. At a time when the range of “funny voices” that white comics were “allowed” to do continued to narrow, Baron Cohen gave his permission to revel in a fading white privilege to the millions of frat boys he simultaneously mocked.
But in an era when the ruling administration’s single most vile act hinges on the dehumanization of outsiders, it’s hard to laugh as a white comedian takes potshots at a “shithole country” for 86 minutes while exploiting stereotypes about the poor and uneducated. After all, Baron Cohen’s view of Borat isn’t too dissimilar from how white nationalists here and in Europe view immigrants and refugees: ignorant, violent, prone to sexual assault, unable or unwilling to assimilate. … I’ll cop to laughing at Borat upon the film’s release, but as a foreign-born American and the child of immigrants, I’m sure I saw myself as the “good” kind of foreigner and Borat as the “bad.” Now, that kind of parsing is being deployed to separate families and ban immigration from certain countries (especially majority-Muslim countries—of which Kazakhstan, in real life, is one). Twelve years later, Borat continues to illuminate. But now what it lays bare is the xenophobia we were willing to embrace while pointing fingers at the bigots on-screen.
A simpler explanation is that Sacha Baron Cohen was badly misinterpreted by liberal critics in 2006 who assumed anybody funny and Jewish had to share their worldview.
Instead, if you look at the guys SBC hired to write and direct his American movies, they tend to be people who started out on Seinfeld and then followed Larry David to work on Curb Your Enthusiasm: i.e., not exactly politically correct progressives.
Of course to notice that would also require noticing that Seinfeld is an apolitical but conservative show while Curb is somewhat more explicitly satirical from an often right of center point of view, which, once again, is hard for liberal critics to do because of the high quality of Curb and the historic status of Seinfeld in recent American popular culture.
Instead, SBC represents Jewish comedy at its most traditionally ethnically hostile. For instance, Borat isn’t really about Kazakhs, it’s about Cossacks, or any Slavic eastern European Christians whom Jews long considered brutish, unmannered, and stupid. Borat was inspired by a Russian Baron Cohen had met, who then became an Albanian character named Christo, who later was changed to Borat.
Similarly, Ali G is an immigrant-stock Muslim Pakistani yoof (note Ali’s recurrent references to his Uncle Jamaal) assimilating second-hand into African-American hip-hop culture.
Bruno is an Austrian fashion nazi: i.e., Gay Hitler. (Here’s Larry David with an 8-year-old American version of Bruno.)
Admiral-General Aladeen is a leftist anti-Israel Third World Dictator in the mode of Kadaffi and Saddam.
In other words, all of SBC major characters are seen from the perspective: Is it good for the Jews? SBC was vastly praised for extracting (with vast effort) a few vaguely anti-Semitic remarks from Bush voters in Borat, but his list of Not Good for the Jews includes more problematic figures such as Muslim immigrants and gay fashionistas (who are seen as by nature fascist).
But that raises a general question, one that Seinfeld has been hinting at for a few years now: Is the rise of woke Who? Whom? thinking in the punditry about comedy going to be good for the Jews?
As I pointed out in “The Woke War on Comedy,” it has recently become intersectional dogma that straight white men who are funny are even more The Enemy than straight white men in general because their comedy skills allow them the potential to make jokes at the expense of the more humorless but sacralized identity politics categories.
But what demographic subcategory of straight white men are funniest of all on average, and therefore in line to become the most suspect and discriminated against in the never-ending War on Privilege? Right: straight white male Jews.