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Glorious Jabberwocky

by Archives September 13, 2006

“I would like invite people who read this to come visit Kazakhstan. It now democratic, free nation, with cleanest prostitutes in all of Central Asia (except of course for Turkmenistans). Also it have world-class shopping at new supermall ”Almaty Shop City,” which is actual built on three levels! They connected by Central Asia’s first electric staircase (which did NOT swallow and grind those two schoolchildrens).” —Borat Sagdiyev from an interview in Entertainment weekly

If you don’t know who Borat Sagdiyev is yet, you will soon.

Borat is a fictional Kazakh television ‘top media personality’ set to make his motion picture debut in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which opens across Canada and the United states on November 3.

Borat, the creation of comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, popularized his program Da Ali G Show. The show which runs on Channel Four in Great Britain and HBO in North America, stars Baron Cohen playing three main characters in various sketches involving real people; Bruno a flamboyantly gay German fashionista, Ali G, a wannabe gangster from Staines England, and the most popular Borat, a naive journalist from Kazakhstan.

Borat is notable for his extreme anti-semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism and Jingoism. In his travels across the “US and A” as he calls it, he interacts with and interviews a broad spectrum of real American citizenry, from cowboys to politicians. Baron Cohen stays in character throughout, airing Borat’s extremist views and more often than not receiving support for these views from his interviewees.

In one of Baron Cohen’s better known sketches, broadcast as Episode III of “Borat’s Guide to the US and A”, Borat visits an ‘open mic night” at a country and western bar in Arizona where he proceeds to sing a little ditty called “In My Country there is A Problem” the chorus of which goes “Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party.”

The episode is remarkable because instead of illiciting gasps or boos from the audience, the song turns into a rousing sing-along, complete with hand gestures and clapping.

In defence of his provocative sketch Baron Cohen, an observant Jew with a graduate degree in history from Cambridge University, insists that both the character and the sketches serve to expose Western predjudice through a humourous medium. .

Baron Cohen has also stated that the reactions he gets to the character of Borat are a “dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry.”

Both are valid points, but in his quest for a laugh and ostensibly an opportunity to open up a larger debate, Baron Cohen walks a fine line, and the performances beg the question; who is laughing at whom?

Many tune in to and enjoy the Borat sketches for their shock value, and indeed Borat’s misadventures interacting with people and places in “US and A” can be hilarious for their outlandishness. But how many more of Borat’s “fans” have different reasons for laughing?

Comedians like Baron Cohen trade in irony by poking fun at stereotypes and capitalizing on a kind of Scapegoat logic that speaks to many people’s belief about difference. At the more benign end of the spectrum ‘outsiders’ difference is seen as humorous or farcical, and at the more dangerous end, as something to be feared and hated. Unfortunately as the American anti-defamation league stated in their complaint about Baron Cohen’s characters “the irony [that Baron Cohen is trying to convey] may have been lost on some of the audience.”

Comedian Dave Chappelle seems to have recognized this pitfall. In an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Chappelle shared one of the driving forces behind his abrupt departure from comedy; some people were laughing “a little too hard” at his sketches which poked fun at certain aspects of Chapelle’s African American culture. Chappelle came to realize that many members of his audience weren’t laughing with him, they were laughing at him.

Another reason why Baron Cohen’s Borat character is problematic is that it essentially paints an entire nation with the Borat brush. Kazakhstan has taken notice. A lawyer representing Kazakh officials has threatened the comedian with a lawsuit for his portrayal of Kazakhstan as “a wild den of misogynistic dog-shooting Gypsy and Jew-haters.”

Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary for the embassy of Kazakhstan said in a written complaint to The Hill newspaper in Washington DC: “Humor of Mr. Cohen’s type is vicious . Particularly disgusting is Mr. Cohen’s portraying of Kazakhstan as a land of Stone Age people who mistreat women and hate Jews.”

Vassilenko’s outrage is well-founded when you consider that Baron Cohen’s schtick is being aimed at an audience of people who for the most part are unlikely to have any real experience or knowledge of Kazakhstan and its people, and might conceivably judge them based on his caricature.

And therein lies the conundrum for Baron Cohen and those of his ilk. Yes Baron Cohen’s Borat sketches have the potential to reflect back to his audience the human tendency to feel fear in the face of difference, and the all too human tendency to attempt to regulate these uncomfortable feelings by shaming, scapegoating, and/or eradicating the different person or group. On the other hand, with a less than self-aware audience his sketches have the potential to validate and reinforce these unfortunate human tendencies. There is no way to control audience perception. Performances can be interpreted in ways that defy the comedian’s intent.

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